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20 Burning Questions: Who will challenge the Caps for the Metropolitan Division crown?

20 Burning Questions: Who will challenge the Caps for the Metropolitan Division crown?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at which teams in the Metropolitan have the best chance of ending the Caps’ four-year run atop the division?

A division title does not mean what it once did in Washington now that the Caps have won four-straight and 12 total. A Stanley Cup title also has a way of putting things into perspective. But even if fans don’t dream of winning another division title, the battle for the Metropolitan is still going to be worth watching because it is setting up to be a fascinating race.

Almost every team in the division got better in the offseason, some significantly so. If the Caps want to head into the playoffs with the top seed in their division, they are going to have to earn it.

Before we look at the teams that will push Washington this year, let’s first look at the teams that won’t.

The Columbus Blue Jackets went all-in at the trade deadline. Whether you support that decision or not, now they must reap what they have sown and will take a step back after watching Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all walk in free agency. Barry Trotz did a fantastic job in his first season as coach of the New York Islanders, but I still get the sense that they are a team of smoke and mirrors. They whiffed on trying to acquire Panarin in the offseason and will be asking Semyon Varlamov to replicate the incredible season Robin Lehner just pulled off. I don’t buy it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to confuse me. With no Olli Maatta, they may legitimately head into the season with Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson playing everyday roles on their blue line. That is insanity. Adding Brandon Tanev (for way too much term and money) and Alex Galchenyuk won’t be enough to make up for their defense and losing Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen.

It’s still the Penguins and they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so I don’t see them bottoming out, but the talent disparity on paper between Pittsburgh and Washington is undeniable.

The most exciting team to watch in the offseason has been the New Jersey Devils. They did not rest on their laurels after drafting Jack Hughes with the No.1 overall pick. They also added Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev. That is one hell of an offseason.

The big question mark in New Jersey is goaltending. What can you really expect from a Cory Schneider, Mackenzie Blackwood tandem?

Taylor Hall had an MVP season in 2017-18 and got this team to the playoffs. With the added talent, this looks like a playoff team. A division winner though? I’m not sure they are quite ready for that.

When it comes to teams that can push the Caps, I look at three main candidates: The Philadelphia Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers.

After watching the Flyers not only flame out but fail to even really contend for a Cup over the last several years, I get the feeling their core is not good enough to be a top contender. Claude Giroux is a fine player, but I do not see him as a No. 1 superstar who you can build a team around. I put him on a level with a player like Kesel.

So why do I put Philadelphia as a division contender? Because they finally have a solution to the one issue that has plagued them as a franchise seemingly forever. The Flyers finally have a goalie.

Philadelphia having a goalie is a bit hard to fathom, like the Cleveland Browns having a quarterback or the Washington Nationals having a bullpen, but it’s happened. Carter Hart is only 20 and it may be putting a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but he looks like the real deal. In addition to him, Alaign Vigneault takes over behind the bench which is a major boost and a clear sign they are in win-now mode. Kevin Hayes is also a good addition even if they paid way too much for him and Matt Niskanen should provide some veteran leadership on the blue line.

I still do not believe this roster is good enough to contend for a Cup, but let’s see what a Flyers team with dependable goaltending can do over the course of an 82-game season.

The Hurricanes are in the exact opposite situation. Not only did Carolina beat the Caps in the first round of the playoffs, they made it all the way to the conference final. They also very quietly have had a great offseason adding a boatload of talent with Dzingel and Erik Haula. They lost Calvin de Haan, but the blue line was strong enough that it can absorb that loss and still be great. The biggest question mark in the offseason was Sebastian Aho, but thanks to a ridiculously low offer sheet from the Montreal Canadiens, the Hurricanes managed to re-sign him for a reasonable cap hit of less than $8.5 million per year.

There is just one thing that makes me wary and they are the opposite of Philadelphia in this respect: Goaltending.

Petr Mrazek returns as the starter after what was a bounceback year for him. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, Mrazek managed only a .901 and .902 save percentage respectively. He had a .914 with the Hurricanes last season, but even in the playoffs his numbers were not great as he managed only a .894. He also will not have the same help he had last year with Curtis McElhinney now with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Carolina added James Reimer, but McElhinney outplayed him significantly last season (.912 save percentage and 2.58 GAA as compared to Reimer’s .900 and 3.09) and he was dominant in the postseason.

I am not sure if Carolina can catch lightning in a bottle again with its goaltending, but perhaps with their defense it won’t matter.

And finally, there is the Rangers. The rebuild is officially over as New York added the top free agent in Panarin, Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall draft pick and defenseman Jacob Trouba. They also added a young top-tier defensive prospect in Adam Fox who is expected to jump into a top-four role.

Oh, and there is still Henrik Lundqvist who is not quite ready to turn the crease over to Alexandar Goergiev just yet.

The Rangers are one of the most improved teams in the NHL and Panarin is a player that loves to torment the Caps. This is a team to watch.

The important thing to remember is that the division crown does not necessarily dictate who has the edge heading into the postseason. Even if Washington does fail to win the division, I would still put them as the favorites to advance to the conference final. But it is going to be a long road to get there and boy is the Metro going to be fun to watch.

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The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

John Carlson did not play at all in the round robin and finally returned to action on Wednesday in Game 1 against the New York Islanders. But just on his second shift Carlson, not someone known for fighting, dropped the gloves with Islanders captain Anders Lee. Why? Because Lee had just delivered a late hit to the chest to the unsuspecting Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson was not happy about it. Not one bit.

"It looked real dirty to me," Carlson said. "I think when a guy is kind of coming up and kind of looking back at the pass, I've heard it a lot over the years that they're trying to take that out of the game. More than anything, as a player that's been around, you kind of sense the impact. Nicky doesn't get hit very often, so that should tell you all you need to know. He's probably one of the most aware players in the league. That was my reaction to what happened."

The hit appeared to be to the chest of Backstrom, but the puck was long gone by that point so it was very clearly late. It also seemed to be made worse by the fact that Backstrom did not appear ready for the hit, perhaps because the puck was not close. An unprepared Backstrom was then dropped to the ice by the hit.

Backstrom played only 7:21 for the game and did not appear in the second or third period.

RELATED: BACKSTROM EXITS GAME 1

Carlson was not the only one who was upset following the game.

"It looked extremely late," T.J. Oshie said of the hit. "In the frame I saw, there wasn't even a puck, and it still looked late. It's hard seeing a leader and a player like Backy is not only for our team, but pretty good role model as far as in the NHL, go down like that on a late, cheap play. It's out of our hands."

Head coach Todd Reirden did not have an update after the game saying Backstrom was continued to be evaluated. But even if he did not have much to say on Backstrom's health, he had plenty to say about the hit itself.

“[Backstrom’s] continuing to get looked at," Reirden said. "Obviously, he couldn’t finish the game. It was a late hit on an unexpected player that was in a spot [where] he was extremely vulnerable. So those are some things we saw there. It’s as simple as that. Like I said, late hit, the player wasn’t expecting it and it’s predatory.”

Not surprisingly, the Islanders saw the hit differently.

"I tried to throw the breaks on a little bit there, but I caught him, the end result after that a penalty, a couple of fights."

"It was one of those plays if you come laterally, especially with congestion at the blue line and Anders was making a hockey play. Anders is a strong guy."

Perhaps the biggest difference of opinion between the two teams is what this means going forward. Clearly the Caps thought the hit was dirty and warrants supplementary discipline. The Islanders, however, think the matter is settled.

"It was settled and then the game continued on," Lee said.

"I think the hit was made, they responded, Wilson went after Lee, they fought and that's probably the end of it," Trotz said. "We'll see."

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Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Washington Capitals center Lars Eller is expected to be back in action for Game 2 against the New York Islanders, head coach Todd Reirden said following the Game 1 loss on Wednesday.

Eller did not play in the first game of Washington's Stanley Cup Playoffs run as he awaited clearance by the league after he re-entered the bubble on Sunday. Eller departed Toronto on August 5 for the birth of his second child, Alexander.

Before Eller can rejoin the team, he must test negative for the coronavirus four times over a four-day period

RELATED: HOLTBY'S ROUGH NIGHT AND MORE FROM GAME 1

Eller's return is something Washington will be happy to see, as the team is in desperate need of some help at the center position. Nicklas Backstrom left Wednesday's game with an injury and his status for Game 2 is still unknown. 

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