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Pre-season position battles to watch: Metropolitan Division

Each team has players jockeying for important assignments this pre-season. How will each competition play out? We continue with the Metropolitan Division.

We continue our division-by-division looks at key pre-season position battles with the Metropolitan, which boasted three of the NHL’s top four teams and four of the top nine last season. It has arguably surpassed the Central as the sport’s shark-tank division. Every roster tweak can make a difference.

Atlantic pre-season position battles

Central pre-season position battles

Now, on with the Metro.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: What are the top three forward lines?

The Canes are a unique squad in that they have only one true first-line forward right now: Jeff Skinner, who sniped a career-high 37 goals last year. Sebastian Aho has the ceiling to become one, of course, but typically plays the same position as Skinner. If we accept those two as the No. 1 and 2 left wingers, who the heck fills Carolina’s other spots? The Canes have capable bodies, but each of them is better suited to a secondary scoring role, from Victor Rask and Jordan Staal at center to Justin Williams, Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm on the wings. Teravainen and Lindholm, of course, can also play center, just adding to the confusion. Derek Ryan and Lee Stempniak are also in the mix, having played with Skinner late last year. Who lines up with whom this season?

Bet on: Aho-Staal-Lindholm, Teravainen-Rask-Williams and Skinner-Ryan-Stempniak. This isn’t an overly confident guess, I must admit, especially since coach Bill Peters is a major line juggler. But there’s some circumstantial evidence. For one, as beat reporter Chip Alexander notes, these were the lines to open camp. Also, per, Ryan and Stempniak were Skinner’s most common linemates last season, and Staal was Aho’s and Lindholm’s most frequent center. So maybe the Canes start with what’s comfortable, mixing in off-season addition Williams.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Who plays with Artemi Panarin and Alexander Wennberg?

The Jackets remind me of the New York Islanders in that they’re a team of swing men, boasting multiple forwards who can play center or the wing or play both wings. Columbus’ line combinations can thus be tough to hammer out. Blink and Nick Foligno switches from right to left wing and back again. Boone Jenner plays a lot of wing but is a natural center who does fine on draws.

We have a good sense of who makes up two thirds of line 1 entering 2017-18, though. Panarin was brought in to be a front-line scorer, obviously, and opens as the top left winger. Puck distributor Wennberg has entrenched himself as the first-line center. But that right wing spot is open for auditions. Cam Atkinson is the team’s best goal-scoring winger, and the line could use a trigger man. Foligno could slide over to the right side, too, and bring the line more versatility and jam.

Bet on: Atkinson…for now. That’s the official arrangement to start the year. That trio should make for the most purely skilled line in Columbus’ short history. It will bring a lot of speed. But I wonder if this line will get pushed around a bit too much. Panarin and Atkinson are little guys, and while Wennberg is 6-foot-2, he checks in below the 200-pound mark. Foligno on the right would make for a more balanced trio, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get time on line 1. Unless, of course, Panarin-Wennberg-Atkinson turns out to be all-out-fire, which is entirely possible.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Who replaces Travis Zajac as the No. 1 center?

Reigning first overall draft pick Nico Hischier, whose plucky, creative game resembles that of Danny Briere and Claude Giroux, had a chance to play a major role in New Jersey the moment it selected him. That was a given. If a team wins the draft lottery, it’s a non-playoff squad with holes on the roster. Hischier looked like a strong bet to play in the top six as a rookie right away.

But he might not have surpassed Travis Zajac, the veteran with good two-way chops, the safer option for line 1. Now Zajac is out half the year with a torn pectoral, seemingly opening the gates for Hischier to inherit that job. Is it a given? Or might we see Adam Henrique move back to center on an emergency basis? Pavel Zacha, another high-end prospect, has the edge on Hischier in service time. Even newly acquired Marcus Johansson used to be a center.

Bet on: Johansson. He’s most comfortable on the left wing, where he spent much of his time in Washington, but Johansson has the maturity and two-way sense to handle the center position. He played with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri on line 1 to open the pre-season this week. Henrique shifted to center as well – on the second line, with Hischier working on the third. It’s a smart move by the Devils not to put too much pressure on Hischier right away. This team isn’t in a hurry – and we saw what happened a few years ago when it gave Adam Larsson too much responsibility too quickly.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Is Thomas Greiss still the starting goaltender?

Greiss, a career backup, took the starting job in winter 2016 after Jaroslav Halak got hurt. Greiss secured a long-term commitment in the role by outduelling Florida’s Roberto Luongo in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. The Islanders rewarded Greiss with a three-year, $10-million extension last January. The message was “starter,” especially when Halak got shipped to the AHL.

But so much has happened since then. The Islanders fired coach Jack Capuano and installed Doug Weight. Halak took his demotion like a champ and excelled with the farm club in Bridgeport. Greiss tired during the stretch run last season as he adjusted to the biggest workload of his career, posting a 3.14 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in 26 appearances after the all-star break following a 2.25 GAA and .928 SP in the first half. Halak, upon his return, lifted the Isles by going 6-1 with a 1.58 GAA and .949 SP. That was enough to reignite a goalie controversy. So who starts?

Bet on: A near even split of starts, with the slight edge going to Greiss. He’s the one under contract for the next three seasons, whereas Halak is a UFA next summer. It makes sense for the Isles to invest more time in Greiss. But it’s clear he’s not a true workhorse in the mold of Braden Holtby or Cam Talbot. Halak should start at least 30 games, assuming he isn’t traded, as Weight tries to keep Greiss fresher. The leash will also be short. If Greiss struggles again, Halak can snatch the catbird seat back. Greiss is the likely pick to start Game 1 of the season, though.

NEW YORK RANGERS: Who centers the second line?

The Derek Stepan trade shuffles the Blueshirts’ depth chart a bit, enough that we could even see 2017 fist-rounder Lias Andersson win a roster spot. It appears Mika Zibanejad will climb up to the first-line role. Does that mean Kevin Hayes also climbs a spot? Or do the Blueshirts want to keep him in his ideal deployment as a dominant third-line pivot and look at shifting J.T. Miller back to his old position of center?

Bet on: Hayes and Miller. So far this camp and pre-season, Hayes has played the No. 2 spot, but Miller has indeed shifted to center. Miller, though, is in the No. 3 role for now. General manager Jeff Gorton spoke to the New York Post’s Brett Cygralis about it and singled out Zibanejad and Hayes as the guys with the big opportunities, so the Rangers’ plans seem clear for now.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Is Claude Giroux really moving to the wing?

Giroux’s goals, assists and points have declined three consecutive seasons, so Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has experimented in camp with moving Giroux to the left wing. Sean Couturier, usually operating in a checking role, moved up to the No. 1 center spot, with Jakub Voracek on the right side. Sounds like a fascinating top line, especially since Giroux and Couturier have never played together. Having Giroux’s skill on the wing would spread out the talent more, as the Flyers could still deploy rookie Nolan Patrick and newly acquired Jori Lehtera down the middle. Scott Laughton can play center, too. So is this idea for real or just a fun little camp gimmick?

Bet on: Giroux to stay at center. As soon as it was time to start thinking about exhibition games, Hakstol backtracked, saying he wouldn’t commit to the idea and that there was “a chance” they’d try it. Giroux influences the game too much as a puck quarterback for Philly not to keep him at center, and Couturier is so good in a shutdown role that it might throw his game off to ask him for more offense. Giroux moving to wing feels more like a mid-season decision if he’s still in a funk. We’ll see.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Who replaces Nick Bonino as the No. 3 center?

The Penguins lost a handful of significant pieces from their Stanley Cup roster, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Matt Cullen. But the Nick Bonino departure may have the greatest impact. He was an effective two-way pivot, a gritty clutch scorer in the playoffs and capable of flourishing in a scoring role, too, as he did the season prior with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin on the ‘HBK’ line. The Penguins, crunched against the cap as always, made no major summer additions, leaving the No. 3 center spot unfilled. Who gets the important third-line center role? The default option is Carter Rowney, who at least logged 47 games in 2016-17 (27 regular season, 20 playoffs) and is familiar with the system. Greg McKegg comes in as an off-season signing. What about Zach Aston-Reese, the reigning NCAA scoring champ? Teddy Blueger, having marinated in the Pens’ system, is in the mix, too. The Penguins also added veteran checker Jay McClement, who does a lot of the things Cullen did but with less scoring ability.

Bet on: Blueger. Rowney is best suited to a fourth-line duty. As Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette rightfully notes, Blueger has the most upside of the contenders. That’s important because, even on the third line, a Penguins center will have skill on his wings, likely the swift Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust. It’s still likely GM Jim Rutherford trades for a No. 3 during the season, though.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Which newbie joins the fop four on defense?

Yes, Kevin Shattenkirk had a bad playoffs. Yes, looking under Karl Alzner’s analytics hood suggests he’s overrated as a defensive defenseman. But their departures still leave gaping wounds on the Capitals’ blueline. The speedy Nate Schmidt is now a Vegas Golden Knight, and that hurts, too. Veteran Brooks Orpik has slowed down too much to handle top-four responsibility, so someone new will have to step up and join Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson.

A Band-Aid fix would mean throwing a low-ceiling vet like Taylor Chorney in there, but the upside play would be to install one of the Caps’ top prospect D-men. The battle to watch is between Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey.

Bet on: Djoos. He’s a bit older than Bowey and shoots left, which makes Djoos a better complement to the righty Carlson. Bowey is also coming off an injury-shortened campaign in the AHL, whereas Djoos was almost a point-per-game player in the AHL and has little left to do there. Djoos has breakout potential if he can crack the top four. That doesn’t mean Bowey can’t also make the team on the third pair, however.


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