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NHL Season Preview: Burning Questions For Each Metropolitan Division Team

Although the Central Division gets a lot of love as the best division in the NHL, the Metropolitan Division came along and made a strong statement in their favor last season.  Not only did they put five teams in the postseason, but they also produced the Presidents’ Trophy winner and the Stanley Cup champion.  While that was a pretty impressive showing, this division seems primed to take a bit of a step back, as the only real certainties among this group are Pittsburgh and Washington.  Every other team in the Metropolitan Division has some questions heading into this season, and while they could repeat last season’s performance of five playoff teams, the middle-to-bottom portion of the division still has to answer those tough questions.  I’ll predict how the Metro Division is going to play out in reverse order, featuring that one burning question that’s gnawing at each team heading into the start of the regular season on Wednesday night.

8.  Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season:  34-40-8, 76 points, missed the playoffs, last in the Metro, 15th in the East

Burning Question:  Can Sergei Bobrovsky actually stay healthy?

If he can, the Blue Jackets have a chance at rebounding from last season’s disastrous performance.  If not, it could be another long season in Ohio’s capital city.  The 2013 Vezina Trophy winner has struggled with numerous groin injuries in recent years, but his play since winning the Vezina has left a lot to be desired as well, as his save percentage has dipped every season since then.  Even though it’s impossible to predict injuries, Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo should probably keep themselves ready just in case Bobrovsky goes down again.  A year ago, Columbus fired former coach Todd Richards after an 0-7 start, paving the way for John Tortorella to take over the gig.  While Torts will always be a favorite here in Tampa due to the 2004 Cup win, his reputation has taken a beating over the last few years, particularly after he led Team USA to a grand total of zero wins in last month’s World Cup of Hockey.  It was also a quiet offseason in Columbus as the Blue Jackets spent most of the time trying to move some of the bloated contracts they have (David Clarkson, Scott Hartnell, Jack Johnson, and Brandon Dubinsky come to mind), but were only successful in buying out Fedor Tyutin and Jared Boll.  Other than that and signing defenseman Seth Jones to a long-term extension (a good move, by the way), the biggest move Columbus made was taking Pierre Luc-Dubois with the third pick of the draft, which was surprising considering many pundits had him falling to around the fifth or sixth pick.  While the Jackets have a nice corps of young forwards and defensemen, it’s probably going to be too much to ask of this team to compete for a playoff spot until they can shed some of their overpriced contracts that are taking up cap space.

7.  Carolina Hurricanes

Last season:  35-31-16, 86 points, missed the playoffs, 6th in the Metro, 10th in the East

Burning Question:  Can the Hurricanes find the scoring and goaltending to match the quality of their young defensemen?

Last season, Carolina made a surprising push for a playoff spot despite being tied with Toronto for the third-fewest goals scored in the NHL.  A lot of that has to do with the Canes having one of the top groups of young defensemen in the league.  All-Star Justin Faulk, former top-five pick Noah Hanifin, Brent Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, and Ryan Murphy form the backbone of what should be a very good group on the blue line for a long time.  But on the other hand, this team isn’t going to take the next step until they start to put the puck in the net on a more regular basis, especially since they put up some good puck possession numbers.  There’s some youngsters and veterans on board that are certainly capable of producing offense, as Jeff Skinner had a bounce-back season with 28 goals.  Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, rookie Sebastian Aho, and the newly-acquired Teuvo Tervainen have plenty of promise and will be counted on to provide some offense.  Center Jordan Staal is a wild card on this team.  He was acquired in a trade a few years ago, and expressed excitement at the prospect of playing with his big brother Eric, the long-time former Canes captain.  However, Eric Staal was traded at the deadline last season, and now Jordan is under contract for seven more years with a no-trade clause.  This is his team now, and the team needs him to be their top center, although he has struggled with some injuries in recent years.  In addition, Carolina brought back Cam Ward at a discounted rate to be their starting goalie, even though he hasn’t been anything close to goalie that won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006.  That happened over 10 years ago, but it feels like its been about 30 years.  Carolina should be in the hunt for a wild card spot again, but I don’t expect them to be in the postseason.

6.  New Jersey Devils

Last season:  38-36-8, 84 points, missed the playoffs, 7th in the Metro, 12th in the East

Burning Question:  How much damage can a motivated Taylor Hall inflict on the opposition?

For six years, Hall has been one of the best players on a bottom-feeding Edmonton Oilers team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since he stepped into the Oilers’ lineup as an 18-year-old.  When he was shockingly traded to New Jersey straight-up for defenseman Adam Larsson, Hall publicly expressed that he took the trade personally because he wasn’t going to be around to finish what he started with Edmonton.  Already one of the top wingers in the NHL, a motivated Hall is the perfect antidote for a team in dire need of star power up front, as the Devils scored the fewest goals in the NHL last season.  He’ll probably be put on a line with Adam Henrique, his former junior linemate, and that duo would be fun to watch.  Kyle Palmieri is coming off a career season in which he scored 30 goals, more than double his previous best of 14.  It’s tough to say whether or not last season was an aberration for him, but the Devils will need him to at least get back into the mid-20’s.  Although the Hall trade should give them an offensive boost, it did deplete their blue line by sending Larsson the other way.  Although Larsson isn’t an All-Star, he was still a solid player.  But if Devils GM Ray Shero had to do it over, he would still make that trade 100 times out of 100.  New Jersey brought in Ben Lovejoy from Pittsburgh to help bolster their defensive corps, but this team will need All-Star goalie Cory Schneider to once again have a monster season in order to make a playoff push.  In my opinion, Schneider should’ve been a finalist for the Vezina, as he kept the Devils in the playoff race for far longer than they probably should have.  As he goes, so goes this team.  New Jersey should make another playoff push, and Hall will provide plenty of offense, but I think the Devils fall just short of the postseason.

5.  New York Islanders

Last season:  45-27-10, 100 points, 4th in the Metro, clinched the first wild card spot, lost to Tampa Bay in the second round

Burning Question:  Has the goaltending situation finally settled down?

After the World Cup of Hockey, it certainly seems that way.  Jaroslav Halak was the starter for much of last season, and when he’s healthy, he’s capable of stealing games and a playoff series or two.  Unfortunately for him, staying healthy has been a problem, and when he went down with an injury in March, Thomas Greiss stepped up and played very well in leading the Islanders to their first playoff series win since 1993.  But as good as Greiss was in that six-game series win over Florida, he came crashing back to Earth in the second round against the Lightning.  Halak was the starting goalie for Team Europe in the World Cup and played extremely well, so it looks like the job is his once again, unless he gets injured.  As for free agency, the Isles lost Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin, replacing them with Andrew Ladd, P.A. Parenteau, and Jason Chimera.  As of this morning, Parenteau was placed on waivers, but even before that, those additions were not what you’d call upgrades over the guys they lost.  John Tavares will once again be the straw that stirs this team’s drink offensively, as he should be in or near the top-10 in the league in scoring.  However, losing his running mate in Okposo will hurt.  As a result, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Ryan Strome will have to help pick up the slack offensively.  Watch out for rookie Matthew Barzal, a 2015 first-round pick that could step into the team’s role of second line center.  Defensively, the team has plenty of depth, as all of their blue-liners are capable of moving the puck and producing some offense.  Although I believe the Islanders will clinch one of the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference, I don’t see them getting past the first round, as they have the look of a team that reeks of middle-of-the-pack after taking a big step forward last season.

4.  New York Rangers

Last season:  46-27-9, 101 points, 3rd in the Metro, lost to Pittsburgh in the first round

Burning Question:  How much longer can Henrik Lundqvist carry the Rangers?

Lundqvist has been one of the top goalies in the NHL for over a decade, but he’s near the tail end of his prime.  He’s certainly still capable of backstopping the Rangers to another playoff appearance, but he won’t get much help from a defensive corps that is a mess beyond Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein.  A combination of questionable personnel moves over the years (letting Anton Stralman walk, trading too much for Keith Yandle and then letting him walk, trading too much for Eric Staal) and the declining play of defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have left the Rangers’ blue line in a bad spot and their prospect cupboard rather barren.  Girardi also has a no-movement clause in his contract through 2019-20, meaning New York can’t just leave him unprotected in the expansion draft.  They do have promising blue-liner Brady Skjei, who was the team’s last first round pick, as he was chosen in 2012.  That is not a typo, the Rangers haven’t had a first round pick in over four years because of some of the trades they’ve made.  They did win the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes, as the prized college free agent chose to sign with New York back in August.  They also signed Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri as cheap free agents while trading center Derrick Brassard to Ottawa for the up-and-coming Mika Zibanejad, who is six years younger and comes at a cheaper price.  New York’s forward isn’t loaded with a lot of skill that jumps out at you, but they are still pretty deep up front, led by the likes of Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, and Chris Kreider.  I expect Nash to have a bounce-back year after missing a lot of time with injuries a season ago.  Unlike Staal and Girardi, his cap hit isn’t a boat anchor, and if he rebounds, he could become attractive in the trade market if the Rangers take a big step back.  Lundqvist will be tasked with carrying this team to the playoffs again, which he will do, but don’t expect the Rangers to get past the opening round.

3.  Philadelphia Flyers

Last season:  41-27-14, 96 points, 5th in the Metro, clinched the second wild card spot, lost to Washington in the first round

Burning Question:  Can they continue to build off their unexpected playoff appearance a season ago?

Without question.  These aren’t your father’s Flyers throwing gobs of money at free agents and hoping it all works out.  Since taking over as GM, Ron Hextall has done a great job of cleaning up the previous regime’s mess while building up a pretty solid base of prospects.  He also took a risk that paid off by hiring former University of North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol a year ago to be the man behind the bench in Philly.  Hakstol had no prior NHL head coaching experience, but worked magic with this team, as they surged in the second half and landed the final playoff spot in the East.  Although the Flyers have a platoon in net with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, it was a very productive platoon last season.  Brayden Schenn had a fantastic year playing on the team’s top line with Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, finishing with 26 goals and 33 assists, both career bests.  Giroux and Simmonds were their usual productive selves, although Jakub Voracek struggled a year after scoring 81 points, so he will be worth watching as the year goes on.  However, it was the arrival of defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere that provided the team’s blue line with the shot in the arm they needed.  Called up from the AHL last November, Ghost Bear’s impact was immediate, as he had a 15-game point streak, the longest for a rookie defenseman in NHL history.  Although he wasn’t great on the defensive end, his impact in the offensive zone was one not seen by a rookie blue-liner since Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson broke onto the scene.  Two prospects to watch will be winger Travis Konecny and defenseman Ivan Provorov.  Provorov is a force in all three zones and even saw time in the preseason with Gostisbehere.  Although they may not make it out of the first round of the playoffs this season, the Flyers won’t struggle to make the postseason like they did last year, as they continue to take another big step in the right direction for the long-term.

2.  Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season:  48-26-8, 104 points, 2nd in the Metro, won the Stanly Cup in six games over San Jose

Burning Question:  Will the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup Champions?

The honest answer is probably not, simply because so much has to go right to repeat as champs, especially in the salary cap era and especially in a World Cup year.  But if there’s any group that could do it, it’s this particular Penguins team.  They didn’t have the salary cap space to add anyone else in the offseason, but the only player of consequence that was lost was defenseman Ben Lovejoy.  Head coach Steve Sullivan took over halfway through last season, implementing his up-tempo style of play that emphasized speed, puck possession, and creating chances in transition.  As a result, a squad that struggled in the first half of the season reversed course and was the hottest team in the league from the end of February all the way through the Stanley Cup Final.  Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel will once again be the offensive centerpieces of the Penguins, while their depth up front, which includes Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, should allow them to continue to play their high-tempo style.  Defensively, Pittsburgh is led by Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and Trevor Daley, who are all capable of jump-starting offensive rushes by getting the puck up to their talented forwards.  As for the goalie situation, Matt Murray will miss some time in the beginning of the season due to a hand injury, so Marc-Andre Fleury will regain his starting gig.  Fleury lost the job late last season due to an injury, and Murray took the team all the way to a Cup.  When Murray comes back, it’ll be intriguing to see how the goaltending situation plays out, especially with the expansion draft next summer dictating that every team must expose one goalie.  As for the team’s outlook this season, a repeat might be too much to ask, but don’t be surprised if the Penguins get back to the Eastern Conference Finals, although the last team on this list might have something to say about that.  Repeating as champions might be a difficult task, but the Penguins certainly have the talent to make a push.

1.  Washington Capitals

Last season:  56-18-8, 120 points, won the Presidents’ Trophy, lost to Pittsburgh in the 2nd round

Burning Question:   Is this the year the Capitals finally get past the second round of the playoffs?

As good as the Caps have been during the Alex Ovechkin era, they still haven’t made it to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1998, when they were swept in the Stanley Cup Final by Detroit.  For most of the past decade, Washington has been a Stanley Cup contender, but they continue to fall short in the postseason time and time again.  Although last season’s loss to the Penguins was especially disappointing, it wasn’t inexplicable, as Pittsburgh was on a huge roll from February on.  Even though this team’s title window is still open due to Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby being in their primes, one can’t help but wonder how many more chances this group has before the window closes for good.  The Capitals didn’t lose anyone important during the offseason, while the only two additions they made were free agent forward Brett Connolly and third line center Lars Eller, who they picked up in a trade with Montreal.  In an era when almost nobody scores 50 goals anymore, Ovechkin is the only one that does it with regularity.  Nicklas Backstrom is still as good as ever, while Evgeny Kuznetsov was a breakout star during the regular season before going quiet during the playoffs.  On the blue line, John Carlson appears poised to continue his ascent into the upper-tier of NHL defensemen despite missing time due to injuries last season, as he had 39 points in just 56 games.  Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is coming off a tremendous season in which he led the league in wins and was in the top-10 in goals-against average and save percentage.  As long as he’s in his prime, the Capitals should be a Cup contender.  While it may have been tempting to blow things up after their most recent playoff disappointment, Washington made a wise move by staying the course.  This is a team that I believe will at the very least, get to the conference finals.

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