With the season starting tomorrow, it seems like a good time to preview the Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division contenders.
New York Rangers:
For two seasons in a row, the New York Rangers have fielded a roster that has performed well enough to win the Stanley Cup. And for two seasons in a row, they have come away empty-handed. That is a tough pill to swallow. While new faces are filling out the bottom half of the lineup, the crux of the forward group is returning, and the defensive group and starting goaltender are intact. This is fortunate – after all, their defensive group and goalie are among the NHL elite.
The Rangers had a bizarre drop in controlling shot attempts last season, falling from the sixth or seventh rank (depending on the metric and game situation) to the 19th-20th ranking. The worst offender was Derek Stepan, whose middle-of-the-pack Corsi percentage in 2013-14 dropped to just above that of the feckless Tanner Glass, whose Corsi was last on the team last year. Chris Kreider saw a noticeable dip too, as he went from a 55.2 Corsi for percentage (second best on the team) to 50.2, which ranked him ninth. These two players will be in the glare of the spotlight this season!
This summer, Stepan was extended for six years at a $6.5 million AAV, which makes him the third highest paid player on the team behind only Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist. As for Kreider, he is jockeying for a big contract since his deal will expire at the end of the season. While Alain Vigneault deployed Stepan in tough assignments, it does not excuse Stepan’s ghastly Scoring Chances differential at 5v5, which was -65 at the end of 2014-15. Praised for his playmaking skills, it was very surprising to see Stepan finish below Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes in scoring chances generated and two spots above Dominic Moore. But IH believes in Stepan.
Stepan makes the Rangers a better passing team with his patience and composure. He is a smart player, and his ability to read the play enables him to get to the right spots on the ice to score. The center produces strong offensive numbers despite a skill set that is not exactly awe-inspiring. That said, Stepan is 25 years old – he is not going to turn into Jonathan Toews, nor does he need to for the Rangers to reach the Cup. But he does need to wield more influence in facilitating scoring chances and keeping the puck in Rangers’ possession for New York to reach the finals.
As for Kreider, he has the north-south power forward role down pat. When he catapults himself toward the net there are few, if any, defensemen who can slow him down. Add in a quick release on his shot and his ability to score in high-traffic areas, and it would seem that big things are on the horizon. But what will transform Kreider from a one-trick pony who can only move vertically is an ability to back retreating skaters down, and then utilize the open east-west ice. The Rangers love to put Kreider in situations where they can feed him area passes and he can surge toward the net. But if he can stop his momentum and buy a second of time, he will see a fragmented defensive coverage scrambling as his teammates glide and trickle into the offensive zone.
This is not to say that Kreider should stop playing north-south. But his ability to push the defense back on the entry is a valuable tool. Sometimes he is coming toward the net at acute angles. Changing pace and adding variety will make him a more dangerous forward, and the Rangers a better team.
The Washington Capitals struck the right balance last season. The strong puck skills and creativity of the top forwards were finally met with equal effort in playing tough, two-way hockey. The Caps were well-rounded: they could fly on the rush, get their noses dirty on the forecheck, and win a game 5-4 or 2-1. They were a slightly above average possession team, and most importantly, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin were both among the best on the team. With the addition of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, Washington stands to be even better at passing and commanding the puck. Factor in rising talents Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, and this team should have more than sufficient firepower — which puts the pressure squarely on its defense.
John Carlson and Brooks Orpik posted a 49.7 Corsi for percentage together last season, per Puckalytics.com, but that was also against opponents’ top lines. They also finished first and third in ice time on the Capitals. Carlson submitted a monster year offensively, notching a career best in goals, assists, and points. Carlson has had offensive prowess to lean on since he entered the league, but last season his footwork on defense and gap control improved impressively. This was evident in his Scoring Chances differential, as Carlson went from a -99 in 2013-14 to a robust +58 in 2014-15. With Carlson as his partner, Orpik can play his game and not be a liability.
On second pair, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen will need to have another effective year. Together, they contributed a 51.9 Corsi for percentage, per Puckalytics.com, and combined for +120 Scoring Chances differential at even strength, per war-on-ice.com. The duo proved impactful, providing fine outlet passes and enhancing the offense when they were provided the time and space.
With possession savant Mike Green gone, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are thrust into the third-pair role. There are reasons for optimism. Orlov and Schmidt have been very good at driving play in the past, and both have desired distributing ability, which is important for a forward group teeming with skill. At the same time, there are going to be mistakes from the pair. Neither is used to being an NHL regular. But the defensive effort level displayed by the forwards last year can help ease the transition. It was delightful to see Washington forwards coming back and helping on zone exits rather than flying the zone. In years past, the Capitals’ back pressure was inconsistent, but last season it was persistent.
The Capitals’ forward group is among the strongest in the NHL, but how they interact with the defense will dictate how far they go in the playoffs.
It has been a gloomy past few seasons for the Penguins. They have flopped in the playoffs and the weakness that comes from being too top-heavy and injury prone has persisted. But there is good news: This summer went great! Pittsburgh acquired Phil Kessel in a fleecing of a trade. The addition allows the Pens to match an offensive genius in Sidney Crosby, whose best skill is arguably passing, with one of the NHL’s best finishers — Kessel. Get ready for a siege on the home-plate area.
Joining Kessel is KHL import Sergei Plotnikov, who looks to start the season on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. It is difficult to project how quickly the acclimation process will take for Plotnikov, but the puck-handling and shooting of Malkin, along with the touch and perseverance of Hornqvist, should make things easier.
The beauty of having Chris Kunitz-Crosby-Kessel and Plotkinov-Malkin-Hornqvist forecasted as the first two lines is that David Perron is bumped down to the third line with newcomer Nick Bonino. Beau Bennett eternally leaves Penguins’ fans wanting, but the incredible amount of strain placed on Crosby and Geno in previous seasons has been possibly lifted with the bolstering of the forwards.
A strong front end is paramount because the defense has a very wide range for how it can play. Unequivocally, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta need to stay healthy for the Penguins to seriously contend. Letang was lights out last season, and when Maatta is healthy, he is extremely influential because of his pristine decision-making and anticipation. If these two can stay in the lineup, it alleviates the burden on Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole. Rob Scuderi is still on this team, which is bad, and Brian Dumoulin has played less than 20 career NHL games, counting regular season and postseason. Last season, Dumoulin finished dead last on the Penguins in Corsi for percentage. So the margin for error is thin with this defense.
The Penguins were right at the top of the league last season in the possession metrics. Brandishing more weapons will provide more room for the stars, and it is possible this team could lead the league in the shot attempts differential metrics. Pittsburgh especially thrived in preventing shot attempts, finishing in the top five in Corsi against per 60 minutes and flaunting a deep blue Team Hextally chart in shooting rate. Granted, departed Paul Martin was helpful in that facet. How Pittsburgh overcomes a thinner defense but more formidable offense will be consequential to their season outlook.
New York Islanders:
The Islanders are interesting because their success or failure this season is so strongly correlated to how their young players develop. There is a good understanding of what veterans like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, John Bailey, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Johnny Boychuk, and Travic Hamonic will bring. But for Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Calvin de Haan, Nick Leddy, and maybe even Ryan Pulock if he stays in the NHL, there is upside to be tapped. The first five took on important duties for the Islanders last season, and for the forwards especially, the amount of polish was impressive. They could battle against opponents’ top players and still generate scoring chances. Leddy and de Haan provided mobility along the blue line.
The Islanders transformed into a high-end skating team that could burn its opponents on the transition or in one-on-one battles on the cycle. They also emerged as one of the best possession teams in the NHL, and having another level of forwards after Tavares and Okposo was integral to that leap. This season, another positive step is needed from the forwards and defense. Strome showed strong playmaking in 2014-15, but he could go up a notch in goal scoring (25 maybe?) with that quick release and improving awareness. Nelson could go up several points, but one gets the sense that his value will be derived not just from scoring, but from his 200-foot play. His best-case scenario is as a strong defensive center who scores 50 points. As for Lee, he was the best among the young forwards in possession metrics and finished second on the Islanders in goals. His off-the-puck balance and soft hands make him a force around the net, so sticking between the dots and establishing a consistent presence in the slot and off-slot would be tremendous.
The Islanders’ defensive group is far from perfect and their goaltending is a question mark, but they are not a serious threat for the Cup this season anyway. However, they can thrust themselves into that conversation next year with advancement from their young players.