I'm based in New Jersey, so I have to watch a lot of NFC East football. In most recent years, that has made Sunday afternoons and nights extremely entertaining. From Eli Manning guiding the Giants to two Super Bowls, to the debut of Robert Griffin III, to Tony Romo and Michael Vick keeping the Cowboys and Eagles floating in and out of relevance. The NFC East was considered so entertaining that Redskins GM Bruce Allen hyped it up as "the SEC of the NFL" prior to the 2013 season.
This has proved the opposite of prophetic. The NFC East are a combined 7-16 to start the 2013 season, highlighted by the 0-6 New York Giants and no team currently over .500. They're a combined 3-12 in games outside of the division. This is only the SEC of the NFL if you realize that no SEC team could be a single NFL team, either.
Perhaps it's out of proximity, but the Metropolitan Division may turn out to be the NFC East of the 2013-14 National Hockey League season. As of this writing, the division is 7-19-4 in games against teams from the other three divisions. They have, between the eight clubs (Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington) one victory over a team from another division that made the postseason in 2012-13 (Los Angeles). The rest of their wins have come against Buffalo, Phoenix, Florida, Tampa Bay and Calgary.
It's not that surprising. You can look at every club in the division and find immediate spots for concern. The Rangers haven't adjusted very well to Alain Vigneault's system. You knew Evgeni Nabakov and Marc-Andre Fleury might hold the Islanders and Penguins back. Columbus and Carolina don't have great defensive depth, plus the Blue Jackets are still waiting for Nathan Horton. New Jersey's defense is straight up bad, and Pete DeBoer still thinks Cory Schneider/Martin Brodeur is 1/1A situation. Washington lives and dies, seemingly, on Alex Ovechkin. Then there's the Flyers, and that's really all you need to say.
Obviously, we're very early. But you look at the Atlantic/Flortheast Division, and between Detroit, Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, and maybe Toronto, and you really start to wonder if more than three teams can make the playoffs out of the Metropolitan. Obviously, the Penguins are going to be there. But then... what else? Let's look at each of the remaining seven one-by-one and see if there's hope here.
The Hurricanes have started off winning two of their first six and capturing a loser point in two others. The problem is, Cam Ward has started neither of the games they've actually won. In four games, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has a .903 save percentage. Now, he's faced 32.3 shots per game behind a less-than-stellar Carolina defense, but this is still a problem. Especially when newly-acquired backup Anton Khudobin has started the two games the Canes have won.
The Canes are pretty well stocked on offense, with Nathan Gerbe and Jeff Skinner off to a hot start, with the Staal brothers and Alex Semin always looming. The question is who will make it a little easier on Ward and Khudobin in their own end. Justin Faulk and Jay Harrison have provided early points from the backend, but who really trusts this group, between those two, Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey and Brent Bellemore? The Hurricanes seem like a team destined to play catchup for most of the season.
We all agreed the Blue Jackets might be destined for a bit of a setback moving to the Eastern Conference. So far, Columbus has beaten Buffalo and the Islanders, while losing to the Bruins and... Calgary. We're far from any conclusive data on the Blue Jackets. That said, you kind of wonder if they're not in the same boat as the Hurricanes, with slightly more dependable goaltending.
Sergei Bobrovsky has begun the season in fine form off of a Vezina Trophy win in 2013. We all know, however, that the NHL is a two-goalie (or at least one-and-a-half) league these days. Curtis McElhinney is going to have to get some ice time. Is that going to be good enough for them down the road? Especially with Jack Johnson still playing monster minutes on the backline (he played 27 minutes on Long Island Oct. 5), it's probably leaning more toward a Wild Card competition for the Jackets.
The Devils are a bit of a mess, but not necessarily in the way you thought they'd be. Sure, Marty Brodeur is average at best, and Pete DeBoer has refused to commit to one goaltender (HINT: it should be Cory Schneider). However, the Devils haven't really struggled to score goals like many thought. Since being shut out on opening night in Pittsburgh, the Devils had hit paydirt 11 times in four games, but then they got shutout by Al Montoya in Winnipeg. So... bipolar at best.
The problem is on defense where, outside Andy Greene, it's hard to find much optimism. Bryce Salvador is still not capable of keeping up with the fastest of NHL forwards, and still plays huge minutes. Marek Zidlicky is an offensive specialist. Adam Larsson and Mark Fayne keep being flipped in and out of the lineup when they should be 82-game players. Peter Harrold and Anton Volchenkov are flat out bad. The Devils will be fine on offense, but they need to make a commitment to a defensive unit and a goaltender. Until then, it might be an ugly year in Newark.
We all kind of mock the cliche of the Stanley Cup Playoffs turning on a goalie "getting hot at the right time" but seriously, could any NHL team's playoff fortunes been reversed by that happening more than the Isles? There's a case to be made that their first round series with the Penguins was, with competent goaltending, their's to lose. And yet, Evgeni Nabakov is right back out there again.
He's been fine, I guess, to start the season, but he and Kevin Poulin are -- at this time -- not an ideal solution for this team over a full NHL season. The Isles may come back to earth a little bit if they don't find another option. A shame, too, because John Tavares' star ought to rise further and further.
Jeez, I don't know, man. Surely, the Rangers third consecutive season of waiting for renovations to be finished at the Garden and an early road schedule might have been a hindrance, but this is ridiculous. No team in the NHL has surrendered more goals (25), and only Edmonton has matched that total. They've given up 20 in the last three. That's 1980s hockey, not 2013.
Brad Richards has nearly 50 percent of the Rangers' goals. Rick Nash is out with what sounds a heck of a lot like another concussion. Plus/minus is a flawed statistic, but regardless, having zero players on the plus-side is an obvious negative. How much time does Alain Vigneault have to get this team looking like he wants it to? And what's going on with Henrik Lundqvist? Only six goaltenders have faced more shots than the King, and only Roberto Luongo (.898) is close to Hank's stunningly bad .887 save percentage. Is it the contract? Is it the pads? Surely, Lundqvist and the Rangers will find a way to pick things up.
What's to be said here? The coach is gone, but Steve Mason and Ray Emery is still the goaltending tandem. You still would've thought the Flyers would score some goals at least, but eight in six games... when you're in Buffalo territory, things probably aren't too positive.
The only thing keeping me from writing off the Flyers entirely? A desperate Paul Holmgren. You have to figure that it's curtains for Holmgren if the Flyers are bad. He's made some, uh... interesting, newsmaking moves the past few years. Homer with his job on the line? He might do anything. He probably won't make the Flyers good enough to save his job.
I believe, out of this bunch, the Capitals are a team I'm probably not all that worried about. You can't really count them out after what happened last season, but with a more difficult division, who knows? The goaltending hasn't been great to start. Braden Holtby, whom Washington keeps trying to hand the starting gig, has an .873 save percentage in four games. Michal Neuvirth has barely been better statistically, and got lit up by Colorado on Saturday.
Four Capitals have a goal outside of Alex Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski. They're another team without a single plus player, for whatever that's worth. They've already used nine defensemen in their lineup in five games. Ovechkin can lead a charge back, but they have to find more scoring from the supporting players (Troy Brouwer is pointless so far) and get better goaltending. Boy, none of these teams looks all that good, do they?
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Nice opening post from Mr. Lepore.
Of these, I think the most surprising to me has to be the Rangers. I won't say everything's gone as I expected with the other teams on the list, but I definitely didn't see the Rags woes coming right out of the gate. They're probably due to progress to the mean at some point in the reasonably near future, assuming that they finish buying into Vigneault's system and the injury bug stays away (always an open question in the NHL).
@miendiem King Henrik's slow start is definitely one of the most surprising stories. Have to wonder if the contract is playing with his mind more than he is letting on. I expected the Rangers to make the playoffs with ease. Their early blowouts are almost shocking.
@David Rogers Agreed. It wasn't all that long ago (read as: even last year, in the lockout-shortened season) that the Rags were one of the most defensively responsible teams in the league. Sure, we can speculate that the goalie equipment changes are a bit harder for some goalies to adjust to than others, and than Lundqvist may well be one of them, but try this on for size:
NYR Shots Against per Game (2013-2014): 35.8
NYR Shots Against per Game (2012?-2013): 28.2
NYR PK% (2013-2014): 75%
NYR PK% (2012-2013): 81.1%
I'm sure there are advanced stats that tell the story better, but I'm not as conversant in them as I probably should be. And, as usual, this could just be screaming "small sample size!". But as a snapshot compared to last year, I think it shows reasonably well.
Now, in fairness, after four games last year, the Rangers were 1-3-0 and a -1 goal differential, and improved to 2-3-0 in their fifth game to become a + team in goals, so it's not as though this is entirely unheard of out of them (though the goal differential this year is quite staggering for a five game sample).