It wasn’t so long ago that the Metropolitan Division was the undisputed class of the league.
You had the Pens and Caps at or near the height of their powers. The declining Rangers. The up-and-coming Blue Jackets. The occasionally-dangerous Islanders and Flyers.
From 2015-16 through the end of last season, the Metro won all three Stanley Cups (Pens twice, Caps once) and had four teams in the league’s top 13 in total wins. Only the Central division had more high-end success, with four in the top 11, but with Washington and Pittsburgh running Nos. 1 and 2, you probably give them the nod.
The problem this year is that the best team in the Metro after of Tuesday night’s games had the eighth-best win percentage in the league. After that there was a tier clustered from 10 to 16, then one 19th, 20th, 21st, and 28th. Not good.
By any reasonable measure, this is the worst showing for the division in some time, as even some of its marquee teams look decidedly average, and its best has been widely seen as dysfunctional even if it continues to win at a top-8 clip.
Those problems aren’t just reflected in the standings, either. The best team in the division in terms of goals for and against is the Islanders, currently dealing with a big bout of losing lately, and only having gotten where they are thanks to a sky-high PDO. After that you have teams that are marginally outscoring the competition, if at all.
In terms of underlying numbers, the Hurricanes look great, leading the league in corsi share and all that good stuff. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Poor percentages are keeping them from being as good as they reasonably “should be.”) But after that, you have just two teams that are above-water in terms of possession, and even then it’s really close to being dead even (Columbus at 50.06 percent and Philadelphia at 50.03 percent). Everyone else ranges from 18th to 29th in the league.
It didn’t used to be this way. It didn’t used to be anything close to this way. You really have to start wondering if “kinda mediocre” isn’t the new normal in the Metro, collectively.
Because yeah, Columbus looks pretty good, but it also looks like it’s going to be losing two of its three best players this summer (or earlier) when their Russian mainstays jet off for the coast. What does this team look like with a questionable long-term goaltending situation and no offensive stars to turn to when they need a W?
What do the Penguins look like as Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang — great though they may still be — continue to age into their mid-30s over the next few years? Can anyone else keep the offense going, because those four over-30 guys have about half of Pittsburgh’s goals this year, all by themselves. And every day, Matt Murray looks less like the back-to-back Cup winner we saw early on, and one imagines Casey DeSmith isn’t the long-term answer.
Same thing, to a lesser extent, with the Caps. Apart from Ovechkin, Oshie, and Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov is the only guy that looks like he can be an offensive weapon. The piecemeal collection of mediocre forwards they’ve assembled won’t bail out a maybe-he’s-just-bad-now Braden Holtby either.
The Flyers? Well, who knows with them? Sure seems like they don’t. They have talent, but it all appears to be either too young or too old to really carry them to regular victories for the long term. Especially because, guess what, they don’t have goaltending, a particularly sharp decision-maker in the GM’s office, or a coach who seems to have many answers.
The Devils, Rangers, and Islanders are all at various stages of the rebuilding process; that is if you count Lou Lamoriello’s “denial” as a stage. The Devils’ is, they hope, closer to being over but without a long-term answer in net. The Rangers’ is just starting, only three years too late. The Isles, well, they’re really committed to Matt Martin types for now, which will at least ensure them some high draft picks.
As for Carolina, well, recent history has shown they can look good “process”-wise all they like. But until someone beyond Sebastian Aho can put up points reliably (cough Svechnikov two years from now cough) and literally anyone can be even an average goalie for them for a full season, it’s better to err on the side of “they haven’t figured this out yet.”
The good news, I guess, is that it’s early in the season and teams still have plenty of runway to turn all this around. A few of them certainly have the talent to do so. But so far the returns have been straight-up not-good — unless you want to be a little generous and call Columbus “kinda good,” which I guess would be fair — and there’s not a lot there to suggest they’re going to get significantly better.
And this all comes at a time when Boston, Tampa, Toronto, Florida, and maybe even Buffalo look like they’ll be at least “good” for potentially years to come. Well, maybe not Boston, for sure, but we’ll see.
Again, the Metropolitan division won three straight Cups and the playoff system all but guarantees it will get a team in the conference final. But weird though it may be to think about, its era of real dominance looks like it’s coming to an end.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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