NHL division preview: 4 questions looming over the Metropolitan

The Metropolitan Division includes three teams that produced 107 or more points last season, but there's plenty of intrigue beyond its top dogs?

Since the Pittsburgh Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups, the Metropolitan Division has been dominated by strong teams that can't seem to get over the hump.

The Carolina Hurricanes play an efficient brand of hockey that has resulted in consistent playoff success, but escaping the conference finals has been impossible for them lately. The story has been similar for the New York Rangers, and their compatriots on Long Island have even made some surprising runs only to fall short.

Perhaps an emerging New Jersey Devils team can help change the narrative, or a Penguins squad that took some big swings in the offseason. While this division doesn't have the same track record of success as the Atlantic, it contains plenty of solid squads and intriguing storylines.

Here are the questions that could define the Metropolitan in the upcoming season.

The Penguins are desperately trying to contend while Crosby is still a difference maker. (Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Penguins are desperately trying to contend while Crosby is still a difference maker. (Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Can the geriatric Penguins make some noise?

After falling short of the playoffs for the first time since Sidney Crosby's rookie season, the Penguins shook things up. They installed Kyle Dubas as general manager, traded for Erik Karlsson and added winger Reilly Smith and defenseman Ryan Graves to play significant roles.

With bottom-six forwards Lars Eller and Noel Acciari also coming aboard, Dubas has managed a mini overhaul in Pittsburgh around his core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

The players the Penguins brought in should improve the team but it's still reasonable to be skeptical of this squad with Crosby and Letang entering their age-36 seasons and Malkin a year older. In 2022-23 Pittsburgh got 82-game seasons from their top two centers, and it's tough to envision that happening again.

It's also worth wondering if Karlsson's presence will limit Letang's impact and give the defensive corps an overly offensive slant. Hall-of-Fame talent abound on this team, but it has a colossal range of outcomes considering the age of its stars — and Jake Guentzel's ankle injury adds another dose of uncertainty.

Will the Rangers take a step forward offensively?

New York has had no problem keeping pucks out of its own net lately thanks its solid defense corps and the emergence of Igor Shesterkin as a world-class goaltender.

Offense has been a different story, particularly in the playoffs. In 2022-23 the additions of Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko couldn't take the team's goal scoring to another level — and each of the club's top four forwards by point production last year will be at least 30 in 2023-24.

The offseason addition of Blake Wheeler could be helpful, but what the Rangers really need is for their young guns to step up. Filip Chytil elevated his game last year, but New York is still waiting on Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko to produce like top-six forwards.

Both top-two picks are still young and likely to improve, but they've also each seen at least three seasons in the NHL and progress has been incremental thus far. If 2023-24 is a breakout year for one or both of the pair the Rangers lineup will look far deeper and more dangerous.

Are the Devils a runaway train?

After making the playoff just once in 10 years, the Devils took off in 2022-23 with a 112-point campaign backed by the second-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference (+65).

New Jersey lost a pair of notable defensemen in Graves and Damon Severson, but it will also get a full season from promising young blueliner Luke Hughes — as well as trade deadline import Timo Meier. The Devils also picked up Tyler Toffoli fresh off a 73-point season to bolster an already strong forward group.

Goaltending is the biggest question for this squad but Akira Schmid showed promise late-year in limited action, and Vítek Vaněček gives the team a solid floor coming off three consecutive seasons with a save % between .908 and .911.

When teams make a jump as big as the one New Jersey managed in 2022-23 there's always room for skepticism. This group seems likely to build on its success, though. Many of its best players are young enough to keep improving and its breakout campaign wasn't build on abnormal shooting luck or outlier individual performances.

What's going on in Columbus?

Although the Columbus Blue Jackets are extremely unlikely to factor into the battle for the Metropolitan Division crown, they will be fascinating to observe this season.

Following a brutal 59-point campaign the team conducted itself as if it was a contender by importing high-profile veteran defensemen like Severson and Ivan Provorov while hiring Mike Babcock as head coach — only to have that backfire spectacularly before the season even began.

In terms of internal improvement, Columbus is hoping for a better season from Johnny Gaudreau in the second year of his $68.25-million contract and Zack Werenski should be able to give them more than 13 games on the blue line. Patrik Laine's tenure with the team hasn't met expectations yet, but he's also a threat to show more than he has in the past.

Add third overall pick Adam Fantilli — who could make an instant impact — into the mix and there's reason for optimism here, especially if Elvis Merzļikins can recover from a brutal season in goal. That doesn't mean these guys are contenders, but they are undoubtedly interesting.

Whether they take a step forward or go off the rails, it will be fun to keep an eye on Columbus.