Metropolitan Division Preview & Predictions

A few weeks ago, I wrote about every team in Carolina's new division and gave everyone a glimpse about what we can expect from each team. Now it's time to talk about where each team will end up and what needs to go right for these teams to make the playoffs. I'm usually not the kind of person who makes predictions, because they're too black and white and there's bound to be a lot of surprises this year. This is especially true for Carolina's division because after the first two teams, everyone else is pretty close and it could end up being a dogfight for the last two or three playoff spots in the East.

Many folks have Carolina finishing near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and while that's certainly a possibility, some of the teams projected to be in front of them also have a lot of flaws and I could see the Canes leapfrogging a couple of them. It's going to take a good season and a few guys outperforming their expectations for the Canes to make the playoffs. After the jump, we'll take another look at each of these teams and what needs to happen for them to make the playoffs.

Metropolitan Division Statistical Overview

Team GF/60 GA/60 FenClose% EV Sh% Ev SV% PPSF/60 PKSA/60
Devils 2.29 2.54 55.03 6.7% 0.905 48.8 37
Rangers 2.62 2.25 53.88 7.6% 0.93 41.8 48.5
Islanders 2.81 2.83 52.01 8.4% 0.903 52 55.1
Hurricanes 2.65 3.31 51.08 7.9% 0.908 48.6 59.3
Penguins 3.38 2.48 49.87 10.0% 0.928 55.9 47.1
Flyers 2.75 2.9 48.49 8.3% 0.903 53.9 40.9
Capitals 3.04 2.71 47.72 8.9% 0.927 48.3 59
Blue Jackets 2.4 2.4 45.39 8.9% 0.927 45.7 44

New Jersey Devils

Three reasons to be confident

1. Possession is 9/10ths of the Law

Going by Fenwick Close (unblocked shot percentage in close game situations), the Devils were an elite possession team last season and that should lead to them having more success if history is any indication. Even with Ilya Kovalchuk out of the picture, the Devils have a lot of forwards who are capable of controlling territorial play and could have finished closer to the playoffs than the bottom-ten if they played a full season last year.

2. Changing of the Guard

The Devils had one of the worst even strength save percentages in the year, most of which was due to Johan Hedberg's .901 mark over 19 games, but Martin Brodeur did not have a great season either. At 41, Brodeur is getting close to the end of the line and the Devils recognized this by trading for Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks. Schneider has posted one of the NHL's best save percentages since he entered the league and should take over the reigns in New Jersey in due time. Even if he and Brodeur end up splitting the starts, the Devils should be in much better shape if they get a .920 save percentage out of him, especially compared to Hedberg's numbers last year.

3. New finishers

The Devils were an elite possession team, but they struggled to score goals. Some of that was due to bad luck because no team is going to shoot at below 7% in a full season, but they did lack goal-scorers in their lineup. They did a little to fix that this off-season by acquiring Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder through free agency. Neither of them are elite players anymore, but they are capable of scoring 20+ goals in a full season and could be very dangerous if the Devils continue to control 5v5 play as well as they did last season. This was a team that had grinders regularly forced into scoring roles last year, so having two skilled guys like Ryder & Jagr could go a long way. If they play with Elias and/or Zajac, then I would expect them to have good seasons. 

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Aging defense corps

The Devils have a promising future on defense with Adam Larsson, but a lot of the guys who they depend on to play big minutes are getting older and some of them aren't very good. If they are expecting Bryce Salvador to play the toughs again this year, then there could be trouble. They have other options to turn to on defense (Mark Fayne, Andy Greene), but Pete Deboer seems to trust Salvador the most as of right now. This could change as the season goes on, though. 

2. Missing Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk wasn't one of New Jersey's best possession players, but he was still an elite offensive talent and a huge part of the Devils neutral zone game. Adding Jagr can help make up for the loss in some areas, but Kovalchuk played so many minutes for this club last season and it's going to be very difficult to replace his production in all three areas. I think some people are overstating his loss a little bit, but Kovalchuk still left a pretty big void to fill and I'm not sure if the Devils did enough to replace it next season.

3. Left Wing Depth

The Devils added some scorers in the off-season, but their depth at left wing is still lacking. Outside of Patrik Elias, they don't have many impressive names there and could have to depend on Ryane Clowe playing top-six minutes. Clowe's obviously not as bad as his goal-total from last season indicates, but I don't think he is anything more than a third liner on a contending team and they don't really have much after him either. A good season out of Mattias Tedenby or Rostislav Olesz could change this but as of right now, the depth here isn't that impressive.

Where will they finish?

I see the Devils as a playoff team this year because aside from David Clarkson, most of their top possession guys are returning and they added enough in the off-season to make up for losing him. They also got better in goal and their defense should get better if Larsson continues to develop. The new division shouldn't effect them as much either, seeing how they regularly played most of these teams for years and still had good possession numbers. Add that all together, and I think New Jersey will make the playoffs and finish in the 3-6 area in the division. The only way I see them missing the post-season is if their goal-scoring woes continue or if Schneider gets hurt.

New York Rangers

Three reasons to be confident

1. New coaching & new culture change

The big move for the Rangers this off-season was replacing head coach John Tortorella with Allain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks. I think Tortorella is a good coach, but it seemed like his system wore out its welcome in New York, so a change could help the Rangers. This is especially true when you consider that they replaced him with one of the best coaches in the league. Vigneault may have been fired by Vancouver, but he also led that team to seven consecutive playoff appearances and can work well with the Ranger roster. It's similar to what he had in Vancouver and the Rangers also have a few skilled players who can really benefit from his zone matching strategy. Tortorella used a similar method here, but not as extreme so I'm interested to see how the team changes under Vigneault.

2. Hail to the King

Preseason struggles aside, Henrik Lundqvist is still arguably the best goaltender in the league and is capable of keeping the Rangers in any game. He was able to lead a sub-par possession team to the top seed in the Eastern Conference two years ago and should be able to propel the Rangers to similar heights if their team is as good on paper as it was last season. The Rangers have built a pretty strong team around him this year and elite goaltending from Lundqvist could make them a force to be reckoned with in the East.

3. A healthy Marc Staal

Defensive depth was a major concern for the Rangers last season and a big reason for that was the injury to Marc Staal. He eats up big minutes on the Rangers blue line and with him out of the lineup, the Blueshirts had to turn to guys like Michael Del Zotto & Anton Stralman to play top-four minutes. Stralman played well but both of these players are probably better off as third-pairing guys, so having Staal healthy and back to his normal form goes a long way to making the Rangers defense better. Having him back also means that Ryan McDonagh & Dan Girardi won't have to carry the entire defense on their backs like they did for most of last season.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Battling injuries

The Rangers could be without two of their best players for a part of the season, as both Ryan Callahan & Carl Hagelin are coming off shoulder surgery and will miss at least the opener. Callahan has begun skating again, so they'll have him back soon but I have yet to hear any news on Hagelin. Callahan is the Rangers captain and a terrific two-way player and Hagelin plays such a critical role in the Rangers neutral zone play, so having both out of the lineup could lead to some tough times. It doesn't sound like they'll miss too much time, but their return should hopefully come sooner rather than later.

2. Who plays the toughs?

If Vigneault carries over his zone-matching strategy from Vancouver, it will be interesting to see who plays the role of Ryan Kesler on the Rangers. Meaning, who will be the top-six center that gets matched up against opposing team's top lines. They have Brian Boyle to take on most of the defensive zone draws, but I'm not sure if Derek Stepan is equipped for playing tough minutes just yet. He's still very young and may have trouble adjusting to playing against other team's first lines if Vigneault uses him in that role. That said, he did play some of those minutes last season and is better suited for this role than Brad Richards or Derick Brassard.

3. Terrible power play

Despite the firepower the Rangers have in their lineup, their power play was one of the worst in the league last year and it seemed to reach a new low in the playoffs. When most teams go through a power play drought, it's because they've fallen on some bad luck and can't put the puck at the back of the net. For the Rangers last year, they had trouble getting shots on goal in general. You'd think a team with Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Brad Richards would be better on the power play but this was a major weak point for the Blueshirts last year and they'll need to see some improvement from it this year.

Where will they finish?

Unless Lundqvist has an awful year, I think the Rangers are a playoff team and will be in the top two of the conference. They might have some tough games while Callahan and Hagelin are out of the lineup but if they get through that with a decent record, they should have a pretty good season.

New York Islanders

Three reasons to be confident

1. Terrific Tavares

Tavares has quietly gotten better every year since he was drafted and he has performed at an elite level the last two seasons. He still plays sheltered minutes but as an offensive force, there are few who are better than him. Tavares dominates both the neutral and offensive zones and the Islanders will only go as far as he takes them. Fortunately for them, Tavares can take them pretty far if he continues to play as well as he did last season. He makes the Islanders first line one of the most dangerous units in the league no matter who is playing on it and should only get better as he gets older.

2. Underrated Secondary Scoring

Islanders offense starts and ends with Tavares, but they do have plenty of other forwards that can be leaned on for scoring. An obvious one being Matt Moulson, who has enjoyed playing on Tavares' wing for most of his career. Some might say that Moulson is just a product of Tavares, but he has thee 30-goal seasons under his belt. Goal-scorers like that don't grow on trees and he actually had a career low shooting percentage last season despite being on pace for 25-26 goals. Expect him and new linemate Pierre-Marc Bouchard to have a good season.

The Islanders shouldn't have too much trouble scoring outside of their first line, too. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey all make a good second line and Michael Grabner is good enough to pitch in 15-17 goals in a full season on their third line. Adding Cal Clutterbuck in the offseason should also give their bottom-six a nice boost, as he is an upgrade over the heavy-hitting Matt Martin.

3. Building a strong possession team

The Islanders playoff appearance last year was not a fluke, as they were one of the best clubs in the league at controlling territorial play last season and have most of their key pieces returning. GM Garth Snow has stocked this team with a lot of underrated, play-driving forwards who have helped the Isles get out of the cellar, but perhaps the most important move he made was trading for defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky. Visnovsky is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and adds another dimension to the Isles forecheck, which should be a big concern to anyone who plans to take them lightly next year.

Three reasons to be concerned 

1. The worst of both worlds

Goaltending was not the Islanders strong suit last season and they enter this year with essentially the same tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin. Nabokov is in his late-30's and was only below average last year while Poulin doesn't have much experience and hasn't been good in the games he has played. I was a little surprised that the Isles didn't invest in a back-up because I have my doubts about Nabokov being able to handle a starter's workload at his age. I'm also interested to see if they replace him mid-season if he is bad enough.

2. Replacing Streit

Losing the team captain is never easy and Streit played a pretty big role on an Islanders power play that was highly successful last season. His usage at even strength was cut down, but they will miss him a bit with the man advantage, as he had three goals and 11 points there. Visnovsky is probably good enough to take over his minutes there, though and the Isles will likely have a rookie take over his role at even strength. This is a coverable loss for the Isles, but I'm interested to see how Donovan does in his rookie season.

3. Rebound for Hamonic/Macdonald

I do consider the Islanders top defense pairing of Travis Hamonic & Andrew MacDonald the most underrated tandem in the league, but neither are coming off good seasons. They continued to be deployed in shutdown situations but were destroyed on the shot clock and routinely allowed other teams best forwards to enter NYI's zone & create chances with ease. There has been talk of the Isles splitting up this pairing for exactly that reason, but I'm not sure who else they have to take on the tough minutes since I don't expect Visnovsky or Hickey to do that. Either way, these two need to be better with the Islanders defense depth being questionable.

Where will they finish?

The Islanders managed to get the eighth seed last year despite having bad goaltending and questionable defense, so I think they should make the playoffs this year and finish in the 3-5 range in the Metro. I'm probably higher on this team than I should be, but I think they've built and impressive corps and will be a contending team.

Carolina Hurricanes

1. The first line leads the way

The Hurricanes had one of the absolute best first lines in the league last season in terms of even strength production. Eric Staal produced more than three points per 60 minutes and his linemates, Alex Semin & Jiri Tlusty, also ranked very high in this regard. Most of this was due to them posting high on-ice shooting percentages but Staal & Semin are elite talents and should still produce at a high rate even after taking regression into account. Semin in particular should have a good year, as he managed to be a point-per-game player despite having a career low shooting percentage. Expect more goals out of him and for the Canes first line to do a lot of the heavy-lifting for the team this year.

2. Things are looking up

Carolina had issues scoring last season and the good news is that a lot of it was due to bad shooting percentages, which should rebound this year. Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner in particular had very unlucky seasons and I would bank on each of them getting around 20 goals this year and Skinner surpassing that mark. The team had forward depth issues, but the top of this lineup can produce a lot of offense and they should get rewarded for it more this season.

3. #Faulk4Sochi

One player exempt from the criticisms directed at Carolina's defense is 21-year-old Justin Faulk. The Minnesota native is already a proven top-four defenseman and basically carried Carolina's blue-line corps for most of last season. Coach Muller gave him the majority of the tough assignments and Faulk managed to break even in terms of possession despite the heavy workload. There is a lot that is up in the air for Carolina right now, but Faulk is someone who they can build their defense around and should continue to progress this season.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Team Defense

No team in the league gave up more shots per game at even strength than the Hurricanes last year and there were few teams who were worse on the penalty kill on top of that. Carolina's blue-line was banged up a bit last season, so that contributed to their defensive woes since they had third pairing guys playing 20 minutes a night. The defenders weren't the only one to blame though because the defensive play from the team was bad as a whole and most of it relates to Muller's up-tempo system. The Canes might have been a positive possession team, but their transitional play was poor and they ended up giving up a lot of high-quality chances because of breakdowns in coverage or a mistake at their own blue-line. Adding Andrej Sekera and Ron Hainsey will help things but the entire team needs to tighten up defensively.

2. Unproven forward depth

With Joni Pitkanen's health being in limbo and most of their cap space tied up in Semin & Staal's new contracts, the Hurricanes were quiet this offseason and decided to promote from within to round out their bottom six. They have some promising young players like Elias Lindholm & Riley Nash but the rest of the group doesn't have much experience and things could be pretty ugly if they're relied on for anything more than bottom-six duty. It's hard to imagine the Canes third & fourth lines to be any worse than they were last season, but I'm not sure if the group they have now is any better. Especially if Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer start the year in the top-six like it has been projected.

3. Special teams disaster

The Hurricanes power play and penalty kill were among the worst in the NHL last season and while the power play suffered from bad luck, the PK was just awful in every standard. They allowed a ton of shots, infinite chances and the coaching staff had to constantly rotate the units to find something that worked. Carolina has no shortage of guys who can kill penalties now with the additions made on defense, but we'll have to wait and see if they bring any improvements over last year. It's possible to make the playoffs with a sub-par power play or an average penalty kill, but it's almost impossible to do if you're as bad as Carolina was last year in both regards. I would bank on the power play improving, but getting a marginal improvement from the PK would also be nice.

Where will they finish?

I see the Canes as a bubble playoff team this year and hopefully more if some things can go right for them. The impact of them moving to a tough division is being overstated a bit, but the Canes still don't have a lot of forward depth and their defense is lacking in many areas. If Cam Ward has a great season and their power play rebounds, I think they can make the playoffs even in a tough division. Both are big "ifs," though and we usually know how those end up. That said, I think they'll contend and won't finish in last like a lot of people are predicting.

Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Elite powered offense

The Penguins were a sub-par possession team were still the top seed in the Eastern Conference last year. Scoring on 10% of their even strength shots and having one of the top power plays in the league can mask some of your team's flaws and this isn't the first time the Penguins have done this, as the team that made the Cup finals in 2008-09 also had weak possession numbers but incredible finishing talent. This Pens team is similar and it's powered by their two star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. These two thrive off capitalizing on opponent's mistakes and usually make them pay for it one way or another. If both can stay healthy, Pittsburgh will continue to have one of the best offenses in the league and a top team in the division.

2. Kris Letang

While Crosby & Malkin power the offense, their blue-line is anchored by Kris Letang, who is one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. Letang's turnovers and mistakes with the puck can be ugly to watch at times but when he is on his game, he is very hard to contain and adds another level to this Penguins team. It's rare to find a defenseman who can skate as well as Letang and control play as well as he can, so Pittsburgh was wise to re-sign him for a few years. He is a phenomenal all-around defenseman and has always been able to post great numbers despite being paired with middling/bad partners at times. With a stronger supporting cast, Letang could be posed for another excellent season.

3. Out with the old

A reason for the Penguins having sub-par possession numbers last year is because they added a few veterans at the trade deadline to give their roster a boost for the playoffs. Some might consider this a good move, but all Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla & Douglas Murray did was make the Pens a worse team at even strength and it was evident in the post-season when they were nearly eliminated in the first round by the Islanders. All three of them are gone now and the Pens have enough youth in their organization to replace them. Experience is valuable, but some of the youngsters in the Penguins organization are very promising and it will be interesting to see how they do in a full season.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Fleury Gonna Fleury

Jokes aside, Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a good season with a .927 even strength save percentage. History suggests that he is just an average goaltender, though and he will have to carry most of the workload this year with Tomas Vokoun on the IR recovering from a blood clot. Who Pittsburgh uses as their backup remains to be seen, but Fleury remains the guy for now and I'm not sure if anyone trusts him at the moment. Not to overreact to a bad playoff performance, but Fleury's career numbers suggest that he isn't that good and could drag the Penguins down if he struggles.

2. Weak Forward depth

Aside from Brandon Sutter, the Penguins bottom-six was pretty weak last season and they lost two solid players in Matt Cooke & Tyler Kennedy. They're going to be promoting from within to replace them and I hope for the Pens sake they work out because their bottom-six was a disaster last season. Without Crosby & Malkin on the ice, the Penguins were getting hammered at even strength, which illustrates the team's issues in terms of forward depth. The fact that they just signed Chuck Kobasew also shows how thin the bottom of their roster is, so goals might be hard to come by there. That and the numbers posted by their third and fourth lines last season were not encouraging at all.

3. Injury concerns

The Pens are a team carried by their stars, most of whom have injury concerns and they could suffer a pretty big setback if one or two of them are out of the lineup for a significant period of time. They managed to get by with Crosby & Malkin missing time last season, so they probably aren't doomed but I wouldn't expect them to runaway with the division at all like some people are projecting. This is where not having Jordan Staal step up when needed hurts.

Where will they finish?

Picking the Penguins to finish in the top three of the division is probably a safe bet even if one of their stars gets hurt. There's too much talent at the top of their lineup and it seems like Crosby & Malkin have taken things to another level over the last couple of seasons. If they stay injury-free, then the Penguins are probably a lock for the post-season.

Philadelphia Flyers

Three reasons to be confident

1. Deep Forward Corps

This is a team that isn't going to have any problems scoring. Even with Scott Hartnell having only eight goals last season, the Flyers were still in the top 10 in goals per game and had a deadly power play. Most of this is due to Jakub Voracek having a breakout season while playing on a line with Claude Giroux and scoring at nearly a point-per-game rate. They also had Matt Read scoring at a first line rate and Wayne Simmonds contributing nicely on their second line. The Flyers offense only got better over the offseason, as they added former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who is still a capable second line center when healthy and an upgrade over Daniel Briere, who was bought out by the team. With these players along with emerging young talents like Brayden Schenn & Sean Couturier, the Flyers forward depth is in great shape and this team should be among the leaders in goals scored this year.

2. Strong power play

The Flyers posed one of the best offenses in the league last season and a large part of that was thanks to their power play, which ranked third in the league in terms of efficiency. They made it even better in the offeason by adding Lecavalier and Mark Streit, so teams will need to be extra careful not to draw penalties when playing the Flyers because this is a power play that can potentially win them a lot of games.

3. Bright future up front

Being as close to the cap as they are, the Flyers need to get max value out of their younger players and they should get just that with Brayden Schenn & Sean Couturier. Schenn's development has came along slower than expected, but he did make some improvements last season and should be ready to step into a bigger role next season, especially if he moves over to the wing. Couturier, on the other hand, is already a fantastic defensive center and the other side of his game should come along eventually. His poor scoring numbers were the result of bad shooting luck and he should have better results this year. If not, Couturier will continue to see the tough matchups from the coaching staff and do a solid job of helping the Flyers win the territorial battle in those minutes.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Who starts in goal?

The Flyers used one of their amnesty buyouts on Ilya Bryzgalov this summer and while that was probably the right move, it's confusing to figure out who will be the starter in the City of Brotherly Love this year. Their current options are Steve Mason, who posted a .944 save percentage with the Flyers last year. One would think that he could be the starter, but his career save percentage of .905 suggests otherwise. Mason has been one of the worst goalie's in the league since his sophomore year and he could easily lose the job to Ray Emery. The latter is the better goalie, but injury concerns might limit how much he can play.

2. Aging/slow defense

Streit is still an effective power play quarterback and will help there, but his play at even strength has lost a step or two and this was evident last year. With the majority of Philadelphia's defense corps being slow/immobile, Streit is a decent fit, but he is 35 now and isn't nearly as agile as he used to be, which may pose a problem. If Streit continues to decline, the Flyers defense could be back to where it was last season, which was slow and old. It's also worth mentioning that Streit is mainly a power play guy at this point in his career and the Flyers were already kind of good there last season, so adding him seems like adding to a strength rather than building on a weakness.

3. Declining at even strength

Replacing Briere with Lecavalier with Briere could help the Flyers improve at even strength but overall, this looked like a team that took a major step back last season in all phases. They were finished in the bottom-half of the league, had a negative goal differential and their underlying numbers also indicated that they were a poor team, at least at even strength. The Flyers controlled less than 49% of the 5v5 shot attempts during close game situations and ended up getting sub-par goaltending on top of that. They're kind of lucky their power play was as good as it was last season because that was one of the few things keeping them out of lottery territory. This team was also crushed by injuries last season, so maybe a healthy roster will lead to better results but there are still improvements to be made in a lot of areas for Philadelphia.

Where will they finish?

Probably the toughest team to predict here. On one hand, I think the Flyers can be a playoff team if they stay healthy and their roster looks improved from what it was last season. On the other hand, I still don't think they're that good of a team and will probably finish outside of the playoffs. Their goaltending situation makes it hard for me to bet on them, but I'll say the Flyers finish in 4-7 territory this year. However, the only way they'll end up at 7 is if Mason/Emery are truly horrific, which is possible. 

Washington Capitals

Three reasons to be confident

1. Power play makes to you pay

There are a lot of teams with a strong power play in this division and the Caps are at the top of the list, as they had the best power play in the league last season. It's probably going to cool off a little from where it was last season, as the team shot at over 20% while playing 5v4, but there are still a lot of great finishers in this lineup and their head coach, Adam Oates, has had success as a special teams coach in recent years. They lost a pretty big piece in Mike Ribeiro, but they did replace him with a solid player in Mikhail Grabovski and he should be able to fill in for him with no issue, especially on the power play. Everyone is expecting regression for the Caps, but their power play was so good last season that they could still rank near the top of the league even if it drops off a little bit.

2. Grabbo Grabbo Hey

Replacing a point-per-game player is tough, but the Caps may have actually upgraded over Ribeiro by adding Grabovski, who was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer. Ribeiro's a terrific passer and an excellent offensive player, but his defensive shortcomings make him a liability at even strength. Grabovski is a much more complete player and while he might produce a little less than Ribeiro, what he does in all three zones will make up for it. Grabovski's a very underrated two-way player who was constantly buried in the defensive zone by Randy Carlyle last season and his point total ended up taking a beating because of it. Oates will likely be much more wise with how he uses Grabovski, so everyone should expect more points out of him this year. With Grabovski in the lineup, the Caps center depth is now among the best in the league.

3. Young stars on defense

Splitting up the Caps top defense pairing of Karl Alzner & John Carlson ended up being a smart decision on Oates' part, as one of them is now always on the ice against the opposing team's top lines and both are earning a reputation as two of the best young defensemen in the NHL. Alzner in particular was very impressive last year, breaking even in shot differential while playing tough minutes and Carlson posted similar numbers while playing in much tougher situations at even strength. Carlson is likely the better of the two, as he is more of an all-around threat but the future is bright for Washington's defense corps with these two and Mike Green leading the way.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. Finding a #4 Defenseman

The top end of the Caps defense corps is hard to beat, but they are going to have trouble finding someone to play with Carlson on the second pairing. Last year, Adam Oates was using John Erskine in that role and he ended up getting crushed. Erskine's a tough hombre, but he would be a third pairing guy or in the press box on a contending team, so I see the Caps moving on from him eventually. Who replaces him, though? The Caps have options, although not many of them provide much of a reward this season. Oates has tried out a lot of guys during training camp and is even giving youngster Connor Carrick a shot on opening night, so we'll see how this experimentation works for the Caps. Ultimately, I think it ends with them acquiring a top-four guy through a trade.

2. Regression, it happens

The Caps miracle run in the second half of last season was one fueled by percentages, which is not a good thing. Alex Ovechkin ended up winning the Rocket Richard and his third Hart Trophy thanks to his surge in the final two months where he scored on over 20% of the shots he took and the rest of the team had similar fortunes. I already went over how their power play struck gold last season and a few other players also had good fortunes, particularly their bottom-six. Ovechkin's an elite player, but what he did last year isn't repeatable and I would expect the Caps offense to cool off a little at even strength. They were also a negative possession team, which is bad news for a team that rode high shooting percentages. That said, adding Grabovski could offset this since he is a good puck-possession guy and can produce without the aid of ridiculous shooting percentages.

3. Can Holtby be a starter?

After two years of posting great numbers in the playoffs, the Caps will be starting the year with 24-year-old Braden Holtby in net. This is not surprise, as he is the best goaltender on the roster but this is his first full season as a starter and it will be interesting to see how he holds up. Along with Ovechkin, he was one of the main reasons why the Caps won the Southeast last year, but if the Caps are expecting him to stand on his head and post a .930+ save percentage again, they might come away disappointed. The Caps improving their team at even strength could make them lean on Holtby a little less than they did last season, but I still have him labeled as a concern for now. Considering how much the team relied on him in the past, they might be expecting him to stay in playoff form and constantly bail them out of trouble and that's generally not the best way to approach things. That said, they do have a decent fall-back option in Michal Neuvirth if Holtby does struggle down the line.

Where will they finish?

Before adding Grabovski, I saw the Caps as maybe a bubble playoff team. Now, I think they can finish 4th in the division. Of course, this could change if they don't do anything to improve their defense and Holtby regresses in a bad way. George McPhee has never been afraid to shake up his roster mid-season, so I think he'll adjust accordingly if trouble arises and the Caps will finish somewhere between 3-6 in the division.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Three reasons to be confident

1. BOB

It looks like Columbus finally has a goaltender, as Sergei Bobrovsky nearly carried the Blue Jackets to the playoffs last year on the back of a .932 save percentage that won him the Vezina. What he did last season is probably an aberration, but Bobrovsky is still very young and should have a good career ahead of him. Goaltending has been the Jackets Achellis Heel for so long and Bobrovsky turned it into the team's strongest point by playing out of his mind last season. The Jackets aren't going to expect him to repeat that, but if the team around him improves and he plays at an above-average level, they could be on the cusp of building something good in Central Ohio. 

2. New regime, new look

Columbus' new President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson, and general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, have been hard at work these past few months to rebuild the mess that Scott Howson left behind and they've done a decent job of it thus far. Their big splash came at the trade deadline when they were able to rid the roster of Steve Mason and Derick Brassard's contract while adding elite winger Marian Gaborik in the process. They also strengthened the team over the offseason by adding Nathan Horton. I'm not sure if Horton will be worth that contract, but he is a nice add to a team that needs goal-scorers. Gaborik is the more critical piece, though as he can change the complection of this team and make them more dangerous than they were last season. We'll see how it shakes out in a full year, though.

3. New, young scorers

I've always been a fan of the Jackets farm system and while their top prospect is currently defenseman Ryan Murray, they have a lot of great young forwards who should make an impact as soon as this year. One of them being Boone Jenner, who might be in the running for the Calder if his performance in the preseason is any indication. He was an excellent goal-scorer in juniors and seemed to mesh well with Gaborik & Brandon Dubinsky during the preseason, which says that he might be ready for top-six minutes right off the bat. Other young forwards who could have good seasons are Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen. The former has made himself known as a solid checking line player last year and the latter is still developing as an all-around player. Look for both to play significant roles this season.

Three reasons to be concerned

1. BOB (Part 2)

Why am I listing Bobrovsky as a concern? Because he was pretty much the only reason the Jackets went on their incredible run and the team still couldn't make the playoffs. Granted, the team around him has improved but he still faced a ton of shots last season and their defense is still questionable, in my opinion. He also had a rough sophomore campaign in Philadelphia after a promising rookie season, so I'm not ready to label Bob as a sure thing just yet, although I do enjoy watching him. Goalies generally need to face around 4000 shots to find out what their "true" talent level is and Bobrovsky is almost at that benchmark while posting a .917 career save percentage. Not elite, but definitely better than what Columbus is used to. Although, the Jackets might expect Bobrovsky to be elite.

2. Shot prevention, or lack thereof

Outside of Bobrovsky, this team was a mess defensviely last season and one of the worst clubs in the league at controlling even strength territorial play. That generally leads to bad results in the long run and it's why I think the Jackets will come back down to Earth this year. Moving to a new division and not being forced to play Detroit, Chicago & St. Louis 4-6 times a year might work in Columbus' favor, though since those teams will make a lot of other clubs look worse than they actually are, especially in shot differential. I still have my doubts about Columbus as a contending team but they might fare better in the East than they did in the Central. This defense has ways to go, though.

3. Top line center

Columbus has a lot of good players at center, but I'm not sure if any of them are top line quality. Artem Anisimov was a very good player for the Rangers and had a solid debut with the Jackets, but he struggled to carry the play against other team's top lines. As was expected since he didn't play that kind of role in New York. One would think that Ryan Johansen will be the one stepping into a top line role soon, but his development hasn't gone as smoothly as the Jackets planned, so he may not be the answer this year. Judging from the lines at camp, it might be 20-year-old Boone Jenner who earns the job, as he has been one of their best and most exciting players in camp. Jenner should be a good player, but is he ready for top line duty? We'll find out in a few months.

Where will they finish?

The Jackets still have too many holes on their roster for me to consider them a playoff team, but I think they have a chance. If the team improves at even strength and Bobrovsky is only marginally worse than last season, then I think the Jackets will be good enough to make the post-season. Although, I think it's very possible that they end up towards the bottom since Bobrovsky was responsible for so much of their success last year and the improvements on the other parts of their roster are still uncertain. Overall, I see them being in 5-8 territory.