With July coming to a close, we're almost done previewing the Eastern Conference. This week's issue covers the Metropolitan Division teams we missed last time, with the exception of the Washington Capitals (they'll be bundled into next week's article).
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
2013-14 Finish: 35-29-18, record, sixth in Metropolitan Division
Last season’s breakout performance/pleasant surprise: It might sound odd, but I think Jaromir Jagr is the perfect fit for the “pleasant surprise” category. He’s one of the all-time greats and showed us in 2011-12 and the shortened campaign that he still has something left in the tank, but he hasn’t just been treading water since returning to the NHL, he’s actually been improving. With 67 points in 82 games, the 2013-14 campaign was his best since his return and given that he turned 42 in February, that’s saying a lot.
Can he do it again? I was skeptical about Jagr when he returned to the NHL, but he’s proven that he should never be written off. That being said, only Gordie Howe has ever recorded more than 50 points in a single season at or after the age of 42 (as of Feb. 1 of that campaign). So I won’t dismiss the possibility of Jagr being an offensive leader for the Devils again in 2014-15, it would be a historic occurrence.
Last season’s biggest disappointment: After the Detroit Red Wings balked at Damien Brunner’s asking price, the New Jersey Devils signed the unrestricted free agent with only 44 games worth of NHL experience to a two-year, $5 million deal. Although he had some good patches, he finished the season with an underwhelming 11 goals and 25 points in 60 games.
Will he bounce back? To an extent, he probably will, but keep in mind that he’s already 28 years old, so it’s not like we’re talking about a prospect. He’s had consistency issues at the NHL level and while he might overcome them, he’s not likely to get to get much more than 40 points.
Notable Additions: Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat, Scott Clemmensen
Notable Departures: Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne, Martin Brodeur
2014-15 Outlook: The Devils have a lot of potential scoring threats, but they’re only stars – Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias – are well past their prime. Defensively, they have some promising players like Jon Merrill, Adam Larsson, and Eric Gelinas, but unless at least a couple of those guys take significant steps forward next season, their defense doesn’t look particularly special either. The one thing that they have working for them is goaltender Cory Schneider, who has the capacity to be a top-five netminder now that he’s finally entering a season as the clear starter. Overall, this looks like a team that might squeak into the playoffs, but isn’t a safe bet to do so.
Player to Watch: Of the three defensemen mentioned above, Gelinas is the most exciting at this point. He has a lot of offensive upside, but the Devils used him sparingly last season and even resorted to using a bit as him as a forward. He’s got a great chance of cementing a place on the Devils’ top-four in 2014-15 though.
NEW YORK RANGERS
2013-14 Finish: 45-31-6 record, lost in Stanley Cup Final to Los Angeles (4-1)
Last season’s breakout performance/pleasant surprise: On a team that featured Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Chris Kreider, I don’t think many people were penciling in Mats Zuccarello to be the team’s scoring leader. Zuccarello had some difficulty establishing himself in the NHL during his previous campaigns with the Rangers, but he put that all behind him in 2013-14 by scoring 19 goals and 59 points in 77 contests.
Can he do it again? It’s not surprising that the five-foot-seven forwarded needed some time to adjust to the NHL, but now that he has he should be a great forward for years to come. While Stepan or Kreider might step up and take the position of being the Rangers’ points leader away from him, Zuccarello is a fair bet to get 50-60 points.
Last season’s biggest disappointment: Nash saw his streak of five-straight 30-goal seasons (not including the shortened campaign) end in his first full 82-game season with the Rangers. That by itself wouldn’t have been so bad, but Nash was limited to just 13 assists, which resulted in him matching his career-low of 39 points. Not exactly what you’d hope from a player that comes with a $7.8 million annual cap hit.
Will he bounce back? I think so. Keep in mind that he did suffer a concussion early in 2013-14 and that type of incident can derail a player’s campaign. On top of that, he had a strong showing with the Rangers in the shortened season, so it’s not like it was the move to New York that did him in. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get around 30 goals and 60 points in 2014-15.
Notable Additions: Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi, Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass
Notable Departures: Brian Boyle, Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, Derek Dorsett
2014-15 Outlook: Given where they finished in the regular season, you might be tempted to dismiss the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup finals as a case of an average team finding its groove at the right time. I don’t think that’s the case with them. They have a strong defensive core, one of the best goaltenders in the league and both star power and depth offensively. You could have said that about the Rangers at other points in the past few years, but they were never able to click. Perhaps the 2014 playoffs will prove to be the exception for them, but at least on paper, they look like a Stanley Cup contender.
Player to Watch: Chris Kreider had a decent, but unremarkable rookie campaign with 17 goals and 37 points in 66 contests. However, he stepped up in the playoffs with 13 points in 15 games. Sophomores tend to be risky picks, but at the age of 23, Kreider has the potential to break out.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
2013-14 Finish: 34-37-11 record, eighth in Metropolitan Division
Last season’s breakout performance/pleasant surprise: Kyle Okposo had established himself as a decent, but not great forward with the New York Islanders going into the 2013-14 campaign. He got a chance to play alongside John Tavares last season though and took full advantage of the opportunity, setting new career-highs with 27 goals and 69 points in 71 games.
Can he do it again? While nothing is set in stone, it seems likely that Okposo and Tavares will be paired up again in 2014-15. The two have demonstrated a lot on-ice chemistry and while Okposo might not average nearly a point-per-game again next season, he should finish the campaign with at least 60 points.
Last season’s biggest disappointment: Evgeni Nabokov was a big part of the push that led the New York Islanders to the playoffs in 2013. They needed him to be just as good last season, but age and injuries slowed him down. He ended up with a 2.74 GAA and .905 save percentage in 40 games in 2013-14.
Will he bounce back? He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning to serve as Ben Bishop’s understudy. Nabokov isn’t expected to challenge Bishop for the starting job at this stage of his career, but he has the potential to be a solid backup next season.
Notable Additions: Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Cory Conacher, Chad Johnson, Jaroslav Halak
Notable Departures: Evgeni Nabokov
2014-15 Outlook: The Islanders offense looks pretty impressive and it’s only going to get better as Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Michael Dal Colle, Sebastian Collberg, and Josh Ho-Sang come into their own. Their goaltending situation is solid too after inking Halak to a four-year, $18 million contract. The Islanders’ defense is lacking though and while I listed Nabokov as the team’s disappointment, he certainly wasn’t solely to blame for the fact that the team allowed 3.18 goals per game. Until they address their defensive issues, it’s hard to see the Islanders as anything more than a bubble team in the fight for a playoff spot.
Player to Watch: As I just touched on, the Islanders have quite a few promising young forwards, but Lee is looking like the one most likely to breakout next season. He’s coming off a strong season in the minors and his 22-game stint with the Islanders in 2013-14 was impressive (nine goals and 14 points). What makes him more interesting than some of their other prospects though is the possibility that Lee will end up as the team’s first-line left winger on a line with Tavares and Okposo. Now it needs to be emphasized that it might not work out that way – there’s a chance Lee will end up on the third line or perhaps not even make the team – but he’s definitely worth keeping a close eye on during training camp.
2013-14 Finish: 42-30-10 record, lost in first round to the Rangers (4-3)
Last season’s breakout performance/pleasant surprise: It’s cheating a little, but goaltender Steve Mason deserves recognition for his solid 2013-14 campaign. Granted, he hinted that the change of scenery would ultimately help cure what had been ailing him when he posted a 1.90 GAA and .944 save percentage in seven contests with Philadelphia in 2013, but he had been so inconsistent with Columbus that it was hard to read too much into it. He wasn’t exactly steady in 2013-14 either, but he still posted a 2.50 GAA and .917 save percentage in 61 games, which is leagues above what he’s done since his rookie campaign.
Can he do it again? Mason has always had the potential to be a solid starting goaltender, but he hit a rough patch with the Blue Jackets and nothing he did could seem to right his course. Philadelphia has put its trust in him by signing Mason to a three-year, $12.3 million contract and while he’s still not a safe bet, he’s also not a long shot to live up to that contract.
Last season’s biggest disappointment: Vincent Lecavalier. Any time there’s talk about trading a player or even buying out his contract just one season into it, you know something went terribly wrong. Injuries were part of the problem for Lecavalier, but he was just ineffective overall and finished with 20 goals and just 37 points in 69 games.
Will he bounce back? I wouldn’t bet on it. Lecavalier was once a player that could give you 70 or more points in a single season, but he’s four years removed from being that player. He can’t seem to stay healthy anymore and now even when he is healthy, he’s struggling to get anything done. At the age of 34, it wouldn’t be a leap to suggest that his best days are behind him.
Notable Additions: Nick Schultz, R.J. Umberger
Notable Departures: Steve Downie, Scott Hartnell
2014-15 Outlook: The Philadelphia Flyers got off to a terrible start last season, but Craig Berube managed to right the ship when he took over as the team’s head coach. Now he’ll get a chance to show what he can do when he’s leading the team from the start of training camp. The Flyers have question marks – as mentioned, Mason isn’t a safe bet and their defense remains suspect – but they also have a lot of depth and some young players that could take a step forward. They look like a serious playoff contender.
Player to Watch: Will this be the season that Brayden Schenn breaks out? He’s finally spent an uninterrupted season in the NHL – obviously, the lockout prevented that from happening in 2012-13 – as well as 192 career games under his belt. He’s a gifted forward that’s capable of bringing far more to the table than he did in 2013-14 when he recorded 41 points in 82 contests.
2013-14 Finish: 51-24-7 record, lost in Conference Semi-Final to New York (4-3)
Last season’s breakout performance/pleasant surprise: Matt Niskanen deserves an honorable mention for recording a career-high 46 points after struggling offensively for several seasons, but Olli Maatta was the bigger surprise. The 19-year-old defenseman wasn’t expected to even stick with the Penguins in 2013-14, but he was given a shot when Kris Letang started the campaign on the sidelines and ran with it. Maatta ended up with nine goals and 29 points in 78 games while averaging 18:29 minutes per contest.
Can he do it again? Absolutely. The surprise was that Maatta established himself with the Penguins while he was still a teenager, but it was always expected that he would be an NHL defenseman eventually. He might even get paired with Letang next season as his frequent partner during the 2013-14 campaign, Niskanen, isn’t with the team anymore.
Last season’s biggest disappointment: With the Penguins, the issues they ran into during the regular season didn’t stem from under performance as much as they did from injuries. Letang is a perfect example of that. He was a big contributor when he was healthy, but he was limited to just 37 games in 2013-14.
Will he bounce back? To an extent. Letang is a top-tier offensive defenseman when he’s healthy, and it’s honestly a shame that he’s had to endure as much as he has. He’s played in just 123 of the Penguins’ 212 regular season games over the last three seasons and has had to work back from concussions, a stroke, and lower-body problems. Maybe 2014-15 will be the season where his luck finally changes. The Penguins need to hope so given that his eight-year, $58 million contract is about to begin.
Notable Additions: Steve Downie, Thomas Greiss, Blake Comeau, Christian Ehrhoff, Nick Spaling, Patric Hornqvist
Notable Departures: Lee Stempniak, Brian Gibbons, Chuck Kobasew, Tanner Glass, Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen, Joe Vitale, Brooks Orpik, Jussi Jokinen, James Neal
2014-15 Outlook: Pittsburgh has all the pieces necessary to win the Stanley Cup. They obviously have the star power, their defense looks solid, and Marc-Andre Fleury is a capable goaltender. That’s been mostly true for years though and they’ve continually come up short since 2009. The Penguins ownership attempted to end that stagnation by firing coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero and replacing them with Mike Johnston and Jim Rutherford respectively. Regardless of who is at the helm, this team should easily make the playoffs. The real test will come in the postseason.
Player to Watch: It should be interesting to see how Patric Hornqvist responds to playing alongside Sidney Crosby or, more likely, Evgeni Malkin. Hornqvist has never recorded more than 53 points in a single season, but he’s also never played with anyone of Malkin’s caliber. It wouldn’t be surprising if Hornqvist ends up having a big season.