2016 -17 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Metropolitan Division

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2016

2016 -17 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Metropolitan Division

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    The NHL's Metropolitan Division was dominated last season by the Washington Capitals, but it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who marched to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship. In 2016-17, both clubs could be challenged by their division rivals.  

    Having fallen short once again in the playoffs, the current Capitals roster faces a narrowing window to finally win a Cup title. The Penguins, meanwhile, must deal with the daunting task of trying to become the first team since 1998 to repeat as champions.  

    After stumbling last season, the New York Rangers will try to remain a viable Cup contender. The New York Islanders will look to their offseason additions to improve their chances for a championship run.

    The Philadelphia Flyers hope to build upon last season's surprising playoff appearance. Meantime, the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets will try to rise out of the division's lower berths.

    This slideshow previews the NHL's Metropolitan Division for 2016-17 and predicts where these teams will place in the standings by season's end. We'll examine the favorite to top the division, the top forward line, best goaltender and much more. Feel free to voice your opinion on this topic in the comments section below. 

The Favorite: Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals dominated the standings in 2015-16, finishing with 120 points. That performance earned them their second Presidents' Trophy since 2010. In the playoffs, however, they once again came up short. After downing the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, the Capitals were eliminated from the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

    Entering 2016-17, the Capitals roster remains largely intact. The offense is still led by superstar Alex Ovechkin and fellow forwards Evgeny KuznetsovNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Their defense corps features such notables as John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, while Braden Holtby won the Vezina Trophy as last season's top goaltender. 

    Hanging over this season, however, is the knowledge this could be this roster's last best shot at winning the Cup. Oshie, Williams and Alzner are unrestricted free agents and could be difficult to re-sign. Kuznetsov is a restricted free agent due a healthy raise. With veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik in decline, Dmitry Orlov must prove he can become a reliable top-four blueliner. 

    The Capitals must prove they can turn regular-season dominance into a championship drive. They should be motivated this season to push for that elusive Stanley Cup title. 

The Challenger: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    A poor start to last season resulted in the Pittsburgh Penguins making a coaching change on Dec. 12, replacing Mike Johnston as bench boss with Mike Sullivan. Midseason additions Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley helped the Penguins roar up the standings to finish second in the Metropolitan Division. They went on to win their fourth Stanley Cup title in franchise history. 

    Repeating as Cup champions is a difficult task. Led by Conn Smythe Trophy winner Sidney Crosby, the Penguins have the talent to give it a good shot. The offense is powered by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist. Goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and playoff hero Matt Murray provide considerable depth between the pipes. 

    Under Sullivan, the Penguins defensive game improved. Apart from Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, however, their blue line doesn't offer much experienced skill. They'll need Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta to take on larger roles. Sophomore forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl must prove they can carry their solid playoff performance throughout an entire NHL season.

    The Penguins also face the burden of trying to become the first team since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Cup champions. While that might be an unobtainable goal, they aren't to be taken lightly. The Penguins should challenge the Washington Capitals for the top spot in the division. 

The Bottom-Dweller: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last season was not a fond one for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Dropping their first eight games of the season led to John Tortorella replacing Todd Richards as head coach. On Jan. 6, they traded center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Seth Jones. These moves, however, failed to prevent the Jackets from finishing last in the Metropolitan Division. 

    The Jackets are stocked with some promising young players. Forwards Brandon Saad, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson continue to improve. Jones and Ryan Murray have considerable potential as top-pairing defensemen. When healthy, former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is among the best in the league. They also have some experienced leadership in Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell

    Trading away Johansen, however, leaves the Jackets without a proven top-line center. They also lack an established top-two defenseman to lead the blue-line corps. In recent years, Bobrovsky's been plagued by groin injuries. If he's sidelined again for a lengthy period, the Jackets' postseason hopes will vanish.

    Due to limited salary-cap space, the Jackets did little this summer to bolster their roster. With their division rivals loaded with well-established talent or having added depth in the offseason, it doesn't bode well for their playoff hopes. They'll need all their young players to make considerable improvements this season to contend for a playoff berth. 

Best Rivalry: Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Metropolitan Division contains several teams with longstanding rivalries among each other. Over the years, the New York Rangers had notable contests with the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals also had some memorable matchups.  

    None of those rivalries, however, match the intensity as the one between the Penguins and Flyers. Though the Pennsylvania clubs only faced each other six times in the playoffs, their proximity ensures even a regular-season game can be as heated as a postseason tilt. Put simply, the players and fans of both clubs don't like each other. 

    At the center of the animosity are the clubs' two captains. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux have tangled in the past, including a fight in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs. While tensions between the two have cooled in recent years, it probably wouldn't take much to rekindle the hostility.

    The Penguins enter this season as defending Stanley Cup champions, while the Flyers are attempting to build into Cup contenders. As the Penguins attempt to maintain their dominance, the Flyers will try to knock their rivals down a peg. The stage could be set this season for another flareup in one of hockey's most intense rivalries.  

Best Line: Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    In 2015-16, the Washington Capitals led the Eastern Conference in goals (248) and finished second in the league. A large part of that production was generated by the line of left wing Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and right wing T.J. Oshie

    Ovechkin, 31, is the most exciting scorer in the NHL today. Last season, he tallied 50 goals for the seventh time in his career. He was also the only player in the league to reach the 50-goal mark in 2015-16. 

    Kuznetsov enjoyed a breakout performance last season, leading the Capitals in assists (57) and points (77). While he struggled during the 2016 playoffs, the 24-year-old still has considerable upside as a playmaking center. 

    Acquired in a July 2015 trade from the St. Louis Blues, Oshie filled a significant need for a top-line right wing. The 29-year-old wasted little time fitting in, finishing the season with 26 goals and 51 points. 

    Few teams in the NHL can match the firepower of the Capitals' top line. Expect Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Oshie to once again be the best forward line in the Metropolitan Division. They will be crucial this season in the Capitals' push for that elusive Stanley Cup championship. 

    Honorable mention

    Center Claude Giroux and wingers Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek could be the Philadelphia Flyers' top line this season. Right wing Wayne Simmonds could also see playing time on the top line.

    In the 2016 playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins iced a top line of center Sidney Crosby flanked by wingers Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist. Given their success, they could remain intact for the upcoming season.

    New York Islanders captain John Tavares will be reunited with right wing PA Parenteau, who rejoined the club as a free agent. Andrew Ladd, another free-agent signing, will skate on his left side.

    Left wing Brandon Saad, center Boone Jenner and right wing Cam Atkinson could give the Columbus Blue Jackets a potent first line. 

Best Defense Pairing: Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The largely unheralded defense of the Pittsburgh Penguins played an invaluable role in their march to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship. Blueliners Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin were significant contributors to their club's solid defensive game. 

    Letang, 29, is the workhorse and star of the Pittsburgh blue line. He reached career highs in goals (16), assists (51) and points (67) to finish second among Penguins scorers. He also added 15 points in 23 games. Among NHL players, Letang finished fourth in regular-season ice time (26 minutes and 56 seconds per game) and led the Penguins in playoff ice time (28:58). 

    Dumoulin, 25, rose through the ranks of the Penguins defense last season, finishing on the top pairing with Letang. At 6'4" and 207 pounds, he brings good size and all-around defensive skills to their blue line. Dumoulin can play big minutes, logging 21:31 per game in the 2016 playoffs. Given his robust performance last season, he could be ready to take on a larger role in 2016-17. 

    If the oft-injured Letang stays healthy and Dumoulin continues to develop, they should remain an excellent top-pairing defense tandem. Given their outstanding efforts in the 2016 playoffs, they could be the top blue-line pairing in the Metropolitan Division. 

    Honorable mention

    Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen formed a reliable top-two defense unit for the Washington Capitals last season. They should continue to do so for 2016-17. 

    The New York Islanders could rely on the duo of Travis Hamonic and Nick Leddy to carry the blue-line burden this season. 

    Unheralded Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk and sophomore Jaccob Slavin could be a reliable top-defensive duo this season. 

Best Goaltender: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Goaltender Braden Holtby is another reason the Washington Capitals are the favorites to top the Metropolitan Division in 2016-17. His efforts last season earned him the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.

    Holtby's performance in 2015-16 was outstanding. He tied the NHL record for most wins in a season by a goalie (48). He also finished among the league leaders in goals-against average (2.20) and save percentage (.922). 

    In the 2016 playoffs, Holtby took his play to another level. Among goalies who appeared in 10 or more games last spring, he had the top goals-against average (1.72) and save percentage (.942). The Capitals failed to advance past the second round, but Holtby gave his club the opportunity to win in every game.

    Now in the prime of his career, Holtby will remain among this season's elite NHL goaltenders. He should once again be a contender for the Vezina Trophy. His stellar play between the pipes will also ensure the Capitals are a Cup contender this season. 

    Honorable mention

    New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is aging (34), but he could have another strong season left in him. 

    After losing his starter's job in the 2016 playoffs to Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury will be motivated to regain that role. 

    The New Jersey Devils will once again look to goaltending workhorse Cory Schneider to put them in playoff contention this season. 

    Michal Neuvirth was superb in the Philadelphia Flyers' opening-round series against the Capitals last spring. He could take over the starting goalie job from Steve Mason. 

    If Sergei Bobrovsky can avoid the groin injuries that have plagued him in recent years, he could backstop the Columbus Blue Jackets back to respectability. 

Projected 2016-17 Standings

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Washington Capitals

    After years of disappointment, the Capitals will make a big push for the Stanley Cup in 2016-17. Led by superstar scorer Alex Ovechkin and 2016 Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Braden Holtby, the Capitals should be the dominant club in the Metropolitan Division for the second straight year. 

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    The defending Stanley Cup champions will find it difficult to repeat this season, but they have plenty of talent to challenge the Capitals for the top spot in the division. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will once again lead the offense, and they have solid goaltending depth in Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. 

    Philadelphia Flyers

    The Flyers will be more accustomed to second-year head coach Dave Hakstol. They have experienced offensive forwards in Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, plus growing depth in young defensemen such as Shayne Gostisbehere. Michal Neuvirth could challenge Steve Mason for the starting goaltender role. 

    New York Rangers

    This could be a transition year for the Rangers. The best seasons of 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash and Dan Girardi (both 32) are now behind them. Younger players, such as Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes could take on larger roles in 2016-17. 

    New York Islanders

    Led by superstar John Tavares, the Islanders should remain a playoff contender this season. They'll need offseason acquisitions Andrew Ladd and PA Parenteau to quickly adjust to their new club. Goaltending remains a question mark, as oft-injured Jaroslav Halak could be challenged by backup Thomas Greiss

    New Jersey Devils

    The NHL's lowest-scoring team last season, the Devils boosted their scoring punch by acquiring left wing Taylor Hall this summer from the Edmonton Oilers. Still, they could use more secondary scoring. They also lack depth in skilled, experienced defensemen, putting a significant burden on goaltender Cory Schneider. 

    Carolina Hurricanes

    The rebuilding Hurricanes brought in Teuvo Teravainen, Lee Stempniak and top prospect Sebastien Aho to bolster their offense. Their blue line, anchored by the underrated Justin Faulk, is well-stocked with promising young talent. They'll need better goaltending this season from Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    The Blue Jackets have lots of good young talent in forwards such as Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner and defensemen Seth Jones and Ryan Murray. However, they're lacking a true top-line center and top-two blueliner. Oft-injured goalie Sergei Bobrovsky must stay healthy for the Jackets to have a shot at playoff contention. 

    Player and team stats via NHL.com. Salary info via Cap Friendly