Metropolitan Preview: Penguins and Capitals still stand at the top of division loaded with promising wild cards

Cam Lewis
October 02 2017 03:19PM

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PHOTO CREDIT: © GEOFF BURKE-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Metropolitan Division is clearly the better of the two in the Eastern Conference. According to oddsmakers like Pinnacle Sports, both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup favourites, and beneath them are a wealth of solid teams with exciting upside.

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8th: New Jersey Devils

Last year’s record: 28-40-14 (70 points)

Last year’s stats: 47.8 CF% (27th), 43.4 GF% (29th), 6.4 SH% (28th), 92.5 SV% (14th)

Notable additions: Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, Will Butcher, Nico Hischier, Mirco Mueller, Drew Stafford.

Notable subtractions: Mike Cammalleri, Jon Merrill, Devante Smith-Pelly, Johann Auvitu, Beau Bennett.

Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, things have gone to hell for the New Jersey Devils. Ilya Kovalchuk left to play in the KHL, the team struggled to create a new identity after franchise legends like Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias retired, and two decades of consistent success has left the team in purgatory, devoid of much young talent. This summer, though, things have started to really turn around.

A strong season from Cory Schneider in 2015-16 had the Devils sort of in the mix for a playoff spot, and the acquisition of Taylor Hall in the following off-season made them an interesting pick to challenge again in 2016-17. That didn’t happen. The Devils were terrible last season, finishing with 70 points, their worst total in an 82-game season since the very beginning of the Lou Lamoriello era. 

Schneider’s play was probably the biggest disappointment of the season in New Jersey. We expected the team to struggle offensively because of that boring, defensively-oriented style they’ve been playing forever, but Schneider’s .908 save percentage — a career low by a mile — was shocking. According to Natural Stat Trick, New Jersey was above league average in terms of suppression shots and high danger chances, so it isn’t emblematic of poor team or system play.

New Jersey had a strong off-season thanks in part to some draft lottery luck in which they moved from No. 5 to No. 1 and selected skilled forward Nico Hischier. They also acquired cap casualty Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals and signed covered NCAA free agent Will Butcher.

The Devils are a very good bet to finish last in the Atlantic Division again this season. That’s partially because they’re bad and rebuilding, and also because the division is loaded with good, playoff-calibre teams. Even though this year won’t be competitive, Devils fans can at least enjoy watching a team with a future develop for the first time in years. But with Taylor Hall only three seasons away from free agency, there isn’t much to time to wait around.

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7th: Philadelphia Flyers

Last year’s record: 39-33-10 (88 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.1 CF% (9th), 45.2 GF% (24th), 6.6 SH% (6th), 91.6 SV% (26th)

Notable additions: Jori Lehtera, Brian Elliott.

Notable subtractions: Steve Mason, Brayden Schenn, Michael Del Zotto, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nick Schultz, Boyd Gordon, Chris Vande Velde.

I hate calling a team difficult to predict in an article about predictions because it’s a massive cop out. But that’s exactly what the Flyers are. An enigmatic team with a weird blend of exciting young upside, a lot of question marks, and solid veteran core.

Who on this team is easy to project? Wayne Simmonds has consistently hovered around 30 goals the past four seasons. Sean Couturier has been a defensive dynamo for a few years but won’t produce much offensively. Radko Gudas will produce inexplicably incredible fancy stats while also laying ferocious and dangerous hits while Andrew MacDonald will be a turnstile at the blueline.

After that? Claude Giroux’s advanced stats and production has declined in back-to-back seasons. Jakob Voracek also had a disappointing season in 2016-17. Giroux might move to the wing and the two could be centred by No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. Will he adjust well? Will any of Philly’s rookies — which are going to make up a solid chunk of their blueline — going to adjust well? What about Jordan Weal, who had a surprisingly good month-long showing to end the season? Is Brian Elliott the answer in net? He sure as hell wasn’t for the team who asked the question this same time last year.

There are way more questions than answers on this Flyers squad, but there’s no denying how bright their future looks. Maybe things get accelerated and the team breaks out this season behind incredible rookie showings from Patrick, Travis Sanheim, and Oskar Lindbolm.

It could happen, but that isn’t the front office’s plan. The Flyers didn’t do much this summer (I mean, save for moving from No. 13 to No. 2 in the draft, of course), swapping Brayden Schenn for Jori Lehtera and letting Steve Mason walk and replacing him with Elliott. The Flyers are playing the long game, and while it could come together this season if everything goes right, odds are, considering the strength of the division, Philly ends up on the outside looking in.

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6th: Carolina Hurricanes

Last year’s record: 36-31-15 (87 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.3 CF% (6th), 46.0 GF% (23rd), 7.3 SH% (20th), 91.3 SV% (29th)

Notable additions: Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger, Justin Williams.

Notable subtractions: Eddie Lack, Ryan Murphy, Bryan Bickell, Jay McClement, Andrej Nestrasil, Matt Tennyson.

If the Dallas Stars were the winners of the off-season in the West, the Carolina Hurricanes likely grab that title in the East. The Hurricanes added to a strong up-and-coming core by acquiring breakout goalie candidate Scott Darling from the Blackhawks, solid depth players Trevor van Riemsdyk and Marcus Kruger also from the Hawks, this time by way of the Golden Knights, and former team hero Justin Williams in free agency.

The Hurricanes have been a breakout bet for a few years now because of their strong underlying numbers. For the past few seasons, Carolina has been one of the league’s best teams in terms of shot attempt differential, but that hasn’t translated to a strong goal differential. And, predictably, it hasn’t resulted in any success in the standings. The disconnect between their shot and goal numbers has been a lack of finishing skill up front and a disaster in net.

That’s the most important upgrade the Canes made this summer. Scott Darling figures to be this year’s Cam Talbot, a very good, late bloomer who was trapped behind another very good goalie in Chicago. Darling has only played 75 games over three years with the Hawks, but he’s posted a .923 save percentage and was even fantastic in the 2015 playoffs. Considering how good Carolina’s blueline is, Darling should be able to boost the Canes from the basement to well above league average in terms of goals against this season.

This team still isn’t going to score a lot of goals, but the Canes are a very good bet to break their playoff drought this season on the back of their elite blueline and improved goaltending. Even if it doesn’t happen this year, Carolina has a very bright future.

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5th: New York Islanders

Last year’s record: 41-29-12 (94 points)

Last year’s stats: 47.8 CF% (28th), 51.1 GF% (14th), 8.8 SH% (3rd), 91.8 SV% (24th)

Notable additions: Jordan Eberle, Kristers Gudlevskis.

Notable subtractions: Ryan Strome, Travis Hamonic, Mikhail Grabovski, J-F Berube.

The New York Islanders have been a rollercoaster the past few years. In 2015, they seemed to be on the rise, boasting a nice young core around John Tavares and a very admirable salary cap situation. They made the playoffs in 2016 and won a series for the first time since 1993. But despite having two key players, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, on the verge of free agency, they didn’t make any additions at the trade deadline. They let both players walk, and ultimately used all the saved money on Andrew Ladd, Cal Clutterbuck, and Casey Cizikas, which is odd asset management.

Then, in 2017, it all came crashing down. The Islanders got off to a disastrous start, issues over their new arena in Brooklyn turned them into a joke around the league, and speculation about John Tavares walking as a free agent in 2018 started to heat up. But after firing head coach Jack Capuano, the Islanders started to look like that competitive team again. Under Doug Weight, the Islanders went 24-12-4 and damn near dragged themselves into a playoff spot, also posting significantly improved underlying numbers and special teams results.

Because of that improvement, it’s hard to write the Islanders off in 2017-18. This team isn’t sexy. In fact, top to bottom, it’s thoroughly, well, average. But that isn’t a bad thing. While there are no overwhelming strengths on this roster outside of Tavares, there also aren’t really any weak points. They have a bevy of solid two-way forwards, a very effective blueline, and two capable goalies. Beyond their solid depth, the Islanders will also welcome rookies Matt Barzal, Josh Ho-Sang, and Ryan Pulock to the lineup, who could all make a difference.

Over the summer, the Islanders finally moved on from Travis Hamonic who had requested a trade years ago to be closer with his family in Western Canada. They also sent Ryan Strome, a once-promising prospect who’s development had stalled in New York, to Edmonton for Jordan Eberle, a winger who fell out of favour with the Oilers. Eberle could easily catch fire with Tavares, giving him likely the best winger he’s had since Thomas Vanek’s short stint on the Island.

But beyond the team’s performance, the biggest narrative surrounding the team this year will be John Tavares, who’s set to hit free agency on July 1. If the team crashes out of the gate, we could theoretically see him dangled on the trade market, which would make for some wild drama leading up to the deadline.

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4th: Columbus Blue Jackets

Last year’s record: 50-24-8 (108 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.3 CF% (14th), 56.0 GF% (2nd), 8.2 SH% (10th), 93.3 SV% (2nd)

Notable additions: Artemi Panarin.

Notable subtractions: David Clarkson, Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner, Kyle Quincey, Scott Hartnell.

The Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the league last season, putting together their best season in franchise history propelled by a ridiculous 16-game winning streak in the middle of the season. It was widely assumed the Blue Jackets would be a bottom-five team, but an MVP calibre season from Sergei Bobrovsky and some breakout performances from somewhat unexpected sources led Columbus to a place they’ve never been before.

Now, for the first time ever, really, there are expectations for the Blue Jackets. After a 108-point season, a playoff appearance and first round loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t going to be good enough. But are the Blue Jackets legitimate? They’re certainly a playoff team, but they aren’t a contender.

They aren’t as good as they were last year, there’s no doubt about that. They lost Sam Gagner in free agency and bought out Scott Hartnell to afford other contracts, gutting one of the best fourth lines in hockey. The only major addition they made was acquiring Artemi Panarin from the Blackhawks at the cost of Brandon Saad. Panarin gives Columbus a game-changing talent and dominant offensive threat, though Saad wasn’t just some scrub himself. It’s also completely reasonable to assume Bobrovsky will see a regression from his amazing .931 save percentage.

That doesn’t mean the Jackets are going to tank back into the abyss. This team still boasts a lot of depth up front, they play a gritty and hard-nosed style, Bobrovsky, when healthy, is one of the league’s best goalies, and Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are one of the best young D-pairs in hockey. With Washington and Pittsburgh still at the top, finally getting over the first round hump for the Blue Jackets will be a battle, but at the very least there’s a core for a competitive team in Columbus for years to come.

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3rd: New York Rangers

Last year’s record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

Last year’s stats: 47.9 CF% (25th), 52.0 GF% (12th), 8.8 SH% (4th), 92.3 SV% (18th)

Notable additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, Anthony DeAngelo, Ondrej Pavelec, David Desharnais.

Notable subtractions: Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi, Adam Clendening, Kevin Klein, Brandon Pirri, Oscar Lindberg, Antti Raanta.

The New York Rangers, much like the Chicago Blackhawks, are a team we always expect to regress. But they never do. Year after year, New York finds a way to put up a 100-point season, though their days as a top Stanley Cup contender in the Eastern Conference are over.

In the past, the Rangers have overachieved their shot attempt numbers and have achieved PDO bubble team status. Usually, it was because Henrik Lundqvist was incredible and stole many games for the team. But last year, King Henrik wasn’t himself and the Rangers compensated for it by producing a ridiculously high shooting percentage. While the high shooting percentage is usually viewed as something that’s going to collapse, there was some merit to what went down in New York because the Rangers rolled with a very untraditional set of four skilled scoring lines.

They’ll head into 2017-18 with a slightly different look. They dumped Derek Stepan, a good two-way centre, on the Coyotes in order to free up money to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, one of the league’s best offence producers. They also re-signed underrated defenceman Brendan Smith and bought advanced stat nightmare Dan Girardi, which pivots their blueline from a weakness to a strength. But past those changes, New York still has its staple in net with Lundqvist and wave after wave of scoring depth on the wings.

It isn’t the blueprint for a Stanley Cup team, especially with the Penguins still terrorizing the East, but the Rangers a damn near sure bet to make the playoffs for the eighth season in a row.

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2nd: Washington Capitals

Last year’s record: 55-19-8 (118 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.8 CF% (4th), 61.2 GF% (1st), 9.17 SH% (2nd), 93.7 SV% (1st)

Notable additions: Devante Smith-Pelly, Anthony Peluso.

Notable subtractions: Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt, Daniel Winnik.

Last year was the year for the Washington Capitals. They had an incredible 55-win season and went all in at the trade deadline, acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues. That year more so than others had a sense of desperation for the Caps. A handful of key players, Karl Alzner, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, were set to hit the free agent market, and Evgeny Kuznetsov was in need of a new, long-term contract.

It was inevitable that the Capitals were going to see an exodus of talent over the summer. And that’s exactly what happened. Unfortunately, yet again they couldn’t get by the Penguins in the playoffs, and bowed out in Game 7 of the second round. Alzner and Williams left in free agency, Nate Schmidt was taken in the expansion draft, and Marcus Johansson was dealt as a cap casualty. The Caps did manage to sign T.J. Oshie to a long-term deal, though it was a somewhat questionable decision considering he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Regardless, despite their losses, the Caps are still a damn good team. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are still an elite scoring threat, Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of the best second line centres in the game, they have a low-key strong blueline, and a damn good goalie in Braden Holtby. The issue here is depth, as the Caps are one injury away from having, like, Tom Wilson in their top six Taylor Chorney on their second pair. But still, strong rookie performances from guys like Jakob Vrana and Madison Bowey could make that depth concern irrelevant.

Despite the summer salary cap exodus, it’s still Stanley Cup or bust in Washington.

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1st: Pittsburgh Penguins

Last year’s record: 50-21-11 (111 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.1 CF% (16th), 55.2 GF% (4th), 8.6 SH% (5th), 92.7 SV% (8th)

Notable additions: Matt Hunwick, Antti Niemi, Ryan Reaves.

Notable subtractions: Nick Bonino, Oskar Sundqvist, Marc-Andre Fleury, Pascal Dupuis, Ron Hainsey, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley.

What the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two years is nothing short of incredible. They won back-to-back Stanley Cups, becoming the first team since the legendary Red Wings of the 90s to do so, and will challenge this year to become the first team to take home the grail three years in a row since the Islanders of the 70s. That’s lofty company.

What’s particularly incredible about the Penguins is how most of us just assumed they were done. A few months into 2015, the team was 15-10-3. It was suggested Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were over the hill and perhaps the Pens should look to rebuild. Well, so much for that. They fired Mike Johnson, hired Mike Sullivan, and everything clicked. Can anyone beat this team? I mean, last year they won it all despite not having Kris Letang on their blueline.

This summer, they let solid players like Nick Bonino, Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley walk in free agency and also said goodbye to Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, a couple of franchise mainstays. They didn’t do much to replace them, adding Matt Hunwick to their blueline and tough guy Ryan Reaves to the bottom six. But with that core of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Matt Murray, it’s hard not to view the Penguins as Stanley Cup favourites once again.

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Nation Network utility infielder. Twitter: @cooom, Email: cameron@oilersnation.com
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