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Pre-season picks: Metropolitan Division

August 24, 2017, 10:42 PM ET [9 Comments]
Adam Proteau
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My previews of the 2017-18 NHL season hit the halfway point last week when I ranked the Pacific Division. (The week prior, I kicked things off with a look at the Central Division). This week, it’s time for the Metropolitan Division, home to the league’s two best regular-season teams in 2016-17, and home to the back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

There’s been considerable change from the top of the divisional standings through the bottom, and by the time the 2017-18 campaign ends, there could be less separation between each of the Metro’s eight teams than in any other division. The division is a microcosm of how little it takes to go from winner to loser in hockey’s best league, and there promises to be all sorts of drama as the clubs jockey for position from the starting block to the finish line.

Here’s how I see the Metropolitan looking at the end of each team’s 82-game schedule:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Additions: Ryan Reaves, RW; Matt Hunwick, D; Antti Niemi, G

Deletions: Nick Bonino, C; Chris Kunitz, LW; Matt Cullen, C; Ron Hainsey, D; Trevor Daley, D; Mark Strait, D; Marc-Andre Fleury, G

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Penguins didn’t have their best player for nearly ten percent of the regular season last year. They didn’t have their second-best forward for nearly 30 percent of the regular season. They didn’t have their best defenseman for half of the regular season. And they didn’t have their top goaltender for more than half of their playoff run. Yet they still finished the regular-season second only to the Capitals in terms of standings points, and laid waste to their opponents in all four post-season rounds en route to winning their second straight championship. Now that’s what you call depth.

Some of that depth has been cut away by the salary cap, with veteran contributors Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury departing either via trade or free agency. Consequently, GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan have no alternative but to turn to younger Pens players such as winger Conor Sheary (who produced 23 goals in his sophomore NHL season), center Jake Guentzel (who amassed 16 goals in 40 NHL games) and winger Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) to pick up the slack. They’ve also replaced Fleury – who was fabulous for them in his final year as a Penguin – with 33-year-old veteran Antti Niemi, and signed former Maple Leafs experienced hand Matt Hunwick to fill a spot on the blueline. Otherwise, it’s essentially the same team looking to three-peat this year, and when you have the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby on your side, as well as a fully-returned-to-good-health top-end blueliner in Kris Letang and a dynamic young starting netminder in Matt Murray, who’s to say they don’t have a better than decent shot at doing so?

The Pens have less depth/insurance against injuries this time around, but their biggest adversary in D.C. has taken an even bigger cap-related roster hit. That is likely going to be enough to push Pittsburgh Past the Caps to finish first in the Metro.

2. Washington Capitals

Additions: Devante Smith-Pelly, RW 

Deletions: Marcus Johansson, LW; Justin Williams, RW; Daniel Winnik, LW; Nate Schmidt, D; Kevin Shattenkirk, D; Karl Alzner, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: Washington stomped all over the league during the regular season, winning five more games than the next-best team, and losing only seven home games in regulation time. But the same plague that’s hurt them so often in the Alex Ovechkin Era hurt them terribly in the 2017 post-season, and they failed to make it to the third round yet again, falling to Crosby and the Pens in seven games. But rather than break up the core that hasn’t been achieving results when they matter most, Caps management sat back and allowed the machinations of the salary cap to do it for them: mid-season trade acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk left as a free agent to sign with the Rangers, and blueline staple Karl Alzner also departed via free agency to become a Montreal Canadien; the blueline was further depleted when Nate Schmidt was selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and wingers Justin Williams (who returned to Carolina) and Daniel Winnik (still an unrestricted free agent) also moved on; and, after GM Brian MacLellan chose to re-sign winger T.J. Oshie, the Caps dealt productive winger Marcus Johansson to another division rival in the New Jersey Devils.

By the time the roster settled down, the Capitals still looked like a playoff team – any team that has Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to put up enough offense to excel in the regular season – but the sense they were a Stanley Cup frontrunner had vanished. After all, if they couldn’t get the job with a far deeper defense and more weapons up front, how could they hope to get to the Eastern Conference Final now, with only the addition of much-travelled winger Devante Smith-Pelly to show for all the faces who no longer are there? Either their biggest stars are going to have to carry them on their back come playoff time, or MacLellan & Co. will face even more pressing questions this time next year.

To say there’s never been more pressure on the Caps is true, but unless there’s someone prepared to step up from within the organization to help shoulder the load, it’s more likely than ever they won’t be able to rise to expectations.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

Additions: Artemi Panarin, LW; Jordan Schroeder, RW

Deletions: Brandon Saad, LW; Scott Hartnell, LW; Sam Gagner, C; Kyle Quincey, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: Thanks to the standout performance of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a smart and young defense corps and the emergence of a number of forwards, the Blue Jackets enjoyed the best regular season in team history, winning 50 games and allowing just 195 goals – the second-lowest total in the league behind Washington (182). They managed to stay relatively healthy, and head coach John Tortorella deserves credit for resuscitating his career by taking a less corrosive approach while adding structure to the franchise’s up-and-coming youngsters.

That said, the Jackets’ swift, five-game dismissal from the playoffs at the hands of the Penguins showed this group has more development to do. And GM Jarko Kekalainen wasn’t shy about making changes of consequence, shipping winger Brandon Saad back to Chicago in return for 25-year-old winger Artemi Panarin, a two-time scorer of at least 30 goals in the past two seasons. The Jackets also allowed center Sam Gagner to leave via unrestricted free agency, and bought out the contract of veteran winger Scott Hartnell. The loss of all three means 55 goals from Columbus’ lineup last year have now departed, which means that defense is going to have to be just as good this time around.

The good news is, it very likely will be. Employing Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray all in their early 20s bodes well for the present and the future of the blueline, and with Bobrovsky in his prime at 28, the Jackets should once again give opponents fits trying to produce offense. A playoff berth seems to be a given for this team, and now it’s about taking the next step, perhaps adding a veteran or two prior to the trade deadline, and doing some damage once the post-season arrives.

4. New York Islanders

Additions: Jordan Eberle, C 

Deletions: Ryan Strome, C; Travis Hamonic, D; Jean-Francois Berube, G; Mikhail Grabovski, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Islanders were a playoff team in each of the two years that preceded the 2016-17 campaign and really should’ve been again last year, but a brutal start to the season cost head coach Jack Capuano his job and proved too deep a hole to climb out of, and they missed out on the final wild card berth by a single standings point. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to like about this group, which underwent some notable changes this summer as the team searches for a new home arena and attempts to re-sign star center John Tavares to a long-term contract extension.

For starters, blueliner Travis Hamonic was dealt to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-rounders – a savvy move at a time when teams perpetually need to generate young and cheap talent from within – and center Ryan Strome was traded to Edmonton in return for veteran pivot Jordan Eberle. And GM Garth Snow cleared up his goaltending glut by working out a deal with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights to select netminder J-F Berube. That means Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss will battle it out to be the Isles’ starter in net, and now-permanent head coach Doug Weight (who led the team to a 24-12-4 mark after taking over from Capuano) can make it a clear meritocracy between the two.

I don’t see the Isles as a top-tier Cup threat just yet, but with the addition of Eberle, a more well-rounded contribution from 2016-17 big free agent signing Andrew Ladd (who finished the year with a full-season career low of just eight assists), a full year from dazzling winger Joshua Ho-Sang, steps ahead from some of their young blueliners, and consistency in goal, there’s enough balance and high-end talent here to push them back into the post-season.

5. New York Rangers

Additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, D; Anthony DeAngelo, D; Ondrej Pavelec, G; David Desharnais, C

Deletions: Derek Stepan, C; Antti Raanta, G; Oscar Lindberg, C; Brandon Pirri, RW; Dan Girardi, D; Kevin Klein, D; Adam Clendening, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Blueshirts started the 2016-17 season strongly, carving out a 13-4-0 record and putting teams on notice they’d be a potent group with which to contend. However, the wheels began to wobble in March (when they went 6-5-4), and after disposing the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, they were ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games. Another year of star goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s career came and went without a Cup, and, as is usually the case in Manhattan, what followed was more than one significant transaction.

One of those transactions sent veteran center Derek Stepan, the Rangers’ second-best assist-man (38) to Arizona along with stellar backup netminder Antti Raanta in return for the seventh pick in the 2017 entry draft and blueliner Anthony DeAngelo. GM Jeff Gorton used some of the cap space he gained in that deal by signing Kevin Shattenkirk to bolster the defense corps, some of it to extend the contract of D-man Brendan Smith (whom he acquired during the 2016-17 campaign), and some of it to sign center Mika Zibanejad to a five-year extension.

In many ways, Gorton has done yeoman’s work strengthening the long-term position of the Rangers, who too often dealt away their future to acquire veterans who could have a major impact for a year or two. But given that Lundqvist will be 36 in March, and given that the star Swede has major mileage on his personal odometer, and given that his new backup (former Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec) is considered a downgrade from Raanta, I think there’s a distinct possibility the Blueshirts are in a position to struggle for stretches and could be fighting for their playoff lives right to the final week of the regular season this year.

Gorton is one of the savvier management figures in the game and it wouldn’t surprise me to see head coach Alain Vigneault squeeze every drop out of this group and get them into the post-season, but no GM can prevent downturns in a franchise’s competitive cycle, and the race in the Metro is so tough, I can see a situation where the Rangers are on the outside looking in come mid-April.

6. Carolina Hurricanes

Additions: Justin Williams, RW; Marcus Kruger, C; Josh Jooris, C; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D; Scott Darling, G

Deletions: Eddie Lack, G; Jay McClement, C; Matt Tennyson, D; Ryan Murphy, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Hurricanes won only three of their first 13 games, and in the modern-day NHL, that ends your season pretty much as it’s just beginning. But to the credit of head coach Bill Peters and GM Ron Francis, no white flags were raised in Carolina and the organization worked its way back to the periphery of the playoff race later in the year. Still, this was a streaky group – they had a five-game win streak, a four-game win streak, and three five-game losing skids including one at the end of the year – and their goaltending was far from elite.

It’s Peters’ challenge to produce a more consistent effort this year, but Francis has made that task easier with the acquisition of former Hawks backup netminder Scott Darling. The 28-year-old is a huge upgrade on the traded Eddie Lack, and he’ll get the bulk of the work while veteran Cam Ward finishes the final year of his contract. Darling also has the luxury of playing behind one of the league’s best young groups of defensemen, one that Francis worked to help secure for the long-term by signing Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce to seven and six-year deals respectively. 

Darling deepened the blueline by trading for former Hawks D-man Trevor van Riemsdyk, but he wasn’t done there, also landing former Hawks center Marcus Kruger and signing veteran sniper Justin Williams to add to Carolina’s collection of forwards.

There was much to like about the Canes’ off-season manoeuvres, and once some of their younger players mature, there’s big things ahead for the organization. But it’s going to take some time for the new components to gel with the ones who’ve been there for a while, and in this difficult division, that likely means more growing pains in the short term and probably a playoff miss this season.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

Additions: Jori Lehtera, C; Nolan Patrick, F; Brian Elliott, G

Deletions: Brayden Schenn, C; Michael Del Zotto, D; Nick Cousins, C; Chris VandeVelde, C; Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, LW; Steve Mason, G

Why I picked them where I picked them: It’s tough in some respects to say the Flyers will take a step back in the standings, especially after good fortune smiled on them in the draft lottery and they came away with Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. However, although they might be set up to be stronger over the next decade – a plan which is for the best, obviously – Philadelphia had more than a few veteran pieces removed this summer and don’t appear to be as strong in the short term.

To wit: Brayden Schenn – the Flyers’ second-best goal-scorer and third-best point-producer last year – was traded to the Blues for the older, less-productive center Jori Lehtera; blueliner Michael Del Zotto left as a free agent to sign with Vancouver; and after goalie Steve Mason ended his four-plus-year-run in Philly’s net to sign with Winnipeg, Flyers GM Ron Hextall turned to former Flames/Blues/Avs/Sens netminder Brian Elliott to replace him. Sorry, but that doesn't suggest they're going to take a step ahead.

It’s true star center Claude Giroux and others had sub-par seasons, and perhaps that changes this year and Elliott puts in a career-best effort and Patrick stars right away and that blueline looks better than it does on paper. But I think this is another year that will test the patience of Flyers fans as management shrugs off bumps in the road in favor of the bigger picture.

8. New Jersey Devils

Additions: Marcus Johansson, LW; Brian Boyle, C; Nico Hischier, C

Deletions: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Beau Bennett, RW; Devante Smith-Pelly, RW; Jacob Josefson, C; Jon Merill, D; Sergey Kalinin, C;

Why I picked them where I picked them: The past five seasons have not been kind to the Devils, who haven’t played a playoff game since their 2012 run to the Cup Final. But, the end of the regular season aside, 2017 has been markedly kinder. They beat the odds to land the No. 1 pick in the draft – using it on Swiss center Nico Hischier – and held up the Capitals to bring in winger Marcus Johansson for a second-round and third-round draft pick. Johansson set career highs in goals (24) and points (58) last year, and the 26-year-old is likely to thrive in his new environment.

Unfortunately, the Devils finished last year 25 points out of the final wild card berth, so it’s a long haul for them to get back to a place the franchise had once been so accustomed to. They’ll almost certainly get back over the 30-win plateau, but until their defense corps takes a big step forward, a post-season game remains a longshot at best. And having recently-injured veteran Travis Zajac out of the lineup for 4-6 months doesn’t help matters at all.

There’s reason for optimism in New Jersey, but this season isn’t likely to deliver much in the way of results in the standings.
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» Proteau's Division Predictions
» Proteau's Division Predictions
» Pre-season picks: Atlantic Division
» Pre-season picks: Pacific Division
» Pre-season picks: Central Division