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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers - Will splashy signings propel them into playoffs?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers - Will splashy signings propel them into playoffs?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Rangers.

In February 2018, the Rangers did a very un-Rangers-like thing. The team sent a letter to their fans declaring the plan to rebuild the team. Now just over a year later, it did not take long for New York to make a splash in the offseason again.

The Rangers landed the prize of free agency in Artemi Panarin, added free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba, drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall pick in the draft and traded for prospect defenseman Adam Fox. They also managed to avoid a restricted free agent standoff with Pavel Buchnevich.

All these moves combined put the Rangers among the most improved teams in the league. It did not take long, but New York was able to shift its team from a group of veterans not good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup to a team full of youth and potential.

The future certainly looks brighter for this team in the future than it previously had, but despite all the improvements there are still plenty of questions about the present roster.

While New York certainly got younger, star goalie Henrik Lundqvist did not.

Lundqvist had an up-and-down season last year. His first half of last season was good enough to get him to the All-Star Game. He struggled in the latter half of the season and finished with a save percentage of only .907 and a GAA of 3.07. He is not a goalie who seems to do well taking a backseat, but Alexander Georgiev played well enough to earn more playing time. All of this makes it difficult to determine just what the split between the two netminders is going to be heading into this season.

In front of the crease, the additions of Trouba and Fox look like they will give the Rangers two new top-four defenseman to plug in. That should certainly help a team that ranked 23rd in the NHL last season in goals against per game with 3.26 and could potentially take some of the pressure off Lundqvist.

Mika Zibanejad returns as the team’s top center after what was easily his best season in the NHL with career highs in goals, assists and points. He was seen as a second-line center going into last season, but certainly took advantage of the larger role offered by New York. The concerns over whether he can handle a top-line role may not be as prevalent as last year, but I still seem him as a poor man's No. 1 center.

The offense is also likely to lose some of its depth before the start of the season due to salary cap constraints.

The Rangers sit with just $1 million remaining in projected cap space and still have RFAs Brendan Lemieux and Anthony Deangelo left to sign. When looking into what the team's options are for freeing up space, you have to wonder if players like Chris Kreider and Vladislav Namestnikov -- who are both entering the final year of their contracts -- could both be moved before the summer is over.

Panarin is a great addition and undeniably a superstar, but he cannot carry a team by himself. When he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and became the offensive focal point of the team, he was only able to lead the Blue Jackets to a single playoff series win in his two seasons there. That was a much deeper team than the Rangers appear to be if they should lose Kreider or Namestnikov.

Money decisions will continue to loom over this team even after a decision is made on those players. The cap situation was dire enough that the Rangers bought out the remaining two years of Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract. While he was underperforming, the combined buyouts of Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Ryan Spooner will leave New York with $5,394,444 of dead cap space in 2019-20 and nearly $7.5 million of dead cap space in 2020-21. These are not just bad contracts that can be packaged in a trade and sent away, that is dead cap space that the team is stuck with. That is a massive amount for a team that sure looks like it wants to compete for the playoffs sooner rather than later.

You still have to count the Rangers among the most improved teams this offseason, but the hill they had to climb and still must continue to climb may have been much steeper than many anticipated. There is still a lot of work left to do in Manhattan.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New Jersey Devils - How will No. 1 pick Jack Hughes impact the lineup?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New Jersey Devils - How will No. 1 pick Jack Hughes impact the lineup?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New Jersey Devils.

There may be no more improved team in the league this season than the Devils. New Jersey added the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, arguably the best player in the world who was not in the NHL and a former Norris Trophy winner all to the roster this summer. The fact that the addition of a player as significant as Wayne Simmonds was essentially an afterthought speaks to how great an offseason this was.

A lot of teams in New Jersey’s position would have been satisfied with winning the draft lottery and would not have felt the need to make any more splashy moves. The Devils, however, were aggressive and became a much better team as a result.

In 50 games with the U.S. Development team last season, Jack Hughes scored 34 goals and 78 assists for an astounding 112 total points. He may be a few years away from maxing out his potential, but there is no doubt the Devils added a player with tremendous skill who could potentially step into a top-six role very quickly.

Nikita Gusev is a bit of a wild card in that he is 27 and has never played an NHL game, but if you are the Devils, what do you have to lose? This was a sneaky good trade to acquire a player who could immediately become a dominant offensive player considering how much he dominated the KHL in recent years.

Simmonds is a player who was in the top-six in Philadelphia, but he seemed to struggle towards the end of this time there before getting traded to the Nashville Predators. He played in only two playoff games for Nashville before the Predators saw their season end in the first round. Considering the physical style in which Simmonds plays, getting a long offseason to rest as well as a third-line role in New Jersey won’t be the worst thing in the world for him. If he can find a way to make an impact in that role, he will prove to be a valuable asset.

These players join an offense that boasted other offensive talents such as Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac and, oh yeah, last year’s Hart Trophy winner, Taylor Hall.

It sounds really weird to say this given the team’s history, but New Jersey is going to be a team to watch for its offense next season.

Defensively, the addition of Subban could be potentially huge. There is no doubt he suffered a down year in 2018-19, but that has completely overshadowed the fact that the year prior to that he was a finalist for the Norris Trophy. That will help a defense that was exploited last season and a goalie tandem that remains a question mark.

Keith Kinkaid got a majority of starts in net last season for the Devils, but he was traded away to Columbus. Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood will enter the season as the team’s netminders. Goaltending was not a particular strength for the team last year, but Schneider and Blackwood seemed to improve late in the season leading some to believe there is hope they can be serviceable together for 2019-20. Schneider was a punch line for much of the year, but finished with a .903 save percentage, 3.06 GAA and six wins despite going over a full calendar year without recording a W. Blackwood stepped in for 21 games and registered a .918 save percentage and 2.61 GAA.

If there is one thing on the Devils’ to-do list for the summer that they were not able to get done, it was to re-sign Hall. Hall is entering the final year of his contract and, as exciting as all the other pieces the team added may be, he remains the most important player on the team. It would be devastating should the team lose him next season and his contract will be a distraction for the team the longer he goes without a new deal. If the team struggles, we could even see Hall traded during the season.

But that seems unlikely. New Jersey will be closer to being a playoff team than a bottom-feeder this year.

The Devils earned only 72 points last season and ranked second to last in the Eastern Conference. The team, however, was decimated by injuries and ultimately was better than it showed. It may be a jump to think this team could go from 72 points to competing for a playoff spot, but they ultimately were not nearly that bad.

Hall almost single-handedly dragged New Jersey into the playoffs in 2018. He will have a lot more help in 2019-20 to try to get them back into the postseason. It is not out of the question that they could get there.

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