Last week, I took a look at three big topics from the Western Conference as the NHL slowly gets underway. Today, I’m shifting my focus to the East where I expect things will be vastly different than last year.
Big trades, big-name free agent signings, and the arrival of a pair of potential super rookies in the Metropolitan division could all drastically change the landscape. Here are my three stories to watch:
HOW FAR WILL THE JACKETS FALL?
At first, most people will point to the Columbus Blue Jackets and say that they’re the team most likely to a massive fall in the standings this season. I would tend to agree with that but I would like to add that I don’t believe they’ll be as terrible as some want to believe.
They still have some good young forwards in Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Alex Texier to go with some proven goal scorers like Cam Atkinson and Gustav Nyquist. They could still put together a pretty solid top six with depth pieces like Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno.
Their defense will still be a massive strength with future Norris winner Seth Jones, Zack Werenski, and David Savard (who was a beast in the playoffs). If Ryan Murray is healthy, it will help out as well.
The biggest question mark is between the pipes and that’s where they lost the most this summer. Downgrading from Sergei Bobrovsky to a combination of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins hurts and could be their downfall, regardless of the performance the group in front of them puts on.
We know that GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t afraid to make big moves, could he do something to bring in a goaltender before the regular season? Maybe he goes after Tristan Jarry from Pittsburgh, who I’m very high on.
One more quick note: I think the Islanders might fall harder than some are projecting. They rode a hot goaltender and some strong offensive performances last season. I think they’re going to slip further down the standings than some expect.
HOW GOOD WILL THE RANGERS BE?
While the Blue Jackets lost the most this summer, the Rangers clearly gained the most. They added Kappo Kaako and Artemi Panarin to a forward group that already had a fair share of exciting young talent. They added Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox to the right side of their defense as well. Between the pipes, they have Henrik Lunquist and Alexandar Georgiev. I still think Lundquist can be a number one goaltender and based on what I saw from Georgiev last season, he’s more than capable of filling in should Lundquist falter or need a break.
Now the question is how will everyone gel? It can be hard to predict how a lineup with that many new faces will perform, but on paper, you have to be incredibly optimistic about their ability to make a massive jump this season. Enough for the playoffs? I don’t know, but that group will be entertaining.
THE LIGHTNING. THAT IS ALL.
It’s the same story every year with the Lightning. They make a bunch of astute moves over the summer and heading into the season, everyone sits and goes ‘how is anyone going to beat them?’ and then at some point, they lose in the playoffs.
Last season, they were nearly unbeatable in the regular season but then got picked apart by a pesky Columbus Blue Jackets team. They should be a highly motivated group this year because there’s no doubt that their first-round exit stung, a lot. The other thing: they’re a lot better this year, at least on paper.
They added Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon on bargain deals and got Curtis McElhenney to be their backup, which might allow Andrei Vasilevsky to be healthy and rested. They got young players who can be counted on for some improvements. Simply put: they’re stacked.
Is this the year that the Lightning go all the way? Nobody knows. They’re good enough, but they’ve been good enough for a long time.