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Taking Stock of the Metropolitan Division

As the calendar year 2021 winds down – and the impact of the COVID-19 virus ramps back up – it’s as good a time as any to take stock of where NHL teams are at. Adam Proteau breaks down the eight Metro Division teams and how their seasons have gone.
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The New York Islanders are tied with Boston for the fewest games-played (26), but all other Metro teams have played at least 28 games – one-third of their full regular season. For the most part, we know what teams are about at this stage. In order of their place in the standings:

1. Carolina Hurricanes. Games Played: 29. Record: 21-7-1.

What went right: Many things went phenomenally for the Hurricanes, including their place in the overall NHL standings. Carolina has a league-best 21 wins and 43 standings points. The high-octane Washington Capitals also have 43 points, but Carolina has two games in hand on the Caps. For all their offensively-skilled players, though, it’s defense that has powered this ‘Canes team: they’ve allowed only 62 goals-against, tying them with Calgary for the league-low. That said, their offense is also encouraging, and well spread between their forwards and defense corps. Nobody needs to carry anyone else on this roster. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour gets his players going through walls for him. And virtually all of their best players are less than 30 years old.

What is cause for concern: After the Hurricanes stormed out to a 14-2-0 start to the 2021-22 campaign, they cooled off considerably, going 7-5-1 heading into the holiday break. They’ve lost to otherwise sub-par teams in Ottawa, Seattle, San Jose, Philadelphia and Vancouver. COVID has taken a bite out of their roster, with veterans Jordan Staal, Sebastien Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, among others, testing positive for the virus in recent weeks. Carolina’s group of forwards aren’t the biggest in the league. They haven’t won a third-round NHL playoff game since they captured their first and only Stanley Cup championship in 2005-06.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Metro division has three teams either tied for first place or within one point of first, and the Hurricanes are one of them. Carolina won their division last season, so this is where the bar is now set for them. They can be as thrilling as they want to be in the regular season, but they’ll ultimately be judged by their playoff run. We’ll see if their changes in net pay off then.

2. Washington Capitals. Games Played: 31. Record: 18-6-7.

What went right: The Capitals are getting a Hart Trophy-caliber season from sniper Alex Ovechkin, who currently sits in third place in league point-getters, with 47 in 31 games. They’ve generated an average of 3.42 goals-for – second-best in the Eastern Conference, and fifth-best in the league – and they’re not shabby on defense either, allowing a goals-against average of 2.58 (fifth-best in the East, and sixth-best in the NHL). And they’ve been tied for best in the game in standings points despite star center Nicklas Backstrom being sidelined by injury for 30 games.

What is cause for concern: Washington stumbled out of the gate this season, posting a 5-2-4 record before catching fire in November. However, they entered the holiday break on a 4-3-2 slide, including a pair of losses to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks. Veteran winger T.J. Oshie has been limited to just 14 games. They’re an older team, with an average age of 28.1 years. (In comparison, the New York Islanders are the game’s oldest team (29.4 years), and the defending Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning (28.8) and Pittsburgh Penguins (28.4) and Dallas Stars (28.4) are up there, too. But most teams in the game are younger than the Capitals. Their window to win is still open, but it may close sooner than many expect.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Caps are five games behind the Hurricanes in the primary tie-breaker of regulation wins, and remember, Carolina has two games in hand on Washington. Unless Backstrom gets back in the lineup and takes some of the pressure off Ovechkin, they may be closer to third or fourth place in the Metro by season’s end. But they’ve shown more than enough to put the league on notice they’ll be back in the playoffs for the eighth straight season.

3. New York Rangers. Games Played: 30. Record: 19-7-4.

What went right: The Rangers sleepwalked through the start of the season; though they were saved by the stellar work of star goalie Igor Shesterkin, the Blueshirts nonetheless could only manage a 6-3-3 record out of the starter’s block. Then, for about one month between the second week of November and December, they hit their stride, posting an 11-1-0 mark in that time. They have legitimate cornerstone contributors in forward Artemi Panarin and blueliner Adam Fox. They’ve got a top-five-in-the-league defense, averaging just 2.53 goals-against.

What is cause for concern: There’s a drop-off in the numbers posted by Shesterkin’s backup, Alexandar Georgiev: the former has a 13-3-2 record, a 2.05 goals-against average, and a .937 save percentage; the latter has a 5-3-2 mark, a 2.87 G.A.A., and a .902 SP. The development of top draft picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko has not been linear. Both of them are still only 20 years old, but their status as high picks means there’s always going to be pressure on them to improve.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Blueshirts underwent a housecleaning last season, but first-year Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant has delivered as advertised and guided them almost to the top of the toughest division in hockey. So long as Shesterkin stays healthy, they’re going to push the Canes and Capitals for top spot in the Metro.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Games Played: 30. Record: 17-8-5.

What went right: Without their top two players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) for most of the start of their season, the Penguins could’ve been forgiven if they lagged in the standings until their core talents returned to action. But the Pens have been one of the NHL’s most resilient franchises in part because there’s more to Pittsburgh than just their top two centers. Indeed, though the Penguins have averaged three goals-for per game, it’s their defense that has carried them. They’ve averaged only 2.40 goals-against per game, which is third-best in the entire league. Goalie Tristan Jarry (15-5-4 record, 1.93 G.A.A., .932 SP) has forgotten about his playoff meltdown last season. If the Pens weren’t so lousy at shootouts (1-4), they’d be right there with Carolina and Washington for top spot in the Metro. Given their personnel ups and downs, that’s pretty astonishing.

What is cause for concern: If something does go awry for the Penguins, they have absolutely no cap space to address it. While Jarry has been excellent, backup Casey DeSmith (2-3-1, 3.03 G.A.A., .905 SP) has not. Is Penguins GM Ron Hextall going to leave DeSmith where he is now, and risk another playoffs with no option in net if Jarry struggles? You’d have to believe Hextall is ready to make a dollar-for-dollar deal to add depth in net.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Penguins went 5-6-4 to start this season, and since then, they’ve lost just twice in regulation and once in a shootout (going 12-2-1 since Nov. 16). If head coach Mike Sullivan ever gets a completely healthy lineup to work with, Pittsburgh has every chance of staying where they are, with a fairly firm lock on a post-season berth, and a chance at first place in the division.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets. Games Played: 28. Record: 14-13-1.

What went right: The rebuilding Blue Jackets shocked more than a few by starting the year 12-6-0. Columbus also surprised people with their offense, tenth-best in the NHL at an average of 3.18 goals-for per game. Forward Boone Jenner has as many goals (11) in 28 GP this season as he did in 70 GP in 2019-20. Defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov is just five points away from tying his career-best in that category (18 points in 69 games in 2019-20). There is a good amount of talent in Columbus, but it needs more of it in all areas.

What is cause for concern: Following their strong start to the year, the Blue Jackets have received a cold dose of reality, posting a 2-7-1 mark through the holiday break. Their overall defense (which allows an average of 3.36 goals-against per game, the eighth-worst in the league in that category) has been a sore spot. No team in the league allows more shots per game than Columbus (34.8). With 29 standings points, they’re closer to the last-place-in-the-division Islanders (22 points) than they are behind the Penguins (39 points).

Rest-of-season outlook: There is simply not enough depth in Columbus to believe the Jackets will turn a corner in their remaining 54 games. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has more than $11 million in cap space to facilitate trades through, but he’s likely thinking longer-term than he is about contending for a playoff spot this year.

6. Philadelphia Flyers. Games Played: 29. Record: 12-12-5.

What went right: Philadelphia’s dismal season cost head coach Alain Vigneault his job in early December, so you know very little has gone right for the Flyers. But interim bench boss Mike Yeo has been a breath of fresh air for them, as Philly has won four of seven games and earned at least one point in five of seven games. And starting goalie Carter Hart has managed to put up a .918 SP in 19 GP. He hasn’t been perfect, but in a year where no Flyers player was, Hart has shown he can be part of the solution.

What is cause for concern: GM Chuck Fletcher drastically remade the Flyers’ roster this past summer, citing his disappointment with last season as the key reason behind his moves. But somehow, the retooled Philadelphia lineup has scored only 77 goals this season, giving them the NHL’s eighth-worst offense. Their defense is the 11th-worst in the league at an average of 3.17 goals-allowed. Philly is also capped-out, meaning Fletcher will have to take back as much money as he deals away.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Flyers are at a crossroads with some veteran talent; what Fletcher chooses to do with them as Philadelphia aims for an improbable bounce-back will dictate whether they bottom out in the standings, or scratch and claw their way to the fringes of a playoff race. Much was expected of them entering the season, and they’ve shown that optimism was not justified.

7. New Jersey Devils. Games Played: 30. Record: 10-15-5.

What went right: As they sought to take small steps forward as a unit, the Devils made a number of off-season moves that presented cause for a heightened competitive bar. Unfortunately, they haven’t succeeded nearly enough for GM Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Lindy Ruff’s liking. New Jersey posted a decent-enough 7-3-2 record out of the gate, but since then, they’re a woeful 3-12-3.

What is cause for concern: COVID has hurt the Devils, but their goaltending has been brutal – they’ve had six different players tend goal for them thus far this year, and their goals-allowed total of 105 is better only than Montreal (109), Arizona (109) and Seattle (108) – and the addition of star D-man Dougie Hamilton hasn’t been enough to offset their adventures in their own end. Swedish winger Jesper Bratt is their leading point-producer, with 24 points in 29 games. But with all due respect to Bratt, he shouldn’t be New Jersey’s leading scorer. That’s what Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are supposed to be there to do.

Rest-of-season outlook: New Jersey is already 14 points and three teams out of the final playoff berth in the Metro, so let’s not pretend they’ve got much of a chance to make people forget about the bad things they’ve done this year. Ruff may not be their coach by the time next season begins, but he’ll push Devils players as hard as they can be pushed. Clearly, Fitzgerald’s work here is not done.

8. New York Islanders. Games Played: 26. Record: 8-12-6.

What went right: The Islanders also have been hit hard by COVID, but nobody thought they’d be at the bottom of the Metro. To the contrary – this was supposed to be the year the Isles would challenge for top spot in the division. Instead, just about everything has gone wrong for them, from their ability to produce offense (their 2.19 goals-for average is third-worst in the league), to their inability to win at home (they’re 2-5-3, better only than Arizona, at 2-10-1). The best the Isles can hope for at this stage is a respectable finish for the regular season. Forgetting about this nightmare of a year is going to be hard, but necessary. In the bigger picture, the Isles still have many great pieces.

What is cause for concern: What isn’t cause for concern on Long Island? They don’t have a single player who has 20 points or more. They’re 0-3 at shootouts. They may be able to climb over the Devils and avoid the basement in the Metro, but it’s going to take a whole lot of great coaching by Barry Trotz to keep despair from settling in the rest of the way this season.

Rest-of-season outlook: The Isles have some catching up to do in the games-played department, but they’ve won just three times in their past 17 (3-10-4). The cavalry is not coming to save them. Ultimately, they’ve got to endure the pain that remains this season, and reload in the hope of having better all-around luck than they’ve had this year.

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