This season’s Metro Division is shaping up to be very different from last year’s Metro. The deck has been shuffled and team match-ups promise to be more intense than ever.
One team that got harder to play against over the summer is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who joined the Metro in 2013 courtesy of realignment. The Pens welcomed the Jackets to the division that season by defeating them in all 5 regular season games. Because of the geographic closeness, Pens fans helped to make the match-up more intense by traveling to Ohio and invading Nationwide arena.
When it came time for playoffs, the Jackets were far from submissive, but as any loyal Pens fan knows, there is often a disconnect between the regular season Pens team and the one that shows up for playoffs. The Jackets came to their first Eastern Conference postseason ready to play and riding the talent of defending Vezina Trophy goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. They gave the Pens a run for their money and made them play 6 games to get past them.
A rivalry was born.
A rivalry was born.
This year, the Penguins’ preseason opens at Columbus on Sept 21st and they’ll host the Jackets at Consol Sept 28th. Both teams have been busy in the off-season adding scoring wingers to their top lines, building depth, and ridding themselves of some dead weight. Will all the changes level the ice or will it still tip in the Pens' favor?
In a blockbuster move that shook the hockey world, CBJ acquired two time Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad on the eve of free-agency. Saad was seeking a lucrative, multi-year contract from the Blackhawks, but the team was stuck in a salary cap quicksand and got nowhere near a deal with the 22 -year-old forward. The Jackets gave up young forward Marko Dano and 6’4” center Artem Anisimov, but received in Saad a star left-shot left winger to play with right-shot center Ryan Johansen. Saad, (say it with me) a Pittsburgh native, had 23 goals, 29 assists, and a +7 rating in 82 games with Chicago this past season. He also added eight goals during the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run.
CBJ's transformation actually started earlier in the 2014-15 season. They traded injured forward Nathan Horton to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward David Clarkson in a surprise deal that came four days before the NHL trade deadline. The Jackets got a big-ticket player whose career they believe can be rescued, while the Leafs took on a player whose contract -- because of injury -- can be buried on the long-term injury list, which doesn't count against the salary cap.
Other noteworthy roster moves for the Jackets involved Mark Letestu leaving to sign a three-year, $5.4 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Columbus replaced him by signing Gregory Campbell, a 4th line scrapper who won the Cup with Boston, to a two-year contract worth $3 million.
The Pens made their own league-quaking move, acquiring Toronto’s perennial scorer and media whipping boy, Phil Kessel. At age 27, Kessel is one of the league’s top scorers. During the last five years, his 151 goals rank fourth (tied) in the NHL behind only Alex Ovechkin (206), Steven Stamkos (202) and Corey Perry (178). A two-time Olympian, he is the highest scoring U.S. born player. This summer, Kessel stepped up his conditioning by working with Gary Roberts and dropped 13 lbs. What effect this will have on Phil's already formidable shot and speed remains to be seen, but the hope is that those 13 lbs aren't the hockey equivalent of Samson's hair.
A roster move that changed the Pens’ bottom six involved sending 3rd line center Brandon Sutter and a third-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening, and a second-round pick. While Sutter and Bonino’s production is in the same ball park, Bonino has a much friendlier cap hit; $1.9 mill compared to Sutter’s $3.3 mil. The Pens also signed UFA forward Eric Fehr to a three-year deal worth $6 million.
Just like that, scoring depth and toughness.
What will the rivals look like against each other when they take the ice this season?
Columbus Blue Jackets 2015-16
Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-16
Comparing the two defensive units, I like the Penguins. I feel like a healthy Kris Letang and a healthy Olli Maatta will be a hard combo to beat. While Maatta was sidelined most of last season, Letang led all team D-men with 11 G, 43 A, 54 Pts, 24 PPP, and 197 shots. Derrick Pouliot is reported to have added some muscle in the offseason and could pair nicely with Ian Cole who added 11 points (2G-9A) in his last 25 games. The bottom pairing looks to be a camp decision but there is experience to choose from in Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi, Adam Clendening, Tim Erixon, and returning favorite Brian Dumoulin. While I feel Paul Martin will be missed on the blue line and the power play, I also feel the current roster is rife with talent, skill, and a degree of toughness.
As far as the Jackets are concerned, Jack Johnson finished as the top D-man with 40 points and looks to be solid this season. David Savard has likely earned the other top spot this season with Wisniewski gone. Bothered by a knee injury last season, a healthy Fedor Tyutin, who still serves as veteran presence and sturdy two-way defenseman, may pair with Ryan Murray who plays a more offensive game. Wisniewski’s absence means big minutes to be absorbed and a power play void to fill. Overall, however, Columbus lacks the defensive depth and talent Pittsburgh brings to the rivalry.
As for a comparison of the top 6 forwards, regardless of Brandon Saad’s scoring prowess, I give the match-up to Pittsburgh. Saad, Ryan Johanson and Nick Foligno look to be a strong first line but they aren’t Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and David Perron (my pick for top right wing)
The Blue Jackets finished this past season with three 25-goal scorers (Foligno, Johansen, Hartnell) for the first time in franchise history. The Pens had 3 who scored greater than 25 goals in Crosby, Malkin and Hornqvist as well. It’s still appears pretty even when you consider Saad finished last season with 23 goals while Kessel netted 25 goals.
The difference may very well come from the bottom six. Bonino, Fehr, and a healthy and determined Pascal Dupuis will give the Pens depth and toughness they’ve missed in past seasons. If Beau Bennett can stay healthy and strong he may finally fulfill his potential. Newbie Sergei Plotnikov has generated much buzz from his KHL performance and could even crack the top six if a veteran stumbles or is injured.
Columbus has been able to roll 4 lines effectively in the past but Scott Hartnell is 33 and David Clarkson has seen better days. When you match the two teams up line for line, I give the advantage to the Pens.
If the Marc-Andre Fleury of the past season plays this year, I say advantage Penguins. Props to Sergei Bobrovsky who won the Vezina Trophy for the 2012–13 regular season after posting a 21–11–6 record and a .932 save percentage. But, Fleury is the man and his name is etched on the cup. Here's a side by side look at the two goalies during the 2014-15 season from war-on-ice.com:
Will the Penguins own the Blue Jackets this season? All things considered....YES!