2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Metropolitan Division

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistOctober 1, 2015

2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Metropolitan Division

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    The distance from the top to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division was 42 points—but we'll likely see tremendous movement this coming year. The power teams have tweaked their rosters and recovered from free-agent losses, but the bottom feeders are going to be more difficult to overwhelm in 2015-16. 

    Last year the New York Rangers won the division and made it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders made things interesting and have improved, while the Pittsburgh Penguins made the marquee move of the summer by acquiring Phil Kessel. Also-rans like the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes have also stepped up their game, and the New Jersey Devils had a quietly effective summer. 

    As we edge nearer to opening night for 2015-16, here's a preview of the Metropolitan Division and the big stories we'll see this winter—along with the predicted standings. 

The Favorite: New York Islanders

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    The New York Islanders won 47 games last season, the most wins by the franchise since 1983-84. For fans of the team, that era brings back powerful images—those Islanders were one of the great modern dynasties—but there's some evidence this team has the kind of talent and balance to push deep into the playoffs in 2016. 

    New York's key comes from depth at forward and on defense. John Tavares tore it up last season with Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, while Anders Lee found success with Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson. With those two units on the bench, New York still had the depth to run Frans Nielsen, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. That's outstanding depth from a single forward group. 

    On the blue line, the Islanders acquired Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on the same day a year ago, and they gave the team an instant top pairing and created true depth at the position. Travis Hamonic and Calvin De Haan were placed in a more appropriate spot in the lineup, and the results were positive. New York added Marek Zidlicky in the offseason to help improve the depth. 

    One area where the Islanders may have some concern is goal, where Jaroslav Halak's .917 even-strength save percentage ranked him No. 17 among regulars a year ago. Look for New York to address this area if it becomes an issue during the season. 

    General manager Garth Snow and the management group are an unusual team but have been effective in recent seasons. An example of their work came at the 2015 draft when impact prospect Mathew Barzal fell down to No. 16 overall. Realizing the kind of value that was available, Snow and his team managed a deal in which they exchanged prospect defenseman Griffin Reinhart for that pick and a second-round selection. The Islanders were able to make that trade for a few reasons, including the development of Ryan Pulock, who is a substantial prospect. By using excess talent in an area of depth, the Islanders added another outstanding forward prospect who could impact the NHL sooner than later. That's tremendous asset management. 

    The Islanders are in a division with teams that possess some of the best players in the game. Those teams are top-heavy in terms of cap spending and are forced to employ inexpensive—and ineffective—depth forwards and defensemen. In this one key area, the Islanders have a great advantage. It won't work forever because success will come and the large group of players on New York's roster will demand higher salaries for success. Until then, the New York Islanders should be considered the favorite to win the Metropolitan Division.  

The Challenger: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene Puskar/Associated Press

    In the decade the Pittsburgh Penguins have enjoyed the talents of Sidney Crosby, the organization has exactly one Stanley Cup. Crosby is a generational player, and collecting championships usually hums along at a more rapid clip for these player types. Part of the issue has been injury, and part of it comes from a top-heavy cap built around five men making a large percentage of the team's overall salary total. 

    Pittsburgh may have solved the problem this season, using a few genuinely innovative moves. The trade for Phil Kessel gives the Penguins a brilliant partner for Crosby; the mind boggles with the possibilities. A player like Kessel is rarely available, and for GM Jim Rutherford to get him is a major event in Penguins history. 

    Larry Mackey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review passed along information about Evgeni Malkin's role in the signing of KHL winger Sergei Plotnikov. According to Mackey, the process involved interest from Pittsburgh and then Malkin operating as the go-between in some unusual negotiations. The story had its beginnings when Igor Eronko of Sport-Express tweeted about the player terminating his KHL deal.

    It could be much ado about nothing, but he's a talented winger in his prime and comes at an attractive price point for Pittsburgh. Even if he hits his bonuses, it'll be a bargain. 

    The Penguins' weakness could be on the blue line, where Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff are gone from last year's team. Veterans Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi will be joined by Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin. Veteran Ben Lovejoy is also part of the group, and fans should expect some substantial deadline additions. 

    Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was solid last season and will need to be that and more this year, but Pittsburgh's mammoth offense will be a major story.

The Bottom-Dweller: Carolina Hurricanes

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    Gene Puskar/Associated Press

    The Carolina Hurricanes finished No. 8 and last in the division in 2014-15 and No. 26 overall. The team has been going through an overhaul and attempting to do it on the fly. When this happens, a team often has expensive veterans in their prime—or just past it—and have a tough time getting the entire roster pointed in the right direction. 

    The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs for five seasons in a row, and the heart of the team—including Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner—spent all or part of their prime playing for a losing club. Part of being a Carolina fan this season may include saying goodbye to some longtime players, including Staal and Ward, who were on the 2006 Stanley Cup team. 

    All is not lost for the Hurricanes. The acquisition of defenseman James Wisniewski from the Anaheim Ducks was an early and astute move, and goalie Eddie Lack may be a major help in a problem area. Late-summer addition Kris Versteeg gives the team a veteran winger with some offensive ability. 

    The rebuild received a fabulous boost at the 2015 draft, where the team selected impact defensive prospect Noah Hanifin No. 5 overall. A quick look at the top scorers on last year's team also gives fans some heart, as Justin Faulk, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask all showed themselves capable of moving the needle at the NHL level. 

    It's difficult to know how much progress can be made this season; Carolina's veterans could respond to the infusion of youth, and the result could be a spike in the standings. Hurricanes fans should be heartened from this summer's procurement, as the team has added a tremendous amount of talent since April. 

Best Old Rivalry: Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    One of the greatest rivalries in any sport occurred in the 1970s between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. The Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia went to war—literally—with the Rangers of Broadway season after season during the decade. The two teams have been division rivals since 1974 and have met in the postseason 11 times, with Philadelphia winning six of those series. 

    The two cities are at odds in most major sports, and that kind of ongoing, yearlong rivalry probably feeds into the intensity of the games. It also helps that both fanbases have a reputation for being absolutely cutting edge in terms of devotion and aptitude. 

    The heroes on both sides of the 1970s battles reached iconic status, partly because of the rivalry. Bobby Clarke and the Flyers won a fantastic playoff series against New York in 1974, and the Rangers returned the favor in 1979—led by John Davidson—as a decade of spilled blood finally ended. 

Best New Rivalry: Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Possibly the best rivalry in modern hockey belongs to Pennsylvania. The two teams simply can't stand each other, and the results on the ice have been exciting and newsworthy. 

    Going back to the 2004-05 lockout, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a poor team with low attendance and a ghastly record. At that time, the rivalry was at a low point. After the lockout, the Penguins were suddenly well-stocked from all the losing seasons and high draft picks.

    For much of the first decade of this century, the Philadelphia Flyers were badly outmanned by the Penguins, and the results showed on the scoreboard. The Sidney Crosby era was bad for Northeastern teams, but no one suffered more while watching the success of Pittsburgh than the Flyers and their fans. 

    Stubbornly refusing to lose in order to grab those draft picks, owner Ed Snider and his management group managed to reach out and impact the Penguins in a big way, most recently in 2012 when Pittsburgh was considered a strong contender to win the championship. 

    On paper, the Penguins enter the season with a far better roster. But when they face the Flyers, all bets are off. The war rages on. 

Best Line: Sidney Crosby with Phil Kessel and Chris Kunitz

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    Gene Puskar/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Penguins made a tremendous acquisition this summer when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although he hasn't skated one minute in a regular-season game alongside Sidney Crosby, the potential for offensive dynamite is phenomenal. 

    A year ago, Crosby performed well with wingers Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist. Crosby scored more than three points per 60 with Hornqvist, and that's an eye-popping number even for Crosby. That said, the thought of Crosby and Kessel creating magic is another level of special and gives Hornqvist a chance to forge another impact line with Evgeni Malkin. 

    The third man on the line will probably change as the season wears on, but Kunitz has had success in the past with Crosby and gives the line a rugged and physical element. He's also under team control for the next two years, which is important when considering a possible career year for a complementary player. 

Best Defensive Pairing: Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    The New York Islanders turned a corner on October 4, 2014. On that day, GM Garth Snow traded a significant amount of the team's future for two bona fide NHL defenders. In acquiring Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks and Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins, New York added a top pairing and instantly improved its defensive quality and depth. 

    In putting the two men together, the Islanders ensured a positive possession duo in the important minutes of the game. Although the club is flush with young and emerging defenders—watch out for Ryan Pulock this season—adding the two veterans calmed the waters and allowed development to continue at a reasonable, more effective pace. 

    The Leddy-Boychuk pairing was a godsend for the New York Islanders. 

Best Goalie: Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Flyers and hockey goalies are often not compatible. Since Bernie Parent was forced to retire, the maladies bestowed upon the Philadelphia net have been biblical in proportions. It would take too long to list all of the issues and missteps, but one thing is certain: The Flyers got it right in a big way with Steve Mason. 

    Last season, he ranked No. 2 overall among starters in even-strength save percentage. The arrows are all good—he's 27 and in his prime—and since this will be his third full season, he is familiar with his teammates, who know how to work with him in turn. 

    Mason is one of the Flyers' most important players, as the team attempts to cobble together a useful defensive tandem among some also-rans and mystery contestants. There are likely to be many adventures for Mason this season, but he's durable—60 and 48 starts in the last two seasons—and he will probably steal a few wins along the way. 

Projected 2015-16 Standings

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    1. New York Islanders: The Islanders have one of the best young centers in the game in John Tavares. They also boast a deep and talented forward group, and the trades for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk a year ago allowed the team to ice a bona fide defense. New York's other team wins the day. 

    2. Pittsburgh Penguins: A team that boasts several of the game's best forwards is going to fill the net this year. It's a good bet we'll see Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist each score 60 or more points this season if they can remain healthy. Only defensive worries keep them from winning the division. 

    3. Washington Capitals: Some impressive offseason moves—Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie—give Washington more depth up front and more cover for the great Alexander Ovechkin. This is a solid defensive team with a quality goalie in Braden Holtby. Although I've placed them third, no one should be surprised if they win the division. 

    4. New York Rangers: This team won the division last season, so a fall to No. 4 might appear to be a large drop. However, all four teams made the playoffs last season and should this time, too. New York does have an aging defense and lost some offense over the summer—Martin St. Louis, Carl Hagelin—along with stellar backup goalie Cam Talbot. Don't take the Rangers lightly, but they take a tumble while remaining a playoff team. 

    5. Columbus Blue Jackets: I believe we'll see a fifth team from the Metropolitan Division make the playoffs in 2015-16. The Blue Jackets added Brandon Saad and some depth, but the real spike in fortune should come from a healthier lineup. Young players such as Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray and Brandon Dubinsky will be major factors if they play a full season. 

    6. Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are top-quality players, and if the Flyers had a defender of similar talent, I'd pick them for the playoffs. The defense has too many issues, and the depth forwards are not among the division's best. GM Ron Hextall had a strong summer, and those moves will pay off—but not this year.

    7. New Jersey Devils: A stealth summer of quiet rebuilding keeps New Jersey from the basement. A solid goalie in Cory Schneider and a young, emerging defensive crew led by Adam Larsson have the Devils looking better in those positions. The problem is among the forwards, but a brilliant late signing of Jiri Tlusty and the emergence of some younger players suggest New Jersey will have a stronger season than anticipated. 

    8. Carolina Hurricanes: Although they are the current bottom-dweller in this division, Carolina has added several impressive talents and should post more than the 71 points of one year ago. Watch for Eddie Lack to give Cam Ward a run for the starting job and the Staals to have a stronger impact over the season. 

    Note: All analytics and advanced stats numbers come via HockeyAnalysis.com unless otherwise stated.