Who will win the Metropolitan Division in 2018?

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Associated Press

1. Pittsburgh

Welp, the Penguins are the champs and boy did they ride their luck. Not only am I saying that from refereeing decisions and teams playing at their worst at the most poorly timed moments, but I’m also saying that in how general manager Jim Rutherford found so much untapped talent and made it work.

None of this would be possible if Jake Guentzel and Connor Sheary didn’t come good. While Guentzel wasn’t drafted until the third round, Sheary was not even selected by any NHL team at all. Now they are not just Sidney Crosby’s linemates, they are some of the best teammates the greatest player of his generation ever had. Thanks to those two, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel will all enter into their 30s playing like they are still a good five years younger. That’s how depth works in the NHL and that’s how dynasties last.

Now the Penguins did lose some depth in Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury. But like the Blackhawks before them, Rutherford has found a way to spot when talent is beginning to age before they stay too long on the NHL club and let them walk. Add in the fact that they signed a two-time champion starting goaltender in Matt Murray for just three years and ONLY $3.75 MILLION PER SEASON!!!! Now they have roughly $2.6 million to work with and can save an additional $4.25 million if they feel like Patric Hornqvist isn’t good enough for them anymore at the trade deadline. How on earth are we still living in a world where Steven Mason is making more money than Murray?!?!?!? Seriously, Pittsburgh’s luck has to stop. This is getting unbearable.

If they are going to win their third Stanley Cup in a row, the Penguins will have to continue to make these wise decisions at the trade deadline. Since Ryan Reaves is getting a sweater every night, there is no way this Pittsburgh team is the finished article. If there is one man to be trusted in pulling this off, it is Rutherford. They seriously are going to make my life miserable again, aren’t they.

2. Columbus

I can not believe I’m saying this, but John Tortorella did a good job coaching this exciting hockey team last season. All the pieces came into place beautifully last season and I expect this team to build from that in 2018. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are going to be one of the most elite defense pairs in the NHL this season while David Savard continues to be an above average contributor in the top four.

Up front, if Brandon Saad was so good as a top line wing, just imagine Artemi Panarin replacing him and the passes he and Alexander Wennberg will be unleashing on the same line as speedster Cam Atkinson. Just try not to make your head spin, NHL defensemen! Scott Hartnell will be a bit of a loss for them but Pierre-Luc Dubois comes in and hopes to live with the hype as the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. Oliver Bjorgstrand will certainly get much better now that he’ll be getting more experience at the NHL level while Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky provide solid two-way play in the top nine.

Oh, and Sergei Bobrovsky had the best season of his entire career and hopes to keep improving while he still is at his prime. If things broke right for Columbus, their first round series with Pittsburgh was not as far off as people think it was. They ended up out-shooting the Penguins and if it weren’t for some of the many horrific refereeing decisions Pittsburgh benefited last postseason in Game five and an overtime loss in game three, you could argue that series would have been much closer.

Look, Pittsburgh are the champs for a reason. Just don’t ever have it be ignored that they weren’t dominating the entirety of that postseason the way most Stanley Cup champions do in the analytics era. Therefore, the Blue Jackets are a team that isn’t going away anytime soon. They have $4 million in cap space to do whatever they want to make the team better mid season and who wouldn’t want to go to such a fun arena and play with such great young talent? That’s why the Blue Jackets are won of the better locks to make it to the postseason out of this division.

3. New York Rangers

If there’s one team that should teach the Capitals multiple lessons for how to run a team under a tight budget, it’s the New York Rangers. They have eliminated Washington from the playoffs multiple times for goodness sakes!

Even though the Rangers are not known for drafting great talent, there are not that many better and more honest talent analysts than Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton. After spending so many years as an assistant general manager in Boston and as Glen Sather’s assistant in Manhattan, Gorton has really done a masterful job keeping a tight budget while still putting out a competitive team every night.

He made it happen again this offseason by offloading the expensive contracts of Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan and replaced them with the addition Kevin Shattenkirk and resigning of Brandon Smith. While Stepan’s point production will be missed, he’s always been a subpar puck possession player while Girardi’s game just wasn’t going to cut it anymore for a team that demands more. If anything both Shattenkirk and Smith provide those good analytical numbers and the Rangers will be much more deadlier on special teams to go along with it.

New York still has loads of talent hitting the primes of their career. Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller had massive breakout seasons last year and it could be Pavel Buchnevich’s turn to join the fold this season. Even Michael Grabner proved to be a strong value pick for them. In defense, Henrik Lundqvist is still a space alien while Brady Skjei will continue to improve as a young top four player. It will be fascinating to see where Anthony DeAngelo is as he’ll be given opportunities to stay with the big club. This is, after all, his third team he’ll be associated with since being a first round pick in 2014.

In short, Gorton is a genius and I wish the Capitals found a way to have him join the front office when George McPhee was fired. Sadly, that’s not how life works and I fear the Rangers might be much better than where they were last season. If they don’t it’s simply because of the lack of elite talent in their prime years and the possibility of Lundqvist being three years too late from aging miserably. Hey, I got to be an optimistic Caps fan somehow.

4. Washington

Let’s get this out of the way right now. My excitement towards this team all but died after Washington got eliminated in game seven by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, this was three months ago and I’m sure any red tinted fan will come back at me with memes and gifs of that broken record “Frozen” lyric. But anyone with common sense should recognize that it will be very difficult not to see the Capitals at the beginning of the end here.

Gone are Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner because there was absolutely no way this team could afford them anymore. This fact was set in stone when Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitri Orlov saw their salaries double with the former receiving the godfather offer so that he didn’t leave for the KHL so that he can play in the Olympics.

Also, my dunderhead Brian McClellan saw no value in Nate Schmidt in his entire life so he just let him walk instead of… say…trade away a 2019 first or second round pick and their choice of Philipp Grubauer or Jay Beagle. Heck just hypnotize them to drafting Brooks Orpik while your at it. But no, you just let your old boss George McPhee walk over you and steal an undervalued talent like Henry Winkler lost his playbook in Waterboy.

Now, after coming out in the 2016 preseason saying that you have to limit Orpik’s minutes because of his age, you have no choice but to have Barry Trotz make him a top four defenseman. Also, WTF was up with giving T.J. Oshie the David Clarkson contract?

I get that he’s good, but at 30 years old, why is it ever a smart idea to give him eight years beyond the fact that he’s irreplaceable from a marketing standpoint outside of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom? Smart front offices always set ultimatums for such situations in order to stay competitive for years to come. They made tough decisions on Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward and each one of them was the correct decision.

This wasn’t  even close to correct. Personally, any contract over four years for Oshie was a disastrous gamble and I’m seriously giving the benefit of the doubt to the player. Remember what happened to Mikhail Grabovski after he received a four year deal after being such a bright spot in Washington? Even if you think Grabovski is less talented than Oshie, the point stands that Oshie needs better linemates in order for him to look good. Like Brouwer, he doesn’t make the team great all by himself. That’s why he’s replaceable in this instance and the best teams in the NHL find creative ways to fill in Oshie’s void. Instead, Oshie gets eight years with a top-100 player cap hit with Marcus Johansson being shown the door for less draft pick value than Lars Eller as a result. Along with not being good enough to stock the Capitals with elite prospect depth, Brian McClellan is no longer a creative general manager and genuinely should be fired as soon as his team misses the playoffs.

Best case scenario: Washington has enough talent in the short term to get back to the playoffs and stall another up and coming team to make it back to the second round.

Worse case scenario: Welp, I don’t want to talk about it at all.

5. Carolina

For the past two seasons, Carolina has been the sleeping giant that has been dared to be waken up. This season might be the time they finally break into the top half of the NHL and finally start to come alive. Under head coach Bill Peters, the Hurricanes have always been one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL, but as long as they had Cam Ward in net, their chances of winner were always going to be slim to none.

This summer, they not only have added Justin Williams and buttered up Las Vegas so much that they pried Marcus Kruger and Trevor Van Riemsdyk away from them, but they also added Scott Darling and made him the number one goaltender. With almost nobody of note leaving the franchise, Carolina now is stacked across the board and should be able to threaten towards a playoff spot.

The team already has Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm as under-25 stars in the making along with Jordan Staal upfront. On the back end, Van Riemsdyk will be included in a group that is one of the most underappreciated in the NHL with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jacob Slavin leading the way.

To top things off, this young and promising only costs you just over $60 million if you owned the team. Carolina previously had a reputation as being one of the loudest arenas in the NHL when they made their Stanley Cup final runs; exactly the reputation Nashville has right now. It would be fantastic to see the Hurricanes faithful back on their feet and contending every season.

Unlike the Miami Marlins, EVERY SEASON needs to matter for them and thanks to general manager Ron Francis and analytics head honcho Eric Tulsky, they may finally see that come to fruition. Any other team (what up Sabres?!) would panic in the middle of their rebuild and start signing veterans for no reason just to see the destination. But that’s not how building a long lasting product works. Carolina needed all the time in the world to make this project work out in their favor and they may finally start to see the fruits of their labor this season.

6. Philadelphia

Another team hoping to see their youth movement work is the Philadelphia Flyers. Along with Gorton, if there’s one general manager that no one talks about that I wish to emulate the most, it is Ron Hextall. It can’t be stated enough how much of a mess Paul Holmgren put the Flyers in before he was “promoted” to president of hockey operations.

Under Hextall, Philadelphia is in the middle of a youth movement with the likes of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, 2017 second overall pick Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny, Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim and saving cap space one player at a time. Even removing Matt Read from the NHL club and signing Brian Elliott were good moves that don’t make the team worse while saving money. Eventually, Flyers fans will want to see a Stanley Cup winning team again. It may happen in a few years time, but certainly not in 2018.

At the end of the day, this season will be determined on how well Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek perform. All three will either be turning or getting close to turning 30 by seasons end and there is just not much time left to prove their worth as elite hockey players. Both can still deliver, but is it enough to carry this team full of untapped potential to at least 95 standings points? In 2012, that would have been a definite yes? In 2018, that’s much more doubtful.

Either way, it’s teams like the Flyers that you would label “Center Ice” viewing: someone that could pull of the surprising and spectacular at any given night, but you just don’t know when it will happen. All that could turn to poop if Dave Hakstol continues to bench his young talent like he did with Gostisbehere last season. Yes, Hakstol is a good enough coach to deliver solid puck possession systems, but any coach that ever thinks benching young players to “teach them lessons for the rest of their career” is a good idea should always be fired. It’s coaching 101 to always put out your 18 best skaters. EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. Then again, Barry Trotz has over 600 career regular season wins, so what do I know.

Until then, the Ben Mendelsohn look-alike is another major factor in determining Philadelphia’s season. But really, this division is just too tough for this team at this point in time. Either way, they will not be boring to watch.

7. New Jersey

While Carolina and Philadelphia hope to see their rebuilds work, New Jersey is only jest getting started. After acquiring Taylor Hall via trade before last season, the Devils continued to add more talent in veterans Marcus Johansson and Drew Stafford and rookies Will Butcher and Nico Hischier. While the Devils should start to see a definite improvement, this is a team that has just been in rock bottom ever since the final season in Peter DeBoer’s tenure has head coach.

Under second year head coach John Hynes, the systems are not that much different. In other words, this really is your grandfather’s New Jersey Devils: all defense, no offense and so much stalled out neutral zone play. Until we see some forward play that can be unleashed constantly, I don’t really trust the Devils to make up any more ground than just a team that has gone from the worst to just bad.

Corey Schneider, Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique might have something to say about this, but Travis Zajac will be out for too long while recovering from pectoral surgery to make that much of a difference. Brian Boyle also adds some veteran two way play, but it’s just not certain how much of an impact he is while playing his way through mild leukemia. John Quenneville and Pavel Zacha are also two young players that can deliver with their untapped potential, but that phrase can’t be said without the word “untapped”. On the back end, Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene will hope to improve from a disastrous 2017 as all three do show decent potential for a solid blue line.

Until that all comes to fruition, however, the Devils only have such a high ceiling and it just seems quite difficult for me to envision going beyond that in 2018.

8. New York Islanders

In such a cutthroat division like the Metropolitan is, dumb moves will punish you permanently. For the [Brooklyn,] New York Islanders, they’ve made at least two of them and it may cost them John Tavares in the long run. Last year, the Islanders front office thought it was a good idea to let Kyle Okposo walk and replace him with an older and less talented Andrew Ladd. This year, they traded away their best defenseman without getting anybody to replace him and from a defense that never was that deep to begin with. Also, are we seriously going to give Jaroslav Halak over 30 regular games in goal again? Really?!

As much as Doug Weight might be a good coach, each one of these moves seriously has to cripple the roster massively. I mean, does anybody really want to see Cal Clutterbuck or Jason Chimera play top six minutes again? That certainly will change now that Jordan Eberle is in the fold and Josh Ho Sang was fun to watch in the second half of last season. Along with that, Anthony Beauvillier and Matthew Barzal are good young pieces to develop that should make long term impacts for years to come.

Beyond that, what’s there to like about this team? Beyond Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, there’s not a single defenseman that should ever play top four minutes on a cup contender. But again, with more feeling, Ben Lovejoy was a first pairing defenseman on the 2016 Penguins, so what do I know. And it hasn’t been since the end of this article that I am bringing up how inconceivable it is for Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas to be worth a combined $6.85 million per season. Boy are some people’s priorities dumb.

Then again, I do sense that anywhere between third and last is up for grabs in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders could play exactly like their fun-and-gun 2014-15 selves and convince Tavares to stay that way. Otherwise, kiss your future goodbye as the Pittsburgh Penguins cheat the league again, pry him away, and play the 2018-19 season over the salary cap with no punishments to be doled out ever.

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