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Canes Country’s 2017 Season Preview: Metropolitan Division

The NHL’s most dominant division a season ago, the Metropolitan Division still projects to be the powerhouse of the Eastern Conference.

Jamie Kellner

All this week, we’ll be going division by division previewing the other 30 teams in the NHL. Today: the Metropolitan Division dominated the league a season ago, and it looks like they’ll continue to do so in 2017-18.

Montreal Canadiens v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets were the league’s most surprising team a season ago with John Tortorella, 2017’s Jack Adams Trophy winner, behind the bench for his first full season.

Rookie defenseman Zach Werenski jumped onto the scene and instantly became a major catalyst for Columbus’ sixth-ranked offense. He led all rookie defensemen in every major scoring category and was a Calder Trophy finalist as a result of his massive success.

Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will look to repeat his stellar performance from last season and provide stability behind what was a top-tier defense in 2016-17.

Despite a breakout season for the Jackets, they still have a lot to do to prove that they weren’t just a one-hit wonder. Outside of a remarkable 16-game win streak in December and early January, they were 34-24-8, good for a 94-point pace over an 82-game stretch, which would have put them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference a season ago.

The addition of Artemi Panarin could be a massive boost for an already elite offense. The question for the Blue Jackets now is if they can replicate what they did a year ago. Are they the team that had 108 points and earned a 3rd place finish in the league’s toughest division, or are they a bubble team that just got an incredible stroke of luck? Smart money says they’re probably somewhere in between.

2017 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

New Jersey Devils

After a middling season in which they finished last in the Eastern Conference, the Devils defied the odds and won the NHL draft lottery. They celebrated by selecting Nico Hischier with the first overall draft pick in June.

A lot went wrong for the Devils last season as they finished with the worst goal differential in the East and Cory Schneider was a victim of some brutal defense and a criminal lack of goal support, but that’s where this team’s offseason moves could come in handy.

On top of drafting who they believed to be the most dynamic player in the draft, they traded draft picks to the Capitals for Marcus Johansson, a player who will instantly become an important top-six offensive piece alongside a group led by Hischier, Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique.

Despite their moves, the New Jersey blue line still appears to be an absolute dumpster fire. Schneider will need to rise back to his Vezina-level game that he had in his first three years with the team in order for the Devils to be within shouting distance of a playoff spot this season.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

New York Islanders

Through plenty of on and off-ice adversity a season ago, the Islanders narrowly missed out on a playoff spot, finishing just one point behind the young, upstart Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild-card spot.

The noise off of the ice remains loud in New York with their future very much up in the air with questions surrounding the contract status of captain John Tavares and even the arena in which they’ll play in moving forward.

Big free agent signings from an offseason ago will need to bounce back and contribute the way they are expected to. The addition of Jordan Eberle over the summer was clearly a move to show Tavares that the organization is serious about not only winning but also 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 and help out the likes of Nick Leddy and Calvin de Haan, especially considering that the goalie situation is still in flux. Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak will, likely in tandem, man the net this season. The hope has to be that one of them will get hot and claim the number one job, but that seems doubtful as of now.

The Isles are a team that projects to be on the playoff bubble this season. They’ll need to find consistency throughout the year and get some form of stability in net in order to sneak into the postseason. If that doesn’t happen, it could be a long year in Brooklyn, one which features Tavares’ name in the news for the wrong reasons.

Ottawa Senators v New York Rangers - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

New York Rangers

Another early playoff exit for the Rangers in 2017 forced general manager Jeff Gorton’s hand and he responded by making some big changes, most notably trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta, one of the league’s best backup goalies, to the Coyotes for former first-round pick Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh-overall draft pick in June’s draft. They also bought out the contract of underperforming defenseman Dan Girardi.

The Rangers are nearing the end of an era as Henrik Lundqvist will turn 36 by season’s end. His numbers dipped significantly last season as he posted the worst save percentage of his 12-year NHL career.

There remain a plethora of exciting players in the Big Apple, including franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh, promising young blueliner Brady Skjei, big free agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk, number one center Mika Zibanejad, and up-and-coming forward Pavel Buchnevich, a player who they hope will turn into a star sooner rather than later.

The core of this group is getting older, but the pieces surrounding them are a cause for optimism. This is a playoff caliber team, but it will largely depend on Lundqvist as to how long they’ll last in late April and beyond.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Philadelphia Flyers

The Devils weren’t the only Metropolitan Division team that had the ping pong balls fall in their favor this past summer. The Flyers, a team that had a 7.2% chance of picking in the top-three entering the draft lottery, found themselves with the second-overall selection. With that pick, they took Nolan Patrick, a big, talented center who was considered the consensus number one overall pick before injuries and the rise of Nico Hischier put his draft position in doubt.

As expected, Patrick didn’t fall very far and now he has a very good chance of making the Flyers roster out of training camp, likely playing second fiddle to Claude Giroux.

The Flyers were neck-and-neck with the Hurricanes for much of last season, and they ultimately finished one point better than the Canes in the Eastern Conference standings. With a young blue line, led by Shayne Gostisbehere, who admittedly struggled last season, and Ivan Provorov, Philly should be set to compete with the likes of Carolina and Columbus on the backend both now and for years to come.

Giroux struggled last season, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that he will bounce back and provide a steady offensive presence in the middle of Philadelphia’s first line. With Giroux, the usual suspects Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Sean Couturier, and youngsters Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny looking to carve out prominent top-nine roles, the offense should be very good. The loss of Brayden Schenn to the Blues will hurt, but Jori Lehtera will step in and try to return to a respectable level of productivity in the middle of the lineup.

Defense? Check. Offense? Check. Goaltending? That’s where things get interesting.

The team parted ways with goalie Steve Mason over the offseason and brought in Brian Elliott, a veteran goalie who has had number one goalie expectations in the past in St. Louis and Calgary, but neither of those situations provided longterm success for Elliott.

Philadelphia hopes that this time will be different, but there isn’t much to suggest that their hopes will become reality. Michal Neuvirth remains in the goalie conversation, but a hugely disappointing 2016-17 season nearly erases his dominant run in 2015-16 when he played a critical part in leading the Flyers to the playoffs.

The goaltending will likely dictate whether this team is comfortably in a playoff spot, on the outside looking in, or somewhere in between.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins heard a lot about how great the Nashville Predators were during the playoffs last year, and when the two teams met in the Stanley Cup Final, the Pens displayed why they are still the premier team in the NHL.

Now back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, the Pens have every reason to believe that they can make it three in a row. Over the offseason, general manager Jim Rutherford made sensible moves, like extending Justin Schultz to a long-term deal after the blueliner had a huge year in terms of offense, but he also made some moves that remind you why he is no longer the GM in Carolina, like trading a first-round pick to the Blues for tough power winger Ryan Reaves who has just one point in 36 career playoff games and signing former Hurricane fourth line liability Jay McClement to a PTO. McClement just might play in Pittsburgh’s bottom-six, which is both hilarious and horribly cruel.

The big pieces remain in place for the Pens. Sidney Crosby is still the best all-around hockey player in the world, Evgeni Malkin is a top-five player in the league, and the supporting cast of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist (assuming he can overcome his hand injury), Conor Sheary, and big breakout performer Jake Guentzel will all be important cogs in Pittsburgh’s offensive machine.

The blue line is still very good. When Kris Letang is healthy, he is one of the best defensemen in the league, and he’ll have plenty of help from Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and former Hurricanes prospect Brian Dumoulin. They also brought in former Maple Leaf Matt Hunwick to replace rental Ron Hainsey, who is now in Toronto, and provide depth on the backend.

It will be Matt Murray’s net this season for the Penguins after the departure of Marc-Andre Fleury via Vegas expansion. Murray’s play in net has been vital for Pittsburgh’s playoff runs in years past. Given Rutherford’s track record of affection for young goalies winning Stanley Cups early in their careers, Murray has probably bought himself a minimum of 12 years of work in Pittsburgh.

It’s Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup to lose. They’ll undoubtedly be heavy favorites to win it all again this year.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Washington Capitals

Who would have thought that the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals would have so much doubt hovering over them heading into the regular season?

Pressed by a lack of cap room, the Caps let Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams (thanks), and Karl Alzner walk in free agency, traded Marcus Johansson to the Devils for pennies on the dollar, and unfathomably left Nate Schmidt unprotected in expansion and lost him to the Golden Knights.

They did re-sign Evgeny Kuznetsov to a long-term deal, which was essential. He will be a key part of a still very talented top end of Washington’s forward group with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie, who also received a big extension over the summer.

The depth up front is a huge issue as it stands for the Capitals. They currently have just ten NHL forwards under contract, according to CapFriendly. 21-year-old Jakub Vrana will likely play his way into the fold after a very good year split between the NHL and AHL. Alex Chiasson will also be given a look as he is on a PTO. Given their depth up front, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be cut.

John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen will lead the blue line this year and overpaid veteran Brooks Orpik is still in the mix as well. 2013 second-round pick Madison Bowey could very easily play his way into the top-six, if not on opening night then at some point in the season.

Braden Holtby is a top-three goalie in the NHL and he will be leaned on heavily. He followed up his 2015-16 Vezina season with an even better season in 2016-17, but he was outshined by Sergei Bobrovsky. Holtby will be very busy, and his performance could make or break the season in D.C.

This is likely still a playoff team, but the depth is worrisome at best. Washington could be nearing some very trying years given the age of their core players and the money they have invested in said players.