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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Rangers

The Canes begin their 2018-19 campaign with three intra-division foes.

NHL: Preseason-New York Islanders at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

New York Islanders

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Preseason-New York Islanders at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

As the Carolina Hurricanes open the Rod Brind’Amour regime at home on Thursday night, they will take on a New York Islanders team that is markedly different from the unit that Canes fans have grown accustomed to playing 6-5 hockey games with over the past few seasons. Gone is the great John Tavares, the captain and franchise backbone who has settled in greener pastures in Toronto. Gone too is defenseman Calvin de Haan, the free agent acquisition of the Hurricanes who will waste no time running back into his old mates on the ice.

Swapping out Jaroslav Halak for new netminder Robin Lehner could turn out to be one of their better moves. And while the Islanders did their best to retool under newly-minted Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz who made his way to the Isles after bringing home the Cup for the Capitals, replacing a franchise centerpiece like Tavares is not done by adding sound depth players such as Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula. Nor is it done by adding “grit” in players such as Matt Martin and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Rather, 2018-19 would appear to be the beginning of a project for the Islanders. While their leading scorer from last season returns, in the sensational Mathew Barzal, the remake of the Isles will likely require some patience from their fans. Goal scoring was never a problem last season, and even without Tavares the Isles should again be a potent team, but the atrocious goal-prevention that saw the Islanders finish dead last in goals allowed (296 goals) is something that will have to be built back up brick by brick.

Expect to see the Islanders attempt to be more physical in the defensive end, and while Lehner does have the potential to elevate the play in net for the Isles, if the shot volume does not come down he will have a hard time keeping enough pucks out of the net each night.

What to Watch For

  • It’s Opening Night! Everything is worth watching!
  • Petr Mrazek will get the nod in net with Scott Darling sidelined due to injury. It would be nice to see a new Canes goaltending acquisition actually get off to a good start for once in a Carolina sweater. That starts on Thursday.
  • Will the Canes high-octane offense from the preseason carry over into the regular year?
  • One of the Islanders veterans, Andrew Ladd, will be sidelined indefinitely.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Friday, 7:00 p.m. at Nationwide Arena

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes get off to a quick start as they take off to Columbus right after Opening Night to play the Blue Jackets in what will be the first back-to-back for both teams. The Blue Jackets enter the season off another disappointing first round playoff exit. With only minor tweaks around the edges, the Blue Jackets appear poised to have another solid group playing in front of perhaps the best netminder in the NHL in Sergei Bobrovsky.

Head coach John Tortorella has been given a team whose biggest acquisitions may be former Cane Riley Nash and the well-traveled Anthony Duclair. His core of Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones (injured), Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and a host of others remains intact in front of Bobrovsky. Outside of Panarin, the scoring in Columbus has been well distributed throughout the four lines and well as on the defense, as the Jackets had 10 total players pitch in at least 30 points a season ago.

Headed into this season, the only cause for concern currently would be an injured blueline, as Jones will be shelved for 1-2 months recovering from an MCL sprain, and left-handed shot contributors from a season ago in Ryan Murray and Scott Harrington are both unclear in terms of their status to begin the season. Perhaps there could be some vulnerability early on defense, which will put more on the plate of Bobrovsky? If any goalie is up to the task, it may be the great Russian, who comes into the season off another stellar year that saw him produce a .921 save percentage and just a 2.42 goals against average. If the Canes are going to compete with the Blue Jackets for one of the Metropolitan Division playoff spots, dealing them a loss on home ice while they are slightly undermanned will be one of the early pieces to the puzzle.

What to Watch For

  • The Canes picked up veteran netminder Curtis McElhinney off waivers from the Maple Leafs. Will the Canes put the former Blue Jacket out there for the second of a back-to-back? What about Bobrovsky? Will he participate in the home opener, with Tortorella already saying that Joonas Korpisalo will play against the Red Wkngs on Thursday?
  • Most of the games against Columbus last season were low-scoring affairs. Will Carolina be able to get their speed and separation to create offense against Columbus?

New York Rangers

Sunday, 5:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Preseason-New York Islanders at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

A team very much in transition, the New York Rangers still have their franchise goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. If they are to surprise anyone in the Metro Division this season, it will surely take the 36-year-old Lundqvist turning the clock back to his 2011-12 Vezina-winning exploits as the team around him has trended younger and less experienced. While they do still have veterans such as last season’s prized free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as hold overs Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, the main goal for the Rangers is to attempt to build a more solid foundation for the next winning team in the coming seasons.

Whether Lundqvist will be a part of that next winning team, or this team for the entire season, is another question altogether. The long-time Ranger may be completing his last few seasons as a viable leading man in the NHL, and the question is if he will be sent to a Cup contender or remain in the Big Apple with the only franchise he has ever known in the NHL.

Strangely, while trending younger both at last season’s trade deadline as well as in much of their offseason movement, the Rangers also acquired veteran Adam McQuaid for draft picks to add another seasoned player to what should be a fairly inexperienced blueline. With McQuaid slated to pair with Brady Skjei and Marc Staal lined up with Neal Pionk, new coach David Quinn has made it clear that he wants to provide support for what he hopes is a growing new core of defensemen.

On offense, Zuccarello returns as the leading points scorer, along with the other top-four scorers in Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and Pavel Buchnevich. While the overall offense was certainly a struggle, finishing 21st in scoring last season, the Rangers hope that Buchnevich still has another gear or two to kick it up to as the 22-year-old garners more ice time and opportunity in the offensive zone. All expectations are that putting the puck in the net will be the biggest challenge for the Blueshirts, but they will attempt to get contributions from players who perhaps have more offense in the tank than they showed in other organizations such as Vladislav Namestnikov and Ryan Spooner, and from a first round pick like Filip Chytil who will slot in at center for the Rangers.

Despite the talent that remains, competing in the ultra-competitive Metro Division is not a “one foot in, one foot out” proposition. With so many teams ready to challenge, expect that the Rangers will be looking more for growth that wins by midseason.

What to Watch For

  • The Hurricanes will host a late-afternoon start, but the Rangers will be making their way down from Buffalo for the second of a back-to-back in Carolina. Will Lundqvist play?
  • Expect the Canes to put a premium on fighting hard in front of the Ranger net. In past seasons, the Rangers have at times simply been more physical than the Canes, but look for Rod Brind’Amour to expect that to change. Valentin Zykov could announce his NHL presence with authority with some tough work in the crease.