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Canes Country’s 2019-2020 Season Preview: Metropolitan Division

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In what might be the league’s most competitive division, many teams added pieces, but most still have goaltending questions.

NHL: MAR 12 Capitals at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Metropolitan Division may have seem had the largest offseason transformation of any division in the league. Every team is making their moves to posture up and make a run to try to win the division. So how is everyone stacking up?

1. Washington Capitals

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals had the quietist offseason in the division, but they likely won’t mind, having won the division for four straight seasons. The Caps shipped out Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas to save cap space and get a little younger. They don’t sacrifice too much skill but also get a more physical/tough defenseman in Gudas who toes the line much like new teammate Tom Wilson.

The Caps also traded Andrei Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for picks to save cap space. The emergence of Jakub Vrana allowed the Caps to trade Burakovsky without taking a step back. Vrana will continue taking a larger role this upcoming season.

The Caps’ issue this season will be the same as the last: they do not have a ton of depth. We saw this after Kempny was injured last season. Christian Djoos was abused in the playoffs, going -3 in just three games. Their strength also has not changed, they will be a high scoring team, with a deadly power play. This will allow them to keep them on top of the division for another season.

2. Carolina Hurricanes

NHL: Preseason-Carolina Hurricanes at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Hurricanes continued to build a great roster, improving upon the team that got them to the Eastern Conference Final last season. They traded for Erik Haula, Da Beauty League MVP, and signed Jake Gardiner and Ryan Dzingel. Dzingel and Haula are two of the fastest players in the league, and adding them to the existing top six makes the Canes likely the fastest team in the league.

On the blue line, Jake Gardiner is a true top four defenseman, meaning the Canes now have about eight of those in the organization. His biggest strength is that he is a power play quarterback, something that the Canes have desperately needed. Their power play was on of the worst in the league with a 17.8% success rate in the regular season and was the worst in the postseason at just 9.6%.

Of course, the biggest question coming into the season is leadership without quasi-retired captain Justin Williams. Williams stepped away from hockey but hasn’t ruled out a return. Regardless of his return, the Canes need a new captain. We have seen what leadership will do for this team and the ability for Williams to relax the team in tough situations. Now someone else will need to step up to be the voice of command in the Canes’ locker room.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Winnipeg Jets at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As long as the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin they will always be at the top of the division. The problem is, at this point they are getting the extended Jim Rutherford Experience.

Their forward corps got significantly worse as they shipped out Phil Kessel for Alex Galchenyuk who hasn’t scored 20 goals in his past four seasons. They also signed replacement level winger Brandon Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract with a modified no-trade clause. On top of that, Rutherford was being honest when he said he was happy with their blueline and made no changes to the lineup that still carries Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson.

They had an embarrassing end to their season when they were swept by the New York Islanders. We also saw some real weakness out of the Penguins in January and February when they struggled with injuries and inconsistent goaltending, and they lost eight out of 11 games. When you take Kessel’s additional 10-20 goals off the table, games get harder to win, bonus overtime points become losses and overtime wins become overtime losses. It will be enough to see a fall to a lower point total last season.

4. New Jersey Devils

NHL: Preseason-Boston Bruins at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils transformed their team this off-season. With the first pick of the draft they added Jack Hughes, who will be the future first line center. They also signed winger Wayne Simmonds to a low risk one-year, $5 million contract. The Devils also made a pair of great trades. GM Ray Shero traded two second-round picks for P.K. Subban to bolster their top four. They also added Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights. Gusev is a Russian star who is looking to break into the NHL and has shown a lot of promise in the KHL over the past four seasons.

These additions make the Devils a much tougher team to play on paper, but still have huge questions between the pipes. They will still use Cory Schneider as their starter who struggled mightily in his first season after a hip injury. The backup is MacKenzie Blackwood, promoted to the team’s full-time backup after they traded Keith Kinkaid. Schneider went a calendar year without a win and only had six wins in 23 starts last season. No matter how talented the rest of their roster is, this is a huge question for the Devils.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers overhauled their coaching staff during the summer, hiring head coach Alain Vigneault and assistant coaches Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien. This is a pretty powerful staff with a ton of head coaching experience which should benefit a young team. Vigneault has been known to make questionable lineup decisions in the past, often benching promising prospects for known lesser talents, which was also something that frustrated the Flyers brass under Dave Hakstol. This will be an interesting storyline to watch as the season goes on.

The best news for Flyers fans is that their goaltending can’t be worse than it was last year. They set an NHL record by having nine different starting goaltenders. They also combined for the league worst save percentage last season, so there is nowhere to go but up.

Carter Hart came in as a rookie and proved that he belonged with a .917 sv%, but he will now have to do that over a full season. The Flyers seem to be ready to ride him heavily all season, but you would hope that they don’t mess up his development by starting him 74 times in his first full NHL grind.

6. New York Islanders

The New York Islanders were a team that overperformed expectations last season. While their fans would like to say that it was Barry Trotz getting the most of his team, it is way more likely that outperformed most metrics. Their 102.3 PDO was the highest in the league, mainly off the back of their .937 even strength save percentage. Their league leading save percentage went out the window when they let Robin Lehner walk and signed Semyon Varlamov. A new goaltender combined with a very young defense could make for a rough early going.

This offseason the Isles strengthened their depth chart at center by adding Derick Brassard. Brassard was a hot target two seasons ago at the trade deadline, but has come up lacking ever since. In the 2017-2018 season he had 18 goals in 58 games with the Senators before mustering just 3 with the Penguins in 14 games. Last season he was traded twice, first to the Florida Panthers, and later to the Colorado Avalanche. With all three teams he struggled with just 14 goals and 23 total points, his worst since the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season.

7. New York Rangers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers have had one of the best rebuilds in recent history. They traded this summer for Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox and also signed Artemi Panarin in free agency. They also got the second overall pick in the NHL draft and picked stud winger Kaapo Kakko who will slot right into the top six.

Kakko and Panarin bolster a top six that needed scoring power, and can also combine to make a lethal power play unit. Trouba also brings some much-needed help to a depleted blue-line. Fox has upside as a prospect and all Canes fans need to hope he plays over 30 games with the Rangers, which increases the draft pick compensation.

The problem with the Rangers is that their team is largely untested, and their success or failure will be in large part due to how their young players spent this offseason. Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, and Filip Chytil will play large roles this season and will not be able to be sheltered. Howden currently slots in as the second line center with Kakko and Chris Krieder, who is likely to be traded this season. So these young players will be forced to sink or swim in the most competitive division from top to bottom.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s hard to have a worse offseason than what the Blue Jackets had. They lost their starting goaltender, their top scorer and their two deadline acquisitions. On top of that, they traded most of their picks at the draft, so they were not able to make trades for players at the draft or replenish their team with picks in the draft. The Blue Jackets excellent blue line still remains intact, though, and still includes newly-resigned Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.

The biggest question mark is between the pipes where they will be starting Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo has started 81 games over four seasons with a 41-31-9 record and a .907 sv%. Last season he played the second most games he’s played in a single season with 24, but his .897 sv% was the lowest of his career. Now he will be getting the starter’s share of starts and will have less sheltered starts, as he will be taking the tougher matchups. It doesn’t inspire too much hope for the coming season.