It’s not unreasonable to look at the Metro and have no idea what to make of any of it. Some teams improved notably, but perhaps not to the extent needed to get back to playoff contention. Others took a step forward after already being pretty good. Then three of them got worse for no readily apparent reason.
All of it comes together to create a situation where you’re perfectly justified in throwing your hands up in exasperation. There are legitimate scenarios in which almost any combination of teams take the division’s top three slots. Likewise, there are plenty of situations in which it’s easy to see almost any team in the Metro missing the postseason altogether.
Let’s have a look:
The Carolina Hurricanes.
This was likely the case even before they added UFA defenseman Jake Gardiner for less than it costs his former team to employ Cody Ceci. And then they went and added UFA defenseman Jake Gardiner for less than it costs his former team to employ Cody Ceci.
That’s not to say there aren’t question marks here. While Carolina was the best team in the league at generating offensive pressure last season, they underperformed their expected goals by more than 50(!!!) because they spent a huge chunk of the season without the requisite finishing talent. That came later, through a steal of a trade (Rask for Niederreiter) and the progression of young talent. They still ended up 16th in scoring last season, but they should be better at converting this season.
Meanwhile, they also had the 12th-best defensive quality for the whole 2018-19 season, but things also improved as the season went along. Part of that was because the team was generally better in the second half than the first, but also the goaltending more than made up for a very slow start. In the end, they finished seventh in actual goals against, and even if that’s a vaguely repeatable number, they’ll be in good shape.
Of course, they lost one of their two goalies from last year and are banking on a James Reimer/Petr Mrazek tandem to get them where they need to go, and don’t have a replacement for Justin Williams at present (though a trade may be in the offing). But the team was good enough, process-wise, that there’s little reason to believe they’ll take a step back. If the young guys like Aho and Svechnikov take another step, this is an easy 100-plus point team.
Their losses from the summer weren’t just Bobrovsky and Panarin. They also didn’t return Matt Duchene or Ryan Dzingel. The only reinforcements they added were Gus Nyquist (a fine player) and Swiss-league goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (total unknown quantity).
What happens when you lose the two best players from a team that baaaarely made the playoffs, plus both the major rentals needed to even get to that point? What happens when you replace a two-time Vezina winner with the above-mentioned unknown and a career backup whose last two seasons grade out with an .893 save percentage? It’s a potential recipe for disaster.
No one without a vested interest in saying this will be a good team (i.e., the GM, coach, or roster players) has particularly high opinion of this team’s chances, though they’re going to play the “No one’s giving us a chance!” card to annoying effect all season.
There are good and even great players here — especially if they spread the defensive wealth and keep Jones and Werenski on separate pairs — but the losses are likely to be too much to take, even if the questionable battery in the crease is average. Too much would have to go right for this team to get into a legitimate playoff conversation. It’s tough to see a path forward, especially with all those picks traded away and almost no important signings this summer.
The Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers definitely improved in some ways (adding Kevin Hayes, albeit for too much money) and took a step back in others (that defense got worse and more expensive).
What makes them interesting, then, is the addition of new coach Alain Vigneault and the clear No. 1 goaltender status now bestowed upon Carter Hart. The Flyers were a mess last year in part because the coaching wasn’t there, but also because they used eight — yes, eight — different goaltenders, only one of whom was even remotely good.
That was Hart, and he’s got the pedigree and a half-season of NHL hockey on his resume, probably to inspire confidence that he’ll be an above-average goalie at this level for a while. Even if he’s merely average, as long as he can play a good chunk of the Flyers’ games, he’ll be a huge improvement.
Meanwhile, Vigneault has a tendency to wear out his welcome and, like any coach, has some pretty obvious blind spots with his approach behind the bench. However, his early seasons with new teams usually feature two things: Decent offense and good goaltending. While both the Rangers and Canucks teams he took over had better depth than these Flyers do, there’s enough talent to make this team credible.
If Hart stays healthy and goes off, this is a playoff team. If not, things could get dicey.
Most Important Newcomer
The last several years have been up and down for a goalie who finished second in Vezina voting and fourth in Hart voting in 2013-14. In the last four seasons, he’s gone from .914 to .898 to .920 to .909. Over that time, he’s allowed more than 21 goals above expected, which is bad.
The Islanders, hoping to repeat a shocking playoff appearance they gained on the back of a goalie they let walk for nothing, are banking on Varlamov to basically repeat the feat.
While the Islanders didn’t really lose anyone of note besides Robin Lehner this summer, they also didn’t add anyone of note. This despite the fact that the team save percentage last year was a stunning .928; they’re basically banking on that being a “systems” and “coaching” thing — thanks to Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn — and not a “talent” thing.
Varlamov will have his work cut out for him, then, to ensure a team that racked up 103 points (despite scoring the 10th-fewest goals in the league) can get anywhere near that number. The hope here is that Korn can once again work his magic and get this 31-year-old goaltender back on track.
The New York Rangers.
Don’t get mad at me: That’s only for this year.
While they obviously added a lot of talent this summer — Panarin, Trouba, Kakko, Fox — they also lost some at the deadline, finished with 78 points last year, and then lost more talent this summer.
The problem is that while you can add a bunch of talent, the roster was so bad last season that even a big step forward just sort of leaves you spinning your tires, simultaneously outside the playoff bubble but not bad enough to get a great talent in the draft unless you win the lottery again.
The blue line in particular shouldn’t inspire much confidence, and Henrik Lundqvist is 37. Another year of amassing picks and young players isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially considering the money coming off the books next summer.
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Gamecenter Pick (Most Watchable)
The New Jersey Devils.
Say what you want about their playoff prospects this season, there’s little doubt this team will be fun to watch.
This summer they added No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, high-scoring Russian import Nikita Gusev, PK Subban, and Wayne Simmonds, which should juice an offense that was sixth from the bottom in scoring last season (albeit with a few notable injuries hampering production).
Plus, after Cory Schneider came back from his injury last season, he was the same old “.920 forever” goalie you’d be forgiven for forgetting existed just a few years ago. The team defense overall was middling last year, but poor goaltending saw them tie Edmonton in goals against, and you don’t want to be tied with Edmonton in literally anything.
Do all those additions plus a full season of Taylor Hall give them the 30-35 goals they’ll need to have an average offense next year? It’s a firm “maybe.” Does a full season of above-average goaltending make this team more fun to watch? That’s a firm “yes.”
In the end, they probably miss the cut by a couple of wins, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were a wild card team.
Team With Most Pressure
The Pittsburgh Penguins.
At some point, this team will reach a precipice where it doesn’t matter that Jake Guentzel is little more than a perfectly capable forward who happens to play alongside the best player of any number of generations. At some point, it won’t be enough that Patric Hornqvist is a reliable offensive contributor but little else.
Given the way the last two summers of swings and misses have gone, that point could be “this year.” Jim Rutherford has actively made this roster worse, especially on the back end with weirdly high, weirdly long contracts for guys whose talents don’t merit them.
The hope is that Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and a goalie (who may or may not be any good) alone will get them to the playoffs again. Why does that sound familiar?
The problem, then, is that six-years-ago Crosby, Malkin, and Letang aren’t around anymore. Even if they’re all great again next year, which is likely, the margin for error has thinned out significantly.
The Pressing Question
Harry asks: “Holtby decision for Caps?”
This is barely a question but it does highlight perhaps the most salient issue for the Capitals: They’re over-extended, capwise, right now and are basically guaranteed to make a trade before the season starts.
This is still a pretty good team and it definitely improved over the summer, albeit marginally. But everyone on the team is a year older, including 30-year-old Braden Holtby, who’s coming off two straight down years by his (previously lofty) standard. What they do with Holtby, whose deal expires at the end of this year, is worth watching.
Trading him is a non-starter because backup Pheonix Copley isn’t close to being ready for prime time minutes on a legit playoff team. But extending him for the kind of contract he likely wants would be too expensive for them to reasonably afford without big changes to the roster, and unwise given his age.
And similar questions swirl around Nick Backstrom, who turns 32 in November. If there’s one storyline around the Capitals to monitor, it’s how all this shakes out for one of the absolute best teams of the era.
1) Carolina Hurricanes – 102 points
2) Washington Capitals – 100 points
3) Pittsburgh Penguins – 98 points
4) New York Islanders – 91 points (second wild card spot)
5) New Jersey Devils – 87 points
6) New York Rangers – 85 points
7) Philadelphia Flyers – 83 points
8) Columbus Blue Jackets – 77 points
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