Under the new division format, the league has found a formula to create better rivalries, better competition, and overall a more compelling game to watch come the post season. Simply, if one team wants to reach the post season and go further into the playoffs, they must win against their division. For the Washington Capitals, that means their most important foes of the upcoming campaign will be their division rivals.
The Caps wagered a 12-15-3 record against their own division. That stat needs to improve if they have aspirations of making another postseason run. They would missed out on the playoffs last season by missing the wild card spot by both Detroit and Columbus (both with 93 points, Caps finished with 90). The secret for the Caps this season will to put up better numbers against their divisional foes.
The Metropolitan Division is a tough one to crack. Maybe not as hard nosed as the Pacific Division out west, but to beat teams in the Metro a team has to be both physical and extremely skilled. Let's break down the division by team and go by order of the bottom to top based on last year's standings.
New York Islanders (8th)
'13-'14 Caps vs. Isles: 3-1
Significant additions: Mikhail Grabovski (F), Jaroslav Halak (G), Nikolai Kulemin (F), Johnny Boychuck (D), Nick Leddy (D)
Injuries and a less than stellar defensive squad did the Islanders in last season. But some last minute tinkering and a healthy line up expected, the Islanders seem on the brink of a break out season (although I said the same last year). The Capitals posted a winning record against the Islanders, but two of the three wins where in overtime and via the shoot out. The Isles only win was a 1-0 affair. Tight hockey.
John Tavares is back and healthy after blowing out his knee in last year's Olympics. The Isles also boosted their goaltending by snatching Halak from free agency. They also made a last minute trade to acquire defensemen Boychuk and Leddy to bolster the blue line that lack serious depth in previous seasons. These moves should make the Islanders a much tougher team to compete against. The have some serious speed which they use well to their advantage, especially against the Capitals.
The Caps will have to contend with a team that never seems to fear them. The Islanders seem to bring their "A" game against the Caps every year. The boys in red will have to contain some serious talent in Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Grabovski. All players that play fast and have a ton of skill. While the Islanders finished last in the Metro last season, I don't expect them to do the same this time around
Carolina Hurricanes (7th)
'13-'14 Caps vs. 'Canes: 2-2-1
Significant additions: Ron Hainsey (D), Tim Gleason (D), J. McClement (F), Bill Peters (Head Coach)
A foe the Capitals know all too well from the Southeast Division days. Carolina plays a pretty rugged fast game, and not much has changed for the most southern team in the division. For the most part, the top three lines of the 'Canes have not changed at all from last season. But they have a new bench boss in Peters who plans on putting some work ethic into his team.
Overall the 'Canes posted a respectable .500 record against the Metro Division including three wins against the Capitals. Carolina never seems daunted by the home crowd at Verizon either as all three of the 'Canes win came amongst the Rockin' Red. If the Caps can keep the big guns in Alex Semin and Eric Staal off the score sheet, they will do well against a long time foe.
Carolina added a little bit of grit on the back end with the addition of Tim Gleason, but they still lack depth if the likes of Jeff Skinner keeps getting injured (took a concussion from a shoulder check in a preseason game against the Caps). Good goaltending and mediocre defense can only get them so far if their offense sputters.
New Jersey Devils (6th)
'13-'14 Caps vs. Devils: 1-2-1
Significant additions: Mike Cammalleri (F), Martin Havlat (F), Scott Clemmensen (G)
The Devils are not a big fan of the Shootout. In fact, New Jersey lost all 13 of their regular season shootouts last season and that kept them from getting a playoff spot. They return with most of their line up intact. But some may need walkers and wheelchairs (I kid).
New Jersey has 6 roster players that were born in the seventies. That is in the nineteen hundreds for you millennials out there. Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, captain Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, and back up goaltender Clemmensen are all part of an aging Devil squad that share that distinction (nice to see old guys like me can still play in the NHL being born amongst corduroy an disco). While they are an aging group, they no longer have the anchor in Martin Brodeur in net anymore. They have Cory Schneider. Now that there isn't a question on who the number one goaltender will be this season, the Devils look to be playoff bound this season.
The Capitals played terrible against Adam Oates' old team. Things should change under Barry Trotz as the Caps should play the Devils better at even strength. New Jersey should jump out to a good lead early in the season but look for the those tired old legs to give out as the season comes to the long stretch of January and February. Good thing Prudential center has accessible parking.
Columbus Blue Jackets (4th)
'13-'14 Caps vs. BJs: 2-2
Significant additions: Scott Hartnell (F) S. Hjalmarsson (F)
Coming off the organizations first taste of post season wins (and nearly knocking off the top team Pittsburgh), the Columbus Blue Jackets are brimmed with confidence and a taste for some more. Up and coming young stud Ryan Johansen resigned with the Blue Jackets and looks to again to put up career numbers as a new star center takes the NHL stage for his second season. With the support of Harnell, Bradon Dubinsky and Nathan Horton, the Jackets look poised to do great things with stellar goaltending in Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Caps and BJs split the season series as both won at home, although the Jackets mustered an extra point in an overtime loss at the phone booth. The Caps seem to do okay with Columbus' speed, but when it comes to hard work and some physicality, the Jackets always seem to have the upper hand.
If the Capitals wish to make the post season, I believe that they will have to muscle the points away from their Ohio neighbors. The Caps were three points shy of making the wild card and Columbus took the spot away from them. That should leave a chip on the shoulders of the boys in red when facing this division foe. If it doesn't, then too many people have too short of memories.
Philadelphia Flyers (3rd)
'13-'14 Caps vs. Flyers: 2-2-1
Significant additions: R.J. Umberger (F), Blair Jones (F), Michael Del Zotto (D), Nick Schultz (D)
It was a weird affair between the Capitals and Flyers in last season's tilt. The Caps seemed to dominate early with impressive wins including a 7-0 shellacking of the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center that saw Ray Emery sucker fight Braden Holtby. There is little love between these teams even in the preseason this September as the two raked in the penalty minutes in a game that didn't really matter.
The Flyers seemed to get their season going late however, and the Caps had a hard time beating them in the later stages of the campaign. This year, it looks that the Flyers defense will sorely miss Kimmo Timonen who was treated this summer in Finland with blood clots in his leg and lungs (ouch, get well soon Kimmo). Philly's D won't improve much besides the acquisitions of Del Zotto and Schultz who really only played marginal hockey with their former teams last year.
The Caps should open up more offensively against weaker defensive teams and it seems the only way the Flyers could compete is if they open up play and try to make it a shell shocker game. If Trotz's system holds the Flyer offense in check, the Caps have the guns to compete.
New York Rangers (2nd)
'13-'14 Caps vs. Rags: 2-2
Significant additions: Tanner Glass (F), Ryan Malone (F), Lee Stempniak (F), Dan Boyle (D), Matt Hunwick (D)
The Rangers said good-bye to some size when Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot left for greener pastures. But they replaced one Boyle for another, Dan Boyle who brings significant experience to a pretty good blue line to begin with. The Rags were able to flourish under the direction of Alain Vigneault that saw the team catapult to the Stanley Cup finals just to come up short of the grand prize.
Henrik Lundqvist again will be a tough challenge for the Capitals this season (as he is every season). The match up between these two teams should lead to some low scoring affairs. Many experts have picked the Rangers to top the Eastern Conference challenging Pittsburgh and Boston for the honors.
New York however has not replaced much of it's outgoing youth with youth. Much like the Devils, the top names of the Rangers are entering the twilight of their careers. If the Rangers look to stay strong all season they will miss that size that kept teams honest. Malone and Glass add grit, but neither one add much by way of offense to offset the toughness factor. For the Capitals, they have to pepper Lundqvist with shots and play a puck possession game against the fast and talented Rangers.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1st)
'13-'14 Caps vs. Pens: 0-4
Significant additions: Blake Comeau (F), Steve Downie (F), Christian Ehrhoff (D)
The Capitals did not muster a single point against their long time rivals. The Penguins had their way with them. Sure the games were competitive but the Penguins didn't seem to have a problem with Washington whether it was on the road or not.
The Penguins start the season a bit injury laden. Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed practice and some preseason game time due to injury. With a new GM and coach, the pressure is on the Pens once again to make the playoffs and bring another championship back to Pittsburgh. While they will miss the likes of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen (Caps have them now), they replaced that hole with Christain Ehrhoff. They added Steve Downie for some toughness (or at least a agitator at very least).
Pittsburgh does lose some grit on the back end that Rob Scuderi will have to fill. They won't be a team that will be very stingy on defense with the crew they have, and offense (much like in Philly) will have to overcome failings on the blue line.
The Division Overall
The Capitals have a tough task in front of them. Win their division, play the Winter Classic, make the playoffs. Pretty full schedule on their hands. New head coach Barry Trotz is looking to toughen the team up a bit and will preach a possession game that should help them in this division.
Under the new format of the playoffs in the NHL, the Capitals have to play better against their division if they will to get anywhere. Sadly last year, they were a dismal .400 in division points and it cost them a valuable spot in the post season.