Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Season Previews, Washington Capitals

2023-24 Metropolitan Division Preview

The NHL regular season kicks off this coming week, with the first set of games on Tuesday, Oct. 10. Perhaps the most competitive division in the league is the Metropolitan. There were quite a few changes in the Metro this offseason, which we reviewed earlier this summer. For this article, let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team and preview the Metro for the 2023-24 season, starting with my projected standings in inverse order.  

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

  • 2022-23 standings: 25-48-9, 8th in Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 74.5

Strength: Top-9

The Blue Jackets have plenty of ground to make up this offseason, and if they’re going to do so, they’ll have to with their top-nine providing offense. Drafting Adam Fantilli third overall should help quite a bit, as he should be in the Calder Trophy conversation alongside Connor Bedard. NHL.com has Fantilli projected for 67 points as a rookie, giving the Blue Jackets a top-line center they’ve been seeking for quite some time. 

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Elsewhere in the top-nine are Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, the latter of whom has moved to center. They should provide the most scoring punch for the Blue Jackets. The team is also hoping for another step forward from Kent Johnson, a top-five pick in the 2021 draft, and Kirill Marchenko, who totaled 21 goals in 59 games last season. 

Emil Bemstrom and Alexandre Texier are wild cards. But at the very least, they can add some depth scoring in a top-nine forward group that should be improved from a season ago, even if Cole Sillinger doesn’t progress in his development. 

Question Mark: Defense

The Blue Jackets did acquire Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson in separate trades this offseason. Still, their defense has question marks. Erik Gudbranson is a liability, while Adam Boqvist has had trouble staying healthy. Gudbranson cannot play top-four minutes for the Blue Jackets’ defense to improve, and Boqvist needs to stay healthy. 

Ivan Provorov Columbus Blue Jackets
Ivan Provorov with the Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even Provorov is a question mark, given his last few seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. A change of scenery does help in some cases, but he may be what he is at this point: a second-pair defenseman who may not be as good as perceived. 

Andrew Peeke is solid defensively but doesn’t offer much of anything offensively. David Jiricek is unlikely to start the season in the NHL, but he could be a factor later in 2023-24. The Blue Jackets’ defense should be better; that’s not difficult after last season. But how much better remains a question mark. 

Weakness: Goaltending

Goaltending is, without a doubt, the Blue Jackets’ biggest weakness heading into 2023-24. Elvis Merzlikins had the worst season of his career in 2022-23, finishing with an .876 save percentage while giving up 25.9 goals above expected, the worst mark in the league. 

The good news there is that Merzlikins is a rebound candidate. The question is, can he rebound enough to be a league-average netminder? If so, that’ll go a long way in the Blue Jackets finishing with over 74.5 points in the standings. 

But even then, there are question marks behind him. Daniil Tarasov has struggled with injuries, and his AHL numbers to this point suggest he may need more time to develop. Spencer Martin can help in a depth role, but the team shouldn’t rely on him to be the No. 2 behind Merzlikins. 

The Blue Jackets should be a better team overall, but goaltending may hold them back from taking a significant jump forward in the standings. Still, a leap to 74-75 points would be around an eight-win improvement over 2022-23, so that would be progress. 

7. Philadelphia Flyers

  • 2022-23 standings: 31-38-13, 75 points, 7th in Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 73.5 points

Strength: Carter Hart

The Flyers are unlikely to be a playoff team this season, but Carter Hart could keep them competitive. He finished with a .907 SV% a season ago while saving 10.3 goals above expected, not an easy task given the team’s roster. 

Carter Hart Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If he posts similar numbers, it’s hard to imagine the Flyers doing much worse in the standings than in 2022-23. That still means they’ll be a 70-75-point team, but it also prevents them from bottoming out, which isn’t surprising for a John Tortorella-coached team. 

Question Mark: Forward Group

The Flyers spent the 2022-23 season without Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson due to injuries. Both seem to be healthy entering 2023-24, but will they be able to produce at previous levels? If so, the Flyers might surprise teams or, at the very least, be much more annoying to play against. 

Travis Konecny has found new life under Tortorella, while Owen Tippett has emerged as a legit top-six option. Joel Farabee and Jackson Cates will contribute some scoring depth, while Tyson Foerster may be ready for the NHL. There’s a bit more scoring upside than it seems in Philadelphia, but it really depends on how much Couturier and Atkinson have left in the tank. 

Weakness: Defense

Rasmus Ristolainen had a career year in 2022-23, but it remains to be seen if he can repeat it. If so, that’ll help the Flyers’ defense, but it should still easily be the weakest part of their 2023-24 roster. 

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Marc Staal projects to play top-four minutes, while a developing Cam York could play alongside Ristolainen on the top pair. Nick Seeler and Sean Walker are fine third-pair defenders, but the Flyers’ defense will likely struggle again, especially if Travis Sanheim doesn’t bounce back.  

Tortorella teams are always harder to play against than they look on paper, but the Flyers will probably finish with around 75 points as they did a season ago. 

6. Washington Capitals

  • 2022-23 season: 35-37-10, 80 points, 6th in the Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 85.5 points

Strength: Top-9 Forwards 

The Capitals may have an aging forward group, but it’s still the strength of this team. Alex Ovechkin finished with 42 goals a season ago and is still one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL at 38 years old. There’s a decent supporting cast around him up front, but they will need better luck health-wise in 2023-24. 

Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom missed most of the 2022-23 season due to injuries. In Backstrom’s case, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left to give after having a hip resurfacing procedure. Tom Wilson only played in 33 games but totaled 13 goals and 22 points. That kind of scoring pace will do over 82 games. 

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Capitals also have Dylan Strome, who totaled 65 points in 81 games and should provide valuable center depth if Backstrom is declining. The Capitals need Evgeny Kuznetsov to bounce back and T.J. Oshie to stay healthy. If so, their offense shouldn’t be much of an issue, especially once Max Pacioretty returns from a second torn Achilles he suffered last season. 

Question Mark: Goaltending

The Capitals revamped their goaltending last offseason, moving on from Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek and signing Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren in free agency. Kuemper was solid a season ago, totaling a .908 SV% while stopping 8.8 goals above expected. 

Lindgren did not fare as well as Kuemper, finishing with an .899 SV% while giving up 3.9 goals above expected. The Capitals should be fine with Kuemper as their 1A, but they need a bit more from Lindgren. Just the slightest improvement would make him league-average and could help the Capitals try and make a push for the postseason. 

Weakness: Left Side of Defense

The Capitals’ defense was once a strength, but it’s a unit that could use some retooling. John Carlson is still the backbone of the team’s blue line, but like some of their forwards, he needs to stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2022-23 season. 

He leads the right side of the blue line, which is the Capitals’ best part of their defensive unit. Nick Jensen is an underrated second-pair defender, while Trevor van Riemsdyk is one of the better third-pair blueliners in the NHL. 

It’s the left side that could be a problem for the Capitals. Rasmus Sandin, who they acquired at last season’s trade deadline, was a solid addition to the Capitals’ defense. He’ll get more of an opportunity for consistent top-four minutes in Washington than in Toronto, but will he be able to handle those assignments? 

Martin Fehervary is solid defensively, but he has limited offensive upside. Joel Edmundson has struggled with injuries and is nowhere near the defenseman he used to be. The Capitals have decent goaltending, and better health up front should make their offense formidable, hence the 85.5 O/U. But it’s hard to imagine them finishing higher than fifth or sixth place. 

5. New York Islanders

  • 2022-23 season: 42-31-9, 92 points, 4th in Metro
  • 2023-24 season: 91.5

Strength: Goaltending Tandem & Defense

If the Islanders have any shot at making the playoffs, it’ll be on the backs of their goaltenders, Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov. It starts with Sorokin, who saved a stunning 38.5 goals above expected last season while posting a .924 SV%. He’ll be a Vezina favorite if the team qualifies for the playoffs and he puts up similar numbers. 

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Sorokin’s partner, Varlamov, is one of the better 1Bs in the league. He posted a .913 SV% a season ago and saved 3.5 goals above expected. Even when Sorokin gets a night off, Varlamov gives the Islanders a chance to be competitive in most games. 

The Islanders’ blue line, led by Adam Pelech, is still very much a top half of the league unit. Noah Dobson may need to improve defensively, but he provides puck-moving ability from the back end. The same is true of Ryan Pulock. They also have solid depth options in Scott Mayfield, Sebastian Aho (no, not that one) and Alexander Romanov, giving the Islanders a solid group of regulars. 

Weakness: Goal-Scoring Ability

You could categorize this as a question mark, but to me, the Islanders have clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Their clearly defined weakness is their offense. There is some punch up front, but certainly not to the level of the other teams we’ll get to in the rest of this preview. 

General manager Lou Lamoriello did realize that to an extent last season when he acquired Bo Horvat ahead of the trade deadline. He had a career year in 2022-23, totaling 38 goals and 70 points between the Vancouver Canucks and Islanders. Horvat has improved as a scorer and can probably put up another 30-goal campaign, but there isn’t much support around him. 

Brock Nelson totaled 37 goals a season ago, but can he repeat that effort? Mat Barzal is a solid playmaker, but he’s one of the weaker shooters in the league. Anders Lee and Kyle Palmieri still have 20-plus-goal upside, but the latter needs to stay healthy. 

The Islanders don’t have much scoring in their bottom-six, and their power play was the worst in the NHL a season ago. Their goaltending and defense will keep them in the playoff picture, but it’s hard to imagine where the offense comes from. Ultimately, it keeps them outside the postseason. 

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

  • 2022-23 season: 40-31-11, 91 points, 5th in Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 98.5

Strength: Crosby and the Top-6

The Penguins’ strength a season ago was their top-six, led by Sidney Crosby, and will remain so in 2023-24. Crosby finished with 33 goals and 90 points in 82 games last season and is still at the top of his game at 36 years old. 

Evgeni Malkin Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Likewise, Evgeni Malkin isn’t showing signs of slowing down, as he totaled 27 goals and 83 points in 82 games last season. He and Crosby playing a full 82 games is of note, and while the Penguins don’t need them to do that again, they have to remain relatively healthy to keep the team afloat. 

Jake Guentzel may miss the first couple of weeks of the regular season recovering from offseason ankle surgery, but he will add plenty of scoring punch once he returns. Reilly Smith was a solid offseason addition, as he should be good for 20-plus goals and 50-plus points, while Bryan Rust is due for better shooting luck. There’s no doubt this group of forwards is the Penguins’ strength. 

Question Mark: Bottom-6 Forwards

Kyle Dubas made plenty of changes to the Penguins’ bottom-six forwards in his first offseason as the team’s president of hockey operations. In are Matt Nieto, Lars Eller, Rem Pitlick and Noel Acciari, but will the moves pay off?

Eller has shown signs of slowing down at 34 years old, but Nieto and Acciari are reliable bottom-six forwards who should help. Pitlick’s impacts aren’t the best, but he has shown he can score in a bottom-six role. Returnee Drew O’Connor had an excellent preseason and could be in line for a bit of a breakout as a bottom-six forward. 

The Penguins’ bottom-six was a significant reason they missed the playoffs a season ago, so it needs to be much better in 2023-24. There’s uncertainty here just because Dubas brought in so many new names, but there’s also potential for it to work out quite well. 

Weakness: Goaltending

After signing a five-year extension this summer for $5.375 million annually, Tristan Jarry may be the key to the Penguins returning to the playoffs. He’s struggled with health in the last couple of seasons, but when healthy, he’s an above-league-average netminder; he has a .913 SV% over his previous 144 appearances. If he can stay in the lineup, the Penguins should be in good shape, but that’s far from a given. 

After trading Casey DeSmith a few weeks ago, Alex Nedeljkovic will take over as Jarry’s backup. He struggled in his time with the Detroit Red Wings, posting a .900 SV% and giving up 15.8 goals above expected in his two years there and is looking to turn his career around. 

Alex Nedeljkovic Detroit Red Wings
Alex Nedeljkovic with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Given Jarry’s health concerns and Nedeljkovic’s recent track record, the Penguins’ goaltending is their weakest link entering the season. That’s not to say it can’t work, but it could drag the team down. Still, it shouldn’t be bad enough to keep them out of the playoffs, especially with the Islanders’ lack of scoring.  

3. New York Rangers

  • 2022-23 season: 47-23-11, 107 points, 3rd in Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 100.5 points

Strength: Top-6 & Power Play

The Rangers return mostly the same team they had up front a season ago, with Blake Wheeler being their most notable addition. Even then, their top-six group of forwards will easily be their strength. 

Artemi Panarin’s play driving may be declining, but he’s still an elite playmaker. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider provide the finishing touch, while Filip Chytil has emerged as a reliable second-line center capable of 20-plus goals and 40-plus points. Kaapo Kakko could also slide into the top-six, especially with Alexis Lafreniere’s preseason struggles. 

Because of that, the Rangers’ power play should be one of the best in the NHL this season since they’ll also add Wheeler’s playmaking ability to one of their units. 

Question Mark: Forward Depth

Though the Rangers’ top-six is their strength, their depth has some question marks. Vincent Trocheck is a better-than-average third-line center, but do they have enough scoring to keep up with the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes’ deeper forward groups?

Will Cuylle looks like he may make the team’s opening-night roster. If he can add some scoring in a top-nine role, that’d help alleviate some of the depth concerns. Nick Bonino, Tyler Pitlick and Barclay Goodrow will likely make up the team’s fourth line, but they could be a negative at five-on-five, especially since they probably won’t score much. A

And there’s Lafreniere, who did not have a good preseason. It’s still too early to cut ties with the former first-overall pick, but the Rangers need him to be a consistent top-nine scorer, something he hasn’t been able to prove to this point of his career.

Weakness: Backup Goaltending

For as good as Igor Shesterkin is, Jonathan Quick could be a significant negative for the Rangers. He had an awful preseason, finishing with a .805 SV% while giving up 5.71 goals above expected. 

Jonathan Quick New York Rangers
New York Rangers goaltender Jonathan Quick (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Of course, preseason stats should always be taken with a grain of salt. But Quick has been declining for years, and that’s highly unlikely to change at 37 years old. The Rangers shouldn’t have much trouble making the playoffs with Shesterkin as their starter. But Quick playing 25-30 games could keep the Rangers well out of reach of the Devils and Hurricanes and even allow the Penguins to catch them for third place in the Metro. 

2. New Jersey Devils

  • 2022-23 season: 52-22-8, 112 points, 2nd in Metro
  • 2023-24 O/U: 105.5 points

Strength: Speedy Forwards

The Hurricanes may be a slightly better team than the Devils, but New Jersey has the edge up front. Led by Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, the Devils have a Big 3 that should be one of the most dynamic in the NHL. 

It’s not just those three, though. The 2023-24 season will be Timo Meier’s first full one in New Jersey. The team also added Tyler Toffoli, who fit perfectly with Bratt and Hughes during the preseason, via a trade this offseason. Even the Devils’ third line of Ondrej Palát, Erik Haula and Dawson Mercer should be one of the best third lines in the NHL. 

The Devils’ fourth line doesn’t have a ton of scoring upside. But Tomáš Nosek, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian or Curtis Lazar can play with pace, add some physicality, and will be responsible defensively. 

Question Mark: Defensive Youth & Goaltending

With Ryan Graves in Pittsburgh and Damon Severson with the Blue Jackets, the Devils will ask Kevin Bahl and Luke Hughes to take on full-time roles on defense this season. 

Bahl had a more than solid preseason and looks ready for a bigger role, perhaps alongside John Marino. The younger Hughes struggled this preseason, a sign there could be some growing pains to start 2023-24. He’ll be fine in the long run, especially as he gains more experience. But it may take some time. 

The Devils’ goaltending is also a question mark, but not necessarily for the regular season. Vitek Vanecek finished 2022-23 with a .911 SV% and should be more than good enough to get the team where they want to go in the regular season. But can he take his game to another level in the playoffs?

Vitek Vanecek New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Akira Schmid made a name for himself last season and had a strong preseason. He’s relatively inexperienced, especially for a goalie. The question with him will be how he handles a bigger workload this season, but there’s no denying his upside. The Devils don’t have a glaring weakness, so let’s move on to the projected first-place team, the Hurricanes. 

1. Carolina Hurricanes

  • 2022-23 season: 52-21-9, 113 points
  • 2023-24 O/U: 106.5 points

Strength: Defense

There’s no question about it. The Hurricanes have the best blue line in the NHL, and it only got better this offseason when they signed Dmitry Orlov to a two-year deal and brought back Tony DeAngelo on a one-year contract. 

Orlov’s impacts declined a season ago, but the Hurricanes are the perfect team for a defenseman to have a rebound season. He won’t have to play top-pair minutes, either, since Jaccob Slavin has the top pair locked down on the left side. 

Rounding out the top-four on the right side are Brent Burns, who’s still one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL at 38 years old, and Brett Pesce, a solid two-way second-pair defender. 

It doesn’t stop there, however. Brady Skjei, who totaled 18 goals and 38 points a season ago, will anchor the third pair alongside DeAngelo. There are some good defensive units in the Metro and NHL, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than the Hurricanes’. 

Question Mark: Elite Scorer & Goaltending Health

The Hurricanes have depth up front but lack some of the game-breaking forwards that other teams in the Metro have — namely the Penguins, Rangers and Devils. 

Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho are capable of 30-plus goals and 70-plus points, and Martin Necas showed last season he can produce close to those levels too. But what the Hurricanes lack is a Hughes or Panarin-type that has 90-plus-point potential. It won’t be a problem in the regular season, but it could come the playoffs. 

Another question mark for the Hurricanes is goaltending, though less so than the lack of a game-breaking scorer. Freddie Andersen and Antti Raanta are above-league-average netminders, but health is always a question with both players. 

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Frederik Andersen (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It helps that Pyotr Kochetkov may be the best No. 3 netminder in the NHL. He’s waivers exempt, so the Hurricanes can keep him in the AHL and let him develop while Raanta and Andersen man the crease in the NHL. It also makes him the ideal call-up if there’s an injury.  

The Hurricanes’ goaltending isn’t a weakness. Far from it, but Raanta and Andersen’s injury histories, plus their ages, make it a question mark. Like the Devils, the Hurricanes don’t have a glaring weakness, which is why many pundits are predicting them to win the Metro again and perhaps the Eastern Conference.  

The NHL’s Best Division?

The Metropolitan Division is the best in the Eastern Conference by a comfortable margin and may be the best in the NHL. It only improved this offseason with players like Toffoli, Wheeler and Erik Karlsson joining teams in the division. 

The Hurricanes are the favorites to win the Metro again, but the Devils have closed the gap. It wouldn’t at all be surprising if they won it over Carolina, as they were two points shy of doing so in 2022-23. 

The Penguins, despite the concerns in net, are a good bet to return to the playoffs. The odds are it will be as a wild-card team, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they leaped into a top-three spot. 

After making the playoffs in 2022-23, the Islanders look like they’ll be the odd club out. They don’t have the scoring to keep up with the teams projected to finish ahead of them, and a terrible preseason didn’t do anything to erase those concerns. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals even jumped them for fifth place, but I’m not ready to go there yet. 

Projected standings/playoff teams:

  1. Hurricanes
  2. Devils
  3. Rangers
  4. Penguins (WC1)
  5. Islanders – out of playoffs
  6. Capitals – out of playoffs
  7. Flyers – out of playoffs 
  8. Blue Jackets – out of playoffs

* * *

Advanced stats from Money PuckNatural Stat Trick. Over/Unders from FanDuel

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