As the NHL’s preseason slate comes to an end, the focus turns to which players have made their respective team’s rosters, and further which teams looked primed for a deep playoff run. With the league’s parity growing slimmer and slimmer, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who falls where this early on.
The Metropolitan Division, which was briefly crowned the NHL’s toughest division, has seen better days. Despite the previous three Stanley Cup Champions coming from the division, the quality of teams down the depth chart is not as mighty as it used to be.
There are still powerhouses, however this division leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (X)
It is difficult to bet against the Penguins in the regular season, especially when their center core is as deep as it is now. Derrick Brassard, who was brought in at the February 2018 trade deadline, is still under contract for general manager Jim Rutherford. Brassard, who has seen top-six minutes in both New York and Ottawa, will be playing as an added threat behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins also brought back an old acquaintance, Matt Cullen, this offseason. The almost 42-year-old may be one of the oldest players in the league, but he can still motor. If he can replicate his success from 2016 and 2017 in Pittsburgh, then the Penguins will be in for a good season.
Goaltender Matt Murray’s health is always a question, though, especially with Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry as backup options. Murray’s durability will be a key to the team’s success this season.
Despite all the external factors that could make things bumpy in the Steel City, the Penguins look ready for another dominant regular season run. With Crosby still at (close to his) peak and Mike Sullivan at the helm, the Penguins are in good hands.
2. Washington Capitals (X)
The Capitals finally erased their demons in 2017-18, winning the Stanley Cup in five games over the Vegas Golden Knights. Since then, however, plenty has changed, including Philipp Grubauer being dealt to Colorado and Barry Trotz jumping ship to New York.
Most of the burden this season in Washington will fall on first-year head coach, Todd Reirden.
Reirden has been groomed for this position for an extended period, but now it is time to see if it will all pay off. It may be an easier task with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, and Braden Holtby holding down the fort, however it can be easy to fall into a lull after a championship. This is overtly true given the amount of partying Washington did over the summer.
Still, with the amount of talent the team has, it should be smooth sailing in the regular season. The real test comes in April.
The Middle of the Pack
3. Columbus Blue Jackets (X)
With the futures of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky up in the air, things certainly do not look great long-term for Columbus.
Despite this, Columbus should still be a solid team in 2018-19. The pieces, including management who all received extensions over the summer, are all in place, and it comes down to executing.
The Blue Jackets look to be a noteworthy team yet again, but not a Stanley Cup favorite. They would need larger contributions out of Ryan Murray and Nick Foligno (among others) to bet into that category, although that still likely is not enough.
For Columbus, on-ice success this season would be nice, but the ultimate goal should be ensuring on-ice success in the future. Panarin sis as good as gone, however Bobrovsky can still be saved.
4. New Jersey Devils (X)
Many people, including myself, are not high on the New Jersey Devils. The team has a solid core in place, especially so with Taylor Hall leading the charge, however nothing jumps out at me about them.
Due to a weaker Eastern Conference, the Devils can slip into a playoff spot for a second straight year, even with mediocre results.
Much of the team’s success will come down to Cory Schneider and whether or not he can bounce back. After three consecutive seasons of a .920 save percentage of above as a starter, Schneider has dropped in the last two years to .908 and .907 respectively. If he can regain that prior form, the Devils will be in line for a large point bump.
Other than Schneider, the Devils will need more contributions out of Nico Hischier and Marcus Johansson if they wish to retain their playoff spot. This is entirely reasonable, though. Hischier is bound, barring a tremendous sophomore slump, to continue his arc to stardom.
It will certainly be an interesting season in the Garden State. The year could take a complete 180-degree turn at any point, and the Devils could wind up at the top of the division or the bottom of the division.
The Outside Looking In
5. Philadelphia Flyers
The basis is there for the Flyers. They now just need to act on that, give their young players some real minutes, and finally re-transform into an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
With Dave Hakstol behind the bench, it is easy to be wary of the Flyers. Besides their top-six and a few other pieces, nothing is overly impressive about them, at least not yet. Once (if) Travis Sanheim, Phillipe Myers, and company are groomed, the Flyers will begin to shape up and look scary. For now, though, they are stuck in limbo.
The goaltending situation, between the age of Brian Elliot and the fragility of Michal Neuvirth, is not too bright either. Alex Lyon saw some NHL action last season, but he is not an immediate answer.
Carter Hart is not either, despite the rightful hype surrounding him. Hart will more than likely be the team’s starter within the next two seasons, but it is not his time yet.
The Flyers theoretically could sneak back into a playoff spot, but there are too many holes in the lineup and too much of a history of inconsistency to be convinced.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes made a plethora of moves this summer, but none addressed the biggest flaw at hand — goaltenders.
Newly-appointed general manager Don Waddell (which is going to be a total disaster, just ask Atlanta) acquired Petr Mrazek via free agency and retained Scott Darling. All things considered, that is not a framework for success in today’s league.
The Hurricanes did make some quality moves this summer though, including adding Dougie Hamilton via trade and signing Calvin de Haan.
It will also be interesting to see what youngsters such as Martin Necas and Valentin Zykov do on the full-time roster.
The framework is certainly there for Carolina, but they need to find that last piece of the puzzle.
7. New York Rangers
Especially with Henrik Lundqvist manning the cage, the Rangers are not going to be as bad as people are expecting. They can easily hop over Carolina and Philadelphia if things go correctly.
The Rangers, though, are definitely rebuilding. It is a fast-tracked rebuild, and they will likely be back in the playoffs in three years or less, but it is a rebuild nonetheless.
Brett Howden’s speed and size is something that I am intrigued to see in the NHL. I am also expecting Lias Andersson to be called up by November the latest.
8. New York Islanders
Much like the Rangers, the Islanders may not be as bad as some people are thinking. John Tavares leaving is a huge blow, but it is not catastrophic. Mathew Barzal is ready to take the reins and Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello have set a standard within the organization.
It will take some time to rebuild, however things will look up on the Island eventually. Some of the moves made this summer, like handing Leo Komarov a four-year contract, are highly skeptical, but Islanders fans deserve to trust the process — as painful as that may be.
Stay tuned tommorrow for the Atlantic Division preview.