For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

With the bulk of the NHL’s best free agents signed, its time to look at who did best.

Metropolitan Division

Winners

Washington Capitals:

They were 21st in goals against last year. What did they do about it? They picked up two 21+ minute a night guys. One who averaged almost 3 minutes a night shorthanded, the other who specializes in lugging the puck out of the defensive zone. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are at least for the next two to three seasons good gets.

New York Islanders:

Signing up Grabovski long term and sliding him in behind Tavares gives them a smart, two way center who plays with passion. Chad Johnson gives them a pretty solid backup goaltender as well. Are the Islanders suddenly cup favorites? No. Are they are probably eight or ten points better than last season just based on those moves.

Losers

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Greiss is a good pickup, but Ehrhoff is going to cost them one way or another, he’s not good defensively, and if he puts up offensive numbers on his one year contract he’s either bolting for more money elsewhere next year or is going to demand a contract on par with Letang’s. The rest of their pickups were spare change.

Pacific Division

Winners

Dallas Stars:

With the addition of Spezza  (via trade) to the free agent signings the team can look forward to offensive balance for the first time in a decade.

Losers

Arizona Coyotes:

Last year the franchise was on the outside looking in and while Devon Dubnyk is well suited to their needs, I’m not convinced he’s enough to get them into the playoffs.

Central Division

Winners

Chicago Blackhawks:

They found a motivated guy who can play in the 2nd pivot slot and it didn’t cost them much.

Saint Louis Blues:

Taking one of the veteran leaders of a conference rival is always a good get, adding a guy with preexisting good chemistry with some of your top players just makes it even better.

Losers

Vancouver Canucks:

Despite the addition of a good goalie, they are no closer to playoff contention than they were at this time last week.

Atlantic Division

Winners

Tampa Bay Lightning

Adding Anton Stralman to the rest of an underrated cast makes this one of the most credible defensive units in the East heading into the season.

Florida Panthers

They added lots of highly competitive veterans, the skilled Jussi Jokinen, to wrap around their core of young players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. They are a very long shot to make the playoffs, but the pieces they added were priced appropriately (and in Jokinen’s case low) and unlike other teams they haven’t crowded other young talent off the roster allowing for young players to come in and win a roster spot and NHL experience for the future.

Losers

Boston Bruins

A laundry list of miscues means that the players signed by this team since noon on July 1 and the departures of a very solid backup and hall of fame forward leave the team worse off than they have been in years. Realistically, I doubt any Bruins fan had even heard of either guy, and its not a stretch to say their agents probably have trouble picking them out of a crowd.

Detroit Red Wings

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Red Wings didn’t add any talent via free agency, and history tells us any of their draft picks this year are four or more years from the NHL.

Just about four years ago the US and Canada put on two of the best hockey games of the last quarter century. But, like all teams that team USA is not the one we’ll see in a few years. If I’m playing general manager, there are some players I do bring back, and others I just say no to, at least as of now.

The No’s:

  • Ryan Malone would not be on the short list today. His production has trailed off, he’s not been especially healthy the last few seasons, and he’ll be thirty four before this year is over. Great guy, if he hangs up the skates before the Olympics, he might get tapped for an assistant coaches spot.
  • Chris Drury, nice guy, already retired.
  • Tim Thomas, while its nice to think he’d be back to world beating shape after a year off, it is unlikely.
  • Ryan Whitney, hasn’t played even when healthy for a woeful Oilers club this season.
  • Jamie Langenbrunner, has experienced a notable decline in the past few years, will turn 38 this summer, and has had injury issues,
  • Brian Rafalski, retired.

The Maybe’s:

  • Erik Johnson, is admittedly playing on a poor team, but not especially productive offensively which isn’t how offensive defenseman earn their pay.
  • Phil Kessel enormously hot and cold, not a great two way player and has struggled to score goals this season which is what he’s paid to do.
  • Ryan Kesler, good faceoff man, good passer, physical, good skater, can’t stay healthy to save his soul.
  • Ryan Callahan, well above average for two way play, but prone to long slumps offensively, and injuries as well.
  • Joe Pavelski, seems to have declining returns in the playoffs. That could be the team, that could be his doing, but I lean towards team.
  • Paul Stastny, did not impress me during the last Olympic’s, has had declining production since them, but did have solid World Championship numbers in 2011-12.

The Shortlist:

  • Ryan Miller, while his heroics a the last Olympics seem ot be the last time he played at an elite level, you have to take into consideration the quality of the team in front of him. A quality that has gotten the longest tenured coach in the NHL booted this season.
  • Jonathan Quick, anyone who needs to know why should simply look at last seasons record, both his individual stats, Cup win and the number of games he only gave up one goal in.
  • Tim Gleason, anyone who can be a plus player with all the years he’s spent on the defensively woeful Carolina Hurricanes.
  • Jack Johnson has a boatload of international experience, will probably have been named Captain of the Blue Jackets by then, offensively talented.
  • Brooks Orpik solid two way defenseman with a double handful of physicality, some international experience and would be among the teams elder statesmen.
  • Ryan Suter a top ten defenseman in the NHL, no-brainer.
  • David Backes, certainly one of the best American forwards in the league.
  • Dustin Brown, great mix of skill and physicality.
  • Patrick Kane almost certainly the best pure goal score from the USA, and has a maturing game away from the puck. Knows how to win.
  • Zach Parise versatile, talented and lots and lots of international experience.
  • Bobby Ryan perennial thirty goal scores do not grow on trees, willing to play physical, willing to shoot.

That would be my starting point based on the 2010 Olympic roster. The next post will focus on filling the roster out. I’ve counted out as many as twelve players I expect to put together a pool of about twenty players including at least two or three goalies.