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REALIGNMENT: Team-by-Team Analysis

An in-depth look at the Blue Jackets' seven new division rivals as NHL realignment takes effect next season

Thursday, 03.14.2013 / 12:00 PM / Features
By Rob Mixer  - BlueJackets.com
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REALIGNMENT: Team-by-Team Analysis

EDITOR'S NOTE: BlueJackets.com is taking an in-depth look at the seven teams now in the Blue Jackets' division as part of NHL realignment. The following is a team-by-team analysis, complete with offseason moves, where they currently stand, and a look toward the future.



CAROLINA HURRICANES
Head coach: Kirk Muller (2nd season)
Home ice: PNC Arena

Currently in Southeast Division

THE BUZZ: The Hurricanes made a lot of noise in the offseason, making the biggest trade on the draft floor in acquiring Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a package that sent Brandon Sutter, a first-round pick (Derrick Pouliot) and Brian Dumoulin the other way. GM Jim Rutherford followed that up by signing Alex Semin to a one-year deal to complement the offense, which has gotten a boost from a healthy Jeff Skinner and strong play from captain Eric Staal. Carolina currently leads the Southeast Division despite being without the services of two-way forward Tuomo Ruutu, who has missed the entire season due to injury.

THE BACKBONE: Without a doubt it’s former Conn Smythe trophy winner Cam Ward, the Hurricanes’ No. 1 goaltender. He’s been one of the NHL’s best for a number of years and was a huge part of their Stanley Cup championship in 2006 – hence him winning the playoff MVP award. The Hurricanes do not have his services right now, as he’s on the shelf for 6-8 weeks due to a leg injury sustained a couple of weeks ago. In his stead, Carolina is leaning on Justin Peters and Dan Ellis to hold the fort.

THE FUTURE: It certainly looks like a bright one in Raleigh; the prospects like Skinner, stud defensemen Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy and others are going to be part of the Hurricanes for years to come and Faulk is already making a major impact at the NHL level. They have Jordan Staal under contract for 10 years and the majority of their core locked up, so this is the group they’re going to sink or swim with. The early projection is that they won’t be needing flotation devices in Raleigh. The Canes are in good shape.




NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Head coach: Peter DeBoer (2nd season)
Home ice: Prudential Center

Currently in Atlantic Division



THE BUZZ: Zach Parise was the biggest name on the NHL free agent market last summer and he was rumored to a new destination every hour, but in the end, he decided to join friend and fellow free agent Ryan Suter with the Minnesota Wild. That could have left the Devils, a few months removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance, in dire straits – but DeBoer has done a fabulous coaching job and kept the Devils in the “contender” column all season. Ilya Kovalchuk has stepped up, Travis Zajac is healthy and veterans like Patrik Elias, David Clarkson (on a career high pace just before free agency, too) are carrying the mail for New Jersey. With Martin Brodeur still out with an injury, Johan Hedberg is the current No. 1 goalie, and as of Thursday, the Devils were still inside the playoff bar.

THE BACKBONE: For two decades, it’s been Brodeur. When all is said and done, the 40-year-old is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and may be the best goaltender to ever play the game. He was a member of all three Devils Stanley Cup championship teams and got a multi-year deal over the summer to remain in New Jersey. When he comes back from injury, the Devils likely won’t miss a beat; Brodeur not only does a masterful job stopping pucks, but with his puck-handling ability, he acts as an extra defenseman and can head-man the puck with ease.

THE FUTURE: Not to say the Devils’ current group is getting older, but when the changing of the guard comes, it looks like they’re in good shape. Young defenseman Adam Larsson is still coming along but he appears to be a keeper, and Adam Henrique is one of the more competitive two-way centers in the game at age 23 – and he was clutch in the playoffs last season for New Jersey. Reid Boucher, recently signed to an entry-level deal, is a good piece to add to the mix but the big question is who replaces Brodeur when he retires? That’s a question for a couple of years down the road, of course, but the Devils will be on the lookout for a goaltender sooner than later.




NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Head coach: Jack Capuano (3rd season)
Home ice: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Currently in Atlantic Division



THE BUZZ: With a talented young core both at forward and on the blueline, there was a feeling that in this shortened season, the Islanders were a team to keep an eye on. While they’ve struggled on home ice so far, they’re still very much in the playoff race (three points out with 20-plus games to play) and have an opportunity to get into the dance. Evgeni Nabokov has battled inconsistency in net but for the most part, has played well for the Islanders in light of their goaltending troubles over the years. Any team that has a stud center like John Tavares has a chance, but the weight on his shoulders becomes heavier without Michael Grabner in the lineup. The Islanders’ fate will lie in their goals-against, as only one team (Florida – 101) has allowed more goals this season than their 88.

THE BACKBONE: Without question, it’s Tavares. He’s the No. 1 center and a guy that logs minutes in all situations and committed the next six years of his career to the Islanders with a recent contract extension. He wants to be there and wants to help turn things around, and as a leader on a young team, those are the qualities you want.

THE FUTURE: One word…glistening. At forward and on defense, the Islanders have top prospects coming through the pipeline. Their development will determine how good they can be as a team.




NEW YORK RANGERS

Head coach: John Tortorella (4th season)
Home ice: Madison Square Garden

Currently in Atlantic Division



THE BUZZ: No team made headlines like the Rangers did this past offseason, acquiring Rick Nash from the Blue Jackets in a multi-player deal that has worked out very well for both sides. Adding Nash to a mix of youth and proven veteran talent was a move the Rangers made to win immediately, and so far, Nash has developed a solid partnership with center Brad Richards on the Rangers’ top line. They were treading water heading into Thursday, sitting in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after a 3-1 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday. They’ve battled injuries big time, but have kept it together thanks to superb goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.

THE BACKBONE: It has to be the Rangers’ young players, and there are a handful of prospects they can build around both in New York currently or playing in the AHL/junior ranks. Carl Hagelin, Christian Thomas, JT Miller, Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto…that’s a strong group to build with and a few have made an impact in the NHL this year already. Miller played with the Connecticut Whale during the lockout and was one of their best players, and since being recalled to the NHL, has shown what he’s capable of down the road.

THE FUTURE: This is intertwined with the backbone, but the future stars in the Rangers’ system further complement the deep team Tortorella has to work with at the present. Miller is one to key on, but many think Thomas can be a sneaky good NHL player in a couple of years. Stephan’s World Junior and college experience has accelerated his growth at the pro level and he looks to be a key cog for the Rangers as they move forward, as well.





PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Head coach: Peter Laviolette (4th season)
Home ice: Wells Fargo Center

Currently in Atlantic Division


THE BUZZ: One of the most exciting things about watching the Flyers play is their pace; they force teams to match their tempo every single night, and it can be a long night for the opposition if they’re not willing to do so. Philadelphia is a terrific skating team that’s relied on its young players a lot, in particular captain Claude Giroux. Quickly becoming one of the must-see players in the league, Giroux does it all, and he’s got a cast of veterans and kids around him that make the Flyers one of hockey’s more entertaining teams. They’ve struggled to start 2013, though, and sit three points outside the playoffs entering Thursday. Goaltending has felled them and so have injuries; their blueline is ravaged and it’s certainly an area they will look to augment as the trade deadline approaches in a couple of weeks.

THE BACKBONE: Giroux is the centerpiece and the guy that GM Paul Holmgren is going to build the Flyers around. You could tell this was coming when the Flyers traded away mainstays like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards a couple of years ago, giving way to a new era on Broad Street. Giroux plays in all situations and is a terrific play-maker, which causes nightmares for opposing teams trying to defend him. Shoot or pass? Either option is a dangerous one.

THE FUTURE: With a long-term answer in net (the jury is still out whether that guy can be Ilya Bryzgalov) and a beefed-up defense, the Flyers are in business. They have a solid group of forwards coming up through the system like Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins and others, but their defense needs some short-term assistance. The Flyers have rarely had issues scoring goals under Laviolette’s watch and it comes from their aggressive style, which got them into a track meet playoff series last spring against the Penguins. The Flyers are an addition or two away from stabilizing what should be a solid team for years to come.





PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Head coach: Dan Bylsma (4th season)
Home ice: CONSOL Energy Center

Currently in Atlantic Division

THE BUZZ: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Penguins’ first-half success this season has been the outrageous scoring pace of Chris Kunitz, who’s 18 goals entering Thursday put him behind only Steven Stamkos of the Lightning (20). Kunitz, playing on the left wing of Sidney Crosby’s line, is the NHL’s third-leading scorer as well, and he’s done so by going hard to the net and scoring greasy goals night in and night out. Crosby, after battling a concussion for much of past two seasons, is back to superstar form – seemingly churning out multi-point games on a nightly basis for the division-leading Penguins. Pittsburgh’s goal differential of +22 is tops in the Eastern Conference, and their 100 goals scored is unmatched in the entire NHL.

THE BACKBONE: Shouldn’t even be a question, but it’s the best player in the business wearing No. 87 in Pittsburgh. Crosby is on a different planet sometimes and can win a game by himself, which is something you mostly hear about goaltenders. He makes plays, scores goals and makes the Penguins a formidable matchup for any team, and it’s hard to remember he’s still just 25 years old.

THE FUTURE: For the most part, the Penguins are still a relatively young team. Evgeni Malkin, currently out with an injury, is 26 years old and sniper James Neal is also 25. There’s a lot of hockey left in this core group in Pittsburgh, and it would be a disappointment if they didn’t win another Stanley Cup in the near term. There’s help on the way, too, and the Penguins got a taste of it when Beau Bennett made his NHL debut this season. The young power forward has a bright pro career ahead of him, as does Sutter, acquired in the Jordan Staal trade.





WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Head coach: Adam Oates (1st season)
Home ice: Verizon Center

Currently in Southeast Division


THE BUZZ: The vibes certainly weren’t very positive in the nation’s capital as the 2013 campaign got started, with the Capitals really stumbling out of the gate and picking up just one win in their first seven games. But as they settled in and got accustomed to Oates’ system, the Capitals gained traction and righted the ship. They’re still clearly outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference (21 points entering Thursday) and have a dwindling window in which to get back in the race, but we’ve seen signs of life in the past few weeks. They’re still without Mike Green and goaltending has been shaky at best, but the Capitals need more from their big guns to consistently pick up victories. They’ll be a team to watch into the offseason, as well, if things don’t get better down the stretch.

THE BACKBONE: Though he hasn’t performed up to the level we’ve seen from him, Alex Ovechkin is still the Capitals’ captain and has to be their best player for the team to have success. He’s a dynamite offensive player when on top of his game and has game-breaking ability, but it’s no secret his performance has not been consistently strong in 2013.

THE FUTURE: It depends on the next wave in Washington…can they join Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and others in getting the Capitals back on track? Two of their brightest young players are on the blueline in John Carlson and Karl Alzner, both first-round draft picks in their respective draft years. Those two are going to be part of the Capitals defense for a long time, and can play both ends of the rink effectively. In goal, Washington is still trying to figure out whether Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth have the long-term ability to hold down the No. 1 job, so that’s going to be a situation to watch over time.

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