2023-24 NHL Season Preview: Metro Division

The winds of change are blowing through the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Metro Division. For the first time since 2006, both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs. Jack Hughes and the New Jersey Devils are finally back in the playoff picture. Columbus is attempting to fast-track its rebuild while Philadelphia has seen the light and is beginning to dismantle its core.

Of the four NHL divisions, the Metro is the division with the longest Stanley Cup drought, dating back to 2018 when Washington beat the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. What team has the best chance to break that drought?

Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes have tried just about everything to win the Stanley Cup and all they have to show for it is, at most, half of the 16 wins they need. This year, the injury bug struck the winger core. They had Max Pacioretty for all of three games thanks to multiple severe achilles injuries. Andrei Svechnikov missed the playoffs with an ACL injury. Teuvo Teravainen broke his left hand during the playoff run.

The expectation is still regular season dominance in Raleigh as the Hurricanes are well into their window of playoff contention. Their big acquisition this offseason was longtime Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov. He completes what looks to be the most stacked defense core in hockey. They also brought back Tony Deangelo, brought back after only a year with the Flyers.

The only question, if anything, will be whether the depth spots on the lineup will be filled by prospects or veterans. Players like Ryan Suzuki, Jamieson Rees, Noel Gunler, and Vasili Ponomarev can potentially make their NHL debut this season. The questions the Hurricanes need to answer will not be until April and beyond.

Potential Carolina opening night lineup

Svechnikov – Aho – Jarvis / Bunting – Kotkaniemi – Necas / Teravainen – Staal – Fast / Martinook – Ponomarev – Noesen

Slavin – Burns / Orlov – Pesce / Skjei – DeAngelo

Andersen / Raanta

Projected Metro Division finish: 2nd of 8.

Columbus Blue Jackets

General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen is under the impression the Blue Jackets are ready to start returning to the playoff picture. The Jackets made two trades for Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson. If they stay healthy, this Jackets squad could surprise people en route to an 80-point season.

Columbus faces a major issue, though: Mike Babcock. His inability to have up-to-date motivational tactics is well-documented. The other problem he has, though, is his in-game tactics also seemingly were left in 2009. He is a coach who enforces player roles to an extreme. His reliance on older players is what some in Toronto considered the beginning of the end of his time there.

The styles are going to clash in Columbus. Expect players like Erik Gudbranson, Sean Kuraly, and Eric Robinson to get a bump in ice time while players such as Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, and Adam Fantilli are prime suspects for going into Babcock’s doghouse for having the audacity to take a shift off. Perhaps Fantilli can also become the first University of Michigan product to get food (and, when he’s old enough, drinks) for free in Columbus.

Potential Columbus opening night lineup

Gaudreau – Jenner – Laine / Johnson – Roslovic – Marchenko / Texier – Fantilli – Chinakhov / Robinson – Kuraly – Bemstrom

Werenski – Severson / Provorov – Gudbranson / Bean – Boqvist

Merzlikins / Tarasov

Projected Metro Division finish: 7th of 8.

New Jersey Devils

For the first time since Zach Parise left Newark, Devils fans can confidently say they are back. After going from wanting head coach Lindy Ruff fired to publicly apologizing to him, New Jersey’s playoff window has swung wide open.

The Devils have a roster that leaves even their biggest detractors starry-eyed. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are arguably the second-best center duo in hockey behind Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Top-of-the-line wingers such as Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Toffoli, and Dawson Mercer will either feed their centers or be fed by their centers. Dougie Hamilton leads a strong defense that will have top prospect Simon Nemec join the ranks soon. Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid figure to work well as a goalie tandem moving forward.

The sky is the limit for this Devils team. What that means, though, is teams will treat them as the team to beat. Like Carolina, the questions the Devils have to answer are for down the line. This team has no discernable weakness and stands out as a Stanley Cup contender.

Potential New Jersey opening night lineup

Meier – J. Hughes – Bratt / Palat – Hischier – Toffoli / Holtz – Haula – Mercer / Nosek – McLeod – Bastian

L. Hughes – Hamilton / Siegenthaler – Marino / Smith – Miller

Schmid / Vanecek

Projected Metro Division finish: 1st of 8.

New York Islanders

The Josh Bailey era is over. The longtime Islander winger was bought out this offseason, meaning only four members of the 2013 team that snuck into the playoffs remain in Long Island: Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson, Matt Martin, and Anders Lee. Martin, 34, is a pending free agent; Nelson, 31, hits free agency in two seasons; Lee is signed until right before he turns 36, and Cizikas will be 36 when his contract expires.

Lou Lamoriello decided to keep the band together and that is what has held the Islanders back. He managed to sign Ilya Sorokin to a long-term extension, but also gave seven-year extensions to Pierre Engvall (expires when he’s 34) and Scott Mayfield (expires when he’s 37). The Islanders played their hearts out against a depleted Carolina Hurricanes team and had to play catch-up all series. Try as they might, they lost in six games.

This team’s upside is just that. A series of errors in personnel management have led the Islanders back to where they were in the mid-2010s. There is talent to be seen in the lineup; Mat Barzal, Bo Horvat, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Kyle Palmieri are great contributors, but that is what the Islanders are made of. The only true star on the Islanders, analytical darling Adam Pelech notwithstanding, is Ilya Sorokin. The team is designed to win games 2-1 in a league where the best teams win 5-2.

Potential NY Islanders opening night lineup

Lee – Horvat – Barzal / Palmieri – Nelson – Wahlstrom / Engvall – Pageau – Fasching / Martin – Cizikas – Clutterbuck

Pelech – Pulock / Romanov – Dobson / Bolduc – Mayfield

Sorokin / Varlamov

Projected Metro Division finish: 6th of 8.

New York Rangers

After two convincing wins across the Hudson River, the Rangers had a chance to stick a dagger in the heart of the Devils. In front of a rabid crowd at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers… lost in overtime. After that, they lost three of the next four to lose the series. The Rangers went all-in and failed to escape the first round.

As a result, the Rangers fired Gerard Gallant and hired Peter Laviolette. They replaced a head coach who took his team to the Eastern Conference Final a year ago with a coach who has not won a playoff series since 2018. He has taken three different franchises to the Stanley Cup Final and won the Cup in 2006, but has not made a return trip in any of his tenures.

The Rangers are set to have another strong season. The usual suspects will do their things. Adam Fox will continue to be a Norris-worthy defenseman. Igor Shestyorkin will dazzle as usual. Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemi Panarin (who did not score in the playoffs last year) will put up stellar offensive numbers. The Rangers are coming up on the 30th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup win, this would be quite the time to break through.

Potential NY Rangers opening night lineup

Kreider – Zibanejad – Kakko / Panarin – Trocheck – Wheeler / Lafreniere – Chytil – Vesey / Goodrow – Bonino – Pitlick

Lindgren – Fox / Miller – Trouba / Gustafsson – Schneider

Shestyorkin / Quick

Projected Metro Division finish: 3rd of 8.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have finally begun the rebuild they have needed since Alain Vigneault got fired. The people at the helm of the rebuild are mainly former Flyers players. Daniel Briere is the new general manager. Keith Jones is the president, with Patrick Sharp as an assistant of his.

Several familiar faces are likely on their way out. Ivan Provorov is already gone and others are likely to follow. Two players in particular that stand out as trade bait are Travis Konecny and Carter Hart. Hart has been shaky the past few seasons but is still a young goaltender that teams would be willing to take a chance on. Konecny was the only player on the Flyers playing above a point-per-game rate.

Both players will fetch high-quality draft picks, prospects, or current players if the Flyers desire. Each trade they make in the next couple of years will be crucial, especially once Matvei Michkov’s Kontinental Hockey League contract expires.

Potential Philadelphia opening night lineup

Farabee – Couturier – Konecny / Farabee – Frost – Atkinson / Laughton – Cates – Foerster / Deslauriers – Poehling – Hathaway

Sanheim – York / Seeler – Walker / Staal – Ristolainen

Hart / Petersen

Projected Metro Division finish: 8th of 8.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Erik Karlsson is a Pittsburgh Penguin. Safe to say the Kyle Dubas era has begun with a bang. In short order, he took advantage of Vegas’ cap crunch by bringing in Reilly Smith, reconfigured the bottom six with quality players like Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto, and Vinnie Hinostroza, and got Erik Karlsson while dumping three awful contracts on Montreal and San Jose.

Karlsson alone likely gets the Penguins back into the playoffs. The question is whether they go anywhere past the first round. Head coach Mike Sullivan has not won a playoff series since 2018 but is still around in a “what have you done for me lately” league. Tristan Jarry has been reliable in the regular season but either inconsistent or injured in the postseason.

The only early obstacle in the Penguins’ path is Jake Guentzel– in multiple ways. First, he is out of action until November with an ankle injury. Second, he is a pending free agent. If the Penguins are to continue competing, re-signing Guentzel is key.

Potential Pittsburgh opening night lineup

Rakell – Crosby – Rust / Smith – Malkin – Hinostroza / Nieto – Eller – Acciari / O’Connor – Carter – Zohorna

Pettersson – Karlsson / Graves – Letang / Joseph – Ruhwedel

Jarry / Nedeljkovic

Projected Metro Division finish: 4th of 8.

Washington Capitals

Just about everything that could go wrong last season did. For the first time since 2014, the Washington Capitals failed to make the playoffs. Dmitry Orlov, Garnet Hathaway, and Erik Gustafsson all went out at the trade deadline. In their effort to reload, they brought in Rasmus Sandin from a Toronto team that was desperate to win four Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Now, Washington looks to return to the playoffs with a slightly new look. For former first-round picks Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, this may be their make-or-break season to make the main roster. Will Rasmus Sandin take the step forward Toronto was hoping he would make? Can Max Pacioretty stay healthy?

The one move that turned heads this offseason was Tom Wilson’s extension. General Manager Brian MacLellan has put his eggs in the basket of a player who has only had one 50-point season and had torn his ACL in the not-too-distant past. As bold of a strategy as that is, it has high potential to cost the Capitals dearly down the line.

Potential Washington opening night lineup

Ovechkin – Strome – Wilson / Mantha – Kuznetsov – Oshie / McMichael – Backstrom – Milano / Protas – Dowd – Aube-Kubel

Fehervary – Carlson / Sandin – Jensen / Edmundson – van Riemsdyk

Kuemper / Lindgren

Projected Metro Division finish: 5th of 8.

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