We’ve taken a look at three out of the four divisions now, and the decisions they’ll have to make come training camp. The Pacific’s depth on defense, the changes coming up front in the Central, and the mass of young talent set to break through in the Atlantic. Now, we’ll take a look at the what many considered the best division in hockey last year, with four 100-point teams and both the President’s Trophy winner and Stanley Cup Champions.
Washington Capitals – There is probably no team with fewer uncertainties going into the season than the Washington Capitals. After running away with the regular season points lead, the Capitals couldn’t even make it to the Stanley Cup final, but they’ll head into next season with largely the same group. They brought in Lars Eller, whose possession numbers should help the third line, and allowed Jason Chimera and Mike Richards to walk (though the latter remains unsigned). Basically the only battle in camp will be for a fourth line or 13th forward spot; can Brett Connolly do enough to make the squad over Stanislav Galiev? Exciting stuff.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Similar to the Capitals, the Penguins have a fairly settled lineup going into camp. The biggest story out of Pittsburgh will be the battle between Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, with trade rumors swirling all the while. After the playoffs that Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust put up, both have entrenched themselves in the lineup for a full season. The real decision will be to keep the re-signed Kevin Porter in the lineup or give Scott Wilson a real shot, after performing well in the AHL last season. The latter is still waiver-exempt, meaning he’ll probably see time in both levels this year.
New York Rangers – For the Rangers, it’s not which defensemen will suit up each night, but who will be given preferential ice time after many took a step backwards in 2015-16. Between Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers have $15.9MM in cap space taken up next season, and all three weren’t as effective as year’s past. Because of their big hits, and the money spent up front, the club will fill their bottom pair with Nick Holden and Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath especially isn’t guaranteed a spot, and will have to fight off Adam Clendening for the job. Both must clear waivers to head to the AHL, meaning the press box might be a more likely landing spot.
New York Islanders – The Islanders have an almost entirely brand new first line this season, as P.A. Parenteau and Andrew Ladd are expected to skate alongside John Tavares, at least to begin the year. They’ll also have the most expensive fourth line in the league, with Casey Cizikas re-signed for $3.35MM and Jason Chimera joined in for $2.25MM. The battle will be for the final defense spot, which Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield are all pulling for. Pelech is a long-shot, since he’s left-handed, but it’s a dogfight between the other two.
Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers still have one big, bad contract on their roster, and that’s Andrew MacDonald and his $5MM cap-hit. The defenseman spent most of last season in the AHL, Philadelphia preferring Brandon Manning on the left side. But this year, that may not be the case; MacDonald got into all six playoff games (mostly because of Michael Del Zotto’s injury) and skated down the stretch with rookie phenom Shayne Gostisbehere. T.J. Brennan, the AHL’s top defenseman, also signed with his hometown team and will be worth a look as a powerplay specialist in camp. Brennan scored 68 points in 69 games for the Toronto Marlies last season.
Carolina Hurricanes – After making a trade for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell earlier this summer, the Hurricanes find themselves with a very flexible group up front, capable of playing in many different alignments. Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg, both UFA signings can play on any line, while Bickell has shown he can perform offensively when put with enough talent. Sebastian Aho, who is expected to make his NHL debut this year after a huge season in Finland, is only 19 and may require a bit of seasoning on the smaller rink. Even if he does break camp, lining him up alongside 21-year olds Teravainen and Elias Lindholm is exciting, but perhaps a bit foolhardy.
New Jersey Devils – Like the Maple Leafs, the Devils seem to simply have too many bodies up front. With at least 15 forwards with NHL experience, they’ll have some tough decisions on who to keep on the NHL roster. Perhaps Pavel Zacha and Joseph Blandisi don’t make the team, as they’re expected to, or Reid Boucher is sent back to light up the AHL until injury arises. After bringing in Taylor Hall, Beau Bennett and Vernon Fiddler, it doesn’t look like there is enough room for all the kids.
Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets have some interesting options when it comes to camp this year. The common belief is that 19-year old Zach Werenski is going to begin the season with the big club, but if they think he needs just a bit more seasoning they do have other options. Cody Goloubef played 43 games for them last season, while newcomer Scott Harrington has 25 NHL games under his belt and was once considered a lock as a bottom-pairing guy. Werenski is a can’t-miss prospect to be sure, but if Columbus doesn’t have enough minutes to go around on the back end, perhaps it would be best if he led the recently re-branded Cleveland Monsters on another Calder Cup run.