Biggest unanswered question for each team in the Metropolitan Division

Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier. (AP)

The school backpacks are coming out of the closet, kids are trying on last year’s skates to see if they still fit and in roughly one month’s time, NHL training camps will be in full swing.

Sorry friends, summer is wrapping up.

Of course, the upside of transitioning to fall is the aforementioned return of NHL hockey. And while we’re really not that far off from filling up the water bottles, most teams still have an issue — big or small — lingering around the building.

With that in mind, we’re raising one item for every team that figures to be a talking point between now and the start of camps. To streamline things a little it, we’ll tackle this issue one division at a time. We’ll start with the Metropolitan, where one of the best American players of his generation is still contemplating his playing future and a recent first-overall pick needs a new contract.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes actually don’t have a defenceman signed beyond the 2024-25 season, so expect the blue line to look quite different in one or two years. Most pressingly, Brett Pesce is entering the final year of his deal and there was no shortage of speculation the Canes might shop the 28-year-old this summer if the parties could not come together on a long-term extension. Pesce, of course, is still a member of the Canes, but the two sides have not been able to hammer out a new deal that would ensure that is the case for anything beyond the coming season.

Pesce is a six-foot-three, right-shot defenceman who averaged more ice time (22:01) per game than every Carolina blue-liner last year besides power-play machine Brent Burns.

Are the Hurricanes cool letting Pesce start the year without a new contract? Could they still try to flip him into something else, say, more scoring help up front? Given their status as a true Cup contender, you could certainly make a case for the Canes riding it out with Pesce, taking their shot with as strong a defence corps as possible and see where the chips fall.

Columbus Blue Jackets

No team was more aggressive about checking things off its to-do list early in the off-season than the Jackets, who acquired two huge blue-line pieces — Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov — before the Vegas Golden Knights had even lifted the Stanley Cup.

As such, there isn’t a ton left to consider for the Blue Jackets, who also wasted no time getting Adam Fantilli — the third-overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft — inked to a contract that ensured he would turn pro this fall instead of returning to the Michigan Wolverines for his sophomore season.

If there’s one thing Jackets fans might be wondering about, it’s how stud defenceman Zach Werenski is fairing after shoulder surgery that cost him all but 13 games last season. It’s positive news on that front, as Werenski told NHL.com he’s already itching to start camp and begin what he and teammates, old and new, will be a much better season than what a banged-up Jackets just turned in.

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New Jersey Devils

Is there a chance they take a late run at a goalie? New Jersey will almost certainly roll into training camp with a battery of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid, the understanding being that either one could win the starting job. Still, Jersey — which offloaded MacKenzie Blackwood to the San Jose Sharks earlier this summer — has to feel like it is right there in terms of competing for a title, and the Devils have more questions in goal than a lot of top contenders. It wouldn’t be easy, but if Connor Hellebuyck gets dealt — or if the Boston Bruins have to move salary in the form of a goalie to acquire a No. 1 centre to fill that gap created by the departures of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci — would the Devils throw their hat in the ring?

New York Islanders

Is Zach Parise coming back? We know it’s Islanders or nothing for the 38-year-old, who scored 21 goals for New York last season while playing more than 16 minutes per night.

The Minnesota product still hasn’t decided if he wants to keep going after 18 big-league seasons. The Islanders have a locked-in veteran core, but GM Lou Lamoriello — who drafted Parise for the New Jersey Devils in 2003 — has indicated there would be a spot for Parise, should he want to return for a 19th season.

New York Rangers

What will Alexis Lafreniere’s second contract look like? The first-overall pick from 2020 has not performed to the level you’d expect, but Lafreniere is coming off a career-best showing of 39 points in 81 games. Although he has not put up the type of numbers fans expect, there’s also a discussion to be had around the somewhat limited opportunities he’s had to play a top-six role in the Big Apple.

So how will this play out? From the team side, you could see a world where the Blueshirts might try to ink Lafreniere to a three- or four-year deal in the hopes he breaks through this season, and they have him on the books at a friendly number for the foreseeable future. Alternatively, Lafreniere could take a bet-on-yourself posture and try to hammer out a one- or two-year deal at a lower annual average in the hopes he’ll hit it big on the third deal. There might be some appeal in that for New York, as it’s already in Cup mode, and having Lafreniere at a low number this year and next would allow more wiggle room to acquire go-for-it pieces before the deadline.

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Philadelphia Flyers

Sean Couturier hasn’t played an NHL game since Dec. 18, 2021. He started practicing with the Flyers late last season, but never made it back into the lineup. Earlier this month, new team president Keith Jones said the expectation is Couturier — with two back surgeries now behind him — will be ready to go on Day 1 of training camp.

The real question for Philly and Couturier — assuming he’s fully healthy — is, what now? The Flyers are in the infant stages of a rebuild, just as Couturier is coming into the second year of an eight-year extension he inked in 2021. The 30-year-old — who won the 2020 Selke Trophy — was one of the best two-way centres in hockey before his injury troubles. If he re-establishes himself as the player he once was — or even something close to it — is there a chance the rebuilding Flyers move him, or would the heft of his contract make that an impossibility?

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens announced earlier this month that left winger Jake Guentzel underwent ankle surgery on Aug. 2 and will be re-evaluated in 12 weeks. That means there’s no chance Guentzel — who is entering the final year of his contract — will be lining up at his usual spot beside Sidney Crosby to start the season.

Newcomer Reilly Smith figures to get a top-line shot with the Penguins, but there will be an opportunity for someone in the organization — or maybe an outside candidate on a professional tryout — to step up and fill a need.

Washington Capitals

Is there still any hope of shipping out Anthony Mantha and the $5.7-million cap hit he represents for one more season? Mantha has produced just 24 goals in 118 games with the Capitals, as the inconsistencies that plagued his time in Detroit have only been exacerbated in his second NHL stop.

The Caps would also love to say good-bye to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s $7.8-million cap hit for the next two seasons. Kuznetsov is coming off a miserable year, but if Washington is willing to eat a portion of his bill, there’s still a chance to find him a new home in the next month.

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