As we draw closer to the NHL preseason, it comes time for us to look ahead and think about the rest of the Pro Hockey world’s chances at the Playoffs or, heaven forbid…the Stanley Cup.
This time, we look at the other half of the Eastern Conference; a much more cutthroat and vicious division full of regional foes and furious battles for supremacy…but lately, it’s all about who can dethrone the tempest that is Raleigh, NC hockey. Two teams have stepped up to the plate, and a host of the 2000’s honor guard of the NHL are making their push for the Metro crown. Will they be able to dethrone them? Or will Carolina once again put their foot down?
Let’s get into it. If you need a refresher on how we’re doing this, there’s one at the top of our Atlantic Preview.
Absolutely Making it
1. Carolina Hurricanes
The most insane thing for me about the Carolina Hurricanes last year is that they cruised to a 113 point regular season while hemorrhaging players.
The Canes were right up there as one of the least lucky teams in terms of man games lost last season, and it…simply did not matter. Carolina’s system, players, and patience are such that they make otherwise extremely good teams look worse just by playing them. They play fast, or they’ll play you tough. Blowout or defensive struggle. Doesn’t matter. They make it seem like hockey is a very different sport than what a bunch of actual athletes paid to play it are doing.
Thankfully, we might finally be coming to the point of this particular team where they are finally going to fall off, because this is the last year that they get to keep all of that blueline might under contract at the same time, and there’s no way they’ll be able to re-sign all of them. So they’ve got to make this season their make-or-break time.
Their biggest issue will be, as it has been for quite some time, actually getting their high-possession game to bear goals when they need them. Their system is an absolute grindfest, but when it comes down to it…they’re rare to get the goals when they absolutely need them. Oh sure, they will generate goals…but they tend to come in mass bunches, and even with the changes they’ve made, it’s still a major concern. Will they finally have the finish necessary to get over this self-imposed hump?
Otherwise, I expect it’ll mostly be business as usual for the Hurricanes; Sebastian Aho’s still around, Svechnikov’s still around, Martin Necas is going to be quietly amazing as per usual, they picked up a little snarl from the Maple Leafs in Michael Bunting, a little offense on the backend from Dmitry Orlov via Boston/Washington, and they’ve still got a solid goalie tandem. I personally struggle to think of a reason beyond another hellacious series of injuries that this team won’t be trying to go for the Eastern Conference again. There’s just a base level of competence they reach by breathing that the rest of the division has to work for. Rod Brind’Amour really ought to be up for a little more coach of the year consideration for that.
2. New Jersey Devils
If there’s any team that has taken a playoff loss to heart and made strong adjustments, it’s the New Jersey Devils.
After failing to ascend the Metro throne, New Jersey went out and made some maneuvers; They got Tyler Toffoli of LA Kings and Calgary Flames as he was one of the many players who needed out from the Sutter experiment. They locked Timo Meier down to many years and many dollars. They get to keep Jack Hughes and his brother. They have Dougie Hamilton being a weird nerd who also plays a crazy game of hockey from the backend. This is by far one of the most dynamic and exciting teams in the league, one of the most difficult teams to play at any opportunity, and probably thee fastest team in the Eastern Conference.
Their defense? Just as good, and arguably moving on from Damon Seversen might’ve actually made them better. If there’s anything that could slow them down? It’s probably in net…but even then that might not be enough.
Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid look to be a strong tandem, with Devils fans thinking the world of Schmid. They had their issues last year, with some ugly stretches of sub-.900 play, and for a team that is as exciting as New Jersey is, that felt like a real deflating thing. Further, when the team wanted to…they could look as disorganized and lost as any team hunting for a first overall pick, and that’s something Lindy Ruff is going to have to lock down on come the beginning of this season.
If he does? Sky’s the limit. And I don’t know if I can stop them.
3-4. New York Rangers
If there’s any team that took a playoff loss to heart and panicked on the other hand…the Rangers are probably that team.
I need to reiterate their rank before I give out about them; the New York Rangers are still really good and are going to make the playoffs. They probably have one of the best individual goaltenders in the Conference, they have the best defenseman in the league if you’re not a Cale Makar fan and with a defense corps that honestly is only getting better with time, and they get to keep Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, and of course…Artemi Panarin.
Where I have significant struggle with this team, is that outside of Erik Gustafsson (the defender)…I don’t think really any of the decisions they’ve made with their depth are going to fix the problems they ran into. Blake Wheeler has been a known negative quantity for years in Winnipeg and bringing him to New York only feels like adding a volatile element to a team with plenty of real questions about the amount of Quit I Was Told There Wasn’t in New York, Johnathan Quick as a backup for Sheshterkin feels like adding a name for a name’s sake, and while Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick are veterans, their better days of being meaningfully impactful are ultimately behind them. This leaves a bottom six that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, doesn’t feel tremendously dangerous, and a goaltending tandem that drops off hard if Igor gets harmed. In a division this tight, you need every advantage you can get, and if there are holes in your game, you can bet on that becoming a season-long major flaw.
If there’s any positives, it’s that generally speaking; Peter Laviolette teams tend to be pretty good. The recently hired coach also brought on a number of people I find are generally good for coaching (such as Paul Mara from the ill-fated womens hockey league known as the PHF, and sports scientist Kayla McAvoy) will make that even better for him.
That’s why I think they won’t necessarily be as good as last year, but they will be taking up a spot in the top 3.
Might Make it
4-6. Pittsburgh Penguins
Kyle Dubas, previously of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is now in charge of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He inherited a nightmare situation; a team that is both too old to contend, has two players talented enough to almost make a team contend on their own, and a ton of dead weight that made them nearly impossible to truly believe in. That said, they still got this close to almost being in the post-season, and as a result are both too cap-poor, prospect-poor, and resource-poor to really start rebuilding unless you want to do something extremely stupid and would likely cause significant financial damage to the team.
How’d he do? Well, you can’t say he didn’t try to make this work; he went out and made a whole trade of trades for Erik Karlsson to effectively cap off the offseason.
Otherwise, he buckled down and got to work; nearly revamped the bottom six of the Pens with guys like Noel Acciari and Lars Eller as highlights, picked up Reilly Smith from Vegas, got Ryan Graves under contract and that guy’s actually really sneaky good as an offensive defenseman, and bolstered that even more with EK’s donning of the skating bird. If you needed an offseason to inspire a little confidence in an aging team that’s grinding against the Cap Ceiling, I don’t know if you could’ve done better than this beyond getting younger, which simply wasn’t in the cards for them.
The biggest question facing the Pens from here on out is this; is that going to be enough.
Are these changes under this cap-constraint enough to get them back into the playoffs.
This question will repeat for the next few years.
The Fenway Sports Group will not tolerate a rebuild until Crosby and Malkin hang their skates up. Dubas has to make that roster of mostly good and mostly bad players work until that happens. He’ll probably try to get his value in drafts and trades, he’s been pretty good at that historically, but from here until that dynamic duo’s final night in Black and Yellow, there’s no throwing up your hands and starting over. They’re in to the bitter end. Thankfully, so is Crosby and Malkin, who seemingly defy age. Maybe it’s because they’ve gotten so many games under their belt they know the ins and outs of this league better than anyone. Maybe they’re that damn good.
If enough breaks right for them, maybe they’ll get one last shot.
Maybe Next Year
5-8. New York Islanders
I am being very generous by putting them here, because I’m gonna be honest with you; I do not believe in what the New York Islanders are selling.
The Islanders are a team that prides itself on being the most grit-tastic, defense-filled, grindy team in the NHL. They are the ambien of the league; a team seemingly allergic to excitement. Their fans, naturally, love that about them. Nothing motivates a fanbase quite like spite out east.
The problem they ran into last year is that without the right coach to run that kind of extremely specific system, all they became was a slog that the other team eventually walked away from with a 2-1 victory. They managed to put together a playoff appearance by getting their act together by the end, but 6 games against Carolina made it abundantly clear; there was a difference between how they did defensive grinds, and how the Isle did them…and they were found wanting.
Further, they really didn’t change much because I don’t think they felt the need to. They got Pierre Engvall and Scott Mayfield locked up to absolutely baffling contracts, and they’ve kept pretty much everybody else of note. Mathew Barzal is still playing with Bo Horvat, Brock Nelson’s line still looks pretty dangerous, Zach Parise’s a solid player for your depth, their top pairing actually looks really solid and on paper I kind of like the idea of these Islanders? But then I think about how their play works and well…yeah.
And Yet…they keep showing up.
This is why their place on this list is as fluid as they come; I have seen the hard limits this kind of hockey has and it’s back-to-back 7-2 blowouts by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals and getting processed in a 2-1 overtime game by the Hurricanes. I keep looking at the numbers of this team year-in and year-out for each season and the numbers generally keep saying “we hate you, Long Island. You do not belong here.”…but they keep showing up like clockwork. They keep barreling through any and all prediction of their fate and getting playoff dates.
There’s something to be said about buying into a system, I guess. We’ll see if it works again.
5-6. Washington Capitals
The Caps are in a weird place. Their best ever player has fully entered the twilight of his career, he’s gotten his flowers, the rest of the team around him is both good enough to reasonably say they’re competitive every night but also not good enough to win enough games to meaningfully compete, they are one of the oldest teams in the league, and a lot of their more recent bets on talent have not paid off like they hoped it would.
So, why not just make this a year about chasing that scoring record for Ovi while figuring out what the future looks like for DC Hockey?
Alex Ovechkin needs 72 goals to tie and 73 to break Wayne Gretzky’s deathgrip on all-time league lead in goals. He is now 37, and the team around him isn’t far behind. Their realistic chances of making and going deep in the playoffs are kind of slim because it requires nearly all of that otherwise talented team to stay healthy and also not fall off at the same time. Adding Max Pacioretty to the Caps is a great idea if he stays unharmed; and as much of a pain in the ass Tom Wilson is, he is good enough to justify keeping around. Further, Darcy Kuemper in net needs to reset and adjust to what’s in front of him, because his first season in the US Capitol was pretty rough. Otherwise, if you can get all of that to work for you plus get Ovie scoring like he does? There’s a chance!
If the Caps want to keep that longevity going; they need to make some hard correction on their center depth. Namely, in making one move that could end up bringing a world of difference; dropping Evgeny Kuznetsov into the depth lines, and replacing him with Dylan Strome. Strome last year was a revelation; posting strong on-ice numbers and finishing with a respectable 65 points. By the same token, Kuznetsov was an active detriment to the way the Caps played; scoring 10 less points and being a possession-bleeding nightmare. Backstrom could also fill this role, but it behooves the Caps to embrace what little youth on their roster they have, because eventually, one day…Ovie will not be here. He will make an announcement that will shake this team to it’s core.
But until that day, they gotta take what they have and make it work as best they can.
7-8. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are not going to be good this year. That is on purpose.
They might be slightly better than the Jackets, but they are still kind of broken in critical places and it’s hard to see them really improving in such a way that they make all those big offseason changes to their front office seem like home-runs as early as Game 1.
Part of what’s going on with the Flyers is having to un-screw all the screwups that former GM Chuck Fletcher put on this roster, and putting together a roster that will satisfy noted mercurial coach John Tortorella. Those are very hard parameters to work in! It means sometimes you have to give up Kevin Hayes to the Blues! Even worse, they might actually start the season okay; getting back one of the eternal 2-way contenders for the Selke trophy in Sean Couturier might be a huge boon on them, but paradoxically make him one of the easiest ways for their rebuild to get supercharged by trading him to a contender.
Otherwise…that defense looks bad, that forward corps is all lopsided and weirdly constructed, a side effect of having pieces of it rapidly replaced with intriguing youth and veteran presence designed to keep Torts interested. Carter Hart might be the goalie of the future, or he might be completely burnt out from having to cover for this disaster of a defense from game to game and might be settling in at a .904 SV% for the rest of his career. They would probably have gotten a back up in Ivan Fedotov, but wouldn’t you know it, he is one of those young russian guys who suddenly got called to go stare at an ice flow in Siberia for an entire year on behalf of the Российская Армия, and as a result of all of that the IIHF basically told him he has to wait until New Year’s Day to take the ice for CSKA.
If the Flyers didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.
But hope is eternal; the fanbase is energized by the next chapter of Flyers hockey finally being opened, and they will happily be patient while this team shakes out it’s dead weight.
After all, there’s a lot that needs to go.
Why Are You Like this?:
7-8. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets have effectively nothing to play for, and therefor nothing to lose. As a result, they will be losing and often.
Fans hated the way the Jackets played last season, and they made some drastic changes here and there to make sure that GM Jarmo Kekäläinen can A) keep his job despite the rapid changes around the league giving the impression he may not be able to build a real contender in Ohio, and B) the Blue Jackets are never quite as difficult to watch week-in, week-out as they were last season.
They do have light at the end of their tunnel. That’s the good news. They have new coaching, and they unambiguously know where the good stuff will be coming from; Kent Johnson, Adam Fantilli and Kirill Marchenko are just the vanguard of what’s eventually looking to be an extremely strong team over the next few years with one of the best rated prospect systems in the country. Guys like David Jiříček, Liam Foudy, Denton Mateychuk, Stan Svozil and Corson Ceulemans are on the way, and getting back Zach Werenski will make things much easier on this team in transition.
Help is coming! Just not this season.
The frustrating part about the Jackets is that if you take a big step back and look at them on a long-enough time scale, you can see them slowly building up the pieces into being a good team at some point by the mid to late 2020’s, but decisions made in the here and now push that potentially good team out of sight because of baffling decisions like signing Ivan Provorov (who is bad), and Damon Severson (who, while good, is not necessarily a gamebreaker) in order to “re-vamp” their defense. It’s certainly different, but one could make a very good argument that different does not equal good in this case. Their depth is also kinda meh, and that’s a rough place to put their goalies; Elvis Merzlikens and Daniil Tarasov. Merzlikens is good, and while Tarasov is new to this league, he’s still got plenty of tools to become great down the line.
Oh, and they put Mike Babcock, of “doing prison experiments on your own players” and “pissing off veterans to prove you’re the big man” in charge of the team’s coaching. A man who has proven to be unbelievably difficult with his GM and larger team only propped up by years of success in the already very good Detroit system. Fun.
All of this adds up to a team that feels like it’s stuck in a holding pattern of their own volition, having not told the passengers that they’re rapidly running out of fuel. This feels like a team designed to finally, at long last, rip Jarmo from his seat as the man in charge of the Jackets. He will need to make some gigantic and canny moves to keep ownership from really looking over his body of work, because right now it does not reflect well.
That does it for the East! The Metro feels enormously top-heavy, with some teams really entrenched into the playoffs, others begging to be let back in…and then there’s those Philly and Columbus squads.
We’ll be back next week, to at long last