Who Will Win the Metropolitan Division in 2017?

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Bruce Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

7. Columbus

John Tortorella. Good night everyone.

But in all seriousness, Columbus has some genuine talent on paper. All will depend, though, on how the likes of Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexander Wennberg can step up and develop as top nine forwards this season. First round pick Pierre Luc-Dubois also made the opening night roster, but he might end up having a 10-game audition before he goes back to juniors than staying with the big club for the full regular season. If anything, scoring goals was not that much of an issue with Columbus last season.

If anything, it was the lack of defending that really made the Blue Jackets regress from the playoff team they were back in 2014. Simply put, Jack Johnson is not a top pairing defensemen and only Seth Jones is considered above league average for his position on the team. Along with that, Sergei Bobrovsky had a very injury plagued 2016 and has to rekindle the magic he had when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2013. In fact, the 28-year old has still never had a season in which he has played more than 60 games. This is a pivotal moment in his NHL career as his quality start percentage has plummeted to its lowest since his age-23 season and has played so poorly while carrying the most expensive cap hit among all goaltenders.

7. New Jersey

Beyond Taylor Hall, if you can name any other New Jersey Devils skater, you deserve a gold star. Sure, you might mention Adam Henrique but last season was his first ever while hitting the 50-point mark and he’s the top line center. Maybe you’ll mention Mike Camalleri and you remember how he usually misses half the regular season due to injury every. Maybe you’ll mention Travis Zajac and his New Jersey Devils style of boring defense first hockey. Maybe you’ll mention Kyle Palmieri and wonder how he led the team in scoring after never going above 31 points his previous five years in the NHL.

Pavel Zacha has been called up to be the team’s third line center, but the 2015 first round pick has struggled mightily to be an elite goal-scorer at the OHL level. Any other NHL team doesn’t bother giving him a spot on the opening night roster. Either way, the Devils have miles of a ways to go and I still doubt that their prospects are good enough to improve the talent on this roster. If they don’t finish higher than the lottery, it is a testament of how good of a coach John Hynes is and how great of a goaltender Corey Schneider is. It could also be a testament of how terrible New Jersey makes hockey look in order to win games too.

6. New York Rangers

Unpopular opinion: The New York Rangers might actually be a fun team to watch this season. In fact, if the franchise wants to maintain elite level status, they may want to adapt Dallas’ systems or Bruce Boudreau’s 2008-10 Capitals systems. The point being is that the depth the Rangers have at forward is pretty good.

Even if you think the defense is bad, we can all agree that, until proven otherwise, Henrik Luindqvist is a space alien. There has to be some explanation as to why he hasn’t had one average season, let alone bad one, since he has entered the league in 2005. If Brady Skjei can be counted upon to compensate the awfulness of Dan Girardi and Nick Holden and Jimmy Vesey can score at the level he did to win the Hobey Baker award last season, the Rangers will still be the same team that flirts with the latter stages of the postseason. Otherwise, the Rangers will be on the verge of a true rebuild.

5. Carolina

If only Carolina can ever improve their PDO and their on-paper roster. Otherwise, Bill Peters is constantly doing wonders for a franchise that, honestly, is one of the most non-existent when it comes to player transaction activity in the NHL. After so many years of having one star on the team, Eric Staal is gone and now Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk are the most recognizable names. Teuvo Teravainen could be an interesting player to watch for them this season and Jacob Slavin had a solid rookie season after many seasons as an unknown prospect in defense.

That being said, Cam Ward is still the starting goaltender and he has been among the worst goaltenders in the NHL the last couple of years. Not being able to find a perfect replacement for him over the last couple of seasons has consistently stunted Carolina’s growth for being a relevant NHL team and and it consistently doesn’t help when you have a front office that isn’t willing to improve in other departments as well. If they can ever put the right pieces in place for Peters’ systems, this team can do wonders.

4. New York Islanders

On the one hand, the Islanders have a talented roster that needed to be shored up with more skilled players. They accomplished that by promoting Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier to the big club. On the other hand, the Islanders also overestimated some of their free agent signings by bringing in Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera to replace Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin, respectively. Still, Brooklyn is doing a pretty good job when they have to resort having Nikolai Kulemin on the fourth line.

On defense, Dennis Seidenberg’s production might make or break their season. He has been on the wrong side of the puck possession game for quite a while and Boston couldn’t wait to get rid of his contract. That being said, Jaroslav Halak was great for team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey and it could be the beginning of something better for him in goal. If that happens, the Islanders have the talent to make it back to the second round under the right matchup. Otherwise, we may see a dip in form from a franchise that started out with such great promise.

3. Philadelphia

After so many years of front office ineptitude, current general manager Ron Hextall is finally moving Philadelphia in the right direction. Like all teams should do in the salary cap era, he is drafting and developing talent from within and buying cheap veterans around them. Now it is a matter of time to get that talent into the NHL club and having them become the best in the league.

So far, Shayne Gostisbehere could become one of the elite offensive-defensemen in the NHL after just finishing is rookie campaign. Ivan Provorov made the opening night roster and Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny are not that far off from following “Ghost Bear’s” footsteps. Until all of them make the team, they will make do with some of their veterans, especially at forward.

While Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn had career years, these are make or break seasons for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. All of them are still at the primes of their careers, but Philadelphia has been nose-diving in the scoring department for two years to the point where it has become the team’s biggest weakness. It doesn’t help that Sam Gagner, a true contributor on the Flyers’ third line, left for Columbus during free agency. Now, newcomers Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon will be more dependent on goal scoring instead of on their true roles as being upgrades to Ryan White and Chris Vandevelde on the fourth line and being go-to answers on an improving penalty kill.

Still, Philadelphia will be interesting to watch and everyone will have to perform at their best for them to live up to their full potential. Otherwise, there are plenty of unintentional two steps forward and two steps back with the current roster.

2. Pittsburgh

Just as you thought Pittsburgh will be good to go as defending champions with all but a few players retained for the 2016-17 roster, Sidney Crosby is out for the foreseeable future due to concussion-like symptoms. This is not only a loss for hockey fans everywhere, but this is a loss to a Penguins team that relied so much on spreading their talent out within their line combinations. Crosby might have won the Conn Smythe award officially, but Phil Kessel and his linemates of Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin were really the most valuable players during their Stanley Cup run. Now that Crosby is hurt, Kessel might be forced to move up on the forward lines to support top line players like Connor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist or support Evgeni Malkin if the best opponents begin to play tougher defense against him.

Along with that, there is a definite goaltender controversy that wasn’t resolved over the summer. Yes, Marc Andre Fleury will be the main starter for now and he genuinely has been an above average goaltender the last couple of seasons, but the younger and cheaper Matt Murray was the one guiding Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup. This isn’t an insult to Fleury to state that he is surplus to requirements now.

If anything, trading Fleury could be the answer to what the Penguins should do to keep themselves competitive for a third Stanley Cup and in the long haul. The contracts of Chris Kunitz, Bonino, Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen will be coming off the books after this season but only Daniel Sprong is a viable replacement from within. The prospect pool will be in need of replenishment and the Penguins may not have time to wait for them to become future Penguins as Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Kris Letang finish off the primes of their careers.

1. Washington

Speaking of a team that can’t wait any longer, Washington made all the necessary moves to get better without being close to being punished by the salary cap. Lars Eller will be a massive upgrade to the third line in place of Jason Chimera. Now it is a matter of getting the job done one last time before the team hits a summer with plenty of uncertainty.

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