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Mailbag: Handicapping race for Metropolitan Division playoff berths

NHL.com's Dan Rosen answers weekly questions

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Here is the Sept. 27 edition of Dan Rosen's weekly mailbag, which will run every Wednesday throughout the 2017-18 NHL season. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

Which of the Metropolitan Division teams do you think will fall short of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year as of now? -- @sarahjvanhorn

I submitted my predictions Monday, and staying consistent with what I said in the video segments for our 31 in 31 project in August, I did not have the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils or Philadelphia Flyers making the playoffs. I think the other five teams from the Metropolitan Division will.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are locks, in my opinion. Washington isn't as good on paper as it was last season, but it's still a dangerous offensive team with a good power play and should get excellent goaltending again from Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. 

The New York Rangers are close to a lock, but they're not as safe a bet as the other three. They're deeper than people are giving them credit for. They're better on defense than they were last season. Henrik Lundqvist is still a top NHL goaltender. However, their area of concern is center depth. They could be in deep trouble if Mika Zibanejad or Kevin Hayes gets injured. 

The Carolina Hurricanes are ready to take the next step. Their defensemen are young and strong. Scott Darling has to prove he's capable of being a No. 1 goalie. They are also young up front, but I expect continued improvement in production from Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm, Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask. 

The Islanders and Flyers are bubble teams. Each could climb in with subpar performances from some of the other teams, but there are too many questions on defense and in goal. The Devils are improving and you have to like what we've seen from centers Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha so far in preseason games, but New Jersey is a year away from being a playoff contender. 

Video: NJD@OTT: Hischier tips in his third preseason goal

 

Are the Buffalo Sabres flying beneath the radar? Strong top six forwards. Improved blue line. And a coach who will finally open it up. -- @JMattSmith29

People respect the Sabres as being an improving bubble team in the Atlantic Division, but you won't find many people predicting they will make the playoffs. They're a prove-it team. They have some nice pieces, including terrific top-three center depth with Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart, but there are so many questions they need to answer. 

Can they score enough at even strength? They had the NHL's best power play last season (24.5 percent), but they were 28th in 5-on-5 goals (126). 

Do they have enough depth on the wings? Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane are nice starting points, but the Sabres need others to step up. 

Is the defense good enough? I like the additions of defensemen Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu, but chemistry is important and the Sabres need to find it early with their pairs. 

Can the Sabres play up tempo and still protect the house? Coach Phil Housley wants them to play an aggressive style, but they have to be careful with how they transition after playing a passive style under former coach Dan Bylsma.

 

Do you think Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil each make the New York Rangers opening-night roster? -- @nyrprpokemon

Yes, provided general manager Jeff Gorton doesn't make a trade to acquire a center between now and opening night.

I know it's a stretch to think the Rangers will keep two 18-year-olds, but coach Alain Vigneault said Monday "it's a possibility," and judging by the way Andersson and Chytil have played, there are enough reasons for the Rangers to do it if Gorton doesn't augment the roster in another way. 

Andersson and Chytil are centers who have fit in well and have looked the part as NHL players. They've each fared well in the defensive zone. They've each gotten to test their skills on the penalty kill and have graded out fine. Andersson is grittier than Chytil, who is more skilled than Andersson. It's a nice contrast that could benefit the Rangers. It's realistic now that the Rangers could keep both and give it a try. 

The Rangers have an opening on the roster with forward Jesper Fast recovering from hip surgery on June 5. They should know enough about Andersson and Chytil by the time Fast is ready to return, which could be in late October or early November. Andersson and Chytil each have nine games to play before using the first year of his entry-level contract. If they play well, they stay, the first year of the ELC is done, and the Rangers figure out the roster from there. If the Rangers have concerns or don't like what they're seeing, they can send them to Hartford of the American Hockey League or back to their team in Europe for the rest of the season. Andersson and Chytil are AHL eligible, but each would use the first year of his ELC upon going to Hartford. The Rangers would have the ability to keep better tabs on them and can recall them too. They would not use a year of their ELC if they go back to Europe to play, but they would be lost to the Rangers until their season in Europe is over.

 

Who are your under-the-radar rookie players to watch this season? -- @TylerDonnellyTD

I'd argue that a lot of rookies going into this season are flying under the radar except for Hischier and Philadelphia Flyers center Nolan Patrick. We've been trained in the past few seasons to look at the top picks in the NHL Draft, the predicted best 18-year-olds, and target them as the best rookies. With all due respect to Hischier and Patrick, who certainly could be dynamic rookies, this season is going to be as much about the rookies who have already had some time to develop since their draft year as it will be about Hischier and Patrick. The 2017-18 rookie class is strong.

Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser, the No. 23 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, could see plenty of time with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Dallas Stars defenseman Julius Honka, selected 14th in the 2014 NHL Draft, has tested out well in training camp, likely well enough to earn a roster spot. Defensemen tend to thrive under coach Ken Hitchcock. There's Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome with the Arizona Coyotes. Keller, the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, could be a game-changer as a top-six wing for Arizona. Strome, the No. 3 pick in 2015, could be the Coyotes' second-line center. Charlie McAvoy, selected by the Boston Bruins with the No. 14 pick in 2016, is a defenseman who might average 25:00 per game playing on the top pair with Zdeno Chara and is my pick to win the Calder Trophy. Ottawa Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot, the No. 18 pick in 2015, might get a chance to make a strong early impression because Erik Karlsson is recovering from foot surgery on June 14.

I also like forwards Joshua Ho-Sang and Mathew Barzal and defenseman Ryan Pulock of the New York Islanders; Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev; Colorado Avalanche center Tyson Jost; Winnipeg Jets left wing Kyle Connor; Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson-Ek; and Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana.

 

What is the St. Louis Blues opening-night roster for forwards going to look like? -- @Dabegg25

The Blues were dealt a blow Wednesday when it was determined that forward Robby Fabbri has to miss the entire season because he reinjured his surgically repaired left knee. That's a monster loss. Fabbri was supposed to play center and fill a hole on the depth chart that has long been a problem in St. Louis. Now he won't. 

And we also have to assume forward Alexander Steen (left hand) won't be in the lineup when the Blues open at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 4. We already know Zach Sanford and Patrik Berglund are out because each had shoulder surgery. 

So with all that, what can we safely expect?

We can expect Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Sobotka, Dmitrij Jaskin, Ivan Barbachev, Kyle Brodziak, Magnus Paajarvi and Chris Thorburn to be in the lineup against the Penguins. That leaves two open spots. Rookie Tage Thompson could take one of them. So can Oskar Sundqvist, Klim Kostin, Sammy Blais and Wade Megan. None of them were among the six forwards who were among the cuts the Blues made Wednesday.

They're getting closer to a final roster, but it's still too soon to tell. I know that doesn't answer your question, but it's a tough situation in St. Louis because of injuries, especially Fabbri's. That could open the door for a trade. We will have to wait on that. The good news is St. Louis still has two more preseason games left to play, so they aren't done evaluating.  

Video: Vladimir Tarasenko comes in at No. 14 on the list

 

I've heard the Pittsburgh Penguins are rumored to be in on Riley Sheahan or Ryan Spooner. Any word if they are any closer to acquiring that third-line center? -- @PensKillTheCaps

The news coming out of Pittsburgh is Greg McKegg is the one currently in line to fill Nick Bonino's skates as the third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. McKegg isn't flashy, but he can skate, play solid in his own end, compete on the penalty kill, and win some faceoffs. He is inexperienced (65 NHL games in four seasons) and can't be expected to provide the same level of offense the Penguins got from Bonino, but that was such a luxury to have for a team that was getting all-star offense out of Crosby and Malkin. Wouldn't it be very Penguinslike for McKegg to take over as the third center and play a significant depth role on a team that continues to find ways to get more out of its depth players than every other team in the NHL? 

However, don't rule out a trade. There's no word if the Penguins are any closer to one, but I think that's general manager Jim Rutherford's No. 1 choice. Sheahan's availability is linked to the Andreas Athanasiou situation. If the Red Wings can sign Athanasiou, a restricted free agent, they're probably going to have to make a trade to become NHL salary cap compliant. Sheahan didn't score a goal in 2016-17 until the regular-season finale, so I'm not sure you can expect a high level of offense out of him either. Spooner would be an interesting candidate if the Bruins feel strongly enough about their center depth. The Rangers are in the market for a center too. Same with the Chicago Blackhawks and maybe the Montreal Canadiens.

 

Who scores more goals this season, Vladimir Tarasenko or Connor McDavid? -- @BretzkyBretzky

Tarasenko, because he's a more prolific goal-scorer. McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers center, might improve on the 30 goals he scored last season, but he's more of a playmaker. I think Tarasenko will hit the 40-goal mark this season. He scored 39 last season after scoring 40 in 2015-16.

McDavid could always pull a Crosby on us and become as prolific a goal-scorer as there is in the NHL. McDavid said he worked extensively to improve his shot during the offseason.

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