With the World Cup over and the preseason winding down, it’s time to climb the crow’s nest and survey the lay of the land in the Caps’ division.
First things first, the Caps should repeat as Metropolitan Division Champions this year. With Barry Trotz’ steady hand at the helm, the Capitals found nearly unbridled success last season, finishing with 56 wins – the most in franchise history. They did this by having the second-rated penalty kill, the fifth-rated power play, and exceptional goaltending. Over the summer, the Caps improved their depth and are a good bet to finish atop the division yet again.
Predicting the rest of the standings is always a bit futile in a game like hockey, but it’s more fun that way so here are is a crack at how the Metro teams are doing and where they are likely to finish up.
With a roster that has undeniably improved over last year’s, the boys in red will look to repeat a performance that saw them finish with 120 points and without enduring a single two-game pointless streak.
Still, they’ll hope to manage more than last year’s 51.6 5v5 shot attempt percentage (good, but not elite) and find bottom-6 forward stability in newly acquired center Lars Eller. Most of all, they’ll try to keep the energy high and stave off the complacency that comes with being a postseason “lock.” As Jay Beagle recently noted:
“When you’re the best team in the league, you tend to let off the gas a little bit kind of towards the end of the season, because you almost want to save it for playoffs – what I’ve learned is that you kind of have to turn it up at that point.”
In a 7-game death match with Pittsburgh’s finest I’m not sure I’d bet the house on the Capitals coming out on top. But in a long regular season the name of the game is consistency, and the Caps have it.
Let’s get it over with: the Penguins won the Cup. And that winning roster will return mostly unchanged, despite being squashed against the salary cap like Play Doh in a hydraulic press.
This is also the team that, after a 15-10-3 start and mid-season coaching swap, managed to catch fire and finish 3rd in the league in 5v5 possession with a 52.9 shot attempt percentage and 4th with a 55.1 goals-for percentage.
The Pens’ offseason was noteworthy for the lack of movement – both into the team, and more importantly, out of it. Depth forward Matt Cullen re-signed to a 1-year cap-friendly deal, and lower-pairing defenseman Ben Lovejoy departed for New Jersey. After winning the Cup it seems crazy to say, but there are still questions as to whether the team caught lightning in a bottle or if Rutherford truly has the Midas touch and they can dominate for another year.
Storylines to watch out for are the impending goalie controversy, whether they stick with three line superstar attack mode, and what they do about being $2.6m over the cap (as of this writing).
With the top two Metro spots close to a lock, the three-spot might usher in a changing of the guard, but I’d bet the Islanders manage to secure their third straight playoff berth.
Last year they were a 49.7 percent puck possession team (18th) and allowed the 8th worst rate of scoring chances against at 9.2 per 60. The Islanders are iffy – but they have good pieces on paper, and did make the second round of the playoffs by beating a strong Florida team.
During the offseason they lost quality players Kyle Okposo (64 pts) and Frans Nielsen (52 pts) to free agency (ouch…), and Mikhail Grabovski’s ongoing concussion problems are a road block. But Travis Hamonic rescinded his trade request, they brought in Andrew Ladd, and PA Parenteau is a useful depth signing. Also our old friend Jason Chimera could be a productive replacement for outgoing Matt Martin. And while it’s not wise to make too much out of one tournament, Jaroslav Halak’s epic World Cup performance shows that he can still play at a high level.
Despite a spotty track record, the Isles do have a solid core group of forwards, defensemen, and goaltending that should put them in the mix for a playoff spot.
Almost everything about the Rangers screams regression. That said, I’m picking them to grab a wildcard spot and hang on for dear life. By their fingernails. Barely. Make no mistake about it, this is a team in decline (or at least in limbo).
After the offseason loss of Keith Yandle, the only remaining defenseman in first-pairing territory is Ryan McDonough, and even he had a down year. Blame that mostly on whipping boy Dan Girardi, without whom McDonough’s on-ice shot attempts for improved by an astounding margin from 47.4 percent to 53.1 percent. Girardi is one of several anchors on a Rangers roster that cumulatively allowed the third most shot attempts against in the league, and who meekly bowed out against the Pens in the first round.
All of that said – they still have Henrik Lundqvist, who at 34 isn’t that old yet and who turned in a typically elite .937 5v5 save percentage last season. They also have a fearsome forward corps (third in 5v5 goals-for) that has improved in the offseason. GM Jeff Gorton smartly traded Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad, and somehow convinced prized Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey to sign with them. If they do manage to eke out a playoff berth it will be entirely on the backs of their deep group of young forwards and elder statesman in net.
The general consensus when the Flyers snuck into the postseason last year was that they were rebuilding and playing with house money. And the general consensus after the playoffs is that their fans still really like to throw things.
Kidding aside, the Flyers were a hot team down the stretch, earning a point in 22 of their last 28 games and hanging around to give the Caps a scare in games four and five of round one. Despite this strong-ish showing, the Flyers are probably destined to be a bubble team again. They lack depth at both defense and forward positions, and turned in a middling possession performance, allowing shot attempts against at the 8th highest rate.
But the backbone is solid – their 5v5 save percentage was second in the league at .934, and they have a slick trio of underrated analytics darlings in Radko Gudas, Michael Raffl, and Sean Couturier. Shayne Gostisbehere scored 17 goals from the back end (but needs defensive seasoning), and at the time of this writing 19-year-old prospect Ivan Provorov is still in contention for a roster spot. If they get strong followups from Claude Giroux (67 points), Wayne Simmonds (32 goals) and Brayden Schenn (59 points), along with a bounceback year from Jakub Voracek, they might sneak into the playoffs again.
The theme of the Metro this year is teams that are frustratingly close to taking the next step but not quite there yet, and the New Jersey Devils are no exception.
Some of the pieces are there – 2nd best shot suppression in the league, top-10 special teams (83 percent PK and 19.9 percent PP), and a workhorse goaltender in Cory Schneider (58 games played and .924 sv percentage). But the Devils were absolutely dead-last in generating offense, by a lot. They generated an astounding 12 percent fewer shot attempts per 60 than the next worst team. Even Taylor Hall cannot save the offensive black hole that is the Jersey Devils. And while Hall and his likely 30-plus goals were a steal for Adam Larsson, the outgoing Swedish defenseman will be a huge headache to replace. Larsson’s brutal 20.7 percent offensive zone starts and tough quality of competition constituted bonafide first-pairing minutes, and free agent signee Lovejoy is certainly a step or two down.
The big x-factor up front for the Devils is youngster Pavel Zacha, who will likely make the team and who could make an immediate impact. The Devils have improved, but probably not enough to be a playoff contender.
With $16.5 million in cap space at the time of this writing, the most in the league, it’s safe to say that the Hurricanes have not yet pulled the trigger on their rebuild.
The re-signing of Cam Ward, an aging goalie who hasn’t posted above a .915 percent save percentage in 3 years, also suggests they are comfortable being bad at least one more year. The Hurricanes have a super green defense, with 5 key players under 25. Justin Faulk led the charge last year with 16 goals, and Noah Hanifin is close behind with a respectable 0.62 primary points per 60. New forward acquisition Teuvo Teravainen will be a key piece going forward, and Victor Rask is a newly anointed 20 goal scorer on a roster that is down to just one Staal.
Despite praise for Bill Peters as a systems coach and their occasionally inspired stretches of play (they went 18-8-6 over 32 games last season), the ‘Canes probably still have a few high draft picks in their near future.
After finishing last place in the Metro by an 8-point margin, I see no reason to expect a much better result for the feisty Blue Jackets. That is not to say they are without some really nice pieces, but such is the nature of the parity in the NHL that even the worst teams have good players.
Brandon Saad (31 goals), Boone Jenner (30 goals) and Cam Atkinson (30 goals) all had excellent years, and Nick Foligno regressed in terms of raw production but was a possession beast with plus-5.3 relative shot attempt percentage. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky had a strong showing at the World Cup and is a great candidate for a bounce back year after posting his worst 5v5 save percent since 2011-2012 (0.915). But other than shiny new acquisition Seth Jones, the defense is very thin, and so is the forward depth.
And then there is coach John Tortorella … Regardless of how anybody feels about his grit-loving personality, it’s been a long time since he’s led a team to success. Not only that, but last year he coached a 49.3 shot attempt percentage team pre-hire to a 47.4 percent team post-hire. Not exactly inspiring results.
Alright, your turn. How do you think the Metro will shake out this season?
Headline photo: Amanda Bowen
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