It’s a two-horse race between this division and the Central for the class of the NHL. There’s probably fewer teams that are true Stanley Cup contenders in the Metro than the Central, but all eight of these teams have a shot at making the playoffs (I think the Devils are a much better team than they’re getting credit for).
The Capitals and Penguins seem to be just a tier above everyone else, and the two teams that will probably be 1-2 in either order. Of the other six, you’re probably looking at one team that gets a good win or three early and snowballs into a big run, a la last year’s Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, you probably get another team that gets eaten up early and it snowballs the other way.
How they’ll finish
1 – Washington Capitals
There’s a couple more question marks than we’ve seen the past couple of years, but this is still a contending team. The Caps managed to lock up Evgeny Kuznetsov to create the 1-2 tandem with Nicklas Backstrom and re-signed T.J. Oshie as a compliment to Alex Ovechkin. Of course, Washington will have to make up for the losses of Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams up front while the shoes of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk will have to be filled on the back end. None of those will be small tasks. But there’s plenty there, maybe just enough to win that vaunted second playoff round.
2 – Pittsburgh Penguins
The losses suffered by the Penguins following their second straight Stanley Cup title certainly don’t help their odds of three-peating, but there’s little reason to panic. What led to Pittsburgh ripping off a pair of championships was the job Jim Rutherford and the Penguins front office did of identifying role players to build around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. As long as that continues, so does the winning.
3 – Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes fell flat on their faces right before the finish line, ending the season on a 1-4-1 slide, but that was preceded by a 9-0-4 run that stretched through March. Then they went out and added Marcus Kruger, Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Scott Darling – Darling being the biggest, given the black hole that has been Carolina goaltending for years now – and it looks like the Hurricanes are ready to compete. The blue line is one of the most talented, young units in the game.
4 – New York Rangers (Wild Card)
Another team in the running for Most Likely Not to Make it Back to Playoffs. Are they a lock? By no means. But the Rangers don’t look much different than years past.
5 – Columbus Blue Jackets
The next three teams are right on the bubble – teams that will be within 2-3 points of the playoffs either way. Without last year’s torrent run that stretched from late November to early January (which included a 16-game winning streak), the Jackets are right in this position in 2016-17 rather than jogging to the finish line with 108 points.
6 – New York Islanders
The top line of Anders Lee, John Tavares, and Jordan Eberle could be one of the better lines in hockey while rookie pivot Mathew Barzal can be a good compliment to Brock Nelson at center in the middle six. This is a team that does most things pretty good but nothing particularly great. This is the type of team that punches its ticket to the postseason by being unattainably good in one particular area.
7 – Philadelphia Flyers
This is a team to watch out for. This is a conservative pick, don’t be surprised if the Flyers end up with 110 points and flirting with the Penguins and Capitals atop the division. Youngsters Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov should build off impressive rookie seasons while rookie Nolan Patrick will hop right into the Philly lineup. Meanwhile, you’ve got veterans Claude Giroux, Jacob Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds leading the way up to, with Giroux and Voracek looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons. Brian Elliott is as good a goalie as the Flyers have had in years.
8 – New Jersey Devils
Is this a playoff team? Probably not. Could they get, say, 85 points? I believe so. New Jersey probably falls victim to the division they’re in, but the Devils are better than people are giving them credit for.
Best Player – Sidney Crosby
Do we really need an explanation?
Rookie to watch out for – Mathew Barzal
Barzal has been the best pure playmaker in the CHL over the past couple seasons, and led Seattle to the WHL title last year. He’s been one of the best players for the Islanders during the preseason
Player that makes the next jump forward – Jake Guentzel
His performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was no fluke. He has speed, he goes right to the net, and has a great shot. You know Sidney Crosby will get him the puck. Guentzel – much like Conor Sheary last season – will pick up right where he left off.
C – Sidney Crosby
LW – Alex Ovechkin
RW – Cam Atkinson
D – Kris Letang
D – Seth Jones
G – Matt Murray