The Carolina Hurricanes have been the class of the Metropolitan Division for each of the last two seasons, and there's plenty of reason to think they will be again in 2022-23. They bolstered an already stout defense in the offseason, albeit at the expense of some top-six forward depth.
Reigning Vezina Trophy recipient Igor Shesterkin and the New York Rangers are on the fast track to challenge the Hurricanes, while superstar captains Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are intent on showing that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, respectively, can still make an impact.
The New York Islanders are looking for a bounce-back season while the Columbus Blue Jackets are bidding to introduce themselves as a legitimate contender in the division if offseason acquisition Johnny Gaudreau pays immediate dividends. The New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers likely will bring up the rear, with the latter expected to be in the midst of a difficult rebuilding season.
(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)
1. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes acquired offensive-minded defenseman Brent Burns in July with the notion that the former Norris Trophy recipient could add a punch to their 13th-ranked power play. Burns, 37, should ascend to the top of a stacked defensive group and join former Lady Byng Trophy recipient Jaccob Slavin on the top pairing.
Frederik Andersen recorded a career-best 2.17 goals-against average in 2021-22 before a torn medial collateral ligament effectively ended his season. Any semblance of a return to form would have the Hurricanes eying a deeper run in the playoffs.
Sebastian Aho (team-leading 37 goals, 44 assists in 2021-22), Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen should keep Carolina's offense headed in the right direction and help overcome the departure of Vincent Trocheck, who signed a seven-year, $39,375,000 contract with the Rangers.
2. New York Rangers
It all starts with Igor Shesterkin, who recorded NHL bests in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.935) during the 2021-22 regular season. He then overcame a sluggish start in the playoffs to propel New York to the Eastern Conference finals.
Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad will be tasked with following career seasons. Kreider's 52 goals were the third most in the NHL in 2021-22, while Panarin's 74 assists and 96 points ranked fourth and 11th in the league, respectively. Zibanejad's 52 assists and 81 points weren't too shabby in their own right.
Vincent Trocheck should fit in seamlessly as a top-six forward, while promising youngsters Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko are expected to take the next step in their development.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have all the firepower in the world to remain a perennial Stanley Cup contender ... provided the team stays healthy. Former Hart Trophy recipients Sidney Crosby, 35, and Evgeni Malkin, 36, know that all too well, and Father Time has the clock ticking on the veteran superstars.
Another one of the team's elder statesmen, defenseman Kris Letang, showed there is more in the tank after collecting a career-best 58 assists last season. Jake Guentzel, who is only 28, reached the 40-goal plateau for the second time and added career-high totals in assists (44) and points (84) last season.
Goaltender Tristan Jarry is fully recovered after essentially playing on a broken foot in Game 7 of the team's first-round playoff series against the Rangers. He recorded career-best totals in wins (34), goals-against average (2.42) and shutouts (four) last season.
4. Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin (team-high 50 goals) and Russian countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov (club high-tying 54 assists) will need to navigate their way around the early-season absences of fellow forwards Nicklas Backstrom (hip) and Tom Wilson (knee). Dylan Strome, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million free agent contract in the offseason, will look to follow up a career-high 22 goals scored with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2021-22.
Defenseman John Carlson had a career-high 17 goals to go along with 54 assists last season. The 32-year-old leads a veteran-heavy group of blue-liners, save for promising 23-year-old Martin Fehervary.
The Capitals overhauled their goaltending situation and handed the keys to Darcy Kuemper, who signed a five-year, $26.25 million contract in the offseason. Kuemper, 32, recorded career-high totals in wins (37) and starts (57) during the 2021-22 regular season and overcame a pedestrian performance in the playoffs to help the Colorado Avalanche capture the Stanley Cup title.
5. New York Islanders
Assistant Lane Lambert was promoted to head coach shortly after Barry Trotz was fired following the team's disappointing playoff-less season in 2021-22. Lambert's immediate chore will be to squeeze more offense out of a defensive-minded team.
Brock Nelson erupted for a career-high 37 goals last season and captain Anders Lee added 28 for the Islanders, but their combined total served as 28.4 percent of the team's offense. Mathew Barzal mustered just 15 goals, down from the career-high 22 he had during his Calder Trophy-winning season of 2017-18.
Ilya Sorokin registered seven shutouts last season to trail only Jacob Markstrom's nine for the Calgary Flames. Sorokin, 27, likely will have little margin for error if the Islanders aim to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets made the splash of the offseason by acquiring Johnny Gaudreau, both in securing the diminutive dynamo as well as keeping him away from rumored landing spots within the division. Gaudreau subsequently signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract after recording a career-high 115 points with the Flames in 2021-22.
Gaudreau will look to build chemistry with proven scorer Patrik Laine, who signed a four-year, $34.8 million contract to remain in Ohio's capital city. Laine eclipsed 25 goals last season for the fifth time in his six NHL campaigns.
Captain Boone Jenner likely will serve as the center between Gaudreau and Laine, but the Blue Jackets aren't deep at forward and have questions on the back end outside of Zach Werenski. Starting goaltender Elvis Merzlikins will be tasked with keeping Columbus in games this season.
7. New Jersey Devils
The Devils feature plenty of scoring punch, with former top overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier joining Jesper Bratt, but the team got knocked out on the back end last season. New Jersey attempted to address the latter issue by signing free agent Brendan Smith and acquiring fellow defenseman John Marino from the Penguins, but former Norris Trophy recipient P.K. Subban elected to retire last month.
A healthy Hughes would go a long way toward the Devils returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18. He totaled 26 goals and 30 assists while playing in just 49 games last season.
Ondrej Palat, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract with New Jersey, brings championship experience from the Tampa Bay Lightning. That could go a long way on a decidedly young roster.
8. Philadelphia Flyers
The boobirds are going to come out on Broad Street during John Tortorella's first season as coach of the Flyers. To be fair to Tortorella, the cupboard isn't exactly overflowing with high-end talent after the Flyers limped to a last-place finish in 2021-22.
Philadelphia attempted to take a step toward remedying a punchless power play by acquiring offensive-minded defenseman Tony DeAngelo in the offseason. DeAngelo and workhorse Ivan Provorov serve as a solid pair of blue-liners who can contribute on offense, but the Flyers were downright generous in allowing both shots and goals per game last season.
Top center Sean Couturier is considered week-to-week because of a back injury. Travis Konecny (team-leading 36 assists, 52 points), James van Riemsdyk (club-best 24 goals) and Cam Atkinson will be tasked with keeping Philadelphia competitive.
--By Bill Bernardi, Field Level Media