NHL Notebook: Metro Division Preview and Predictions

2018 NHL Playoff Race

Last season the Metro Division dominated the National Hockey League and that looks to be the case again this season. There are new faces in new places within the Metro Division this upcoming year. If the preseason is any indication, the Metro Division with be one of the toughest division this year. Here is a preview of the Metro Division:

Pittsburgh Penguins

Entering the season, the Penguins are chasing history again as they will look to be the first team since the 1980s New York Islanders to three peat as Stanley Cup Champions. Last year, the Penguins became the first team in 19 years to win back to back Stanley Cup Championships since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. The  offseason brought winds of change, but until another team knocks the Penguins off the mantle, the Penguins are the team to beat in the division.

Pittsburgh has still one of the best core groups in the game, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel leading the way. They have big voids to fill in their lineup with the departures of Nick Bonino, Ron Hainsey, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, and Marc Andre Fleury. All these players were crucial in the Penguins playoff run to another Stanley Cup.

Those loses will hurt, but the Penguins will get some relief. Kris Letang returns to action on the Penguins blue line. In addition, the Penguins added Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick, and Antti Niemi to replace those who departed in the off season. GM Jim Rutherford has been a genius the last two years at the trade deadline, and there is no reason for that trend not to continue. If they make the right additions this team could be scary come springtime.

The player to watch will be Antti Niemi. Niemi was brought in to replace Fleury as Murray’s backup in Pittsburgh. Fleury and Murray worked well together and provided the support for each other needed. Can Niemi replace the 18 wins Fleury produced last year? If Murray goes down to injury can Niemi step in and carry the load? He has a Stanley Cup in his pedigree, but that was 2010 with the Blackhawks. If Niemi can find his form, the Penguins will be just fine.

Washington Capitals

The Washington Capitals are coming into the regular season as a team under the radar. The President’s Trophy winning Capitals have so much doubt hovering over them. No other team saw a mass exodus this off-season like the Capitals. The Capitals will have to depend on aging core players to keep their window for a championship open. They are definitely not the favorites anymore. For a team that admittedly cannot handle pressure finishing second in the division will be a good thing.

Pressed by the salary cap, the Capitals lost Kevin Shatternkirk, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner via free agency. They traded Marcus Johansson to the Devils, and lost young defenseman Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft. Washington did sign Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to long-term deals. They will be a vital part of Washington’s talented forward group that includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Washington’s defense will still be good as it starts with goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby will have to be stud again this year. He will need to put up better number than his Vezina trophy season of 2015-16. That is a large ask. Holtby proved he was up to the task as he put up even better numbers last season. Washington will need John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik to play more minutes this season.

A player to watch this season for the Capitals is Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov was rewarded this offseason by receiving a new seven-year contract. Kuznetsov struggled during the regular season last year at times, but found another gear in the playoffs. He must play with that same consistency he had in the playoffs this season. Washington needs Kuznetsov to be the player he was for Russia at the World Juniors all those years ago. If Kuznetsov can play to that standard Washington will be just fine.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Columbus Blue Jackets are an interesting team coming into the 2017-18 regular season. Last season the Blue Jackets were the surprise team taking the league by storm. This led to John Tortorella being named the coach of the year by winning the 2017 Jack Adams Trophy. Columbus will look to have continued success. There is no reason for this team not to make the playoffs. Finishing third in the division is the best this team can finish this season.

In a surprising move this offseason, the Blue Jackets traded for Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad. Panarian will bring more skill and speed to the Blue Jackets lineup that is already elite with the likes Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky,  and Matt Calvert. Zach Werenski jumped on the scene and led all rookie defensemen in every major scoring category. This propelled Columbus to the sixth ranked offense in the NHL. Werenski will need to avoid the sophomore slump for Columbus to have continued success this season. Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky will look to repeat his stellar performance from last season and provide stability behind an elite defense.

Columbus still has a lot of to prove. Are they one-hit wonders or have they become one of the elite teams in the NHL? In order for that question to answered one player that will be vital to the success of the Blue Jackets. That will be Cam Atkinson. Atkinson is entering his final year of contract, and is looking to cash in this upcoming offseason. In order for him to do that he will need to prove that last year’s 62 point season in which he scored 35 goals was no fluke. If Atkinson is going to play with Panarian all season long, look for his point totals to rise and the Blue Jackets to make a deep run towards a Stanley Cup.

New York Rangers

Another year, another early playoff exit for the New York Rangers in 2017. This forced the hand of general manager Jeff Gorton to makes changes. Gorton responded by making some drastic changes. This was the second straight offseason season the Rangers decided to shake things up with their personnel. Only time will tell if these changes will bring a championship back to New York. But with Alain Vigneault behind the bench, the Rangers looked poise to return to the playoffs by finishing fourth in the division.

The Rangers began their offseason by trading Derek Stepan and backup goalie Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes for former first round puck Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall draft pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft. They also bought out the contract of long time defenseman Dan Girardi.

While undoubtedly the loss of these players will be big, adding stud defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to their defense corps was a blessing in disguise. Shattenkirk took less money and less years to sign with the Rangers with hopes of bringing a Stanley Cup back to the Rangers. The Rangers have a plethora of exciting players in the Big Apple, including franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh, young blue liner Brady Skjei, number one Mika Zibanjed, up and coming forward Pavel Buchnevich.

A player to watch is backup goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec will have to come in and replace arguably the best backup goalie in the NHL in Antti Raanta. Raanta is now in Arizona, and with Henrik Lundqvist getting older, the Rangers will need Pavelec to be stellar between the pipes for the Rangers to get back to the playoffs. Lundqvist cannot be relied on to play 50-60 games anymore so Pavelec will need to be sharp. Playing in front of a better defense should help his cause.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have entered a crossroads in their franchise history. They are hoping the fortunes of change continue to be on their side. Philadelphia found themselves with the second overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft this past June.

With that pick, the Flyers took Nolan Patrick, a big and talented center, who was the consensus numbers one pick before injuries. Patrick is hoping to earn a stop during training camp. While the Flyers hope he can step right into the league and be a factor. They want him to be able to develop into one of the elite centers in the league eventually. Stepping in right away may not be the best for him right now, but that is a question only Flyers management can answer.

The Flyers still have Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Matt Read. If the preseason line combinations carry into the regular season, look for Giroux and Varocek to be on the wings and Couturier to center that line. The Flyers have a young blue line led by Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. The Flyers will be able to compete will most teams in the division, but they will be on the outside looking in once the playoffs start.

The reason for that will be goaltending. The Flyers have not been able to find a steady goalie since they had Ron Hextall. The team parted ways with goalie Steve Mason and brought in veteran goalie Brian Elliott. They are hoping for Elliott to rekindle his old magic and become an elite goalie again. If Elliott can’t handle the number one duties look for Michal Neuvirth to step in and fill the role. The Flyers just need their goalies to be above average in order for this team to be in the playoffs unfortunately in a division this tough, that will likely not happen.

Carolina Hurricanes 

Everyone is predicting the Carolina Hurricanes to be the surprise team this year out of the Metro Division and make the playoffs. That just does not seem to be the case. Carolina is a bubble team at best. This team is still young and may not be ready just yet for the primetime spotlight.

Carolina’s offseason began with the acquisitions of Scott Darling, Trevor van Reimsdyk, Josh Jooris, Marcus Kruger, and  Justin Williams. The Hurricanes knew they needed to find an upgrade in net and they are hoping that Scott Darling is their man. Darling has a proven track record of being a winner. He played a crucial role in the Blackhawks 2015 run to the Stanley Cup.

Carolina is hoping Trevor van Reimsdyk can add the veteran leadership to a young defense corps that already has Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin. The reason why the experts like Carolina is because of their offense. Justin Williams will be relied upon for playoff prowess to guide players like Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen, and Sebastian Aho to the next level. If everyone can all gel together, the Canes can be the surprise team.

The key player for Carolina this year will have to be Jordan Staal. Staal has a proven track record as winner. However, that came early in his career. Staal likes most players on the Hurricanes are coming off struggling years. Jordan Staal has been given a leadership role and needs to step up now for this team to be successful.

New York Islanders

Last season was nothing more than a roller coaster ride of emotions. The team just missed the playoffs finishing one point behind the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders appointed Doug Weight to the head coach midway through the season propelling the Islanders to a strong finish to the new season.

There is still so much uncertainty facing the Islanders from building a new arena for the franchise to re-signing their captain John Tavares. In fact, if you talk to those closest with the organization those two questions go hand in hand. Tavares is the cornerstone for the Islanders. If the franchise cannot get a new arena in Belmont Park, Tavares could potentially walk in free agency. Tavares has stated he would like to remain with the Islanders. However, his contract will not be resolved until the team has a permanent new home.

New York will need their big free agent signings from an offseason ago to bounce back and contribute the way they are expected to. The addition of Jordan Eberle over the summer was a move to show Tavares the organization is serious about not only winning but keeping their star center in the fold for a long time. There are plenty of questions with this team. The blue line depth will need to step up as the team traded Travis Harmonic to the Flames. The tandem of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak will man the pipes for the Islanders. The hope is that one of them get hot and claim the number one job.

The Islanders project to be a team on the playoff bubble. One player in particular will need to be a key contributor and that is Jordan Eberle. It is no secret the Isles are hoping Eberle and Tavares can rekindle their magic from their days playing for Canada at the World Juniors. For Eberle himself, he is coming off a poor year in Edmonton and a change in scenery could revitalize his career. Eberle will be paired with Tavares to begin with, but can Eberle raise his game to another level if the duo get split up? Eberle must find the backup of the net with consistency or else he will be just another bust in the long line of guys that did not work out with the Islanders.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils are an interesting case heading into the 2017-18 season. You never know what to expect. New Jersey is two to three years from making the playoffs. The team on the other believes it can compete for a playoff spot this season. New Jersey is playing with house money so any result is better than finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference.

The Devils drafted Nico Hischier with the first overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft. For the first time in the franchise’s 35 year history they selected number one. The Devils believe Hischier will be able to provide the scoring touch the team desperately needs. A year prior GM Ray Shero traded Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall. Hall had a good first season in New Jersey, but with the addition of Hischier, Hall hopes to regain his scoring touch he had in Edmonton. In addition to picking Hischier in the draft, Shero was able to snag Marcus Johansson from Washington, for basically nothing.

Shero is hoping these players will boost a struggling offense that boasts the likes Kyle Palmieri, Pavel Zacha, and Adam Henrique in the top six. Shero made another splash as free agent college defenseman Will Butcher signed with the Devils. The Devils defense is an absolute mess. Butcher will help the backend, but the defense corps is young besides Andy Greene. The Devils strong suit has become the weakest link.

Cory Schneider will need to be the best player night in and night out for this team to have any chance of sniffing the playoff bubble. Schneider came off terrible season as he lost his Vezina-level game that he had in first three seasons with the Devils. Schneider must be the backstop like Brodeur was during the Devils glory days with such a young defense playing in front of him.  If New Jersey can keep playing their aggressive forecheck game in the regular season, this team could be quite a surprise.

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