NHL Training Camps open within the coming days, and hockey season is right around the corner. On October 4, the regular season will begin and 31 teams will compete until April for a Stanley Cup playoff spot.
The Metropolitan Division was wildly entertaining last season, as 4 teams from that division made it to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins won their 2nd straight Stanley Cup, and the Blue Jackets, Rangers, and Capitals all fizzed early in the playoffs.
The Metropolitan Division has plenty of star power, and has a lot of talented teams. What should hockey fans expect from the Division in 2017-18? Will 4 teams make the playoffs again? Who will win the Metropolitan Division? Who will fall out of the playoffs?
Here is how I am looking at the clubs during the preseason:
PROJECTED STANDINGS FINISH IN 2017-18:
1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS*
2. NEW YORK RANGERS*
3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS*
4. CAROLINA HURRICANES
5. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
6. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
7. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
8. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
*denotes playoff teams
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Analysis: The Devils are still in rebuild and are still a mess. Cory Schneider had one of his worst seasons as an NHL player in 2016-17, and will need to improve. The Devils are not in turmoil like the Colorado Avalanche are, but they are close. The Devils lack a game changing defenseman and lack premium scoring behind Taylor Hall. Nico Hischier looks exciting and could be in the running for the Calder Trophy if the Devils give him a lot of icetime this year. John Hynes could be on the hot seat this year if the Devils do not show any kind of improvement. Expect the Devils to be in the basement of the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Analysis: If there is one team I am not convinced on in 2017-18, it is the New York Islanders. Sure, they can score some goals and light the lamp. However, the John Tavares contract situation needs to get done sooner rather than later. The trade rumors will only continue to swirl around the organization the longer it goes. The Islanders need to open their check books and pay Tavares whatever he wants. He is the best thing that is happening in Brooklyn right now. I am sure Montreal and Toronto will be ready to pull off a Tavares trade if the Islanders are open to it. Behind Tavares, the supporting cast is questionable on the blueline and in goal. The Islanders wlll need their younger defensemen to play more minutes to replace Hamonic’s loss. Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak will need to improve in net in order for the Islanders to come close to the playoffs. The Islanders missed out by 1 point last season, but I am not convinced that they have improved their club over the summer to match their 94-point mark from last year.
Analysis: The Flyers are one of the tougher teams to read heading into 2017-18. One thing is for sure: Dave Hakstol is also likely on the hot seat. If the Flyers have a slow start to their season, a coaching change will likely take place. The Flyers will get a heavy dose of the Western Conference in October as they will face Anaheim and Nashville twice. They will also have to play Edmonton, Washington, and Toronto. October could be a rough month for the Flyers if they do not play well out of the gate. On paper, the Flyers have improved slightly, but probably not enough. Nolan Patrick will be exciting to watch for them. If the Flyers want to have any kind of sniff at the playoffs, they need to get off to a quick start, and Brian Elliott must play like he did in St. Louis.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Analysis: Like the Islanders, I am selling low on the Blue Jackets. I did not like the way they finished their season last year. The Jackets were a Jekyll and Hyde team last year. In December/early January, they looked like the most dominant team in the league. In late March/early April, they looked like a bottom-feeding team. Moving Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin was a great move for their organization, and he will give them a boost in offense. The Jackets have a manageable schedule to begin 2017-18, as they play 6 non-playoff teams in October. I like what the Jackets have with Bobrovsky, and I like their young forwards with Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, but there are still questions with their blueline outside of Seth Jones and Zachary Werenski. The Jackets could prove me wrong and get back into the playoffs, but the organization has never made the playoffs two years in a row.
Analysis: The Hurricanes are the team I am selling high on. I like the progress they have made, but is it enough? I think the Canes are still a little short up front. Goaltender Scott Darling is still rather unproven even at the age of 28. While he provided excellent relief for Corey Crawford in Chicago, he has not started more than 27 games in a single season at the NHL level. The Hurricanes will likely expect him to carry the load, and provide 50-60 starts. If Darling can prove that he can carry the load, Carolina should improve in the standings. I like what they have done on their blueline, and players like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce will only continue to improve. The Hurricanes will need forwards Victor Rask, Jordan Staal, and Elias Lindholm to tally over the 20-goal mark if they want to inch closer toward the playoffs. While the young pieces are in place in Carolina, they will also have to improve their bad road record. 13 wins on the road will not cut it in the NHL today. In a perfect world for the Hurricanes, Scott Darling can deliver elite goaltending, and their young forwards can step up their offensive production. If the perfect scenario happens in Raleigh, look out.
Analysis: A lot of people think the Capitals Stanley Cup window has closed. I do not think the Capitals will win another Presidents’ Trophy in 2017-18, but I do not think they will bounce out of the playoff picture. Yes, the Capitals lost a ton of players either via trade or free agency. But this Capitals team is still very deep in key areas. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are 2 of the premier centers around the league. The Capitals defensive core is still good with Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Capitals have one of the best goaltenders in the league right now with Braden Holtby. With elite depth in goal and up the middle of the ice, the Capitals should remain in playoff contention. If the Capitals new younger players come in and make immediate impacts on the ice, the Capitals may not lose a step in 2017-18. A youth movement may be the best thing for the Capitals right now in order to get past the “2nd round hangover.”
NEW YORK RANGERS
Analysis: It was a tossup for the 2nd spot in the Metropolitan Division. I do not think the Rangers or Washington Capitals will finish worse than 3rd in the division. With the Rangers, there are plenty of questions surrounding their team. Who will emerge as the top center now that Derek Stepan is in Arizona? In addition to that question, will Henrik Lundqvist have a rebound season? I feel that the latter will happen, as Lundqvist is too good not to rebound. He has bit the injury bug a bit the last couple of years, but he is still the heartbeat of the Rangers franchise. The center position is up for grabs in New York. Will it be J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, or Mika Zibanejad? Kevin Shattenkirk will give the Rangers an offensive threat from the blueline, and will fit in nicely with the Rangers speedy attack.
Analysis: The Penguins are in line for a 3-peat, and I would not count them out on it. The roster is virtually unchanged, and there are not many flaws in this roster. Barring any injury, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should remain at the top of the scoring race. It appears that Kris Letang is good to go for the upcoming season, which will help things on the blueline. The only concern for the Penguins involves their goaltending. The Penguins lost Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft, but added Antti Niemi as a free agent. Matt Murray is the starter now, and will need to play more games for the Penguins to have continued success.
By: George Foussekis