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NoVa Caps recently completed their annual Capitals Player Previews for the 2017-18 season. The focus is now on the rest of the NHL with previews for each Division. To complete the series, we wrap things up with the highly competitive Metropolitan Division.
2016-17 Season Record: 36-31-15
Division Finish: 7
Key Players: Justin Williams, Jeff Skinner, Scott Darling
2017-18 Season Outlook: The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs every season since 2008-09, but they have the potential to be a playoff contender this season. They have a strong top-six with forward Jeff Skinner, who had 37 goals last year; defensemen Noah Hanifin, Trevor Van Riemsdyk (who was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights after being selected in the Expansion Draft by Vegas), Brett Pesce (plus-23 rating last season), and Jaccob Slavin (also a plus-23 last season), who signed six-year, $24.15 million ($4.025 million annual salary) and seven-year, $37.1 million ($5.3 million annual salary) contract extensions, respectively.
The Hurricanes also strengthened their offense and goaltending this offseason. They acquired goaltender Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks to bolster their depth in net, after giving up 236 goals last season, which ranked 19th in the league. Darling went 18-5-0 with a 2.38 goals-against average, and a .924 save percentage last season backing up Chicago starter Corey Crawford. They also signed former Capitals right wing Justin Williams to a two-year contract worth $9 million in free agency, and acquired forward Marcus Kruger from the Golden Knights. Williams’ signing marks his second stint with the Hurricanes. He played with the club from 2003 to 2008, and was instrumental in the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup win. Williams should help lead young players like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Elias Lindholm.
With the Hurricanes making a lot of moves this offseason and a late surge last season that almost got them into the postseason, expect Carolina to be a competitive team that has the potential of making the playoffs for the first time in almost 10 seasons.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2016-17 Season Record: 50-24-8
Division Finish: 3
Key Players: Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Sergei Bobrovsky
2017-18 Season Outlook: After outplaying the Pittsburgh Penguins but falling in five games in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blue Jackets made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason when they acquired budding superstar Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Brandon Saad. Panarin was brought in to add offensive firepower to a lineup filled with young talent, after scoring 30 or more goals and 70 or more points in both of his seasons in Chicago. His production may take a hit after being separated from Patrick Kane, but he should still be a very good player for the Blue Jackets. Other than that, the Blue Jackets had a relatively quiet offseason. They were able to protect their defensemen and backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo from being selected in the Expansion Draft, but had to part with center William Karlsson, and a first-round pick this offseason. With their team from last year mostly intact and Jack Adams Award-winning coach John Tortorella returning, expect the Blue Jackets to be near, if not, at the top of the Metropolitan Division.
New Jersey Devils
2016-17 Season Record: 28-40-14
Division Finish: 8
Key Players: Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Corey Schnieder
2017-18 Season Outlook: The Devils have had a busy offseason, winning the right to the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and selecting center Nico Hischier from the Halifax Mooseheads. Hischier, who scored 38 goals and 86 points in 57 games played, is expected to be the team’s first-line center, and is expected to play with wingers Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall. The Devils also signed free agents Brian Boyle, Drew Stafford, and 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher to help improve the 28th-ranked offense they iced last season.
Adding Boyle in addition to Hischier should give the Devils more depth down the middle and a physical presence to protect their young players. Boyle is not known for his offensive prowess, but he is strong in the faceoff dot, where he’s won at least 50% of his draws the past seven seasons. He should also help the Devils’ defense. Stafford signed a one-year contract worth $800,000 a couple of weeks ago, coming with a cheap cap hit, but potentially offering a high reward. Stafford struggled in Winnipeg last season, but was traded to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline and scored four goals and eight assists in 18 games played, finishing with a plus-8 in Boston. In the playoffs, he scored two goals in the team’s six-game series against the Ottawa Senators.
Butcher joins the Devils from the University of Denver, where he scored seven goals and 37 points in 39 games played as a defenseman, with a plus-19 rating. Butcher was brought in to improve the team’s 244 Goals Against, which was tied for fifth-worst in the NHL. Bringing in Butcher may help, but it is unlikely to be enough to fix the issue. The Devils need to find some additional defensemen to strengthen the depth on the blueline because the Metropolitan Division is loaded with offensive talent.
The Devils also acquired Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals, Johansson is coming off of a career year in which he scored 24 goals and finished with 58 points. Johansson should help the Devils’ power play, where he scored five of his goals and 19 of his points. He also had a great year defensively with a plus-25 rating. After being overshadowed by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in Washington, Johansson has the opportunity to make a name for himself in New Jersey. Despite all of the exciting divisions, expect New Jersey to be better, but unlikely to be in the playoff hunt, given their lack of defensive depth and weak bottom-six.. The Devils could be a competitive team, but due to a tough Metropolitan Division, the playoffs may be out of reach this season.
New York Islanders
2016-17 Season Record: 41-29-12
Division Finish: 5
Key Players: John Tavares, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle
2017-18 Season Outlook: The New York Islanders elected to keep interim coach Doug Weight, who went 24-12-4 after he replaced fired bench boss Jack Capuano in the middle of last season, for this season. The Islanders finished the season a point shy of a third consecutive playoff berth. New York had a relatively quiet offseason, but they did acquire Jordan Eberle from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for young forward Ryan Strome. Eberle is projected to play on the top-line with John Tavares, after scoring 20 goals and 51 points last season. Eberle should also help the power play, on which he picked up 14 points last year. He did have a disappointing playoff performance, finishing with just two assists and a minus-6 rating. He is certainly an upgrade over Strome, who had 13 goals and 30 points last season. The Islanders chose to use the eight skaters, one goaltender protection format for the Expansion Draft and protected five defensemen, but were able to make a deal with Vegas to take the final year of forward Mikhail Grabovski’s contract and goaltender Jean-Francois Berube, so they could eliminate their three-goalie rotation mess. It came at a high price though; a 2017 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick, and defensive prospect Jake Bischoff. Despite the quiet offseason, the Islanders have yet to re-sign captain John Tavares, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. With the drama of Tavares’ contract situation and a highly competitive Metropolitan Division, expect the Islanders to be in the playoff hunt, but fall just short of the playoffs this year.
New York Rangers
2016-17 Season Record: 48-28-6
Division Finish: 4
Key Players: Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonough, Henrik Lundqvist
2017-18 Season Outlook: The New York Rangers were one of the busiest teams this offseason, trading away backup goaltender Antti Raanta and center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft (used on center Lias Andersson). The trade will hurt the Rangers because they no longer have a first-line center and a reliable backup goaltender (one they could need with longtime starter Henrik Lundqvist turning 36 on March 2 and his play declining). The top-line job is expected to go to Mika Zibanejad, who scored 14 goals and recorded 37 points in 56 games played last season. Zibanejad has never been a number one center, and if he’s going to play that role for the Rangers, he will need to stay healthy. Had he played all 82 games last season, he would’ve scored around 20 goals and 54 points, one point shy of Stepan’s point total. The backup role will go to Ondrej Pavelec, who signed a one-year contract worth $1.3 million. Pavelec was put on waivers by the Winnipeg Jets after going 4-4-0 last season. He went 8-7-2 with a 2.78 goals-against average, and a .917 save percentage with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. In his NHL career, he has a 152-158-47 record, with a 2.87 goals-against average, .907 save percentage, and 17 shutouts. Goaltending is an area of concern with Lundqvist’s play declining, and Pavelec has never had the numbers he needs to be to be a reliable backup. While the Rangers have a top defense in the league, Lundqvist and Pavelec played in front of relatively good defensive cores this past season and struggled. The Rangers were also able to sign the best free agent defenseman on the market in Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk should help improve the power play, which finished 11th in the league with a 20.2% efficiency. He is expected to play on the top-pairing with captain Ryan McDonough. The Rangers also brought in David Desharnais and resigned Zibanejad as well as defenseman Brendan Smith.
The Rangers’ top line center is expected to be Mika Zibanejad, who had 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games. Zibanejad has never been a number one center, and he has also struggled to stay healthy. If he had played all 82 games last season, he was on pace to score around 20 goals and 54 points. That would’ve been one point shy of Stepan’s point total. The backup role will go to Ondrej Pavelec, who signed a 1-year contract worth $1.3M. Pavelec was put on waivers by the Winnipeg Jets after going 4-4-0. He went 8-7-2 with a 2.78 GAA, and a .917 save percentage with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. In his NHL career, he has gone 152-158-47 record, along with a 2.87 GAA, a .907 SV%, and 17 shutouts. Goaltending is an area of concern with Lundqvist’s play declining, and Pavelec has never had the numbers he needs to be to be a reliable backup. While the Rangers have a top defense in the league, Lundqvist and Pavelec have played in front of good defense cores this past season and struggled. The Rangers were also able to sign the best free agent on the market, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk should help improve the power play, which finished 11th at a 20.2% efficiency. He is expected to be on the top pair with captain Ryan McDonough. They also brought in David Desharnais and re-signed Zibanejad, as well as defenseman Brendan Smith.
Expect the Rangers to make another playoff appearance in 2018.
2016-17 Season Record: 39-33-10
Division Finish: 6th
Key Players: Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Brian Elliott
2017-18 Season Outlook: The Philadelphia Flyers have had a busy offseason, adding a second-line center as well as solving their goaltending issue. The Flyers drafted center Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, giving them the center they have lacked in recent years. Patrick has had some injury issues in the past and missed the Flyers’ development camp. When he was healthy last season, however, he scored 20 goals and 46 points in 33 games played with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. The Flyers need Patrick to be healthy or they are going to have to rely on Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, or newly-acquired Jori Lehtera to step up. The Flyers also signed veteran goaltender Brian Elliott to a two-year contract worth $5.5 million to be their starter. Elliott struggled last season with the Calgary Flames, going 26-18-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average, and a .910 save percentage. However, he did lead the league with a .930 save percentage and had a 2.07 goals-against average with a 38-23-8 record with the St. Louis Blues. The Flyers need Elliott to be the goalie he was during his time in St. Louis, or they are going to struggle. Their power play could take a hit after trading Brayden Schenn for Lehtera. This will ultimately depend on if Patrick can stay healthy. Lehtera is expected to be the third-line center after scoring seven goals and 22 points in 64 games played with the Blues last year. He’s going to have to be better than that if the Flyers are going to push for a playoff spot in 2018. They also have a lot of good defensive prospects including Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hagg, who should all see some time in the NHL this year.
2016-17 Season Record: 50-21-11
Division Finish: 2nd
Key Players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray
2017-18 Season Outlook: The defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions suffered some big losses over the offseason, headlined by the departure of centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley, Mark Streit, and Ron Hainsey; goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury; and winger Chris Kunitz.
The Penguins were able to add defenseman Matt Hunwick, center Greg McKegg, and goaltender Antti Niemi, and re-sign defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz, and forward Conor Sheary. They re-signed their core players and replaced the players they lost with slower and cheaper talent.
Goaltender Matt Murray should see a heavier workload with Fleury selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft, after playing 49 games last season. Murray will have to prove that he can be a full-time starting goaltender after the loss of Fleury.
The Penguins will rely on superstars Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to drive the train, as well as a healthy Kris Letang, who is expected to be ready for training camp after having surgery on a herniated disc that kept him out of the entire playoffs. They still need to find a third-line center, and just signed veteran Jay McClement, formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes, to a professional tryout offer. He had five goals and eight points in 65 games played last year.
While the Penguins lost some key components, Coach Mike Sullivan has always found a way to squeeze the most out of the players he has. Expect the Pens to have another strong showing in both the regular season and playoffs this year.
2016-17 Season Record: 55-19-8
Division Finish: 1
Key Players: Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie
2017-18 Season Outlook: At last, we get to the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Capitals had a busy offseason, re-signing core players like right winger T.J. Oshie to an eight-year contract worth $46 million ($5.75 million annual average value), center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight-year contract worth $62.4 million ($7.8 million AAV), and defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six-year contract worth $30.5 million ($5.1 million AAV). They also re-signed wingers Brett Connolly to a two-year contract worth $3 million ($1.5 million AAV), Andre Burakovsky to a two-year contract worth $6 million ($3 million AAV), and goaltender Philipp Grubauer to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million, and signed right wing Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year contract worth $650,000.
Unfortunately for the Caps, they had to say goodbye to some great players like Justin Williams; Marcus Johansson; Kevin Shattenkirk; Karl Alzner (who signed a five-year contract worth $22.5 million with the Montreal Canadiens), and winger Daniel Winnik, who remains an unrestricted free agent. The Caps also lost defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft.
Salary cap constraints are going to force the Capitals to rely on prospects like forwards Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker, and Riley Barber and defensemen Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and Tyler Lewington to fill those holes. Despite the losses, the Capitals still have a great team with skilled players, solid center depth, and arguably, the best goalie tandem in the league. Captain Alex Ovechkin will be expected to bounce back from a down season in which he scored 33 goals and 69 points. The Capitals will also need consistency from their top-six forwards, particularly Kuznetsov and Burakovsky.
It should be a very interesting year for the Caps, with prospects looking to prove themselves and the established players looking to step up. Despite the losses, this is still a very good team that should make the playoffs and make another run at the Stanley Cup this season.
Breakout Players and Difference makers:
Analysis: Andre Burakovsky is expected to see a bigger role with Williams, Johansson, and Winnik out of Washington, perhaps on the top-line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, with whom Burakovsky scored three goals and four points in two playoff games. He had 12 goals and 35 points in 64 games played, but has suffered from inconsistency in his career so far. If the Caps are going to make some noise this year, Burakovsky must be consistent and stay healthy.
Analysis: Guentzel was arguably, one of the biggest reasons the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season. He set a rookie record with 13 goals and 21 points in 25 playoff games, playing on a line with Crosby and Sheary. Was it just a blip or a glimpse of a breakout year? He will get a full season under his belt after scoring 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games played last year. If he had played all 82 games with his average of .825 points per game, he could’ve reached 33 goals and 68 points.
Analysis: In his first full season in the NHL, Skjei put up five goals and 39 points with a plus-11 rating, just three points behind captain Ryan McDonough for the team lead in scoring by a defenseman. He averaged 21 minutes per night and had 147 hits and 17 takeaways.
Analysis: The young Finn scored 24 goals and 49 points and played all 82 games in his rookie season last year. He was also a minus-1, which was relatively good for the Hurricanes last year. He had an 11.2 shot percentage and scored six goals and 11 points on the power play. He also had 40 takeaways.
By Harrison Brown