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Metro Division preview: Islanders head of the class, remodeled Flyers have tough task to make playoffs

The New York Islanders don’t have any glaring weaknesses and are favored to win the division title. The rest of the division, which includes the Flyers, is fairly well-balanced.

New York Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin and defenseman Andy Greene (right) try to cover the puck as the Flyers' Scott Laughton looks for a rebound in a game last season. The Isles are the Metropolitan favorite this season.
New York Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin and defenseman Andy Greene (right) try to cover the puck as the Flyers' Scott Laughton looks for a rebound in a game last season. The Isles are the Metropolitan favorite this season.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

After a one-year realignment caused by the pandemic, the NHL is returning to its old four-division format this season.

That means the Flyers, rebuilt after a disappointing season, are back in the highly competitive, eight-team Metropolitan Division.

To refresh your memory: The top three teams in each division earn playoff berths, while the two next-best teams in the conference qualify as wild-card entries. In the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, Tampa Bay, which is the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, Florida, Toronto, and Boston look like playoff teams, including one as a wild card.

The Metro may have four qualifiers, and the Flyers appear to be on the playoff bubble.

Here is a look at the division, listed in predicted order of finish.

1. New York Islanders

Record last season: 32-17-7, fourth in East Division.

Key additions: Zach Parise, Zdeno Chara, Richard Panik.

Key subtractions: Nick Leddy, Jordan Eberle, Travis Zajac.

Outlook: Because of Barry Trotz, the Isles will never be outcoached. Because of Trotz’s system, the play of defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, and the terrific goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov (2.04 GAA, .929 save percentage) and Ilya Sorokin (2.17, .918), it would not be surprising if they allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. (They were No. 2 last season.)

The Islanders have a deep group of forwards, led by Flyers-killer Matt Barzal (17 goals, 45 points), Brock Nelson (18 goals), Anthony Beauvillier (15), and high-scoring Anders Lee (back from an ACL tear). The Isles, it should be noted, will have to overcome a difficult early schedule in which they play the first 13 games on the road because their new home, UBS Arena, isn’t ready.

This roster looks ready for the challenge, ready to make a Cup run.

2. Washington Capitals

Record last season: 36-15-5, second in East Division.

Key additions: None.

Key subtractions: Chara, Michael Raffl, Brenden Dillon, Craig Andersen.

Outlook: It’s not true that a majority of the Capitals are card-carrying AARP members, love watching Murder, She Wrote reruns, and enjoy early-bird specials at every chance. But make no mistake, Father Time is not on the Caps’ side.

Peter Laviolette’s Caps are expected to have the league’s oldest team, and they are running out of time to bring a Cup back to D.C. That said, most teams in the Metro would love to have goal-scoring machine Alex Ovechkin (age 36), T.J. Oshie (almost 35), Nicklas Backstrom (almost 34), and Lars Eller (32). While they were quiet in the offseason, the Capitals made their big move by adding Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline, and he helps give them one of the league’s best top-six groups. Combined with a solid defense and good (but not great) goaltending, the Caps have a chance at one last hurrah.

3. Carolina Hurricanes

Record last season: 36-12-8, first in Central Division.

Key additions: Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Ethan Bear, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Derek Stepan, Ian Cole, Brendan Smith, Tony DeAngelo.

Key subtractions: Dougie Hamilton, Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek, James Reimer, Warren Foegele, Jake Bean.

Outlook: Can the Hurricanes, who won the Central title last season and are returning to the Metro, survive the losses of star defenseman Hamilton and their dependable goalie trio of Nedeljkovic, Mrazek, and Reimer? That will be difficult, though Rod Brind ‘Amour, the defending NHL coach of the year, seems to push all the right buttons and gets his hardworking team to play with an edge.

The Hurricanes are counting on new goalies Andersen and Raanta , and they will play behind a talented and relentless group that is led by Sebastian Aho (57 points), Andre Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter (20 goals), and Teuvo Teravainen. Newcomer Kotkaniemi will also help, and the defense will be anchored by Jacob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei. Still, the loss of Hamilton, who signed a mega-deal with New Jersey, and the question marks in the net make Carolina a long shot to beat out the Islanders.

4. New York Rangers

Record last season: 27-23-6, fifth in East Division.

Key additions: Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves, Sammy Blais.

Key subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich, Brett Howden.

Outlook: By adding Goodrow and Reaves, the Blueshirts won’t be pushed around anymore. The Rangers have lots of talent, starting with Artemi Panarin (17 goals, 58 points in 42 games), Mika Zibanejad (24 goals, including seven goals and 18 points in eight games last season against the Flyers), Chris Kreider (20 goals), and Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox (47 points, plus-19). They also have up-and-coming players Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, and Vitaly Kravstov, and a quality new coach in Gerard Gallant.

If everything falls into place, the Rangers could climb much higher in the standings, especially if goaltenders Igor Shesterkin (2.62 GAA, .916 save percentage) and Alexandar Georgiev (2.71, .905) keep improving.

5. Flyers

Record last season: 25-23-8, sixth in East Division.

Key additions: Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Keith Yandle, Cam Atkinson, Derick Brassard, Martin Jones, Nate Thompson.

Key subtractions: Jake Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg.

Outlook: The Flyers, who allowed the most goals in the NHL last season (3.52 per game), wisely changed their identity. They added a much-needed top-pairing defender (Ellis), some physicality (Ristolainen), a scorer (Atkinson), and a power-play quarterback (Yandle). They also added some players who are vocal leaders.

Will it enable them to get back into the playoffs for just the fifth time in the last 10 years?

Only if goalie Carter Hart rebounds from a disastrous season (3.67 GAA, .877 save percentage), the sad-sack penalty kill improves dramatically, and the new players develop quick chemistry. The Flyers also need bounce-back seasons from Travis Konecny (11 goals) and Kevin Hayes (12 goals), who is out until November because of abdominal surgery. They will be led by team MVP Sean Couturier (18 goals), Joel Farabee (team-high 20 goals), and defenseman Ivan Provorov. James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux, who each had a team-best 43 points, are dependable veterans.

» READ MORE: After eight losing seasons in Buffalo, Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is ready to ‘turn a new page’

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

Record last season: 37-16-3, first in East Division.

Key additions: Brock McGinn, Teddy Blueger, Louis Domingue, Danton Heinen.

Key subtractions: Jared McCann, Cody Ceci, Brandon Tanev.

Outlook: Sidney Crosby (wrist) and Evgeni Malkin (knee) start the season sidelined because of injuries, meaning the Penguins will be counting heavily on 36-year-old Jeff Carter as one of their marquee centers.

Pittsburgh GM Ron Hextall is hoping goaltender Tristan Jarry bounces back from an ugly performance against the Islanders in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Even if Jarry rebounds, however, the Penguins bear little resemblance to their powerhouse teams of the past. This looks like a club in transition, a club with little depth. The Penguins do have some productive wingers (Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen), but the defense is a weak link, and Pittsburgh will have to huff and puff to make the playoffs.

7. New Jersey Devils

Record last season: 19-30-7, seventh in East Division.

Key additions: Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Bernier, Ryan Graves, Christian Jaros.

Key subtractions: Nathan Bastian, Mikhail Maltsev, Will Butcher, Nick Merkley.

Outlook: The Devils have plenty of young talent (Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, Yegor Sharangovich), and their rebuild took a big step forward when they signed the top unrestricted free agent on the market, Hamilton (seven years, $63 million), an elite defenseman who will headline a D that was 27th in the NHL in goals allowed (3.38 per game). New Jersey also improved by acquiring defenseman Graves and signing Tatar (30 points), and it solidified its goaltending by adding Bernier (2.99 GAA, .914 save percentage) to form a duo with Mackenzie Blackwood (3.04, .902).

New Jersey, which hasn’t won a playoff series since it reached the Cup Final in 2012, won’t be a contender, but this is a team trending in the right direction — and they will be in better shape when P.K. Subban’s $9 million salary-cap hit comes off the books after this season.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

Record last season: 18-26-12, eighth in Central Division.

Key additions: Jake Voracek, Sean Kuraly, Jake Bean, Adam Boqvist.

Key subtractions: Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Michael Del Zotto.

Outlook: New coach Brad Larsen will have a difficult time getting the Blue Jackets out of the basement. Elvis Merzlikins (2.77 GAA, .916 save percentage) is solid in the nets, but the Jackets have deficiencies on offense (tied for 28th in NHL last season) and desperately need 23-year-old right winger Patrik Laine (12 goals last season) to regain his scoring form. He had seasons with 36, 44, and 30 goals earlier in his career.

Boqvist, acquired in the Jones trade, is a blossoming defenseman who is being counted on for lots of minutes. He is expected to be on the top pairing with star defenseman Zach Werenski. Columbus needs young players like Cole Sillinger and Alexandre Texier to emerge; it also needs big seasons from former Flyer Voracek (9 goals, 43 points), young-but-fading Max Domi (9 goals, 24 points), and Oliver Bjorkstrand (18 goals, 44 points) if it is going to make itself relevant.

» READ MORE: After a breakthrough season, is Flyers winger Joel Farabee ready to join the NHL’s elite?