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What Metropolitan teams will challenge the Rangers in 2015-16

Bobby Bevilacqua

rangers hi five line 5-26

The Rangers look to be a top team in the East yet again, but which teams will rival them in their own division? Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Since the 2011-12 season, in which the Rangers finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the New York Rangers have been arguably the best, and most consistent team in the Metropolitan Division, if not the entire conference.

That trend continued this year, with the team making it all the way to the Conference Finals yet again, falling in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and just missing out on a second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

Alain Vigneault and his squad appear to be in good shape again for another run at a Stanley Cup Championship, keeping the majority of their core intact, and bringing in some nice pieces through trades and free agency. Some work remains to be done, like re-signing Derek Stepan, but for most part, this team is in good shape.

But the Metropolitan Division is getting better and better with each passing year. No longer is it dominated by two teams, which has really been the Penguins and Rangers for a few years. There are other teams in the division that have been getting better and better.

This is who the Rangers should watch out for in their own division.

Pittsburgh Penguins

2014-15 Record: 43-27-12, 98 PTS

crosby and kessel

Phil Kessel joins Sid the Kid and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, giving them a fantastic amount of star power and scoring ability up top. Photo courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images.

The Penguins are going to be competitive every year. Built around the ultra-talented Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with Norris Trophy Finalist Kris Letang on their blue line and Marc Andre Fleury in net. They have a ton of talent in the top half of their roster, but it didn’t help in the playoffs, with Crosby and Malkin being bottled up by the Rangers defense, and a lack of depth players on the roster to pick up the slack.

In order to provide a bit of a scoring boost, the Penguins made a huge splash, trading for Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding to their elite scoring talent on the team. Kessel has his choice of pairing with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. And if the Penguins are really pushing for a goal late in the game, Malkin can slide to wing and play with Crosby and Kessel. That’s insane.

Kessel isn’t a bad player, or a lazy player, or a bad locker room presence. Toronto is a really tough place to play, and the media is ruthless and unforgiving, choosing him as the scapegoat for the team’s problems. Apparently eating a hot dog a day and being shy is the reason that the franchise has been a failure for the past 12 seasons.

Now that he is out of the spotlight in Toronto, with new, skilled teammates by his side, the full support of his coaches and management, and a fresh start, I think Kessel will thrive. Crosby and Kessel will probably be the best duo in the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins will definitely get a scoring boost.

I do worry about their depth, amongst the forward group and the defense. Outside of the top two lines, there isn’t a whole bunch of capable offensive players. In fact, last season, only five forwards scored more than 30 points. With a lot of money invested in their elite stars, there isn’t much wiggle room to afford depth.

If Kris Letang can stay healthy, and the team finds some depth in their prospects, I think they’ll be pretty good. Marc-Andre Fleury was fantastic in the team’s five playoff games, and their injured defensive core also played well. While they’ll be improved, I still don’t think that they will make the jump back to the Eastern Conference Final.

Washington Capitals

2014-15 Record: 45-26-11, 101 PTS

alex ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin may be the best pure scorer in the entire league. Now he is joined by TJ Oshie and Justin Williams in the Nation’s Capital. Photo courtesy of Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports.

The Washington Capitals had lofty expectations for this past season, with many people saying that this was the year where Alex Ovechkin would break the curse and play in the Conference Final. The Capitals had a 3-1 series lead, but the never-say-die Rangers came back and won in seven games.

After all of the disappointment, the team worked on getting better, building on their regular season success and making another run in the playoffs. In some ways, they did get better.

Their biggest move was the signing of “Mr. Game 7,” Justin Williams, from the Los Angeles Kings. Williams totaled 41 points (18-23-41) in 81 games last season, but he really makes his presence known during the playoffs.

During the 2013-14 playoffs, when the Kings beat the Rangers in five games, Williams was named as the winner of the Conn Smythe Award as the team’s MVP during the playoffs. In 26 games, he scored an astounding 25 points (9-16-25), including points in all three of the team’s Game 7s en route to the Cup.

Williams provides the team with a really solid second line winger, and he will definitely help a team that tends to blow leads in the playoffs and suffer collapses. He could drop to the third line if Barry Trotz wants to keep him at center, but Williams on the right wing with Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov makes more sense.

The other big addition was acquiring TJ Oshie from the St. Louis Blues, with the team looking to shed some cap and go in a different direction with some of their players. Oshie was part of a team that produced in the regular season but struggled in the playoffs, similar to the Capitals.

Oshie finished the season with 19 goals and 36 assists in 72 games, giving him 55 points and his second best season during his seven year NHL career. But just one goal and one assist in the playoffs leaves him with nine points in 30 playoff games.

Although a bit overrated, Oshie is still a pretty darn good player. I’d be surprised if he isn’t on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, which seems to be a very good first line. The Capitals top six is definitely better than it was last year.

But despite the additions of Williams and Oshie, the Capitals lost some of their better scorers. Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer combined for 40 goals and 77 points, and Eric Fehr (19-14-33) is still a free agent. They lost some good depth guys, and are potentially without a third line center if Fehr does not re-sign. Braden Holtby is still not signed, and he’s headed to arbitration allegedly demanding $8 million. For me, there are still some question marks surrounding the Capitals before I pencil them in as a contender.

New York Islanders

2014-15 Record: 47-28-7, 101 PTS

john tavares

Led by John Tavares, the Islanders and their young core look to put their postseason struggles behind them in the 2015-16 season. Photo courtesy of the New York Islanders.

The Islanders didn’t make a ton of moves in the offseason, locking up a backup goalie in Thomas Greiss and retaining their own players. But sometimes the best move is no move. The Islanders, preparing to play their first ever season away from the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, are a team on the rise.

Isles’ GM Garth Snow deserves his fair share of criticism, but he’s done a pretty good job assembling a very young, talented squad centered around stars like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Last season, Snow pried Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Blackhawks, giving them a much stronger defense.

The Islanders have also worked on locking up their core so they can continue to grow and build over the years. Tavares is under contract for the next three years, Boychuk and Leddy just signed long term extensions, and rookie forward Anders Lee signed a four year extension.

Under Jack Capuano, the team made it to the playoffs, falling to the Capitals in the first round. The team has not won a playoff series since 1993, but the future is looking bright. The Islanders were a dangerous scoring team last year, boasting depth across all four lines, star power on offense, big scoring forwards like Anders Lee, and strong two way defensemen in Boychuk and Leddy. Jaroslav Halak gave them a steady presence in net as well, and he will be back for next season.

Like the Penguins, any team that has John Tavares, my personal choice for the Hart Trophy, and Kyle Okposo is going to be pretty good, and they can make other players better. They have one of the best fourth lines in hockey, consisting of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, and scoring threats on all lines. They’re a well-rounded team, and they could finally be primed to win a playoff series this season.

Like every team, there are question marks for me. The first is in net. Jaroslav Halak got off to a hot start last season, but I still wasn’t sold. His numbers dipped as the season went on, and he finished with okay stats, apart from his 38 wins, which is a team record. To me, he’s an average goalie that tends to go on some hot streaks. I’m not sure he’s the goalie to lead the team on a long playoff run.

I’m also not a big fan of Jack Capuano. He made some really questionable decisions in the playoffs, like scratching Anders Lee (25-16-41) in Game 7, when the team mustered a lousy 11 shots on goal. Some writers and fans have criticized him for his decision making, and I think they could use a better coach behind the bench.

The Isles are one of the teams that will challenge the Rangers. They play well against their Broadway rivals, and with more experience, they’ll get better. Watch out for them next season.

Columbus Blue Jackets

2014-15 Record: 42-35-5, 89 PTS

brandon saad

After adding Brandon Saad to an already strong and deep offense, the Blue Jackets are ready to make some noise in the Metropolitan division and the playoffs. Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennet/Getty Images.

The Rangers are still my pick to win the Metropolitan Division. But if I had to make a surprise pick, it would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Jackets were perhaps the unluckiest team in the NHL last season. Nearly everyone went down with injuries, with the team leading the league with over 500 man games lost due to injury. That’s absurd, and it’s the sole reason why they weren’t in the playoffs.

When they were healthy at the end of the season, the Jackets were red hot. They finished out the year with a 16-2-1 record in their last 19 games, including a 9-0-1 record in the last 10 games. They were easily the best team in the league during the last month and a half of the season.

On top of that, they are loaded with talent, even more so after the offseason. New captain Nick Foligno led the team with 73 points (31-42-73), with his linemate Ryan Johansen not far behind with a total of 71 points (26-45-71).

They also stole Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers, and he rewarded them with a 28 goal, 32 assist season, his best season since 2011-12 with the Flyers. Brandon Dubinsky can also easily break 50 or 60 points if he can stay healthy for a whole season.

Their defense is led by Jack Johnson, and they have a good group of steady, veteran d-men to back him up. They also selected talented defenseman Zach Werenski out of Michigan with the 8th pick in the draft, and he could potentially challenge for a roster spot.

Their big move in the offseason was acquiring Brandon Saad from the cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks, subsequently signing him to a massive six year extension. The 22 year old winger is coming off of his best season, breaking the 20 goal mark and the 50 point plateau for the first time in his career. He’s not even close to hitting his prime, and his presence in the lineup will be huge.

Now put that team in front of a very good goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, and the Jackets look to be ready for a massive season, and maybe their best season as a franchise. I truly think that they will challenge the Rangers for the Metropolitan Division title, and they’ll be dangerous when they reach the playoffs. The Rangers will get a taste of the new-look, healthy Jackets team, as they face them twice in the first three games of the season.

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Posted on July 24, 2015, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. My condolences to Canes, Flyers, & Devs fans.

    Like

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