Let’s begin this column by noting that, this off-season, every NHL division has grown more competitive.
In the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks, two teams that narrowly missed being a playoff seed last season, both have improved (on paper) lineups. In the Central Division, there are six teams – the defending Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets – that conceivably make it to the post-season. And in the Eastern Conference, the Atlantic Division now has six teams (Florida, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston, Detroit and Ottawa) that could make it into the playoffs. There are very few teams you’d consider completely out of the playoff race before the season begins.
However, once again, the Metropolitan Division stands out as the most competitive division in the league. And all you need to do to see this is true is look at the seven of eight teams in the Metro, and understand how tight the playoff race is likely to be this season.
At the top of the Metro, it looks like, for the second consecutive year, the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers should finish atop the division. The Canes have one of the deepest, fastest, most skilled groups in the entire league, while the Rangers have superstars at every key position, and one of those stars – goalie Igor Shesterkin – is likely to be in the mix once again for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Unless there are significant injury issues, both the Hurricanes and the Blueshirts should lead the way in the Metro yet again.
But after that, the playoff picture in the division gets mighty blurry. You can make a strong argument that four of the following Metro teams could qualify for the post-season. You can also make a slightly less-strong argument that five of the following six teams might make it at least to the first round of the playoffs.
First of all, the two teams that captured the last two playoff picks in the Metro – the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals – have not fallen off the pace and are bound and determined to stay in the playoffs this coming year. And indeed, how can you be cynical about Pens superstar Sidney Crosby and Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin making the playoffs? Crosby’s team has held on to experienced stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang this summer, and they’ve added defenseman Jeff Petry to bolster their blueline, and they’ll have a full season with trade deadline pickup Rickard Rakell. Petry had 21 assists and 27 points while averaging 22:07 of ice time on an abysmal Montreal Canadiens team. Both veterans should make the Pens more dangerous.
Meanwhile, in D.C., the Caps have also made changes to keep them in the playoff hunt. Yes, they’ve got major injuries to deal with – star center Nicklas Backstrom and forward Tom Wilson are sidelined for a good deal of time – but Washington GM Brian MacLellan moved quickly this off-season to add talent to replace them until they’re healthy again. Forward Connor Brown (one of the more underrated players in the game, in this writer’s opinion) was acquired via trade, and center Dylan Strome was plucked off the free-agent market. Both those assets can help the Caps as they push through the early part of the year, and will be depth assets once Wilson and Backstrom return.
And if you look at CapFriendly’s projected top 12 forwards for Washington, you’ll see that only one player – sophomore winger Connor McMichael, who had nine goals last year – is not in double-digits in goals scored. Washington also has a new starting goalie who was the No. 1 goalie on the Cup-winning Avalanche last season in Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper is an upgrade between the pipes for the Caps, but if there is a concern about the Capitals, it’s their defense corps, which isn’t particularly deep or impressive (outside of star John Carlson, of course). Regardless, you certainly can’t count Washington out of the playoff mix.
After that, there are two teams – the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets – that also have a lot of potential to be in the playoffs this season. The Islanders are coming off an injury-ravaged season, and GM Lou Lamoriello has reaffirmed his belief in last year’s roster by making few alterations. The Islanders also have one of the league’s top netminders in Ilya Sorokin, and he’s capable of giving his team a chance to win every night. You don’t want to count out the Isles this year.
You also don’t want to count out the Blue Jackets, who have added the biggest available talent in the off-season by signing star winger Johnny Gaudreau, who – along with winger Patrik Laine and center Boone Jenner – gives Columbus one of the best first lines in the game, and their second line (center Jack Roslovic, and wingers Jakub Voracek and Gustav Nyquist) is nothing to sneer at either. If the Blue Jackets’ defense and goaltending hold up, their offense has the potential to power them into a lower playoff seed.
Finally, the New Jersey Devils – probably the biggest playoff long-shot in the Metro’s top-seven teams – might just surprise people and lock up a post-season spot. The Devils used the trade market to improve their third line, dealing with Boston to land veteran Erik Haula, and then signed unrestricted free agent winger Ondrej Palat to improve their first line. They also signed UFA goalie Vitek Vanecek to form a decent-enough tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. Like Columbus, New Jersey also doesn’t have the best defense corps, but stranger things have happened than an upstart Devils team qualifying for the playoffs.
The only team in the Metro that’s all but guaranteed not to be a post-season team is the Philadelphia Flyers, and even then, their management appears to have delusions of mediocrity and isn’t fully rebuilding right now the way the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes are. The Flyers just don’t have enough high-quality talent at all positions to somehow shock the hockey world and earn a playoff spot.
As you can see, there are multiple playoff scenarios in the Metro. It may make every game hair-raising for NHL executives, but it should make for intense, exciting action the whole season through. And the Metro should be the most competitive division of them all.
- The Metropolitan Division Looks the Most Competitive in the NHL
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