How the Pittsburgh Penguins Stack Up with Each Division Rival
With less than a month remaining before the start of training camp, the Pittsburgh Penguins will hope to put a tumultuous offseason behind them and look forward to defending their Metropolitan Division title as well as chasing the Stanley Cup.
While the Pens were the class of their division last season and set a franchise record by reaching 40 wins in 57 games, success doesn't carry over from one season to the next.
The Penguins will have to prove that they are still the front-runners.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Pens match up with the rest of the Metropolitan Division and who the contenders and pretenders will be this season.
Technically, stepping down as the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes only to assume the same role with the Pittsburgh Penguins would be considered a lateral move.
However, it's actually a big step up for Jim Rutherford. He had missed the playoffs for the past five years in Carolina, and the Hurricanes have usually been at or near the bottom of their division in recent seasons. That doesn't figure to change in 2014-15.
Up front, the Hurricanes do have a potent top-six group of forwards in Jordan and Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, Jiri Tlusty, Jeff Skinner and Nathan Gerbe,. They also boast a solid group of defensemen.
However, there are serious questions concerning their goaltending. Cam Ward struggled last season and still has two years and a total cap hit of $12.6 million left on his contract. Meanwhile, Anton Khudobin has earned the right to be the starter in net but only has 57 games of NHL experience.
With just over $5 million in cap space remaining, the Hurricanes might have difficulty trading for additional talent without moving a big contract. Finding a trade partner might be difficult.
Verdict: The Hurricanes have the talent to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot, but a lack of depth will keep them in the Penguins' rear-view mirror and on the outside of the postseason looking in yet again.
Without a doubt, no team in the Metropolitan Division made more noise in free agency than the Washington Capitals. However, questions remain as to whether the money they spent this summer will result in a trip to the playoffs next April.
Having doled out a combined $11.25 million a year for former Penguins Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, the Capitals find themselves flush with defensemen but with big question marks in net and up front.
If former head coach Adam Oates couldn't get them on the right track, what will their offense look like under new bench boss Barry Trotz? He was known as a defense-first coach in Nashville.
Although Alexander Ovechkin can always be relied upon to be among the league leaders in goals, the Caps' supporting cast is thin. Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, who tallied 24 and 25 goals, respectively, last season, don't figure to match those career highs again in a more disciplined system.
For what it's worth, Trotz told NHL.com's Dan Rosen in August that his previous system was tailored to the players at his disposal. "With the forwards I have in Washington, I hope to keep their offensive production very high and add some more offense from the back end," he said.
In net, the Caps will again turn to Braden Holtby.
He was benched in favor of Jaroslav Halak down the stretch last season but will be the starter this year by default with Halak playing for the New York Islanders.
Verdict: The Capitals missed the playoffs last season, and despite the big contracts they handed out, they will likely be fighting for a wild-card berth down the stretch instead of challenging the Pens at the top of the standings.
New York Rangers
Having blown a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it might seem that the Penguins would be chasing the defending Eastern Conference champions.
That isn't the case, though.
After buying out the burdensome contract of Brad Richards, the Rangers were forced to part with blue-line stalwart Anton Stralman as well as Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot, whose contributions on the third and fourth lines fueled the Rangers' postseason run.
Although they were able to re-sign Dominic Moore and added Dan Boyle as well as Lee Stempniak to offset the loss of offense, the Rangers are faced with the reality that Martin St. Louis will be a year older, Derek Stepan will have to be a top-six forward and they are not as deep as they were just a few months ago.
With the Pens' new additions (Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie, Nick Spaling) and new emphasis on getting to the front of the net, something that the Los Angeles Kings did with great effectiveness against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, Sidney Crosby and company will be a tougher matchup for the Rangers this season.
Verdict: Any team with Henrik Lundqvist in net will be in contention for a divisional title, but with the loss of depth they suffered this summer, the Rangers will likely end up as the second or third divisional seed.
New Jersey Devils
Having survived the sudden departure of Ilya Kovalchuk shortly before the 2013-14 season began, the New Jersey Devils were able to stay competitive last season.
But as a team built on aging veterans, they will most likely be fighting for a wild-card spot at season's end.
Although the Devils were able to upgrade their roster by signing Mike Cammalleri to a five-year, $25 million contract, it's hard to imagine how a team whose top scorer (Jaromir Jagr) is on the wrong side of 40 is going to be able to challenge the Pens for the division title.
On the bright side, the Devils can expect another strong season from goaltender Cory Schneider, who was third in the NHL (among goalies with 25-plus starts) with 1.97 goals-against average last season. They also seem to have found another budding star in Adam Henrique, who tallied 25 goals at age 24.
Unfortunately, age and salary-cap constraints have taken a toll on this franchise over the past few years.
Unless they can find a way to improve their fortunes in overtime and shootouts, where they led the league with 18 losses, they could once again be on the outside of the playoffs looking.
Verdict: Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello has always been able to put competitive teams on the ice, but given their age and lack of depth up front, the Devils will likely spend most if not all of the 2014-15 season in the Penguins' rear-view mirror—and possibly out of the playoffs yet again.
New York Islanders
Last year at this time, there was a lot of talk about an up-and-coming team that pushed the Penguins to a hard-fought, six-game series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and was expected to challenge them for divisional supremacy.
Unfortunately for the New York Islanders, those predictions fell flat in 2013-14 as questionable trades and devastating injuries derailed a team that was projected to be near the top of the divisional standings.
With the addition of Jaroslav Halak in net and Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski to an already-talented group of forwards, the Islanders may be poised for a rebound season.
Despite the flurry of moves they've made so far this offseason, they still have over $10 million in cap space and a general manager who's not afraid make bold moves in Garth Snow. As such, the Islanders will be an interesting team to watch this season.
Verdict: Having solidified their goaltending and added depth up front, the Islanders could be a dangerous team for the Penguins and could finish ahead of their New York neighbors in the standings.
Having doled out a lot of money to aging veterans in recent years, the Philadelphia Flyers now find themselves in the middle of the pack in the Metropolitan Division and on the wrong side of the salary cap.
After a slow start to the 2013-14 season, the Flyers were able to rebound and secure the third and final divisional playoff spot only to lose to the New York Rangers in a hard-fought, seven-game series.
Despite the hiring of new general manager Ron Hextall and the hope that comes with a new direction, the Flyers have given their fans a string of bad news.
The summer of woes began with the surprising trade of Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets for R.J. Umberger. It continued with the weird arrest of captain Claude Giroux for groping a male police officer in Ottawa and culminated in the possible loss of Kimmo Timonen due to blood clots.
Now sitting at almost $5 million over the cap, the Flyers will likely have to dump a high-priced player or two before the start of the 2014-15 season.
In all likelihood, they will not even be as good as they were at the end of a disappointing 2013-14 season.
Verdict: The Flyers finished 15 points behind the Penguins in the standings last season and have taken a step backward. If Timonen's injury is career-ending, the Flyers will be likelier to miss the playoffs than challenge the Penguins atop the standings.
Columbus Blue Jackets
While the Philadelphia Flyers will likely take a step back next season, the Columbus Blue Jackets are moving in the opposite direction and could challenge the Pens for divisional supremacy for years to come.
With a wealth of up-and-coming players like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen, established veterans like Nathan Horton and newcomer Scott Hartnell, and a franchise goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets already have a solid core.
With around $14 million in cap space, they will have the ability to add talent.
It should be noted, however, that the team and restricted free agent Johansen are engaged in heated contract negotiations. Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch suggests that talks between the two parties remain "chilly as ever."
Built to be a physical and grinding team that wears opponents down, the Blue Jackets are effective both in the regular season as well as the postseason. With an energized fanbase, they figure to be an even harder team to beat on home ice.
Despite winning all five regular-season contests against the Blue Jackets last season, the Pens struggled against them in the postseason and have retooled their roster in an effort to match Columbus' physical style.
To add fuel to the fire, the addition of notorious Pens antagonist Hartnell this summer will undoubtedly make for some entertaining moments this season when the two teams face off in what could be season-long battle for the top spot in the standings.
Verdict: With the return of Horton from injury and the benefit of postseason experience, the Blue Jackets should be even better in the 2014-15 season than they were last season. They could be the biggest threat to the Penguins' chances of repeating as division champions.
Conclusion: Expect a Repeat of the 2013-14 Season
Since the arrival of Sidney Crosby in 2005, the Penguins have never finished lower than second place in their division. In the 2014-15 season, they will be seeking a third straight divisional title.
While Pens fans and critics are quick to point out the team's recent postseason failures, they lose sight of the fact that the Pens have averaged almost 50 wins over an 82-game schedule over the past eight seasons and will have the advantage of playing in the weakest division in the NHL.
Although they have had a tumultuous offseason, the Pens are still the deepest and most talented team in the Metropolitan Division. Barring injuries, they should once again be atop the standings at season's end.
Salary-cap and contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.
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