Yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe offered a few different varieties of Eastern Conference standings and playoff math.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe will follow on a similar path and assess the competition in the Metropolitan Division.
Entering the 2017-18 season, most experts had the Metropolitan Division as the best in the NHL. Thus far after actual play, that has held true. If the season ended today, and 16 playoff berths were awarded to the top 16 teams in terms of points without regard for division, the Metropolitan Division would have 6 of the 16 playoff teams.
To make the playoffs the Hurricanes will need to finish ahead of at least three Metropolitan Division teams. Right, now the Canes are ahead of the Flyers and have the Capitals, Penguins and Rangers within their sights to push as high as fourth in the division. My fear is that one or both of the Penguins and the Capitals will ultimately find a higher gear and leverage the talent at the half of their rosters to push up the standings as the season unfolds. If that proves to be true, the Hurricanes will really need to hustle to catch one of them or another team higher up that slips a bit.
Through nearly a third of the season, here is my assessment of the other teams in the Metropolitan Division
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have seized the top spot in the division. Though winning the division is far from a certainty, I would be surprised to see a Blue Jackets team with a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky fall completely out of the playoff chase. Columbus is deep even if unspectacular at forward, is sound on defense and has one of the best goalies in the entire NHL in net. That is a recipe for staying in the vast majority of games and being able to win or at least collect an OTL point on most nights.
My assessment – Out of play: I do not see Columbus as one of the teams that the Hurricanes are chasing for one of the last playoff spots.
New York Islanders
I would call the Islanders a minor surprise thus far. Led by a John Tavares contract year surge, the Islanders currently lead the NHL in goals scored per game. Even with ‘meh’ goaltending the Islanders sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division and a whopping eight games above .500. If the Islanders can maintain their current pace even for another month, they will have built a nice gap between themselves and the playoff cut line such that they would be hard to catch.
My assessment – In play: Despite the Isles’ record, I am skeptical. My hunch is that the Islanders’ mediocre netminding eventually catches up with them and that they ultimately end up being one of the teams competing for the last couple playoff spots.
New Jersey Devils
Probably the biggest surprise in the NHL behind the expansion Vegas Knights, the Devils currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division with a 14-6-4 record. To be honest, despite the season being more than one-fourth completed, I still do not feel like I have a good read on the legitimacy of the Devils play thus far. Having a solid veteran goalie who will not be rattled and can be a calming influence for a young team. And the NHL is very much a young man’s game and also a league that every year sees one or two teams rise up from nowhere and seize a playoff spot. As of right now the Devils are that team.
My assessment – In play: I think it is completely that the Devils are for real, can sustain their high level of play and make the playoffs. But until they do it, I am lumping the Devils with a group of teams that could compete for one of the bottom playoff spots.
Salary cap constraints forced the Capitals to unload a number of good players including Justin Williams who landed with the Hurricanes. And the current standings that have the Capitals near the playoff cut line suggest that those losses are impacting the team. But the team still has the primary core of a team that has finished near the top of the NHL regular seasons regularly.
My assessment – Likely to run away and be out of play: With two good goalies, elite top of the roster talent and a strong track record in the regular season, my best guess is that the Capitals will eventually find a higher gear and use it to push up into the top half of the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins have yet to find a higher gear in 2017-18. As such they are actually the team that the Hurricanes are chasing right now for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. But the team still boasts a capable roster with the kind of top-end talent that wins hockey games in bunches once it gels.
My assessment – Likely to run away and be out of play: I put the Penguins in the same category as the Capitals. I actually think the Penguins are likely trending downward, but I still think experience and leadership will eventually take over and push the Pens up the standings.
New York Rangers
The Rangers started slow and endured an early bout with adversity. But the team has since righted the ship and is winning at a good clip. For multiple years, I have pegged the Rangers as a team due to sink in the standings, but I have been wrong thus far. Could this be the year that Lundqvist is not enough and the Rangers dip?
My assessment – In play: I do not see the Rangers as being an elite team. As such, I think they could find themselves among the group of teams battling for the last few playoff slots.
The Flyers are the lone team below the Hurricanes in the division standings. Philadelphia is struggling right now and digging itself a hole somewhat similar to what the Hurricanes did in 2016-17. I keep watching anxiously and hoping for the losses to keep piling up for the Flyers such that they dig a big enough hole that they are out of the picture for 2017-18.
My assessment – In play: As noted above, I keep hoping that the Flyers play their way out of the 2017-18 season before they wake up. Best case at this point is that they find a winning streak and push up into the pack.
Netting it out
Subject to being completely wrong by mid-January, I see it like this…
I see all of the Blue Jackets, Penguins and Capitals as teams likely rise above the fray. Here is hoping that I am wrong on the newfangled Penguins and Capitals and that they dip more than I expect.
Past those three teams, I see a battle that will include four teams probably fighting for two playoff berths. My math has the Islanders and Devils returning to earth a bit and the Rangers not so much rising up to replace them.
The Thursday Coffee Shop which should be up by mid-morning will take on a similar Metropolitan Division theme, but also free free to chime in on the division competition below.