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Carolina vs. The Metropolitan Division: Columbus Blue Jackets

This season brings a new challenge for the Hurricanes as they will move from the friendly confides of the Southeast Division to the much tougher "Metropolitan Division" as part of the NHL's realignment. Joining them in this division will be the Washington Capitals, the Columbus Blue Jackets and all five teams from the old Atlantic Division. Carolina will have their work cut out for them in this new division, as it features four teams that made the playoffs last year and at least five teams who are considered perennial contenders.

Seeing how the Hurricanes have spent the last half decade playing in what was probably the weakest division in the NHL, most hockey minds see them struggling in the Metropolitan Division and not being a playoff team for a long, long time. The Canes also finished in the bottom-ten of the NHL last season while playing a good chunk of their games against divisional opponents, so how can they possibly expect to contend in a tougher division?

The next year could be tough on the Hurricanes, but what gets lost is that all teams go through good and bad periods and not all of these teams will stay contenders perennially. If this realignment occurred after the 2004-05 lockout, then the Metropolitan Division would have four of the five worst teams in the Eastern Conference and the Blue Jackets, who were the second worst team in the West at the time. This obviously isn't the case now, but it's entirely possible that this division won't be nearly as tough a few years down the road. 

As for next season, most seem to think that the Hurricanes are destined for a last place finish because of how tough this division appears to be, but I think each of these teams have their share of problems and Carolina may not be as outmatched as some of the experts think they will be. Over the next week, we'll take a closer look at these teams and talk about how the Hurricanes match up with them. Today, we'll start off with the team migrating from out "West," The Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Jackets are no strangers to playing in tough divisions, as they have spent the majority of their existence in the same division as the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. They have only made the playoffs once in 13 seasons and are usually in the middle of the pack or lower part of the Western Conference standings. There are signs of them being on the upswing, though. They were the hottest team in the NHL from March onward and appear to be under good management with John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen running the ship now.

Carolina doesn't have much history with the Blue Jackets, but many see Columbus as a "sleeper" team in this new division and one that could challenge for a playoff spot. Are the Jackets for real or was the run they went on last year all smoke & mirrors? We'll discuss that after the jump and look at how the Hurricanes match up with them.

Blue Jackets at a Glance

GF/G 2.4
GA/G 2.4
FenClose 45.39
EV Sh% 8.71%
EV Sv% 0.93
PPSF/60 45.1
PP% 14.20%
PKSA/60 45
PK% 82.60%

The Blue Jackets second-half surge was powered by their goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, as he posted a save percentage of .932 and was unquestionably the team's MVP. Bobrovsky's always had a lot of talent, but the odds of him repeating this kind of year seem pretty low unless he is the second coming of Dominik Hasek. The Jackets will probably continue to lean on him regardless, though because outside of Bob, they were a pretty average team. 

At even strength, the Jackets were sub-par at controlling the play and were able to have an even goal differential because Bobrovsky was a brick wall for the last two months of the season. When taking that and their mediocre power play into account, it's easy to see why this team could take a step back this season. However, they do enter this year with a different looking team than what they had for most of last season and that will definitely impact where they end up in the standings.

At the trade deadline, the Jackets added Marian Gaborik, an elite goal-scorer and one of the best skaters in the NHL. He makes Columbus' first line a threat every time they are on the ice and instantly makes them a deeper team. They also signed right winger Nathan Horton to a seven-year contract this off-season which only increases the scoring depth of this club and gives them plenty of firepower on the wings. How does the rest of their roster look, though?

Off-season moves

Who's In? Who's Out?
RW Nathan Horton F Colton Gillies
D Patrick McNeill C/LW Vinny Prospal
G Mike McKenna D Adrian Aucoin
D Frederic St-Denis D Nick Holden
RW Jack Skille C Nicholas Drazenovic

Horton is obviously the biggest addition here and he should be able to off-set the loss of Vinny Prospal if he can stay healthy. I was a little surprised to see them let Prospal walk because he seemed to be one of the leaders of that team and was very productive for a player of his age, but Columbus isn't exactly starving for wingers at the moment. All of the other additions & subtractions made were depth pieces. The Jackets have enough defensive depth in their system to off-set the loss of Adrian Aucoin and Colton Gillies wasn't much of a contributor on the bottom-two lines. Skille is also a pretty solid guy for the bottom-six.

2012-13 Usage (courtesy of Muneeb Alam of Red Line Station)

Forwards

Umberger, Anisimov and Gaborik played most of the tough minutes for the Blue Jackets last year, although Gaborik's numbers are probably skewed from his time in New York. I wouldn't expect this chart to change that much next season, though because Gaborik should continue to get all of the attention from opposing defenses and he will also get the tough forward matchups if he stays on a line with Artem Anisimov. I also think Brandon Dubinsky will slide up to play on that line since RJ Umberger is coming off a horrible season and Dubinsky is one of their best play-driving forwards.

As for where Nathan Horton fits in, he can probably thrive in Prospal's old role and might be able to put up some big numbers if he plays on the second line. He was terrific in a secondary role with the Bruins and the Jackets might look to use him in a similar way, keeping him away from tough minutes but using him in a scoring role. He will be taking a step down in terms of linemates, though because Ryan Johansen is no David Krejci. Although he does have a bright future.

Defensemen

Fedor Tyutin usually commands most of the tough assignments on the Jackets defense corps and he did it last year while playing with a combination of Nikita Nikitin and Jack Johnson. Neither of them were overly impressive in this role, but I'm sure the Jackets would be much more comfortable with Johnson playing with Wisniewski in more of a secondary role. Tyutin has posted respectable numbers in a tough-minute role for most of his career but Johnson has been the exact opposite. He has consistently been one of the worst defensemen in the NHL at keeping the play out of his own zone and this is why the Jackets would be better off with him not on the first pairing.

They don't exactly have a ton of options, though since Wisniewski's health is always a concern and Nikitin's play took a step back last season. They were also using rookie Dalton Prout in a significant role and he appeared to be in over his head judging by his underlying numbers. If everyone is healthy, I would expect him to stay on the third pairing and used more like Aucoin was last season. Ryan Murray should also play a factor here, but I'm not sure how he will be used.

Projected Lineup

Left Wing TOI/G Corsi% Center TOI/G Corsi% Right Wing TOI/G Corsi%
RJ Umberger 18:29 44.2 Artem Anisimov 16:24 46.4 Marian Gaborik 18:04 52.6
Brandon Dubinsky 18:24 54.1 Ryan Johansen 16:05 44.3 Nathan Horton 16:51 56.9
Nick Foligno 16:31 47 Mark Letestu 16:30 46.2 Cam Atkinson 15:35 53.4
Blake Comeau 11:41 49.4 Derek MacKenzie 10:20 41.1 Jared Boll 8:04 40.5
Matt Calvert 14:10 51.3       Jack Skille 13:19 47.7

Columbus has plenty of wingers who can score and drive the play, but they are a little weak at center. Anisimov is better than what his underlying numbers showed last season, though and I expect him to center their first line with Gaborik and one of Dubinsky or Umberger. Umberger has seniority, but Dubinsky is superior in terms of driving the play and Umberger is coming off the worst season of his career. I would expect him to improve, but I think Dubinsky is capable of playing a first line role, despite netting only two goals last season.

After Anisimov, things are a little dicey. Ryan Johansen has loads of potential as a former first round pick, but he has struggled in his first two seasons and I'm not sure if he is ready for a top-six role. He did seem to come around late last season, though and could be ready to take that next step.  Getting to play with Horton on his wing should help him out a little.

Their third line features a very underrated young player in Cam Atkinson, who is terrific at driving possession and can score at a pretty high rate, too. He was a great scorer in college and has made the transition to the NHL nicely. His linemates, however, are a little weak. Letestu and Foligno are both mediocre possession players and the latter has never been a great scorer save aside from his final year in Ottawa. He should be fine as a third liner, though.

Todd Richards typically gives his fourth line a lot of draws in the defensive zone and Derek MacKenzie's underlying numbers suffered because of it. I would expect the same to happen to Blake Comeau and possibly Jack Skille if this strategy continues. Both are capable of scoring at decent rates for the minutes they get, though.

Defense

Left Defense TOI/G Corsi% Right Defense TOI/G Corsi%
Jack Johnson 25:58 45.2 James Wisniewski 22:49 50
Fedor Tyutin 24:05 48.1 Dalton Prout 18:31 44.3
Nikita Nikitin 21:11 46.3 David Savard 13:12 N/A
Ryan Murray N/A N/A Cody Goloubef 14:48 49.3
Tim Erixon 15:41 47.5      

I mentioned earlier that Johnson would be more suited for a second-pairing role but the Jackets aren't planning on using him there any time soon. They feed him big minutes, both at even strength and on the power play and aren't afraid to use him against the other team's best players. The fact that Columbus controlled only 45.2% of the even strength shot attempts with him on the ice shows that he may not be cut out for this kind of role, but the Jackets hands are tied right now.

Tyutin is a solid tough-minute guy but Wisniewski hasn't played those minutes in awhile, even though his underlying numbers are good, and Nikitin struggled a bit last season. They also have three left-handed defenders capable of playing top-four minutes and there's a good chance that two of them will be on the same pairing next year. This may not be a big deal, as it happens all the time in the NHL, but some teams are able to take advantage of defense corps who do this.

After the top four, the Jackets defensive depth consists mainly of younger players. I mentioned Prout earlier and while I expect him to make the opening night lineup, the battle for the last two spots could be up in the air. Murray is going to get every chance to make the team while David Savard, Tim Erixon and Cody Goloubef have NHL experience and should be in the running for the last couple of roster spots come October.

As a whole, the Jackets defense has a lot of question marks and probably the biggest weak point of the team, especially with Johnson on the top pairing.

Goaltending

Goaltender Sv%
Sergei Bobrovsky 0.917
Curtis McElhinney 0.899
Mike McKenna 0.887

Bobrovsky is coming off an amazing season but his career numbers are a little less promising. He is still very young and last year could have been him reaching his full potential but it could also be an aberration. His career numbers are still not bad, so Bobrovsky regressing is far from the worst thing that can happen to them. However, Columbus' goaltending was so good last season that even if Bobrovsky has a solid 2013-14 campaign, they could be a couple wins worse if the rest of the team shows no improvement. The Jackets are also going with AHL veterans as their back-ups so they could be in big trouble if Bobrovsky is out for an extended period.

Possible Call-ups

Minors NHLE
Jonathan Audy-Marchessault 32
Michael Chaput 16
Boone Jenner 35
Will Weber 3
Dalton Smith 5
Jake Hansen 7
Sean Collins 17
Spencer Machacek 19
Lukas Sedlak 26
Cody Bass 14
Ryan Craig 23
Patrick McNeill 13
Thomas Larkin 13
Blake Parlett 15
Frederic St-Denis 10

Cody Bass and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault have played on the Jackets big club in previous seasons, but one player who I expect to contend for a roster spot sometime during the year is Bonne Jenner. He is coming off a phenomenal season with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL and might challenge for one of the center spots during the year. I don't see much use for it if Richards continues to bury his fourth line, but he has a lot of potential and should be a contributing member ot the Jackets in the not so distant future. Spencer Machacek is another guy who I expect to get a shot, as he can bring size and a decent amount of skill to their bottom-six.

The Final Word

I want to say that the Jackets are due for a huge step back this year because of how much Bobrovsky contributed to their success, but a full season of Gaborik and Horton should make this team a couple wins better if they can stay healthy. Even with that, this is still a team with a lot of question marks. They are still pretty weak at center and will need a great season out of Johansen. Their defense is also very sketchy despite whoever tries to tell you that Jack Johnson is good. If everything goes right for them, the Jackets could contend for a playoff spot but they might also finish at the bottom of the division if their play at even strength doesn't improve at all.

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