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Penguins remain team to beat in Metropolitan Division

Hurricanes, Islanders poised for turnaround; Hischier ready to help Devils

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins hope to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cup championships since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-1983, but it won't come easy in the tough Metropolitan Division, where four of the eight teams (Penguins, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers) finished among the top nine in the NHL standings last season.

The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders are two non-playoff teams from last season that look ripe for a turnaround. The line of Sebastian Aho, Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm brings excitement in Carolina, and Jordan Eberle could provide John Tavares the wingman he has needed for the Islanders.

 

[RELATED: Lightning favored to win Atlantic Division]

 

In addition, rookie centers Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils) and Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers) each should give his team added offensive life and help it challenge the Penguins, whose 111 points were second to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals (118).

Here's a look at how the Metropolitan Division could unfold in 2017-18:

Team to beat: Pittsburgh assumes this title until further notice. The Penguins have the personnel and drive to win it all again, but coach Mike Sullivan will have to overcome losses in free agency and the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft (Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley). He also needs his core players (Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) to remain healthy.

Dark horse: The Hurricanes haven't qualified for the playoffs the past eight seasons, but that streak could end behind a stout defense that includes Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin. Goalie Scott Darling, acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on April 28, will assume the No. 1 role. Skinner remains an elite goal-scorer, Lindholm, Teuvo Teravainen and Victor Rask should produce, and Aho, who ranked third in goals among rookies last season (24), will help provide a balanced attack.

Stock rising: Jake Guentzel, Penguins. He is poised to continue his meteoric rise after leading the League with 13 playoff goals in 25 games as a rookie. He led the Penguins with nine points (three goals, six assists) in four preseason games and is set start the regular season at left wing alongside Crosby on the top line.

Video: Jake talks to the crew about his summer as a champion

Player to watch: Mika Zibanejad, Rangers. The 24-year-old begins the season as New York's first-line center after Derek Stepan was traded to the Arizona Coyotes on June 23. Zibanejad, who agreed to terms on a five-year, $26.75 million contract July 25, had 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 56 games last season but missed 25 games with a broken leg. Expected to play between left wing Chris Kreider and either Mats Zuccarello or Pavel Buchnevich, he could surpass his NHL career-high 21 goals with the Ottawa Senators in 2015-16.

Video: PHI@NYR: Zibanejad knots score with great wrister

Rookie to watch: Nico Hischier, Devils. The No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft has solidified a spot in New Jersey after an impressive preseason when he had seven points (four goals, three assists) in four games. He didn't seem intimidated or out of place at center, and battled in the corners and in front of the net while making it miserable for opposing players looking to take him off his game.

Video: NJD@WSH: Hischier fires one short side past Holtby

The new guy: Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets. The left wing will challenge linemate Cam Atkinson for Columbus scoring lead; Atkinson has led the Blue Jackets in scoring the past two seasons. Panarin, acquired in a trade from the Blackhawks on June 23, is ninth in the NHL with 151 points in the past two seasons and has 41 power-play points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 162 NHL games.

Video: CBJ@PIT: Panarin buries PPG to extend lead in 3rd

Who will make playoffs: There's a good possibility five teams from the Metropolitan could qualify: the Penguins, Blue Jackets, Capitals, Rangers and Hurricanes.

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