NHL 2022-23 Metropolitan Division Preview: Contenders, risers and hangers-on

New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren (55) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game 5 of the NHL Hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference Finals, Thursday, June 9, 2022, in New York (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The Metropolitan Division is an interesting one, with recent past champions mixing with rising new challengers, and a couple still lost in the woods. There's the potential for surprise, or disappointment, at all ends of this group of teams.

Can the Penguins or Capitals capture past glory? Will the Hurricanes or Rangers take another step towards being crowned Cup champs? Will off-season winners Columbus make marked improvement, or can the Devils be the one who jump the queue?

Here's our look at the Metro Division.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2021-22 season outcome: 54-20-8, first in Metro; Lost to Rangers in Round 2 of Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Ondrej Kase, Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, Brent Burns

Notable off-season subtractions: Ian Cole, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Max Domi, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Smith

The good news: Trending up for the past four years, the Canes won the division last season, but still couldn't break past Round 2. But don't sleep on the Canes. They have a returning young core that's still improving, evidenced by the fact the team became a top 10 offence last season for the first time in this era of the franchise. Some of that offence departed, with Niederrieter, Trocheck and DeAngelo finishing as the team's fourth, fifth and sixth highest scorers a year ago. Replacing them will be Brent Burns -- still a top 10 scoring defenceman over the past three seasons -- Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, who won't be available to the team until February recovering from a torn Achilles. Defensively, the blue line is one of the best in the league, and goalie Frederik Andersen played up to his contract. Antti Raanta filled in admirably for him in the playoffs, and the tandem remains the same in 2022-23. There is, perhaps, more risk in some of the aged acquisitions, but the upside is immense and could bring greater return next playoff season.

The bad news: It finally all came together for the Canes last season. Where in the past there was some glaring potential weakness in goal, or in lack of offence, the 2021-22 Canes was a well-rounded unit. They still couldn't get past Round 2 and, in fact, were knocked out by another division rival that figures to be a thorn for years to come in the New York Rangers. Those Rangers are just beginning to emerge from a short re-tool and themselves should get more polished. Are these Canes better positioned to knock off the Rangers? What difference would a healthy Andersen make in the playoffs?

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2021-22 season outcome: 37-38-7, sixth in the Metro.

Notable off-season roster additions: Johnny Gaudreau, Erik Gudbranson

Notable off-season subtractions: Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier

The good news: You mean the great news. Columbus was the surprise destination for the summer's biggest UFA forward, with Johnny Gaudreau choosing the Blue Jackets over Calgary, or waiting on New Jersey or Philadelphia. As well, Patrik Laine could have slow walked to free agency next summer, but instead signed a four-year extension. It's not often Columbus is on the receiving end of these kind of transactions and it could mark a turning point. Gaudreau will make for an astonishing winger pair with sniper Laine, and whoever centres them will have one of the best job assignments in the league. They missed the playoffs by 19 points last season and even having just one line that performs among the league's elite should improve that finish.

The bad news: We can't get too far ahead of ourselves -- this team is still a work in progress. The defence is still young, with one player over 26 years of age, and even forwards Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson are still fresh into their careers. The Blue Jackets likely didn't have "adding Gaudreau" as a highly likely part of their grand plan, so while his pick up accelerates the window, we have to remember to zoom out and see just how big a gap the team still has to make up.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2021-22 season outcome: 27-46-9, seventh in the Metro.

Notable off-season roster additions: Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, John Marino, Simon Nemec, Vitek Vanecek

Notable off-season subtractions: Pavel Zacha, P.K. Subban, Ty Smith

The good news: It's only supposed to be getting better from here and, with all of the key roster building blocks in place, the Devils made some inspiring additions to better surround that core. Palat comes with the experience of top line duty on a Cup winner, Haula some offensive punch for potentially a third line role, Marino should be a defensive upgrade, and Nemec was the second overall pick in 2022. When you consider these additions along with the fact Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Yegor Sharangovich (last year's top four scorers on the team all under 24 years old) are all trending up and coming off career seasons, you can see how the Devils could improve.

The bad news: Goaltending was such a major sore spot for the Devils last season. They used seven goalies all year, none played more than 25 games, and only one had better than a .900 save percentage (Jonathan Bernier, .902 in 10 games). They wanted to improve at the position, but didn't nab any of the free agents. Instead, the Devils acquired Vitek Vanecek in a draft pick swap deal. Vanecek finished with a .908 in Washington last season -- a team that moved on from both of its goalies in search of improvement. Other than that, New Jersey is bringing MacKenzie Blackwood back and hoping he can recapture his performance from two and three years ago. The Devils were last in save percentage a year ago -- will this year's tandem be good enough to support a hopeful breakout?

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2021-22 season outcome: 37-35-10, fifth in the Metro.

Notable off-season roster additions: Alexander Romanov

Notable off-season subtractions: Zdeno Chara, Andy Greene

The good news: The start of last season was disastrous for the Isles. They had to spend the first six weeks -- 13 games! -- on the road, which was challenging enough, and then got hit with a COVID outbreak that made the climb steeper. By the Christmas break, the Isles were dead last in the Metro with an 8-12-6 record. However, from then on, New York was the 15th-best team in the league with a 29-23-4 record that was much closer to expectation. They didn't change much on the team in the off-season (the firing of coach Barry Trotz will be the biggest difference) so they are banking that a more "normal" season will return the Islanders to the conference finalist they had been.

The bad news: Is 15th in the NHL enough for nothing to be touched on this team following a playoff miss? How much did Trotz and his system make this team come together so well, and can Lane Lambert get as much out of the overachieving group? The Isles have 16 points to make up on the playoff teams and, if they do that, you then have to ask who they'd replace in the post-season? Washington? Boston? Florida? Pittsburgh? Who are these Islanders bumping out?

NEW YORK RANGERS

2021-22 season outcome: 52-24-6, second in the Metro; lost to Lightning in Eastern Conference Final.

Notable off-season roster additions: Vincent Trocheck, Jaroslav Halak

Notable off-season subtractions: Tyler Motte, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Ryan Strome, Nils Lundqvist

The good news: They seem to have arrived already. Ever since The Letter of 2018, the Rangers have been taking a long-term approach with their team building, and though it's under new management now, the construction process is largely complete. Last season they returned to the playoffs officially for the first time since the announced rebuild, and immediately advanced to the conference final and gave the back-to-back champs a real run. They aren't like a normal rebuilding team. The Rangers have an excellent veteran core they kept around, let by Mika Zibanejed and Chris Kreider, and then have the "future core" making an outsized impact, from K'Andre Miller to Adam Fox. We still haven't seen the best from No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, or No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko.

The bad news: It's not all rosy here. Yes, the Rangers have flash atop the lineup, but do they have the depth to keep progressing forward? They did a lot of work at the deadline last season to round out the group, and now much of that work has been undone again. The high draft pick selections are great on paper, but haven't done it yet. The Rangers were 25th in shot attempts percentage at 5-on-5 last season, 24th in expected goals for percentage, which was offset by the No. 2 ranked save percentage they had -- thanks to Igor Shesterkin. Now, Shesterkin could do it all again and there's every reason to believe he is a goalie who will be making a run at awards for years to come. But, for a true contender, some of these underlying trends are concerning.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2021-22 season outcome: 25-46-11, eighth in the Metro.

Notable off-season roster additions: Nic Deslauriers, Tony DeAngelo

Notable off-season subtractions: Martin Jones, Oscar Lindblom, Keith Yandle

The good news: The best news came Wednesday when it was announced that Sean Couturier wouldn't need surgery after all, and is week-to-week instead of having his whole season in question. That will give the Flyers their top line centre back, after they only had him for 29 games last season. On paper, it's confounding that this team isn't better, and rather than attempt a re-tool, fifth year GM Chuck Fletcher is doubling down on this group. But, just to be sure, he hired John Tortorella to add a spark from behind the bench. Apart from blowing up the roster, this was about the best a GM could have done to effect change, without really changing much of the team.

The bad news: Well, you see, this team probably does need change. Twenty-fourth in shots against, 28th in goals against, 18th in shots for, and 31st in goals for is not the kind of stat line you're looking for from a playoff hopeful. They even lost ground to the teams that are actually rebuilding in their division last season, and tied their hands so badly against the cap that they could not even make a play for difference making hometown boy Johnny Gaudreau. If it doesn't get back on track this season, then it could spell the end for Fletcher and demand some deeper change to the on-ice product.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2021-22 season outcome: 46-25-11, third in the Metro; lost to the Rangers in Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Ryan Poehling, Jeff Petry, Ty Smith, Jan Ruuta

Notable off-season subtractions: Evan Rodrigues, Mike Matheson

The good news: This past off-season could have been the end of an era in Pittsburgh, but they were able to retain each of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust. They have to be moving forward as long as Sidney Crosby is active, even though they haven't reached the second round of the playoffs since 2018. There is a path for them to get better when healthy, though. Jeff Petry and Ty Smith are two defencemen at different stages in their careers who should be able to help with offence from the back end. It's not perfect in Pittsburgh, but the alternative (losing Malkin and/or Letang and/or Rust) would have been undeniably worse.

The bad news: There are age and health concerns with this team now and their biggest off-season add -- Petry -- is himself coming off a terrible down season in Montreal at age 34. It's hard to envision the Penguins missing the playoffs, but when we talk about all the non-playoff teams from the East that could make a push (Islanders, Devils, Senators, Red Wings) the Penguins are one of the teams that pop up as a possible replacement. That's the reality of where they're at. Could the Penguins catch lighting and go on another Cup run? With this experienced roster and a capable goalie in Tristan Jarry, sure? But it's more likely these days for the Penguins to bow out in Round 1 again, or take an even worse step back.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

2021-22 season outcome: 44-26-12, fourth in the Metro; lost to the Panthers in Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Connor Brown, Dylan Strome, Darcy Kuemper, Charlie Lindgren

Notable off-season subtractions: Justin Schultz, Vitek Vanecek, Ilya Samsonov

The good news: The Capitals' primary weakness last season came in net, finishing with the 16th ranked power play and not really being sure on who their No. 1 really was. So, they traded Vanecek, left Samsonov an unqualified RFA and then landed last season's Cup-winning goalie, and a surefire No. 1, in Darcy Kuemper. Perfect. Alex Ovechkin figures to keep climbing the all-time goal scoring charts with Gordie Howe 21 goals away. The Capitals didn't get worse this off-season, and that's important to acknowledge because in the cap era, teams that have been as good as Washington has for this long tend to begin deteriorating.

The bad news: The season start could be a little rough. Tom Wilson is out recovering from a knee injury sustained in the playoffs and his timetable to return is late-November to early-January. Nicklas Backstrom is out for the start of the season as well with a hip injury, but his return is on an indefinite timeline. Those are two massive and central pieces of what makes this team go. Without them, the Capitals could dig a hole early and if some other teams in the East push as much as we think they might, it could create a tougher environment for the Caps to survive in.

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