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Last season, the Metropolitan Division sent four teams to the Eastern Conference playoffs. The New York Rangers were the most successful club from the division as they represented the East in the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Los Angeles Kings in five games. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets also represented the Metro in the postseason last year. Who will finish in the top three this time around?
1. New York Rangers
Nobody would have picked the Rangers to go to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Coach Alain Vigneault led his troops through the playoffs last season, highlighted by a game seven triumph in Pittsburgh after trailing in the Penguins three games to one. The offseason saw center Brad Richards and defenseman Anton Stralman leave New York while news of Derek Stepan’s broken leg will hurt the Blueshirts’ offense for the first month of the season. Second line center Derick Brassard should take Stepan’s place in the meantime, centering a top line with Rick Nash and 20 year old Chris Kreider. Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello will hope to build off of their career-high goal totals from last season. Add in long-time Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis and the Rangers have a handful of secondary scoring options on their second and third lines. The fourth-best defense in the NHL last season welcomes 38 year-old Dan Boyle to New York. He joins Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal to form a solid defense corps. The former San Jose Shark is a veteran, mobile defenseman who scored half of his 36 points on the power play last season. Boyle should help a power play that finished in the middle of the pack last season. Goaltending is the strength of the club with Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot protecting the net. King Henrik has recorded at least 30 wins in eight of his nine seasons in the Big Apple. His backup is the six-foot-three-inch Talbot, who put up an impressive 12-6-1 record with a 1.64 GAA and a .941 save percentage in his rookie season. The Rangers are eager to prove their performance last season was no fluke and will rise to the Metropolitan Division summit this season.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
A collapse against the Rangers in the postseason last year saw a number of changes made in the Steel City. General Manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were shown the door while Jussi Jokinen and James Neal departed via free agency and trade, respectively. The Penguins brought in first year NHL coach Mike Johnston and acquired Patric Hornqvist from Nashville to fill the holes left by Bylsma and Neal. The offense is led by captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz. The trio combined to score 94 of Pittsburgh’s 249 goals last season. Secondary scoring is a major concern for the Pens due to the departures of Jokinen and Neal, who combined to score 48 goals last season. The Pens are optimistic that Hornqvist can provide scoring depth after scoring 22 goals last season for an offensively-challenged Predators club. The defense saw Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik leave for Washington and bring in Christian Ehrhoff from Buffalo. The six-foot-two-inch German defenseman brings offensive prowess, possesses the puck well, and will join Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Olli Maatta on an attack-minded blue line. The goaltending is the biggest wild-card for Pittsburgh with Marc-Andre Fleury entering the final year of a seven year contract. Questions about the first overall pick have intensified regarding his inconsistency. He will have to prove to the front office he is worthy of a new contract. Johnston’s offensively minded system should suit an attack-minded team well, but an adjustment period is to be expected. The inconsistent Fleury is inferior to the reliable Lundqvist, which will make the difference as the Penguins settle for a second place finish in the Metropolitan Division.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets took the Metropolitan Division by storm last season. The upstart Jackets qualified for the postseason via the wild card and gave the Penguins a major scare before eventually going out in six games. The major offseason acquisition for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and coach Todd Richards was Scott Hartnell from Philadelphia via trade. The six-foot-two-inch left winger adds a durable, veteran presence to a young core of forwards including Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and leading scorer Ryan Johansen. The third year pro from Vancouver exploded on to the scene with 33 goals and 63 points to lead the Jackets in scoring last season. His contract situation is a major concern for the Blue Jackets that hopes to be resolved quickly. Secondary scoring comes in the form of Jenner, Nick Foligno and Artem Anisimov. The six-foot-four-inch Russian center scored a career-high 22 goals last year while Foligno and the rookie Jenner scored 18 and 16 times, respectively. The blue line has a dependable group of defensemen led by James Wisniewski. The 30 year old blue liner tied a career high in points with 51 last season and paired well with 20 year-old rookie Ryan Murray. Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson, David Savard, and Dalton Prout complete a defense corps focused on physicality and puck possession. Sergei Bobrovsky followed up a Vezina Trophy season in 2012-13 with a career-high 32 wins, a 2.38 GAA, and a .923 save percentage last season. “Bob” performed well after fully recovering from a groin injury back in December, but a full season from Bobrovsky is crucial to Columbus’ postseason hopes. Provided Johansen’s contract issues get resolved quickly, Todd Richards and the Blue Jackets will take a step forward and overtake the Philadelphia Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division.