Summer and hockey go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise, forcing us hockey folk to pray for October to come every night before bed. Twice on Sundays because it’s the Sabbath.
In order to keep mental health on a steady line, fans stay preoccupied with the who, what, where and why of their favorite team.
If in fact that team belongs to the Metropolitan Division, please read along and offer your less than productive feedback in the comments below.
Once again, to keep suspense at a premium, we’ll go in reverse order because I know what keeps people on the edge of their seat.Embed from Getty Images
8. Carolina Hurricanes: 35-31-16; A decade has past since Carolina last won a Stanley Cup and seven years since their last trip to the conference final. Last and certainly the most important, they have failed to qualify for the postseason since that previously mentioned date.
What should come as no surprise is the fact that almost no improvement has been made since their last appearance. Exemplified by the previous five seasons.
However, there is plenty of room to grow in 2017. Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk, Teuvo Teravainen and Victor Rask will have the greatest impact. While Jordan Staal, Lee Stempniak and Bryan Bickell will round out the bottom.
Cam Ward will find himself in the middle of trade rumors all season long. While Eddie Lack will be soul searching for his performances he had while a backup in Vancouver.
Carolina’s biggest Achilles Heel is the division they play in. As you read on you’ll begin to agree. As cliche as it may sound, their season will be made depending on how well they play against divisional opponents.
That being said, sell low on Carolina. But go to the PNC Arena when your favorite team is in town, the weather is unbeatable.Embed from Getty Images
7. Columbus Blue Jackets: 34-40-8; For all of Columbus’s hard work last season, their less than noteworthy record resulted in a last place finish in their division. With recording over 40 wins in back to back seasons prior to 2015-16, 34 wins was a noticeable set back.
John Tortorella found himself back behind an NHL bench for the first time since his disastrous attempt at coaching Vancouver in 2014. While Columbus appeared to be motivated by the change, it wasn’t good enough to get back to the playoffs.
Ryan Johansen was at odds with Tortorella to the point that management traded him straight up for Nashville’s Seth Jones.
Moving into 2017, Seth Jones may be the blueprint to the plan that moves this team forward. After all, in order to attract top tier talent, you need a top tier player.
Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Seth Jones and Brandon Saad make up the untouchables of the group. But there are still many holes to fill, including an above average backup to support Sergei Bobrovsky when he undoubtedly gets hurt at the most inopportune time.
Truth be told it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if this team finds itself well above where I placed them…but don’t hold your breath.Embed from Getty Images
6. New York Islanders: Fully aware of the impressive 45-27-10 record that the Islanders posted, the one thing that bothers me about the them is this past offseason.
The hammer of the salary cap smashed down on New York’s hand. Both Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin were passed on via free agency because they boasted more currency than they appeared to be worth.
While on paper, Okposo may be the most important player. Don’t undermine the importance of a guy like Matt Martin. He lead the league in hits for half a decade and scored 10 goals last year. A pivotal part of the Islanders fourth line, often considered to be the best in the league. What made the Isles’ so lucky was their ability to play their fourth line against the oppositions top lines. Supporting my ongoing argument that a coach needs four confident lines to be successful.
Aside from that, the chemistry between John Tavares and Kyle Okposo being broken up may spell instant disaster moving forward.
With that being said, can they fill the gaps?
One thing is for sure, two time Stanley Cup champion Andrew Ladd adds instant experience to the lineup. Doubt remains whether he will be the Andrew Ladd in Winnipeg or the Andrew Ladd that returned to Chicago this past season.
Expect the Isles’ to be nipping at the heels of our next team.Embed from Getty Images
5. New Jersey Devils: Hard to believe this happened four years ago. Even harder to believe New Jersey has failed to qualify for the post season since. Actually, no its not. Both Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk left in a span of a single season following that feat.
So 38-36-8 last season begins to make more sense. What ruins New Jersey is how solid they are in their forward department but for years have been in desperate need of a number one guy to take the game over. They don’t score many goals.
Now they have him. Taylor Hall wasn’t just the second overall pick in 2010, he is the life saver New Jersey needs.
Cory Schneider will back stop a team that will make a marathon of improvements from years past. Destined to hurdle the 40 win mark, New Jersey may be the sneaky good hockey team that should invest in itself at the trade deadline.
One thing is for sure, Travis Zajac will be a happy man now that he has a dynamic wing to flank him once again.Embed from Getty Images
4. New York Rangers: Accumulating over 100 points during the regular season two years in a row should be reason enough to assume that the Rangers are a shoe in for the playoffs. Now, normally I would agree, but from what I saw in last years playoffs, I have to disagree.
While their first round matchup with Pittsburgh is no small task. New York looked overwhelmed and confused as they attempted to keep up with Pittsburgh’s speed.
Signing college standout Jimmy Vesey is a step in the right direction but for the long term, I’m not entirely sure how open their championship window is.
An aging all world goaltender, a top heavy forward core anchored around Rick Nash who repeatedly has failed to produce in the playoffs, and falling back on a stacked defensive core to bail themselves out caught up with them this past spring.
After two deep runs in the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, 2016 was an utter disappointment considering New York has seen a lot of the Penguins in the playoffs over the years. Which makes last season all the more upsetting for the blue shirt faithful.
The Rangers will be one of the better teams in the league, but that dominance you’ve seen over the last three seasons may begin to slip away.Embed from Getty Images
3. Philadelphia Flyers: Relax, even Brendan Burns agrees the Flyers should be ahead of the Rangers. 41 wins and 96 points last season for a team that failed to qualify for the post season in two out of the prior three seasons is a huge turnaround.
In typical Flyers form, they weren’t even in the playoff picture until the last month or less of the regular season. Jumping on the collective efforts of Claude Groux, Wayne Simmons, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and a youngster by the name of Shayne Gostisbehere.
Philly hasn’t been the same since Chris Pronger was forced into retirement from his injuries. Ever since he retired, the mission to find a number one defensemen has been their priority.
Moving forward, the core of players mentioned earlier will carry this team. But my eye remains on Steve Mason to have a quick rebound year from last season. The responsibility of success falls entirely on his shoulders at the end of the day.Embed from Getty Images
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: With two Stanley Cups under his belt, Sidney Crosby now has wiggle room to move out from underneath Mario Lemieux’s shadow. But Phil Kessel deserved to be the playoff MVP, I’m sorry but also not sorry. Anyone with a fully functional pair of eyes could see that.
Moving our attention to the team itself, Pittsburgh went roaring into the 2016 playoffs experiencing consistent recoil only from the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the Stanley Cup final, the Penguins outplayed San Jose for basically the entirety of the 6 game series.
Crosby elevated his game but it was the play of the ‘HBK’ line that stole the show on a nightly basis. Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel comprised the most dangerous line in hockey. What made them even better was where they were slotted, as a third line the mismatches during the game played in their favor. The competition couldn’t keep up with their speed, allowing guys like Crosby and Malkin to be moved around the roster as needed.
I’m interested to see how Matt Murray will be used along side Marc Andre Fleury. Was Murray lightning in a bottle? Or have we seen the beginning of the end for Fleury in Pittsburgh with the expansion draft coming up next summer?
One thing remains, Pittsburgh has as good a chance as any to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in ’97 and ’98.Embed from Getty Images
1. Washington Capitals: The curse continued. Washington was the most dangerous team in the regular season, but once again failed to keep the momentum flowing when it was most important to do so.
Seven years separated the first and most recent time, the Penguins and Capitals faced off in the playoffs. Similar to the 2009 showdown, Pittsburgh was once again able to withstand the pressure of the situation. Now, Washington takes yet another step back to wonder what exactly went wrong, more importantly how can they improve?
As the regular season rolled on, many chose the Capitals to be the eventual Stanley Cup champions. But in their first round match up with Philadelphia, they came flying out of the gate. When they established their 3-0 series lead over the Flyers, they wondered off the path. Allowing them to come back making it a 3-2 series lead. While Washington eventually pulled through to take the series, doubts resonated.
Weapons are in an abundance in Washington. Leadership, is not.
Especially now that Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera are both out of town. Alex Ovechkin needs to be better, he wears the ‘C’ for a reason. He is their leader offensively, but now he needs to be the leader in the locker room.
The coach, goalie, defensive and offensive core is there. Now Washington needs to find complimentary veteran players to walk through the locker room and corral the youngsters. Players such as Mark Recchi and Bill Guerin don’t grow on trees. But that’s the only piece to the puzzle Washington is missing.