Biggest unanswered pre-season question for each team in the Metropolitan Division

New York Islanders' Bo Horvat. (Karl B DeBlaker/AP)

Every team carries two things into a new NHL season: Hope and questions.

Of course, there’s a tiered dynamic to hope. A lot of clubs are aiming for a playoff berth, while others in a different class of team merely want to see tangible signs of progress. At the top, a few squads can look in the mirror and sincerely say this could be the year.

Questions, too, come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some squads are wondering about a young guy or two who might step up; others are still not sure who the No. 1 goalie is.

The answers, in many cases, won’t come for a long time yet. But with NHL camps officially kicking off, it’s time to pose a query — big or small — for all 32 outfits. To do so, we’ll break it into bite-size chunks and go division by division. After starting with the Pacific, we’ll jump east to the Metropolitan Division.

Carolina Hurricanes: Is this Patrick Kane‘s new team?

We don’t know when Kane will return from off-season hip surgery, but chances are he’ll be the best version of himself by the second half of the season.

Carolina is in virtually no danger of missing the playoffs, but could sure use another offensive player in the mix to try to get over the second-season hump.

The Canes’ plan for scoring last season blew up in their face when Max Pacioretty returned from Achilles surgery, scored three goals in five January games, then was forced to the sidelines with the exact same ailment. After Andrei Svechnikov was lost to a knee injury in March, it felt like Carolina’s ceiling become something other than winning the Cup.

The Hurricanes kicked the Erik Karlsson tires pretty hard, but ultimately bowed out. Could Kane be the offensive game-changer they’re starving for?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Will the Mike Babcock fiasco linger?

The Babcock hiring/resignation situation was unfortunate for a host of reasons, not the least of which is it cast a shadow over what should otherwise be quite an optimistic time for the Jackets.

The team hopes that under the guidance of new coach Pascal Vincent, that potential progress can stay on course. I’m not sure there’s a club in the league that could make a bigger leap forward points-wise than the Jackets squad that finished 31st in the NHL with 59 points last season.

Zach Werenski is back after missing most of last season with an injury; he joins a D-corps that includes newcomers Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson; Johnny Gaudreau should be more settled in Year 2 with the squad; and Adam Fantilli is a top-of-the-lineup centre you dream of drafting.

Throw in a bounce-back for Cole Sillinger, a leap forward for Kent Johnson and the possible arrival of highly intriguing D-man David Jiricek, and there’s a lot to wrap your arms around in Columbus.

Let’s see how fast the page gets turned.

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New Jersey Devils: Are they already a true contender?

Last year’s 112-point season — an incredible 49-point improvement over the previous campaign — was one of the standout stories in the league, and the young Devils punctuated it with a first-round series win over their archrival, the New York Rangers.

The goalie tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid is, no doubt, a fair thing to wonder about, regardless of how good each guy was a different times last season.

That said, this squad is loaded.

Tyler Toffoli was a tasty veteran add; Luke Hughes could be a Calder finalist, and deadline acquisition Timo Meier is sticking around for the fun, on an eight-year deal.

Bonus question: What are the odds on a Jack Hughes Hart, Nico Hischier Selke parlay?

New York Islanders: How will Bo Horvat fare as the No. 1 centre?

Horvat — after signing a huge extension in the wake of being acquired from the Vancouver Canucks — scored three goals in his first four games as an Islander. The problem is he tallied only four more times in his next 26.

Last year’s 38-goal season seems likely to be an outlier for Horvat, but what will he round into with his new team? He’s obviously a quality player. For $8.5 million against the cap, though, the Isles will need some snipes.

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New York Rangers: What will we make of Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko by January?

Can you imagine how dangerous the Rangers would look if the second-overall pick from 2019 (Kakko) and the top selection in 2020 (Lafreniere) had performed the way players taken in those slots usually do?

There’s a nuanced conversation to be had about the opportunities they’ve had, being put in a position to succeed, etc. The bottom line, though, is neither player has come close to putting up the kind of numbers Blueshirts’ backers dreamed of when they were selected.

New coach Peter Laviolette and his up-tempo style brings a clean slate and fresh chance for these two to prove their worth. Can they seize it?

Philadelphia Flyers: Have we overlooked Flyers fans’ willingness to be patient?

For a long time, the notion of full-scale rebuild in Philadelphia seemed as sickening as Rocky Balboa taking a dive.

And, to be fair, the Flyers never really needed one. Until now.

New GM Daniel Briere has been very transparent about the club’s need to build from the bottom up, and the Flyers enter this season as strong candidates for 32nd overall.

Will Philly supporters get behind the idea of aiming at drafting touted 2024 prospect Mack Celebrini first overall or will factions of the fan base revolt by December?

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Pittsburgh Penguins: Can Erik Karlsson unlock a middling power play?

The Penguins, with all their top-end talent, ranked 14th in the league with the man advantage last season. And this “meh” power play isn’t a new phenomenon; the Pens ranked 19th on the PP in 2021-22 and have been a top-10 team with the man advantage just once in the past four seasons.

So in comes Karlsson, the puck wizard at the point who has more power-play points (242) than any defenceman in the NHL since the start of the 2011-12 season, when he won the first of his three Norris Trophies.

If Pittsburgh is going to climb back into the post-season, Karlsson has to be the catalyst for a power play that makes opponents pay.

Washington Capitals: Are we sleeping on them as a potential playoff team?

We’re not quite at the point of the pre-season where everyone makes their predictions, but when that happens, I expect a lot of people will leave Washington outside their top eight in the East.

Fair enough. Washington — not exactly a young squad — totalled 80 points last season and missed the playoffs for just the second time since Alex Ovechkin’s sophomore year.

That said, No. 1 centre Nicklas Backstrom missed the first half of the season; No. 1 defenceman John Carlson missed the second; and top-six winger Tom Wilson was also sidelined for 49 games with an injury.

That’s a lot to absorb.

The Caps return with a much healthier group and the potential for a new-coach bump under Spencer Carbery. I, for one, wouldn’t be shocked if they jumped back up into a wild-card spot.

And even if the Capitals season does go sideways, at least we can wonder how much closer Ovechkin — sitting on 822 career goals — will get to Wayne Gretzky’s 894.

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