I'm often guilty of going to extremes with my sports teams during the off-season. My teams are either going to win a championship, or finish in dead last place. There's just no middle ground.
So, as I think about how the Metro division is shaping up as the off-season progresses, I'm trying to temper my enthusiasm about the Jackets' finish combined with how the teams around them have fared so far during the off-season. Obviously, it's impossible to say how the final rosters will shake out so far away from training camp, but when I look at how the division is trending, it's hard not to think the Jackets will have a good chance at moving up in the standings this season.
Let's review the off-seasons based on last season's finish.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins - 51-24-7 (109 pts) - Lost in EC Semifinals
Key Departures: James Neal, Jussi Jokinen, Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland
Key Additions: Christian Ehrhoff, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Thomas Greiss, Steve Downie
Summary: The Penguins again disappointed in the playoffs, losing in the second round to the Rangers after surviving a tough first round series against Columbus. And, it caused some serious changes to come down in Pittsburgh. Gone are GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, replaced by Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston respectively. The Pens landed Ehrhoff, which was a nice get, but they also lost A LOT along the way. Any team with Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is going to be good, but they lost a lot of secondary scoring in Neal and Jokinen and didn't really adequately replace it. They also lost some depth defensively, and will rely on youth to replace some of it.
2. New York Rangers - 45-31-6 (96 pts) - Lost in SC Finals
Key Departures: Brad Richards, Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett
Key Additions: Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass, Chris Mueller
Summary: Wow, did the Rangers lose a lot of depth! Buying out Richards was probably the right move, but it really feels like the Rags went all-in last season to try to win the Cup--and they almost pulled it off--to the detriment of the near future. This is not a team that, on paper at least, is even close to as good as it was last season. They should still have a strong back end, but their offensive depth took a huge, huge hit.
3. Philadelphia Flyers - 42-30-10 (94 pts) - Lost in EC Quarterfinals
Key Departures: Scott Hartnell, Zach Stortini, Steve Downie
Key Additions: R.J. Umberger, Nick Schultz
Summary: Well, the Flyers had put themselves in cap hell, and the result is not a lot of moves to be made in the off-season. The trade with Columbus certainly looks to be a short-term loss on the ice for the Flyers, as Umberger isn't the player that Hartnell is. Schultz is OK, and can help their defensive depth, but they will again go into the season relying on Steve Mason and Ray Emery to keep the puck out of the net. Overall, this Flyers team isn't better on paper than it was at the end of the season.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets - 43-32-7 (93 pts) - Lost in EC Quarterfinals
Key Departures: R.J. Umberger, Derek MacKenzie, Nikita Nikitin, Jack Skille, Matt Frattin, Blake Comeau
Key Additions: Scott Hartnell, Jerry D'Amigo
Summary: Well, it's hard to look at that list and think the Jackets got "better," but I don't necessarily think you can say they got "worse" either. Hartnell is an upgrade over Umberger, and the rest of the departures aren't really key guys to speak of. If anything, they open up spots for young guys to develop and strengthen the club from within. That said, this team is certainly relying on progression from its young players to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of improving the team.
5. Washington Capitals - 38-30-14 (90 pts) - Missed Playoffs
Key Departures: Mikhail Grabovski
Key Additions: Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Justin Peters
Summary: It's probably fair, also, to add Barry Trotz as a Key Addition, because he is. I think that the Caps identified their weakness--defense--and tried to address it. That said, I don't know if those guys play "Trotz Hockey" and it will be interesting to see how long it takes Barry to get the notoriously one-way Caps' offensive guys to buy in and back check. This Caps team has a higher ceiling than last year's Caps, but it may take them awhile on a learning curve to get there.
6. New Jersey Devils - 35-29-18 (88 pts) - Missed Playoffs
Key Departures: Mark Fayne, Martin Brodeur, Anton Volchenkov
Key Additions: Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat, Scott Clemmensen
Summary: The Devils are always an interesting animal. They always look, on paper, to be a wreck, and yet somehow they put together just enough of a run to be interesting. I, for one, thought they would finish dead last in the division--and possibly the conference--last season, but they were in the playoff race until the final week of the season. It's hard not to argue that they've gotten better offensively, but their defense is still suspect to me. The goaltender circus should finally be over, with Brodeur moving on and Clemmensen coming in as the clear backup. Fayne is a loss, though not a huge one, and they didn't improve anywhere else on defense. That said, to write off the Devils and their trap as being unable to play defense is always a mistake.
7. Carolina Hurricanes - 36-35-11 (83 pts) - Missed Playoffs
Key Departures: Justin Peters, Manny Malhotra, Brett Sutter
Key Additions: Jay McClement, Brad Malone, Tim Gleason, Drew MacIntyre
Summary: Huh. This team is confusing, to say the least. Out the door is GM Jim Rutherford, and in comes Ron Francis. Out the door is Kirk Muller as coach and in comes Bill Peters. Other than that? Crickets. When Jay McClement is your big addition, well, that doesn't bode well. I tend to think the biggest change that needs to happen is in the dressing room; the Canes led by Eric Staal as Captain don't seem to have a lot of "fight" in their game at times. Where I have I heard that before??
8. New York Islanders - 34-37-11 (79 pts) - Missed Playoffs
Key Departures: Evgeni Nabakov
Key Additions: Mikhail Grabovski, Jack Skille, Chad Johnson, Cory Conacher, Nikolai Kulemin
Summary: Well, the Islanders certainly didn't get worse on paper, and will get John Tavares back this season. That said, they got essentially nothing for Matt Moulson, and are relying on Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson to fill the hole left by Nabakov's departure. The Islanders should be better, for sure, but the hill to climb back to the playoff season of two years ago might just be too steep.
Looking at this, it doesn't appear to me that anyone in the division got SIGNIFICANTLY better. There are teams with potential to take a step forward for sure, but I think the top three are poised to come back to the pack just a bit. The Jackets are in limbo. It's easy to say/expect that they will improve based purely on development of a young, young roster, and they didn't lose anyone of significance, really. That said, until the skates hit the ice in October, all of that is what it is: potential.
That said, if the team does progress as the front office clearly expects it to, then the teams in front of them should be catchable. And, in turn, no one behind them got demonstrably better enough to truly worry me about climbing over the Jackets.
Obviously, games and divisions aren't won in July or on paper, but as we watch the off-season unfold, is it fair to think that the Jackets have a legitimate shot at pushing for a top-2 finish in the Metropolitan this coming season?