Part Four of our 2017-18 season preview will feature the top-five teams in the Metropolitan Division, according to the 2016-17 standings. Feel free to check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the series for the Atlantic and Central Divisions.
2016-17 Finish: 55-19-8, second round loss to Pittsburgh (4-3)
Noteworthy Gains: Devante Smith-Pelly
Biggest Strength: Even though they’ve lost a number of key contributors, the Capitals still boast one of the more talented rosters in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie will all be back next season. On defense, they still have Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson. And between the pipes, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer make up arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league. They also have some quality depth players like Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly to help their attack. All-in-all, Washington is one of the deeper teams in the league.
Biggest Weakness: At this point, Washington’s biggest weakness has to be mental. They’ve been a dominant regular season team in the Alex Ovechkin era, but they’ve failed to advance passed the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their roster has always been good enough to make a deep run, they just haven’t put it all together. If they have one weakness on the ice, it comes in the form of depth on the blue line. They currently have just five players signed to one-way contracts including Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney.
Player to Watch: Andre Burakovsky got off to an incredibly slow start last year, as he went 26 games without a goal between Oct. 15 and Dec. 11. In the end, he finished the season with a respectable 12 goals and 35 points in 64 games. With Williams and Johansson gone, the Caps will need Burakovsky to keep a big step forward in 2017-18. He’ll likely get an opportunity to play on the top two lines which means he should have plenty of opportunities to produce offense both at five-on-five and on the power play.
2016-17 Finish: 50-21-11, won Stanley Cup over Nashville (4-2)
Noteworthy Gains: Matt Hunwick, Antti Niemi, Ryan Reaves
Noteworthy Losses: Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey
Biggest Strength: The Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles because they have plenty of scoring depth and strong goaltending, but the strongest part of their roster is clearly down the middle. Even though they lost third-line center Nick Bonino in free agency, Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center. Most teams would love to have just one of those two guys on their roster, but the Penguins will remain competitive as long as both those centers are around. Matt Murray remains one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL.
Biggest Weakness: As good as the Penguins have been, there’s no denying that their depth took a hit this summer. Having both Marc-Andre Fleury and Murray helped them win both their Stanley Cup titles in the last two years. Now, Fleury is off to Las Vegas, which means that Murray needs to show that he can carry the load for an entire regular season. Antti Niemi isn’t as good of a backup as Fleury. Bonino and Kunitz weren’t relied upon to be important offensive producers, but not having them will affect their depth.
Players to Watch: Phil Kessel is already one of the best offensive players in the game, but there have been rumblings about him being available via trade. For now, those rumblings remain rumors. Last year, Kessel scored 23 goals and 70 points and he added 23 more points in 25 playoff games, so he continues to be productive. With less depth up front, the Pens might need him to up his production.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Finish: 50-24-8, first round loss to Pittsburgh (4-1)
Noteworthy Gains: Artemi Panarin, Jordan Schroeder
Noteworthy Losses: Scott Hartnell, Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner
Biggest Strength: Last season, the Jackets surprised the hockey world by getting off to an incredible start. They may have cooled off down the stretch, but they still managed to jump back into the playoffs. There’s a number of reasons why they were able to make the postseason, but goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was the biggest one. His play on the ice led him to his second career Vezina Trophy, and there’s no doubt that they’ll need him to continue being great if they want to make a deeper run.
Biggest Weakness: John Tortorella’s team have some quality veterans on their roster, but the team is still pretty young. As of right now, Jack Johnson and Brandon Dubinsky are the only two players on the roster that are over 30 years old. Young teams usually have to learn how to win a tight series in the playoffs. They fell short against the Pens in the opening round last year. We’ll see if they’re ready to make another big jump.
Player to Watch: The Blue Jackets made one of the more surprising moves of the offseason when they acquired Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks. Since coming to the NHL two years ago, all Panarin has done is produce goals and offense. He’s done so playing on a line with Patrick Kane, but it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to life without him. Panarin’s production might drop off a bit, but he remains one of the more dynamic players in the league.
New York Rangers
Finish: 48-28-6, second round loss to Ottawa Senators (4-2)
Noteworthy Gains: Kevin Shattenkirk, Anthony DeAngelo, David Desharnais
Noteworthy Losses: Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Dan Girardi, Oscar Lindberg
Biggest Strength: The Rangers are a pretty deep squad on the wings. They’ve got Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. Their depth at the position is one of the reasons why they were able to get out of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. Also, Henrik Lundqvist may have had an up and down regular season, but he certainly proved his worth in the playoffs.
Biggest Weakness: They may have traded away Derek Stepan’s inflated salary to Arizona this summer, but his departure means that they’re incredibly thin down the middle. Mika Zibanejad will likely be their first line center, but after that, there are a lot of question marks. Considering that teams that aren’t deep at that position don’t usually win the Stanley Cup, the Rangers might be in a bit of trouble.
Player to Watch: There was a lot of hype surrounding Jimmy Vesey last offseason, and although he was able to earn a regular spot in the Rangers’ lineup, but he didn’t really contribute much offensively (16 goals, 27 points in 80 games). He’ll be expected to step up his game in year two. He should get more opportunities to produce.
New York Islanders
Finish: 41-29-12, ninth in the Eastern Conference
Notable Gains: Jordan Eberle
Notable Losses: Ryan Strome, Jean-Francois Berube, Travis Hamonic
Biggest Strength: Even though the Islanders traded away Hamonic this summer, they still have a number of quality defensemen on their roster. Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey are joined by youngsters Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Oh, and they still have a guy by the name of John Tavares who is pretty good.
Biggest Weakness: They traded Strome to the Oilers for Eberle in an attempt to surround Tavares with more talent, but they could use another piece or two up front. They also still haven’t figured out their goaltending situation. Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have both had some good and bad moments over the last couple of years, but neither one has emerged as a clear starter for an entire season.
Player to Watch: Eberle was clearly the biggest acquisition of the summer for the Islanders. He’s seen his numbers drop with Edmonton over the last few seasons, but New York is hoping that a change of scenery and the opportunity to play with Tavares will give him the spark he needs to post high numbers again. If Tavares and Eberle stick together, they could both be in for some monster seasons.