The road to the Stanley Cup has run through the Metropolitan Division for three seasons running. In those same three seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have met in the
Patrick Metro Division final, and the winner has won the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for the rest of the division, unaddressed needs, free agent losses and rebuilding projects have cleared the path for Penguins v Capitals, Round Four.
But this time, it will be the Washington Capitals with a Stanley Cup hangover and the Penguins will be the rested challenger with something to prove.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders easily had the worst offseason in the Metro. Franchise center John Tavares flew the coup to his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Second-year center Mathew Barzal will become the top line center with talented winger Jordan Eberle on the right. Without Tavares, Josh Bailey could see a huge drop in production, despite 18 goals and 71 points, last season. The Islanders are now center-poor which will hamper their deep winger corps.
The Islanders, which allowed a league-worst 296 goals also lost defenseman Calvin de Haan and did little to upgrade or address their goaltending position with the addition of middling goalie Robin Lehner.
The Flyers forwards will be competitive with every team in the NHL. With the addition of free agent James Van Riemsdyk, the Flyers could use 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick as their third line center, or Patrick could pivot the second line with Van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek.
However, the Flyers didn’t address their pressing needs to improve on defense or in goal. Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth figure to own the crease unless 20-year-old prospect Carter Hart, in his first professional year, wrestles it from them. The Flyers defense, goaltending and penalty killing were exposed against the Penguins, in Round 1, but the Flyers made little changes.
The Hurricanes were on the cusp of the playoffs in 2017-18. However, new ownership cleaned house. General Manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters are gone. Interim General Manager Don Wadell shipped a package including young defenseman Noah Hanifan to Calgary for defenseman Dougie Hamilton.
The Hurricanes lost center Elias Lindholm in the Hamilton deal and are now paper thin at center. Last week, the Hurricanes dealt scoring winger Jeff Skinner to Buffalo for a few draft picks and B-level prospect Cliff Pu. The Hurricanes also failed to address their goaltending. Via free agency, the Hurricanes replaced Cam Ward with struggling Petr Mrazek.
The Hurricanes have already taken the second biggest step backward and could trade All-Star defenseman, Justin Faulk.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have been on the edge of being a Stanley Cup contender for three years but have yet to win a playoff series. Their young players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Zach Werenski are coming into maturity, and Columbus added 40-point third line center, Riley Nash. Everything should be in place for the Blue Jackets to reach their potential, except slick winger Artemi Panarin informed the team he would not sign a long-term contract. Panarin’s declaration effectively started the countdown to a trade but took away some of Columbus’ leverage.
As-is, the Blue Jackets are a contender, but the eventual absence of Panarin will take away the club’s only elite offensive talent.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils were the first-half surprise of the NHL. Their speed and skill carried them to the playoffs, but their lack of size and strength caused them to wear down in the second half. The Devils led the Metro Division for much of the season but eventually went quietly in five games against Tampa Bay Lightning, in Round 1.
The Devils made a small splash by trading center Adam Henrique for 30-point defenseman Sami Vatanen. The move added top pairing offense to the Devils blue line but sacrificed some offense in the middle.
The Devils are a good team but are not yet a threat to the Penguins and Capitals.
The New York Rangers
The Rangers rebuild is coming along well. Defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei are an adequate top pairing, and their young forwards are fast and skilled. The backend of the Rangers defense is subpar, and 36-year-old goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is no longer the king.
The Rangers will be competitive but not a challenger.
A lot can happen through the NHL season. Trades, injuries, and players having unexpected career years can quickly change the situation. However, unless one of the teams above does something to change the situation, the Metro Division is going to be another battle between the Penguins and Capitals. Both are the class of the field and are headed for yet another showdown.
The battle will be different this year. The Capitals broke the Penguins ownership of the rivalry. Round Four awaits.