The Metropolitan Division has been the best division in hockey since its creation in 2013. In six seasons, the division has boasted three Stanley Cup champions and three Presidents’ Trophy winners as the best regular season team in the NHL.
Following last weekend’s NHL Draft, that seems unlikely to change.
Make no mistake, despite the overall strength of the division, it’s still been the Capitals’ division to lose since its formation. Four out of six regular season titles belong to Washington, and in five out of six seasons they’ve produced 100-point seasons. They’ve been able to overcome the strength of the Penguins, Rangers, Islanders and others.
This year may be different.
Let’s take a look at how the Caps’ competition stacks up as Free Agency looms.
New York Islanders
Barry Trotz’s club enjoyed its best regular season since the 1983-84, reaching the second round before falling to Carolina. They were the top defensive team in the game, led by the two-headed monster in goal that was Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. They’ll have to resign Lehner and captain Anders Lee in July, and they should be able to. Even still, it’s a team with a good mix of vets like Josh Bailey, Casey Czikas, Brock Nelson and others, and young guns such as forwards Matt Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier and D-men Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. They’re still trying to get better too, with rumors swirling regarding their pursuit of young Maple Leaf star Mitch Marner. The Isles should be near the top of the Metro again in 2019.
Caps fans witnessed firsthand this Hurricane team come into its own in April. Their postseason success shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise, they finished one point shy of 100, but it’s a team that’s simply void of household names and superstar talent that you normally expect from a Conference Final club. But they gel really well together and, being one of the youngest tams in hockey, have potential to go even further. Guys 25-and-younger like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Warren Foegele and Lucas Wallmark all took massive steps this season and will only get better. They’re trying to unload their all-star defenseman Justin Faulk but have a trio of rising stars in Dougie Hamilton, Jacob Slavin and Brett Pesce ready to step up. The Hurricanes are so young, so good, and should absolutely be viewed as Stanley Cup contenders next season.
Not far Behind
It was a season that crashed and burned for the Penguins, swept away by the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. Now two years removed from their back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, they face a crossroads. In some ways as long as the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Leteng and Matt Murray exist, they will always contend, but it’s the secondary players like Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson and others that they have to make decisions on. We’ll see what they end up with after the retooling, but if there’s one things that’s certain: never count out the Penguins.
On the Rise
New Jersey Devils
The Devils and GM Ray Shero were the clear-cut winners of last weekend, not only drafting who many perceive to be the best rookie since Auston Matthews in Jack Hughes, but also swinging a trade that brought one of the top defenseman in hockey to town — P.K. Subban. Last year was a bit of a disappointment for New Jersey after a 97-point campaign in ’17-’18, though some of its struggles could be attributed to the absence of start winger Taylor Hall, who suited up only 33 times. They now are a team loaded up front with Hughes, Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Blake Coleman and former first overall pick Nico Hischier and now Subban, Andy Greene and Will Butcher spearheading the back-end. If goalie Mackenzie Blackwood can continue developing and he and Cory Schneider provide solid play between the pipes, the Devils may do damage.
New York Rangers
The Rangers have been largely irrelevant the past two seasons, being unable to eclipse 80 points. So… maybe I’m being too bullish. But I look at their roster construction and don’t see why they can’t have a Hurricanes-esque run next season, under the right leadership. I don’t know if David Quinn is that but I do know that with a young core of Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Jimmy Vesey and Mika Zibanejad, backed by (make no mistake about it) still a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, they have a chance. The player that might determine their fate this season is Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish sensation drafted second overall. If he and all their other young forwards continue to develop and make an impact, the Rangers might be back in the postseason hunt.
Work to Do
Philadelphia is in a rebuild. They’re in the midst of a regime change with Chuck Fletcher as the new GM and Alain Vigneault (yes, still a thing) as the new bench boss. Fletcher has already made a trade, acquiring D Matt Niskanen to try and improve the defense, a major issue last season in which they finished 29th in goals allowed. They definitely have some nice pieces offensively — Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, James van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny can light it up — but they need a total overhaul defensively and that may include dealing Shayne Gostisbehere. The good thing is they might finally have their solution in goal with 22-year-old Carter Hart. We’ll what kind of a job Fletcher does this offseason and, if done well, Philly could be in the hunt.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets went for it this season and now will pay the price. They are set to lose their three best players in free agency with superstar forward Artemi Panarin, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and mid-season acquisition Matt Duchene. Replacing those three won’t be easy, nearly impossible. A trend downward is inevitable. Now they, like all the teams in the Metro, still do have some nice pieces. Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones are on the verge of super-stardom, and Pierre Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand continue to get better, fresh off 20-goal seasons. But they just have so much to replace (12 free agents in total), including both goalies on the roster. They have work to do to stay away from the basement of the Metro.