The Metropolitan Division is an interesting mix of teams that includes a few new contenders who have recently risen, a couple of old guards in Washington and Pittsburgh trying to get back into the playoffs to pry open any semblance of a championship window, and, at the bottom, some rebuilders hoping to give the rest of the division a tough time.
Is this the group of teams where next year’s Stanley Cup champion will come from? In what could be one of the harder divisions to predict, here’s our look at one player from each of the Metropolitan teams who needs to perform this season.
Seth Jarvis would also qualify as a breakout candidate this season and the Hurricanes could really use it from him as they have to battle with several strong teams in this division. If Carolina is able to claw its way into the top 10 of NHL offences, Jarvis will have to improve on his rookie scoring pace (0.59 points per game) and certainly bounce back from his second-year average (0.48).
In all situations last season, Jarvis had an expected goal total of 25, but finished with just 14. We could reasonably expect his shooting percentage to improve from the 7.5 rate he finished at last season. When Andrei Svechnikov missed the playoffs due to injury, there was some question on if the Canes could make up for the loss of offence. Jarvis stepped up and finished third on the team with 10 points in their run to the East Final. Continuing that into this season would elevate the Hurricanes and set himself up for a nice payday when he becomes an RFA next summer.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Welcome to the NHL, kid. Adam Fantilli enters the big leagues with immense fanfare in Columbus after he somewhat surprisingly fell to the third pick in the draft, and into the Blue Jackets organization. An early favourite for the Calder, Fantilli is precisely the high-end, big-body centre Columbus has been searching for, to complement the established wingers who have been acquired in recent years.
There will be plenty of pressure on Johnny Gaudreau to deliver in Year 2, and hope that Patrik Laine can remain healthy and hit, or at least approach, 40 goals again. But if the Blue Jackets are going to make progress moving out from the basement of a deep division, they need more of a presence down the middle, where Fantilli should deliver in the long run.
But how will it go in Year 1? Fantilli will get thrown right into the fire, and some suspect he could even outperform Connor Bedard as a rookie.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
As the Devils quickly moved into the contender category of teams last season — after years of drafting, signing and trading for several impact skaters — there was some question if this past summer would be spent trying to upgrade their goaltending. But rather than dive into the trade market for, say, a Connor Hellebuyck, the Devils are set to run it back with an expected tandem.
Vitek Vanecek figures to lead the duo after he played 52 games last season, his first as a No. 1, and held his own. After being cast-off from Washington, Vanecek got a three-year deal from the Devils and now could become a bargain against his $3.4-million cap hit for another two seasons. New Jersey can’t afford taking a step back at this position, as in 2021-22 when the Devils ranked 31st in team save percentage. If Vanecek does falter in any way, we should honourably mention Akira Schmid here, the 23-year-old who had spot starts through the season and then got in nine playoff games. He could get more regular-season time this season.
NEW YORK RANGERS
The first overall pick in 2020, Alexis Lafreniere, has three NHL seasons under his belt now, but has yet to carve out more than an even-strength, third-line role on a deep Rangers squad. A natural left winger, Lafreniere has always lined up below Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin on the depth chart, which has capped his minutes. As we’ve seen other first-overall picks quickly pop off in the NHL, Lafreniere’s 39 points last season was his best, and his 19 goals from 2021-22 is a career-high.
However, on a per-minute basis, Lafreniere screams breakout potential. In the three seasons since he joined the Rangers, Lafreniere ranks second on the team in goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time (minimum 60 games played) and seventh in points. This season there is a new head coach in New York and it will be up to Peter Laviolette to try and find more opportunity for Lafreniere to succeed so the team can really understand what they have here. Is a more permanent move to the right side in the cards?
Lafreniere was an RFA this past summer and signed an affordable two-year bridge deal. If the growth doesn’t come this season, might the Rangers explore trading him?
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
After back-to-back appearances in Round 3 of the playoffs, the past two seasons have ended with the Islanders missing the playoffs, and then getting eliminated in Round 1. Do they have the speed, or offence, to hang in the Metro Division and go on another deep run, or was that two-year period as good as it gets with this group?
As usual, all hands are needed for this team to punch above its weight and the biggest difference about this roster comparing the start of last season to this one is the addition of Bo Horvat, acquired in a mid-season trade. When New York acquired him, Horvat was well down the path of a career year, scoring 31 goals in his first 49 games in Vancouver. He then scored seven in 30 games for New York.
Last year was likely something of an outlier for Horvat, who scored on 21.7 per cent of his shots with the Canucks. That took a sharp turn south in New York, where he converted on just 8.1 per cent of his shots. There has to be some middle ground here and New York needs all the offence it can get, so will be counting on Horvat to not fall too far from his career highs right away. They’ll need 30 goals from him.
It’ll be interesting to see where this “rebuild” era goes under Keith Jones and Daniel Briere, but the Flyers could really use a youngster or two to have a breakout season. Specifically, the Flyers invested six years and a $5-million cap hit in Joel Farabee back in 2021, but he hasn’t scored 20 goals or 40 points since signing that contract and saw his per-game production rates dip last season.
There’s still time, of course. Farabee is just 23 years old and fits right in with the young group including Morgan Frost, Owen Tippett and led by Travis Konecny. Farabee is signed for longer than any of them, though, so Philadelphia would like to see a step up in production and effectiveness, which could help lift the whole organization.
Whether or not you believe the Penguins still have a Stanley Cup window, it’s clear the start of the Kyle Dubas era will focus on trying to set up for a couple more runs. Sidney Crosby has two years left on his contract, Evgeni Malkin three, and as those two age into their late-30s, some sort of end looms. On the back end, Kris Letang has five years remaining. But while Dubas did make some other subtle changes to the Pens, he also made the biggest splash of the off-season by trading for Erik Karlsson — who has four years left and will count for $10 million against their cap.
How will Karlsson follow up his Norris-winning, 101-point season with the San Jose Sharks? Last year was an historic one for the offence-minded defenceman, and it followed several seasons where he struggled to stay healthy and produce as he had in Ottawa. Karlsson is 33 now and still chasing his first Stanley Cup, while this era of Pittsburgh hockey tries to squeeze out one more. Karlsson didn’t explode in San Jose until Brent Burns was moved out, so it will be interesting to see how it works alongside Letang in Pittsburgh. The Pens gave up a bit more of the future (2024 first-rounder) in the Karlsson deal, buying in even more to a roster that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2018. Karlsson doesn’t need to win Norris Trophies necessarily, but he does have to be special.
Recent seasons have been rocky between the Capitals and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was a much-rumoured trade candidate at the draft and through the off-season. GM Brian MacLellan was not shy to voice his frustration over Kuznetsov’s showing in a 12-goal, 55-point season that was well below what’s expected of the $7.8-million player.
If the root of the issue was a player-coach situation, then Spencer Carbery is hopefully the fresh voice that can get Kuznetsov back as the point-a-game player, or more, he’s been. With two years remaining on his contract, a return to form would go a long way to either lifting the whole Capitals team back up, or at least improving Kuznetsov’s trade value.