NHL Wish Lists for Santa: The Weak Metropolitan
The NHL staffers at numberFire have caught the Christmas spirit and have written wish lists to Santa for each NHL team. Last week, I covered the Pacific Division, and earlier this week Alex Gutjahr explored the Central. Today, the weak Metropolitan Division submits their wish lists, and on December 23rd, we'll close things out with the Atlantic.
The Hurricanes have eight wins and a nERD ranking that has bottomed out over recent weeks, now hovering among the worst in the NHL. Injuries don’t help anything, but neither does swinging and missing on all your big contracts which certainly can’t make anything easier in Raleigh.
Three of their forwards -- Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, and Jordan Staal -- are among the top-20 highest paid forwards in the league, and Jeff Skinner isn’t too far behind in terms of salary. Eric Staal is a veteran player and team leader nearing the end of his contract, so let’s just consider him a wash since there was value at one point. However, Semin and Jordan Staal might be the worst pair of contracts any team is saddled with.
Semin has been up and down for much of his career -- don’t forget he was a 40-goal scorer in Washington early in his career. But after playing well on a one-year deal in Carolina, he was rewarded with the big contract he now appears to be loafing through.
Jordan Staal is measured in more than just simple goals and assists, as he typically plays pretty strong two-way hockey. Unfortunately, he's paid like an elite scorer, not the valuable uber role player he could be for a contender. You love having him if he’s skating on your second line and killing penalties at a good price, but not centering an unproductive line with Semin. Staal hasn’t played at all this year after breaking his leg in the preseason, and for a team ranked in the lower half of the league in every major category, at least his presence is missed.
Dear Santa: Help our players to start acting their wage.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Left for dead a few weeks ago and now just six points out of playoff contention, Columbus currently doesn’t look like a Connor McDavid suitor.
Let’s not forget that this was a playoff team last year, and one that played the Penguins pretty tough despite losing in six games. Injuries have wrecked the early part of the Blue Jackets season, but with Sergei Bobrovsky back in net, momentum seems to be with the Blue Jackets.
Columbus still has progress to make up in the health department with Artem Anisimov and Scott Hartnell still out for the short term, and must deal with the long term absence of Nathan Horton who is missing the season with a degenerative back condition.
nERD projects that Columbus will finish somewhere relatively even with both Jersey and Philly, the real test will be closing the gap on the red-hot Rangers and the cooling-off Islanders. It's worth noting that Boston, despite their seventh overall nERD ranking, don’t currently have a playoff spot. Columbus will need to stay hot to make up lost ground and hope that they can sneak into the playoffs at the expense of the Rangers or Islanders.
Dear Santa: Keep us hot through the winter.
New Jersey Devils
It’s no secret that the Devils are challenged offensively, as evidenced by the fact that they are relying on the soon-to-be 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr to generate most of their scoring chances.
With the Islanders opening up the season well and the Rangers and Blue Jackets now surging towards the playoffs, things are beginning to look bleak in the Prudential Center. Yes, they’ve finally parted with club legend Martin Brodeur, but hoping that another NHL legend on his last legs can lead you to playoff glory is a risky strategy.
Jagr remarkably seems to be immune to Father Time, posting 67 points last season, and he's on pace for another productive season. But how far do they really think Jagr can carry them? Both Philadelphia and Boston added him as role player for playoff runs, banking on his intimidating on-ice presence. New Jersey seems resigned to Jagr as their feature player. I wrote about why bothering about being mediocre doesn't make sense when discussing the Senators this week -- either go one way or another and avoid no-man’s land, which is exactly where the Devils are headed.
It’s like running on a treadmill: yes, you’re moving, but you aren’t going anywhere.
Dear Santa: Help us realize we are going nowhere.
New York Islanders
The Islanders are off to a great start, but their numbers really feel a little fluky: no overtime losses, the league’s worst penalty kill unit, and their leading goal scorer is unheralded third-line center Brock Nelson.
Nelson is one the main reasons this team has been so successful. The Islanders know what they are getting every night from All-Star John Tavares, but when unexpected players start stepping up, teams start to take off. In 72 games last year, Nelson notched 14 goals and 12 assists. In 31 games this year, Nelson has almost matched those numbers with 13 goals and 11 assists.
Jaroslav Halak has been a revelation this year after being all but left for dead at the 2014 trade deadline. Hopefully for the long tortured fans on Long Island his form doesn’t regress to the point where it was when St. Louis gave up on him and Buffalo found no use for him, and the Islanders can make the playoffs for the only the second time in eight seasons.
Dear Santa: Develop Nelson into a solid number-two and keep Halak’s form on point.
New York Rangers
For me, it starts and ends with the play of Rick Nash to determine whether the Rangers are for real or not.
I sat with my brother-in-law through an early-season Rangers game in the Garden where the animosity towards Nash was palpable. He is perennially among the highest paid players in the league, and it often looks like his effort isn’t there (good thing he’s Canadian because if his passport read Russia, the MSG fans would have chased him to the KHL by now). In Columbus, Nash averaged 32 goals a year over his 9 seasons there and initially showed the Rangers some promise in the lockout year when he was almost a point-a-game player.
Last year, despite the Rangers Stanley Cup run, Nash had his worst year since his rookie campaign as an 18-year-old. Nash was the goat of the playoffs, and after being named to Team Canada for Sochi totaled just 22 points in 48 games. So, what changed?
The easiest things to point towards are Nash’s commitment to hanging out in front of the net and his chemistry with Martin St. Louis, but it could equate to puck luck. When things are good, they’re great, and when they’re bad, they’re awful. The surging Rangers are hoping and paying for the former.
Dear Santa: Keep the puck luck coming for Rick Nash.
OK, I’ll try to be objective, I promise! This is your writer’s favorite team, for better and usually worse. Philly got off to a slow start last year and rebounded to make the playoffs. In the City of Brotherly Love, they are hoping that’s the case two years in a row.
It’s no secret that the Flyers have struggled for the past 20 years in the goaltending department, much to the chagrin of a fanbase who were used to seeing some of the game’s best between the pipes at the Spectrum: Bernie Parent on the Cup-winning squads of the '70s, Pelle Lindbergh (R.I.P.) for three electric seasons before we were robbed of one of the game’s true talents, and Ron Hextall, who won the Conn Smythe in a losing effort in 1987.
Parent is in the Hall of Fame, and Hextall’s name is floated around every time balloting opens. Lindbergh would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but remains one of the great "what ifs" in the Philadelphia sports lexicon. The day Pelle Lindbergh died was the first time my mother ever saw my father cry, and as a born and raised Philadelphian, he wasn’t the only one.
With that morbidity out of the way, the Flyers have bungled their goaltending epically in recent years: unsuccessful goalie rotations, giving up on Sergei Bobrovsky too soon, and handing out a large contract for the unworthy Ilya Bryzgalov. The Flyers currently rotate between Steve Mason and Ray Emery, but neither has a great hold on the job.
The Flyers have proven to be excellent evaluators of young talent. They turned Jeff Carter and Mike Richards into Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn, who form their nucleus along with captain Claude Giroux. But which of these talented young players will they part with to acquire a competent goaltender?
Dear Santa: Goaltending, please.
In the short term, the Penguins are under the weather as they deal with a mumps outbreak that has claimed a few games from their captain, Sidney Crosby. Their long-term outlook is a little more severe, as they strive to bring a second Cup home in the Crosby era.
Crosby has been the best player in the NHL almost from the day he stepped on to the ice, and the entire Penguin fanbase exhaled a big sigh of relief last year when he returned from concussion to his 100-point form. Measuring Crosby against the rest of the NHL is almost futile, as his only true measurements come against the game's greatest. It inevitably starts with Pittsburgh legend and Crosby’s mentor, Mario Lemieux, who put up crazy numbers despite being limited due to his deteriorating health. Lemieux delivered two Cups as a player to the Penguins, and given how good the Pens have been, surely more was hoped for from Crosby.
Strangely, Crosby has more Gold Medals than Cups, his only one coming in 2009 as a 21-year-old. The emphasis is clearly on winning the Cup every year in Pittsburgh, but was reinforced this offseason when Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero were fired after guiding the Penguins to success. But even with that shakeup, along with the departures of James Neal and Brooks Orpik, the Penguins didn’t really do much to get better.
Much of their success hinges on the play of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who might be the two best players in the whole league, and the consistency of Marc-Andre Fleury. The roster isn’t as deep as some of those in the West, but with Crosby and Malkin, anything is possible.
Dear Santa: Cure our mumps then deliver another Cup.
Alex Ovechkin’s first five years in the league were truly groundbreaking. His worst season was 46 goals and 46 assists, which came in his second year and would be considered a career year for any other player. Then came a two-year slump (which can really only be considered a slump if you consider how remarkable those five seasons are), and the lockout which saw him return to Russia.
Since the lockout, Ovechkin has led the league in goals, and was one of only three players to top 40 goals and the only to top 50 goals last year. Coaches in Washington are judged based on what they get from Ovechkin year-to-year, and none so far has been able to extract a Cup from his all-world talent.
Ovechkin always has been and always will be a volume shooter whose two-way play is susceptible, and line mate Nicklas Backstrom appears to be a nice compliment to what Ovechkin does. But overall, it’s a roster lacking on talent with a superstar approaching 30.
Dear Santa: Keep Ovie’s goal totals high and help us give poor Washington, D.C. at least one championship.