Which Metropolitan Rivals Will Give the Pittsburgh Penguins the Most Trouble?
While some of the former members of the Atlantic Division, such as the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, have made the jump, others, such as the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, will be new division foes for the Pens.
In light of this realignment, it's time to take a look at the teams that figure to give the Pens the most trouble in the 2013-2014 season.
The Rest of the Field
Before we look at the teams that will pose the greatest challenges, lets's look at the teams that figure to not be as much of a problem for the Penguins and why.
New York Rangers
While Henrik Lundqvist is always a challenge for any team, the Rangers were a marginal playoff team last season and took a step backwards in the offseason. With the uncertainty around annual-underperformer Brad Richards and with the coaching change, the Rangers don't figure to be any better this season.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, they won't be able to rely on being the best team in a bad Southeast Division as in year's past. Having lost Mike Ribiero, Wojtek Wolski and Matt Hendricks in free agency, the Capitals will struggle to make the playoffs this season.
New Jersey Devils:
Without a doubt, the shocking retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk from the NHL in order to return to the KHL has left a giant void in the New Jersey Devils' lineup. Although trading for Cory Schneider to solidify their goaltending situation, Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe and Michael Ryder are not going to be enough for the Devils to offset the loss of Kovalchuk.
Columbus Blue Jackets:
While the NHL clearly intended to create a Columbus versus Pittsburgh rivalry, it may take a few seasons before the Blue Jackets are ready to challenge the Pens for divisional supremacy. While the acquisition of Nathan Horton was a step in the right direction, the offensively-challenged Blue Jackets will struggle to score enough to keep pace with the rest of the division.
Now that we've looked at who won't be the biggest challenge to the Pens, let's look at the three teams that will be.
While Penguins fans were sad to see Jordan Staal leave Pittsburgh in a 2012 trade, they may be even sadder to see him return as part of the Carolina Hurricanes.
With Cam Ward in net and Eric Staal leading the offense, the Hurricanes still are a strong team down the middle. Their first line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin is as talented as any line in the NHL.
To bolster their blue line, the Hurricanes acquired Andrej Sekera to provide more offensive skill and Mike Komisarek to add toughness and physicality.
To prevent a repeat of last year’s late season collapse after an injury to Cam Ward, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford also acquired backup goaltender Anton Khudobin—with a career 14-5-1, 2.03 goals-against average, .933 save percentage—from the Boston Bruins.
If the Hurricanes can stay healthy, they should be at or near the top of the division down the stretch and figure to be a tough out in the playoffs.
New York Islanders
Given the struggles that the Penguins had in getting past the New York Islanders in the first round of last year’s playoffs, it should come as no surprise that the Islanders will once again be a thorn in the team's side.
As a team built around speed and tenacity, the Islanders are capable of turning turnovers into scoring chances quickly. When you couple this with an ultra-talented Pens team that is not always careful with the puck, it’s a recipe for disaster for the Pens.
Although the Islanders lost forward Brad Boyes and defenseman Mark Streit, two key members of last year’s team, they added forwards Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard which will increase their scoring depth.
If Evgeni Nabakov can be even an average goaltender this season, which would be an improvement from his performance against the Pens where he posted an .842 save percentage and 4.44 goals-against average, the Islanders will be in the hunt for a playoff spot and will definitely not be a team that the Pens want to see in the postseason.
Even though they had a down year in 2012, both the Penguins and their fans should anticipate that the Philadelphia Flyers will once again be a tough team to face in 2013.
Although they had to shed salary and let high-priced talents in Ilya Bryzgolav and Danny Briere walk away, they were able to add defenseman Mark Streit, center Vincent Lecavalier and goaltender Ray Emery in an attempt to reshape their roster.
Given the amount of money invested in these All-Star caliber players, the Flyers figure to be a boom-or-bust team this season and could conceivably finish at the top of the Metropolitan Division if they can stay healthy, or at the bottom of it if their acquisitions don’t pan out.
That said, records go out the window when the Pens and Flyers face off, and the five regular season games they play this season will undoubtedly be some of the most hotly contested games the Pens will play this season.