NHL Preview: Biggest questions looming over the Metropolitan Division

The battle for the four playoff spots in the Metropolitan division is shaping up to be a fierce one once again this season. (Getty Images)
The battle for the three playoff spots in the NHL's Metropolitan Division is shaping up to be a fierce one once again this season. (Getty Images)

We're less than a month away from the start of the NHL season, and with training camps kicking off around the league, it's time to start looking at what's on tap for the next seven or so months of hockey.

We start our previews off with the Metropolitan Division, a talented group of teams that should fight tooth and nail once again for the three coveted playoff spots allocated to each division.

Here are the biggest questions hanging over each team as the season approaches.

Can veteran additions carry Hurricanes over the hump?

The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of the most active teams in the offseason once again, aggressive in their pursuit of the pieces they think will bring them to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2006.

Team president and general manager Don Waddell took two big swings on July 13, acquiring winger Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights and Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks in separate deals, offering cap relief to two teams in relatively precarious financial situations.

The Canes don't see these deals as salary dumps, though, and neither should the rest of the league. Burns, 37, is coming off a solid season with the Sharks, posting 10 goals and 44 assists in 82 games while logging a career-high 26:09 of ice time per game. While the blueliner is not known for his prowess in keeping the puck out of his own net, he'll certainly offer some puck movement and scoring on the back end.

Pacioretty, 33, is one of the sneaky good moves of the summer and could be a pivotal piece in determining how far Carolina goes in the postseason. Despite an unfortunate Achilles tendon injury that is slated to keep him out of action until the new year, the goal-scoring winger will complement the team's top offensive talent and provide some much-needed scoring depth when he enters the fold.

The Hurricanes also added free agent forward Paul Stastny in late August, a veteran who brings some maturity and poise to the bottom-six and is capable of providing some offense after tallying 45 points in 71 games with the Winnipeg Jets last season.

Will Rangers' young core take the next step?

The New York Rangers were only two games away from the Stanley Cup Final last season, ultimately falling short after losing four consecutive games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While their run to the conference final may have come as a surprise to many, the Rangers are set to contend with the best of the Metro for years to come. They find themselves in an enviable position, with a veteran core featuring Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad leading them in the present and a talented young core developing into the stars of tomorrow.

On the back end, Adam Fox and K'Andre Miller are already making a name for themselves as two of the best young defensemen in the game, holding things down for a unit that allowed the second-least amount of goals in the division last season.

The real questions lies with the crop of young forwards still looking to break out and live up to the high expectations set for them as top prospects. Alexis Lafrenière, the first-overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, has yet to establish himself as a top offensive talent after two years as a pro, scoring 19 goals and adding 12 assists in 79 games last season. The second-overall pick of the 2019 draft, Kaapo Kakko, has tailed off a little after a respectable start to his NHL career, during which he registered 23 points as a rookie. Filip Chytil, New York's first round selection in 2017, registered a career-high 22 points last season, but showed flashes of star potential with seven goals in 20 playoff games.

With 22-year-old Russian forward and 2018 lottery pick Vitali Kravtsov back in the fold after an awkward start to his relationship with the organization, the Rangers have the tools to be good for a long time. But if they want to open their window to contend right now, they'll have to see some significant growth from their young core as soon as possible.

Can the Penguins get some secondary scoring to support their stars?

After an uncertain start to the offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to hold on to their superstar trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, ensuring the three see out the final chapter of their legendary careers together.

While they can almost certainly be counted on to produce at a high level, along with fellow longtime Pens Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, it's the rest of the forward group that fans worry about.

Veteran center Jeff Carter is coming off a strong season with 19 goals and 29 assists in 76 games, and will be relied on to keep up the production down the middle in a second-line role. Jason Zucker enters training camp on the outside looking in after an injury-riddled campaign that saw him register only 17 points in 41 games. Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff will surely demand more from the likes of Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen, who tallied only 33 and 32 points respectively last season.

Perhaps the most significant boost in secondary scoring could come from last season's big trade deadline acquisition, winger Rickard Rakell. The 29-year-old scored four goals and notched nine assists in 19 games after coming over from the Anaheim Ducks, and was awarded a six-year, $30-million contract extension to keep him in black and gold for the foreseeable future. The team will count on him to rediscover his scoring touch to take some of the pressure off his star teammates.

Another name to look out for to get some reps in the top nine is Finnish forward Valtteri Puustinen, a 23-year-old sniper who scored 20 goals and added 22 assists with the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last year.

Will we see the Capitals at full-strength this season?

Similarly to the Penguins, the Washington Capitals are clinging on to a window of contention that is rapidly closing as the franchise's aging core approaches the end of its run.

The problem now is that a significant part of that core is starting the season on long-term injured reserve, with plenty of uncertainty lurking about the extent of the expected absences.

Star forward Nicklas Backstrom is out indefinitely as he recovers from offseason hip surgery, with the possibility that the 34-year-old does not return at all this year. Backstrom is determined to play again and is not considering retirement just yet. The Swedish center registered 31 points in only 47 games last season, and has not played more than 61 games in a season since 2018-19.

The other big piece the Caps will be missing to start the year is forward Tom Wilson, who is still sidelined after suffering a torn ACL in last year's first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers. His prognosis looks much better than Backstrom's, though, with the team expecting him to be back by late November. The 28-year-old is coming off a career year in which he scored 24 goals and registered 28 assists for 52 points in 78 games.

The Capitals will also be without forward Carl Hagelin when the puck drops in October, with his NHL future uncertain after suffering an eye injury last March and having undergone two surgeries to repair the issue. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has accepted a bottom-six role in his four seasons in Washington, never eclipsing 25 points.

Will Islanders' quiet offseason come back to bite them?

The New York Islanders may have had the quietest summer in the NHL.

Apart from acquiring defenseman Alexander Romanov from the Montreal Canadiens at the draft, general manager Lou Lamoriello seemed to be content with the team he had, even after a season that saw them finish fifth in the Metro and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

"There shouldn’t be any disappointment from anyone. When we hear the word disappointment, I wonder what that is. Free agents have to make decisions, and also teams have to make decisions," Lamoriello said in August. "There’s no disappointment where we’re at because we feel very good about who we are, or we would have made drastic changes last year if we didn’t feel good about the group we have and what they’re capable of doing. I say that with comfortability. I say that with confidence. We’re looking forward to getting back at it and proving everybody wrong."

Many believe the Islanders were heavily involved in the race to sign superstar free agent Johnny Gaudreau, who ultimately signed a seven-year, $68.25-million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

While fans were quick to criticize the front office for its lack of offseason work, the Isles still have a strong squad to depend on — one that still includes a majority of the pieces that took the team to consecutive conference finals just before last season.

With a nice crop of talent to surround star forward Mathew Barzal, and a solid defensive unit that saw 22-year-old Noah Dobson emerge with 51 points in 80 games, New York should get past last year's hiccup and compete for a playoff spot once again.

Can Gaudreau and Laine get Columbus back to the playoffs?

The Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the world this summer when they signed superstar forward Johnny Gaudreau when free agency opened in July. A week later, star sniper Patrik Laine signed a four-year, $34.8-million extension with the Blue Jackets.

With the new star duo starting the preseason on the same line, hockey fans in Ohio should have a lot to look forward to once the action gets going, with one of league's premier playmakers setting up one of the sport's elite goal-scorers.

But will this star power be enough to propel Columbus back into the postseason?

It may still be too early for that, especially with the talented teams they have to compete for playoff spots with. The Jackets have a good enough roster in place to provide an environment for their top forwards to thrive in, with established veterans like Jakub Voracek and Gustav Nyquist mentoring a crop of promising young skaters like Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson.

Columbus will be one to watch for the future, and should be an exciting team to tune into as the season progresses, but a shot at the playoffs is hard to picture at the start of training camp.

Can the Devils keep the puck out of their net?

The New Jersey Devils goaltending situation was quite the mess last season, with seven different goalies getting at least one start.

The Devils allowed the fourth-most goals against last season, and a quick look at the netminders' stats will give you a good idea why.

MacKenzie Blackwood, tabbed as the starter when the season began, played only 25 games, registering a 3.39 goals-against average and a .892 save percentage. Makeshift backup Nico Daws appeared in just as many games, but didn't fare much better, allowing 3.11 goals per game. Veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier proved to be the most reliable in the crease, putting up a 3.06 GAA and a .902 save percentage, albeit in only 10 games.

General manager Tom Fitzgerald made sure to address this issue over the summer, trading a pair of picks at the draft to the Washington Capitals for Czech netminder Vitek Vanecek. In two seasons with Capitals, the 26-year-old registered a 2.68 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

If Blackwood could stay healthy, he could form a reliable tandem with Vanecek and hope to keep the puck out of their net.

The Devils have done a good job of bolstering their defensive unit as well, adding John Marino, Brendan Smith and 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec in the offseason. They better hope to shore up their defensive issues if they want to be competitive in this division sooner rather than later.

Is Tortorella the right man to turn the ship around in Philly?

The John Tortorella era is off to a hot start in Philadelphia, with the longtime NHL bench boss already running his players through a gruelling gauntlet in the opening days of training camp.

Did anyone expect any less? Of course not.

But is the 64-year-old the right man to turn things around for the Flyers? That remains to be seen.

The evidence does lean in his favor, most recently with his run with Columbus, his last NHL job, in which he led the Jackets to four consecutive playoff berths between 2016 and 2020.

Tortorella inevitably overstays his welcome in every job he's had, as his fiery and intense personality and coaching style eventually rubs players the wrong way. But there may be no one better to turn a locker room upside down — in a positive way — than Torts.

Then again, with the reported issues in the Flyers' room and around the team, this could also be adding fuel to a raging fire.

For better or for worse, Tortorella is back behind a bench in the NHL. The Flyers and their fans are desperately hoping it's for the best.

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