Part Three of the 2019-20 season preview will continue to work through the Metropolitan Division. You can view Part One and Part Two of the series, which has covered the Atlantic Division and started the Metropolitan, if you haven’t already done so.
2018-19 Finish: 44-26-12 record, first round loss to the New York Islanders (4-0)
Strengths: Pittsburgh’s offense is still the biggest strength of the team despite moving Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes in the off-season. The team still boasts one of the best one-two punches down the middle in the NHL with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel shined last year after being presented with an increased role and his presence in the lineup could expand further in 2019-20, with more power-play time due to Kessel’s departure. The Penguins ranked fifth with the man advantage last campaign. Pittsburgh will be expecting off-season additions Galchenyuk, Kahun and Tanev to contribute as well. They could all see action in the team’s top-six forward group.
Weaknesses: Pittsburgh’s top performers struggled in the playoffs and the power play was almost non-existent against a stifling Islanders’ defense, but they should be able to bounce back offensively despite the loss of Kessel. The Penguins were careless defensively in the series and the back end is a major question mark entering the 2019-20 season. A third pairing of Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson will be worrying and it will place increased pressure on Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, who has battled his fair share of injury issues. The Penguins need Marcus Pettersson to step up after trading Maatta in the off-season and for Justin Schultz to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign.
Player to Watch: Galchenyuk, Kahun and Jared McCann will look to land spots on Pittsburgh’s top-two lines in 2019-20. Galchenyuk has flashed his offensive potential in the past and was a 30-goal scorer in 2015-16. Playing with Malkin could propel him to new heights. McCann and Kahun could be worthy waiver wire additions over the course of the year if they heat up alongside Malkin or Crosby.
2018-19 Finish: 46-29-7 record, Eastern Conference Final loss to Boston (4-0)
Strengths: Carolina has a deep defense corps, highlighted by Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk. The group has excelled at puck movement and is a big part of the team’s heavy shot generation. The Hurricanes ranked second in the league with 1,914 scoring chances for and first with 481 high-danger scoring chances for. Carolina also had the third-best shots against per game (28.6) last season and finally got some solid goaltending. The team will need more of that from Petr Mrazek in 2019-20.
Weaknesses: As good as Carolina was at generating chances, the team lacked finishing ability. The Hurricanes converted just 11.1% of the high-danger scoring chances for into goals, which ranked 29th in the league. The club was 15th overall in even-strength goals (191) and placed 20th on the power play. Carolina also struggled with the man advantage in the playoffs, while going 5-for-52. Sebastian Aho, who Carolina re-signed by matching an offer sheet from Montreal, led the team with 30 goals last year. Teuvo Teravainen had a breakout effort in 2018-19 as well, while Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Niederreiter proved to be excellent additions. Dzingel and Haula were brought in during the summer to provide some secondary scoring.
Player to Watch: Svechnikov spent most of his rookie campaign in a bottom-six forward spot, but he started to get more time with Carolina’s top players as the year progressed. If he cements a spot on the first line and gets top power-play time then his offensive totals could skyrocket.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2018-19 Finish: 47-31-4 record, second round loss to Boston (4-2)
Strengths: Columbus took some major hits in the off-season when several key players left the team for the free-agent market. The loss of the team’s leading scorer for the last two seasons, Artemi Panarin, will hurt the most, but the club still has a capable first line with new addition Gustav Nyquist set to join Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. Josh Anderson, Boone Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand made positive strides last year and they will need to continue their upward climb in 2019-20. The Blue Jackets also have a great, young defense pair with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who still needs a new contract.
Weaknesses: The lack of offensive depth could be a problem for Columbus after losing some very talented forwards, but goaltending will be the biggest area of concern for the team going into the 2019-20 season. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers and the Blue Jackets didn’t bring in anyone to replace him. Joonas Korpisalo will be given a chance to be a starter, while Swiss League standout Elvis Merzlikins is slated to enter the year as the backup. Korpisalo has 90 games of NHL experience in his four previous seasons and this will be Merzlikins’ first action in North America.
Player to Watch: Korpisalo’s lack of success as a backup doesn’t inspire much confidence in his abilities to be a number one netminder. That could open the door for Merzlikins, or perhaps Veini Vehvilainen, to take the reins. They have been excellent overseas and could surprise if given the chance. Of course it is possible that Columbus could look for help outside of the organization if these options don’t pan out the way the team hopes.
2018-19 Finish: 37-37-8 record, 11th in the Eastern Conference
Strengths: Philadelphia’s offense received a significant boost ever since the team put together the duo of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. Jakub Voracek has been productive in a second-line role and he was joined by James van Riemsdyk last year. The team brought in Kevin Hayes in the off-season to provide some depth down the middle and give Nolan Patrick room to grow as a third liner. The Flyers finished just outside the top 10 in even-strength goals with 197.
Weaknesses: The Flyers hope to finally have a troublesome goaltending situation settled with Carter Hart. The club tied New Jersey for 28th in save percentage (.895) and tied Buffalo for the fourth-most even-strength goals against (218) last season. If Hart finally gives the position some stability then Philadelphia’s defense will need to be much better in front of him. The team brought in Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun during the off-season, but need bounce-back performances from Ivan Provorov, who is in need of a new contract, and Shayne Gostisbehere.
Player to Watch: Van Riemsdyk was limited to 66 games last season due to injury, but he still generated points at a high level with 27 goals and 21 assists. He was second on the team in goals and should occupy a spot on one of the Flyers’ top-two lines in 2019-20.
New York Rangers
2018-19 Finish: 32-36-14 record, 12th in the Eastern Conference
Strengths: The Rangers added to an impressive prospect pool by drafting Kakko second overall in 2019 and acquiring Fox from Carolina. The team will also have Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Libor Hajek competing for roster spots during training camp. Bringing in impact performers Artemi Panarin via free agency and Jacob Trouba via trade has made it a largely successful off-season for New York.
Weaknesses: The future is certainly brighter for the Rangers, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains this campaign. The addition of Trouba will help, but the team has to make improvements defensively. Henrik Lundqvist will need to be better as well following the worst year of his career. New York ranked 23rd in the league in goals against per game (3.26) and allowed the fourth-most scoring chances against (1,850).
Player to Watch: Pavel Buchnevich has displayed plenty of offensive upside, but he has had trouble gaining the trust of his coaches. He was productive when he got the chance to play alongside Mika Zibanejad on the top line. If he skates regularly with Zibanejad and Panarin then the breakout performance we have all been waiting for may finally happen. That spot on the top line could also go to Kakko, which would help him shine during his rookie year.