Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Metropolitan Division.
Current Metropolitan Division Favorite: Hurricanes
The New York Islanders have been in the Conference Finals/Semifinals two years in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals still have their cores, and the New York Rangers are a team on the rise. But it might be the Hurricanes’ time to take the torch as the top team in the division, even with the offseason departure of Dougie Hamilton and even with the question mark in goal. They had the best record of any team in the division a year ago, were two points off the Presidents’ Trophy pace, and are still bringing back an outstanding roster that is full of players just entering the prime of their careers.
Even without Hamilton this should still be an elite defense, while forwards like Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, Vincent Trocheck, and Teuvo Teravainen form an exciting core. They have one of the best long-term outlooks in the NHL and the short-term outlook is pretty strong as well.
Biggest Offseason Move: Dougie Hamilton to the Devils
The New Jersey Devils entered the offseason with a great opportunity due to all of the salary cap space they had at their disposal. They put it to good use and were one of the busiest teams in the division, adding Ryan Graves, Jonathan Bernier, Tomas Tatar, and Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton is the big addition here and arguably one of the biggest moves of the offseason made by any NHL team. He is one of the top overall defensemen in the league. He drives possession at an elite level, produces offense at an elite level, and is a better, more impactful defender than he gets credit for being. Even though his contract is a significant investment in free agency, it is probably below market value given how the contracts signed by other defenders around the league this offseason.
Honorable mention for biggest offseason move: Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers were clearly in the market for a top-pairing defender and got an outstanding player in Ellis in a three-team trade with the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. He is a significant upgrade to their roster.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
Metropolitan Division team on the rise: Rangers
They better be a team on the rise, anyway. They have stockpiled young talent and have an outstanding core of Alexis Lafraniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shesterkin, and the reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Some of those players have shown more than others in the NHL, but the potential here is enormous. They also have a voice and leader with Gerard Gallant take over behind the bench. Expectations are clearly sky high right now given that ownership cleaned house over the past few months with a general manager change and coaching change. Progress has been slower than ownership has wanted it to be, but they are getting there.
Metropolitan Division team on the decline: Penguins, Capitals
The Penguins and Capitals have followed a nearly identical path for the past 30 years. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s they played each other in the playoffs every year. They rebuilt at the same time. They drafted franchise changing players at the same time. Then turned into consistent powers at the top of the NHL for the past 16 years at the same time. Now they are starting their next decline at the same time.
They should still be really good. They should still be playoff teams. But are they still Stanley Cup contenders? The Capitals are one of the oldest teams in the league and have lost a lot of speed in recent years, while the Penguins’ roster has taken a step back this offseason, they will not have Evgeni Malkin to start the season, and goaltending is a major concern and question mark.
Big questions remain for Flyers, Blue Jackets, Islanders
- In terms of playoff success the Islanders have been the most successful team in the division the past three years, winning five total playoff rounds and reaching the Conference Finals/Semifinals two years in a row (each of the past two years).
Even with all of their postseason success there are still questions that follow them around because they never really have great regular season and do not have the type of roster that a usual Stanley Cup contender has. They are short on star power, do not have many game-changers after Mathew Barzal, and do not score a ton of goals.
They also do not have any weaknesses. The defense is as solid as it gets in the NHL, the goaltending is sensational, and they have the best coach in the league. But do they have enough to get by teams like Tampa Bay at the top of the league?
[Related: Central Division Review]
- In Philadelphia the biggest question still revolves around starting goalie Carter Hart.
His 2020-21 season was a complete disaster on the ice and significantly held the Flyers back. If they want to have any chance of being competitive or contending for a playoff spot this season they are going to need him to be dramatically better this season. Adding players like Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson is fine, but if Hart does not return to the form he showed in his first two seasons in the league or reach his potential then none of it will matter.
- The big question in Columbus is whether or not new head coach Brad Larsen can get Patrik Laine back on track, and what Laine’s future with the team is.
This clearly did not work as planned for Laine and the Blue Jackets after the trade from the Winnipeg Jets, and he is now entering the final year of his current contract and will be eligible for restricted free agency after this season.
The Blue Jackets desperately need him to become the impact goal scorer he was in Winnipeg and they have to see if there is a long-term future in Columbus. If he becomes that player again and Columbus can convince him to stay (something that has been a problem for the Blue Jackets in recent years) that is a potential game-changer for the Blue Jackets. They need a forward like him.