Contenders and Pretenders: Metropolitan Division

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during the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game Semifinal #2 (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan) at Staples Center on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s mini-series that will be distinguishing the playoff contenders versus the pretenders of each division in the Eastern and Western Conferences. In a league full of parity, it seems like everyone is in the race for a playoff spot, but is it a product of the league, or is the team just that good that they could challenge for the Cup? Here’s the Metropolitan division.

Contenders and Pretenders: Metropolitan Division

Contender: Washington Capitals

The Season So Far:

Let’s start with Washington. They own the best record in the NHL at 36-11-6, and are far from slowing down. The losses they do have come at the hands of some great competition, but the Caps continue to show poise and win games in bunches. There are times where Washington looks unstoppable on the ice. They’ve gone on multiple winning streaks so far, highlighted by an eight-game winning streak, which began on New Year’s Eve. Barry Trotz has this team playing very well this year; with so many veterans on the team, Coach Trotz is able to develop a game plan where the league has to adjust to what they do rather than the other way around.

Why they are Contenders:

Let’s start with captain Alexander Ovechkin, so far he is third in the league in goals with 26. The top players have all stepped up and contributed towards their 36 wins. Nicklas Backstrom is second in the league in assists (39) and Evgeny Kuznetsov is not far behind him (31). T.J Oshie has 35 points so far this season; he’s been scoring at a pretty good clip and has 20 goals in 44 games. Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams have been playing great this season too; they have a productive 36 and 31 points respectively so far. What stands out about Washington is the way the defenseman are included in the offense. Defensemen Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and John Carlson all have over 20 assists respectively. Lastly, Braden Holtby has been playing great in net so far, he is 27-8-4 with a .929 save percentage.

Second Half Outlook:

Up to this point Washington has been able to stay relatively healthy, which is an obvious positive. This group is uber-talented and with health on their side they are looking to finish strong down the stretch leading into the playoffs. Fans should expect the top players to continue with their great play, the Caps definitely have the talent to stay on top of the leaderboard until the end of the regular season. Look for other players to step up for the Caps as well. For example, Lars Eller has 11 points in the last 13 games. Contributions like that will propel Washington forward and also showcases their depth at the forward position. So look for this success to continue throughout the year.

Contender: Columbus Blue Jackets

This Season So Far:

The 2016-17 campaign for the Columbus Blue Jackets began with an okay start. They started the season 11-5-4, but nothing could prepare the hockey community for what happened next. On November 29th, 2016 the Columbus Blue Jackets started their epic 16-game winning streak, which shot the Blue Jackets to the top of the leaderboard and brought them into national relevance. The streak is the second longest single-season streak in NHL history- only behind the 1992-93 Penguins team who have one more win historically- and it should be noted that this team is far better than the product Columbus put on the ice last year. John Tortorella is obviously doing something right with Columbus, they are as impressive as any team in the league and he is able to get production out of players who historically are not as productive as they are now.

Why they are Contenders:

There are plenty of reasons why the Blue Jackets are contenders, but none more obvious than there are a couple of players in the middle of a career season. Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg have been playing great this season. They lead the Blue Jackets in points and are on pace to posting the best numbers of their short careers. Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner, and Scott Hartnell have been great vets for the young guys to look up to, plus they are all having productive years for Columbus as well. They also solidified their blue line this year; drafting Zach Werenski and pairing him with Seth Jones gives Columbus a great first defensive pairing for the present and future. The most impressive piece to this Columbus team though, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is having a stellar season in net; a 29-10-3 record with a 0.925 save percentage.

Second Half Outlook:

The second half of the season should be similar to the first half of the season for Columbus. Yes, after that winning streak you will see some of their numbers regress but Columbus should be able to continue their success in the win column. The Blue Jackets are a great team and right now they are getting max value from each of their players. Maybe this is over-achieving in a way but we are buying into them as a contender moving forward. They are able to compete with fellow elite teams and they beat the teams who should be beat, and as long as they continue to do that and stay relatively healthy, this should be a fun team to watch in the coming months.

Contender: Pittsburgh Penguins

This Season So Far:

What is there to say about the returning champs? As a unit, they are phenomenal in the offensive zone; they are currently first in goals scored with 184. The Penguins have stars all over this roster, who each contribute in their own way to the team’s success. As a team, they seem to be riding the wave of their Stanley Cup performance because they’ve looked great from opening night and they have not stopped or slowed down since. Even with captain Sidney Crosby missing some time with a concussion at the beginning of the season, the Penguins were able to come together as a team and win lots of games.

Why they are Contenders:

Crosby is going crazy! He has been playing spectacular hockey so far this season, and scoring at a rate fans do not see often. He currently has 30 goals and 30 assists, making him the only player with 60 points in the Eastern Conference. Not only is he playing great but Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each have over 50 points as well. If three players on a  team each have 50+ points, they’re in the midst of witnessing an offensive juggernaut at work. Not only are the top guys producing; there are 15 players on the Penguins who have double-digit point totals. Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury have been playing well in goal for the Penguins as well. It’s hard to get one goalie to play well, let alone two, but Murray is holding it down with a 19-6-2 record and a 0.922 save percentage.

Second Half Outlook:

Pittsburgh will continue to be a great team heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As of right now, they are a little banged up. In the last couple of weeks Pittsburgh has lost Malkin to a leg injury (short-term), Carl Hagelin to a concussion (no return date), and Conor Sheary to an upper-body injury (four to six weeks). Pittsburgh has been playing amazing and is riding the success of their captain but they do need to be healthy to compete in the playoffs. They should get all three players back before the post-season starts and with the way the Penguins look, every team in the East should be worried.

Contender: New York Rangers

This Season So Far:

The New York Rangers have actually been playing really well this season. Similar to Pittsburgh, the Rangers are able to score on just about anyone; New York is second in goals scored with 179. The interesting thing about New York is the fact they only have one overtime loss. They played extra hockey six times this season and have been able to finish their opponents all but once. This is an ode to the fact they are able to consistently produce offense as a unit and are working really hard in the defensive zone as well.

Why they are a Contender:

Michael Grabner has been the standout player for the Rangers this season. He has been a goal-scoring machine with 25 goals, and he continues to play well for the Rangers every time he is on the ice. J.T Miller is also a nice surprise for Rangers fans. Recently signing an extension with the club, he is proving why he is worth the money they gave him; Miller leads the team with 42 total points. Along with continued great performances from Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Rick Nash; New York is in great shape moving forward. The surprising thing, Henrik Lundqvist isn’t having the best season this year. With a 24-13-1 record, it seems like he is playing well but with a 0.910 save percentage and a 2.69 goals against average, the King has definitely had better seasons.

Second Half Outlook:

Much like many teams on this list, expect the Rangers to continue their success in the Metro Division. The skaters are playing so well that it is overshadowing the fact Lundqvist hasn’t had the best season thus far. Between career years for some and great rookie seasons for those like Jimmy Vesey, Alain Vigneault has been able to take this roster and maximize their talent. They’ll continue to battle for a wild card spot for the rest of the season, but this is a team not many franchises want to see in the post-season. Health is going to be a big factor for New York as well. For example, Mika Zibanejad has been productive as a two-way player for Vigneault since coming back from his injury early in the season. Solid defense and a great offense is New York’s recipe for success for the rest of the season.

Pretenders: Philadelphia Flyers

This Season So Far:

The first couple of months were rough for Philly; going 9-10-3 to start the season is tough on any franchise with the talent Philly possesses. Similar to Columbus, Philadelphia went on a multiple game win streak, ten to be exact. Completely changing their fortunes, they shot up the standings until they started to cool down a bit. In fact the Flyers have lost fifteen times since their ten-game win streak back in December. They have been wavering around the seven to 10 seed recently, but their key players are contributing consistently to keep them afloat in the playoff race.

Why they are Pretenders:

The usual suspects have been productive for the Flyers: Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn have been putting in work for Philadelphia. They have easily been the best players on the ice night in and night out, and Simmonds was rewarded with a trip to the All-Star game, where he won MVP. Unfortunately, outside of those four players, scoring is hard to find. Those four aforementioned players are the only players on the team with double-digit goal totals.

Along with the team not being able to score very well, Steve Mason is not having a great year in net for Philly; he is 16-16-6 with a 0.900 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average. Alongside him, Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been the best backup either, posting an 8-5-1 record with an 0.893 save percentage and 2.79 goals against average.

Second Half Outlook:

The Flyers are not going down easy; expect to see a fight for the eight seed all the way to the last game of the year. They have to deal with injuries to young star Travis Konecny and vet Michael Del Zotto in the upcoming weeks. Konecny is set to return soon and Del Zotto is slated to miss an extended period with a bone bruise. The great players on this team need the rest of the role players to step up and contribute more than they have thus far. Additionally, the goaltender position must step up in order to compete for a playoff spot.

Contenders: New York Islanders

This Season So Far:

The first half of the season has not been favorable to the New York Islanders. Starting the season off disappointingly was unacceptable for a team with high expectations and moving into a new arena in Brooklyn. Therefore, former head coach Jack Capuano was fired after a 17-17-8 start. To replace him, Doug Weight has taken over coaching duties, and so far he is 6-1-2. The story of the Islanders is simple to explain. They are an above average, but not great team offensively. Conversely they are a below-average but not horrible defensive team. The team seemed unresponsive when Capuano was behind the bench, but they seem to be turning things around now that Weight has taken over.

Why they are Contenders:

John Tavares is having a great season so far, with 20 goals to go along with 23 assists; he is contributing exactly the way you expect a captain should. In fact, line mates Josh Bailey and Anders Lee are having great seasons as well, 38 and 31 points respectively. That top line is extremely productive, expect them to carry the load leading to the playoffs. Thomas Greiss is having a good season in net as well, expect him to continue playing well going forward. Greiss is 16-8-3 with a 0.921 save percentage. The Islanders get production from a ton of role players as well. There are 19 players on the roster with double digit point totals, which makes them surprisingly deep.

Second Half Outlook:

Travis Hamonic is scheduled to return at the end of the month, so that should help improve defense. The Islanders need to continue playing well under their new coach. They seem to take to him, which is good because they are an extremely competitive team who needed a boost. The Islanders, led by Tavares, will likely make the playoffs; Tavares alone can carry a team to an eight seed. However, they do need everyone else on the same page so they can really make that push in the coming months for a playoff spot. Especially considering they are leaving Barclays next year, the team is going to want to put on a show in the playoffs for that crowd.

Pretenders: New Jersey Devils

This Season So Far:

The Devils made a splash in this off-season by acquiring Taylor Hall via trade from Edmonton. Hall is a great player, but the Devils need more than him to help carry this team further. New Jersey is a club with an odd mixture of players. From young players such as Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood to vets like Mike Cammalleri and P.A. Parenteau, this roster is not built to compete in the post-season. With a current record of 23-21-10, the New Jersey Devils are not a contender in any sense of the word.

Why they are Pretenders:

First off, we all need to give credit where it’s due. New Jersey has a young core of Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique; who have all been playing well despite their current circumstance. Additionally, the vets; Cammalleri, Parenteau, and Travis Zajac have had productive seasons for the Devils as well. Outside of that, it’s hard to find consistent contributors for the Devils.  This team is not great offensively. They have only scored 127 goals so far this season (25th) and allowed 153 goals this season (20th). So they are below average overall. On top of that, Cory Schneider has not had a great season- 17-15-8 record with a 0.912 save percentage. He needs to be elite to make this team a contender.

Second Half Outlook:

Don’t expect much from the Devils moving forward. They have four players on long-term injured reserve and one player to be returning soon. The young guns are going to play hard nightly, but it will not be enough to earn a playoff spot. They need more production from their third and fourth offensive line, along with the all three defensive pairings. Everything has to go right for New Jersey to make the post-season, and it may be too late for miracles.

Pretenders: Carolina Hurricanes

This Season So Far:

Carolina has been floating around the eleventh to eighth seed for the majority of the year. Their defensemen have been great for them all season, not posting the largest numbers but they are gritty and they work really hard.  This is a team filled with youth, and they have been great contributors thus far. Coach Bill Peters has done an impressive job leading these guys to be competitive, no matter whom they play. He has shown them how to work together, and allows the young players be the focus of the team. They are slightly above average; but can still use lots of improvement. They are also extremely impressive on home ice.

Why they are Pretenders:

Simply put, this team is not ready to compete with high level competition and win at a consistent pace. There have been great surprises this season, like the emergence of Sebastian Aho, who has been explosive on offense. Along with Aho, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm, and Justin Faulk, all under the age of 25, have been the main contributors for Carolina this season. Yes, youth is great, but this team needs more than Jordan Staal to be a veteran that these young players can learn from. Speaking of vets, Cam Ward has been okay having been covered by the decent play of the defensemen. He currently has a 21-16-6 record with a 0.907 save percentage and a 2.57 goals against average.

Second Half Outlook:

The second half of the season should be much of the same from the Hurricanes. They should maintain their great penalty-killing percentage (88%), which is a one of few positives you can take away from the season. Also look for Aho to continue to shine and for Noah Hanifin to step up. Additionally, look out for Bryan Bickell’s possible return after his battle with multiple sclerosis. This team is still far away from being a real contender. There are many positions in need of an upgrade. Until then, they will continue to be pretenders in the Metropolitan Division.

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