It's never too early to take stock of where teams stand in the NHL. The 2019 NHL Draft has passed, and many of the big names in free agency have found a home for this season, so this is as good a time as any to look at the balance of power in the Metropolitan Division. We asked nine NHL.com staff writers for their opinions on which team will be the best in the division this season. Here are their thoughts:
Tim Campbell, staff writer
Pittsburgh Penguins: Swept by the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round in April, the Penguins may not be as popular a pick as they once were. It's hard to identify a runaway candidate to win this division, and the Penguins were a 100-point team last season, albeit not as impressive defensively as they once were. It's well within the realm of possibility that goalie Matt Murray is still maturing and improving, and that his best is yet to come. Pittsburgh could also be healthier this season; defensemen Kris Letang and Justin Schultz missed a combined 70 games last season, for instance. New chemistry at forward is also ahead as the Penguins try for another Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their prime. With Phil Kessel traded to the Arizona Coyotes, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Tanev will change the group's makeup positively, in my opinion.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Crosby
William Douglas, staff writer
Washington Capitals: With several key players approaching or past their 30th birthdays, the Capitals will be out to prove that they still have game in a division that features rising younger teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Alex Ovechkin turns 34 on Sept. 17, Nicklas Backstrom will be 32 on Nov. 23, and T.J. Oshie turns 33 on Dec. 23. The team's core is aging but was still productive last season, and I see no reason why it won't be again. Who is going to bet against a team led by Ovechkin, who scored an NHL-best 51 goals last season? Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby each is in the final season of his contract, which will provide additional motivation.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Ovechkin
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
Washington Capitals: There's no question the balance of power is on the verge of shifting in the division, and my answer might be different a year from now. The rest of the pack is coming for the Capitals and the Penguins, who combined to win the Stanley Cup in three straight seasons before the St. Louis Blues won last season. With Backstrom and Holtby each entering the final season of his contract, and with their core aging, this might be the last hurrah for the Capitals, but they have enough left to win their fifth straight division title. Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals in two straight seasons and six of the past seven. Backstrom remains one of the best playmakers and two-way centers in the NHL, and John Carlson has emerged as one of the best offensive defensemen.
Adam Kimelman, staff writer
Washington Capitals: The Capitals had a quiet offseason, but they didn't need to do much to remain the class of the division. Ovechkin shows no signs of slipping from the top goal-scorer in the NHL, and he's got two dynamic playmakers able to feed him the puck with Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The depth might not be as great following the departures of forwards Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, but with Oshie, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and Lars Eller, they remain a top offensive team. Carlson anchors a strong group of defensemen, and Holtby is an elite goalie. Although the Rangers, Flyers and New Jersey Devils each made significant offseason moves to get better, and the Penguins still have two of the top five or six players in the NHL, there's no team in the division better than the Capitals.
Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
Philadelphia Flyers: Coach Alain Vigneault takes over a team that has a nice blend of veterans, leaders and young players. Philadelphia needs a quick start to keep pace with division favorites Washington, Carolina and Pittsburgh, and it will, due in large part to finally having an established goaltending situation with veteran Brian Elliott and 21-year-old Carter Hart, who will prove to be one of the best at his position this season. The Flyers have nice depth at center with Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Nolan Patrick and Scott Laughton, will get good production from the wings with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom, and have a good mix at defenseman with Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen, Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Sanheim. Look for young forwards Joel Farabee (2018 NHL Draft, No. 14) and Morgan Frost(2017 NHL Draft, No. 27) to also earn roster spots out of training camp.
Video: Top five plays of 2018-19: Giroux
Tracey Myers, staff writer
Carolina Hurricanes: All fun and entertaining postgame celebrations aside, the Hurricanes had a nice team last season and will challenge for the division this season. Their young and talented group of forwards includes 22-year-old Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, who turns 25 on Sept. 11. Justin Faulk, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Dougie Hamilton are part of a strong defenseman group that helped Carolina finish tied for seventh in the NHL in goals-against last season (221). And if goalie Petr Mrazek is as good at the start of this season as he was at the end of the previous one, the Hurricanes will be in very good shape. It's going to be a challenge in the division, but I think the Hurricanes are up to it.
Video: Sebastian Aho checks in at No. 14 on the list
Rob Reese, fantasy editor
Washington Capitals: The fantasy department has projected the Capitals to have a division-best 47 wins this season, five more than the No. 2 Penguins (42). Sure, the usual suspects among the Capitals forwards are in their 30s, but don't overlook Vrana, who quietly finished second behind Ovechkin on Washington with 23 even-strength goals. Vrana, 23, is on an upward trajectory and carries 30-goal potential and youthful energy into the Capitals' top-six forward group. With a slightly retooled bottom six (Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway) and Radko Gudas joining their defensemen, the Capitals additions will offset their offseason losses and they will win the division a fifth straight season.
Dave Stubbs, columnist
New York Islanders: A single point separated the Islanders from the division-champion Capitals in 2018-19, New York's 103-point season ranking them No. 4 in the Eastern Conference. The high-profile 2018 free agency loss of John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs would become almost an asterisk, as the Islanders engineered a massive 23-point improvement from 2017-18. Gone is Robin Lehner, replaced by Semyon Varlamov, who will team with the returning Thomas Greiss. Offense should again be nicely balanced, putting the scoring eggs of Jack Adams Award-winning coach Barry Trotz in several baskets. I like the offensive potential of Mathew Barzal, the 2018 Calder Trophy winner voted as NHL rookie of the year. Will the Islanders again be the NHL's stingiest team defensively, their 191 goals-against last season making them the League's only team with fewer than 200 allowed? Even if they're not, I see Trotz, in his second year, working his magic to push his team over the top in the Metropolitan.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Barzal
Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
Pittsburgh Penguins: At first blush, there is plenty to like about the Capitals, a season removed from a Stanley Cup title and with the core of the team intact. The Devils seem to be the up-and-coming flavor in the division with additions like P.K. Subban, Jack Hughes and Wayne Simmonds. Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba make the Rangers very intriguing. Then I remembered something Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist told me at the NHL European Player Media Tour in Stockholm two weeks ago. "Sid is as focused as I've ever seen him," he said of Crosby, adding the team will feed off the knowledge that some people are counting them out. One lesson we should have all learned long ago: Never count Sidney Crosby out. Never.
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