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How Metropolitan Division Teams Stack Up at the Mid-Season Point

As the NHL’s latter half of the 2021-22 regular season begins, it's a great time to examine what has unfolded to this point in the year. Adam Proteau takes a look at the Metropolitan Division teams.
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With the NHL’s second half of the 2021-22 regular season now underway, it's a good time to examine what has unfolded in the league to this point in the year. We started Sunday by analyzing the Atlantic Division; yesterday, we focused on the Central; today, we look at the Metropolitan; and Wednesday, we’ll finish up with the Pacific.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes have the best win percentage (.756) in the Eastern Conference, and the second-best win percentage in the NHL, behind only the mighty Colorado Avalanche (.773) – and although the Rangers and Penguins are, respectively just one standings point and three standings points behind Carolina, the Canes have four games in hand on the Blueshirts, and three games in hand on the Pens, so there is slightly more of a cushion for them than first glance may suggest. Carolina is a deep, fast, well-coached squad that has received solid goaltending from starter Frederik Andersen, and that boasts one of the game’s most mobile, offensively-skilled defense corps. They’re essentially capped-out, so GM Don Waddell may not have much choice but to go with the lineup he has right now. Not that that’s a bad thing. To the contrary. If any team has earned the right to stay intact, it’s the Hurricanes.

New York Rangers: The Rangers are thriving this year thanks to success at all different positions: up front, winger Chris Kreider is having a Rocket Richard-Trophy-worthy season (33 goals, and 47 points in as many games); on the blueline, reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox (40 assists and 47 points in 44 GP) is looking to repeat as the game’s top defenseman; and No. 1 goalie Igor Shesterkin (2.10 goals-against average, .937 save percentage) has emerged as one of the sport’s top netminders. And we’ve got this far without mentioning the sizeable contributions of star winger Artemi Panarin (39 assists and a team-best 52 points in 42 GP), center Mika Zibanejad (31 assists and 49 points in 47 GP). And they’ve won far more often than not despite a defense corps that often leans on Shesterkin to a large degree. Rangers GM Chris Drury currently has more than seven million in salary cap space (according to CapFriendly.com) to add depth to the back end and perhaps add a worker bee or two at forward. There’s a lot to like in Manhattan this season, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Blueshirts go neck-and-neck (and neck) with Carolina and Pittsburgh for top spot in the Metro. It won’t matter if they soil the sheets in the first round of the playoffs, but head coach Gerard Gallant has them playing just about as well as possible right now, and that gives Rangers fans cause for optimism in the second half of this year.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins have overcome nasty injuries to stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Kris Letang this season, and still, somehow, are right in the thick of the race for the No. 1 seed in the Metro. Head coach Mike Sullivan deserves much credit for finding ways to win regardless of who is healthy, and he’s also benefitted from starting goalie Tristan Jarry’s bounce-back performance from last year’s playoff collapse. Pens GM Ron Hextall is projecte.d to have $2.3 million in cap space by the Marche 21 NHL trade deadline, and that space almost assuredly will be used to acquire more depth at goal. Current No. 2 Casey DeSmith simply hasn’t been posting great individual numbers, and the Pens can’t afford to learn the hard way that Jarry may have post-season issues again. They need a better, more experienced backup between the pipes, and although they may need a trading partner to assume some of the traded player’s salary to make it work for Pittsburgh, the Pens also know they can’t afford to keep selling off draft picks and prospects without hurting their cause in the long-term. It’s a delicate balance, but the resilience they’ve shown to this point this season makes it a real gamble to bet against them.

Washington Capitals: The Caps stormed out of the gate this season – in no small part due to superstar winger Alex Ovechkin’s continued dominance with the puck – but they’ve faded in the past few weeks, and now sit six points behind Carolina for top spot in the division, and the Canes have four games in hand on them. Given how difficult it can be for teams to make up ground in the standings, it will take a lot of things to go Washington’s way (including a drop-off in performance from the Penguins, Rangers and Hurricanes) for them to take top spot in the Metro. The Capitals also have no cap space to help them address their concerns, so it’s going to be on the group they have already to probably land the third or fourth spot in the division, and win in the playoffs without home ice advantage. They have been a better road team (13-5-4) than a home team (12-8-5), so that may be a better position to have.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Few people other than fans, friends and family of the Blue Jackets believed they would be a playoff team this season, and as the weeks and months have passed, they’ve looked less and less like anything other than a high pick in the next NHL entry draft will be in their near-future. As a matter of fact, they almost certainly will be passed in the Metro standings when the New York Islanders (who are just three points behind them right now) make up the four games in hand the Jackets have on them. Columbus does have two games in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers, who also trail the Jackets by just three points, so there’s still room for them to sink. It will be interesting to see what Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen will do with soon-to-be unrestricted free agent forward Max Domi, but otherwise, there’s not much worth getting excited about in Columbus for the rest of this season. The rebuild here is real, necessary, and likely will last at least through next year.

New York Islanders: Few teams were hit as hard by the COVID-19 pandemic than the Islanders, but they’ve also underachieved massively after a very solid performance last season. They now sit 21 points behind Washington, which means the playoffs are out of reach. And while GM Lou Lamoriello is projected to have more than $14.million in cap space by the trade deadline, that’s not going to mean much to Isles fans who were reasonable to expect them to challenge for the Metro title this year. You need thick skin to be an Isles fan, and though there was no way for the Islanders to overcome not having a full lineup on a consistent basis, Lamoriello now has no choice but to look to the 2023-24 campaign for a fresh start. As the old saying goes, you can’t win a Stanley Cup by Christmas, but you can play your way out of the playoffs by then – and that’s precisely what has happened to the Isles.

Philadelphia Flyers: Philly GM Chuck Fletcher has spoken openly about how disappointed he was with the Flyers’ play in 2020-21, so you have to believe he’s been even more upset about this year’s team. Despite firing head coach Alain Vigneault and replacing him on an interim basis with Mike Yeo, Philadelphia has been woefully inadequate, and they’ll likely be one of the league’s biggest sellers at the trade deadline, probably moving pending UFAs Claude Giroux, Justin Braun and Rasmus Ristolainen for draft picks and prospects. The big question isn’t whether Philly will be much better next year (hint: they likely won’t), but whether Fletcher remains in charge, or whether they give the reins to someone like current assistant GM Dany Briere. Odds are, angry Flyers fans will demand some form of significant change, even after the ship out Giroux, Ristolainen and Braun. And even a new head coach won’t suffice in that respect. The building/rebuilding job is just beginning in Philadelphia.

New Jersey Devils: Another team that has flailed and stumbled despite some people projecting them to contend for a playoff spot this season, the Devils haven’t had the best luck with injuries, but they have created a projected $36.4 million in cap space by the trade deadline, and that gives GM Tom Fitzgerald plenty of flexibility to add picks and prospects in exchange for help on the cap front. That said, New Jersey will owe pay raises to pending restricted free agents Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood, They’ll also likely part ways with soon-to-be UFA D-man P.K. Subban, but that will open up $9 million in cap space. Fitzgerald and Devils fans no doubt are frustrated with the way this year has unfolded for them, but management types around the league know it’s not easy to climb out of the non-playoff-ranks in the NHL, and people will be skeptical about them next season for good reason. They’re in show-me, don’t-tell-me status until further notice.

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