If it wasn’t already, the Metropolitan Division has officially become the toughest division in the NHL. Sure, the Central Division boasts two of the top teams in the league and the Atlantic Division has a meat grinder of a top-three, but the fact remains that the Metro has produced the last three Stanley Cup Champions and houses some of the biggest stars in the league in the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, and Mathew Barzal.
The Carolina Hurricanes, therefore, will find themselves in a very competitive environment come October. But there is reason to believe that they can and will be one of the best teams in the Metro by next spring, if not the best. My goal here is not to convince anybody to believe the same, only to explain what makes me believe that the Hurricanes are poised to make a significant leap ahead in their own performance both in general and against their divisional counterparts.
Summer League Champs
The NHL doesn’t have a summer league, though I truly wish they did. The NHL’s version of the NBA’s summer festivities may be considered the arms race that occurs at the draft and during free agency. There are only so many good prospects and free agents available each summer, and this year, the Hurricanes grabbed some of the best talent available.
I name the Hurricanes the champions of the summer because they are arguably the most improved team out there. Sure, the Toronto Maple Leafs nabbed the best free agent since Marian Hossa in John Tavares, but at the cost of some veteran depth in James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. Similarly, the Calgary Flames were able to do a roster overhaul by inserting young talent in between some productive vets, but at the cost of breaking up one of the best defense pairings in the league.
Carolina was able to add two top four defensemen in Calvin de Haan and Dougie Hamilton, a winger who could easily win the Calder Trophy in Andrei Svechnikov, some sandpaper guys that fill a desperate need in Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook, and a backup goalie that has previously shown incredible potential in Petr Mrazek. The cost? A 40-point player who was asking for almost $5 million per season in Elias Lindholm, an unpolished albeit very promising restricted free agent defenseman in Noah Hanifin, and forgettable free agents Lee Stempniak and Derek Ryan. Even if they aren’t the most improved team on paper, the ‘Canes have shown the most diligence to end this oppressive playoff drought since it began in 2010.
All this to say, I am not trying to downplay what the ‘Canes lost this summer, but based on what Don Waddell and company have brought into the fold, it certainly looks like they will be breaking the mold of the 80-85 point seasons that fans have become accustomed to.
Around the Metro
The rest of the division, on the other hand, had a bit of an underwhelming summer. “But the Capitals won the whole thing,” I hear you saying. Yes, yes they did, and they are poised to give a whole new meaning to the phrase “Stanley Cup hangover.” Let’s get this straight, first: Every championship team parties hard after they win it all, but the Washington Capitals will certainly have their work cut out for them. Not to mention, they will have to insert some Hershey Bears into their lineup to deal with the losses of Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer unless they sign some free agents.
It has been a bear of a summer for the New York Islanders. Not only did they fail to lock up John Tavares or trade him for some returning value, he walked for nothing and the Islanders responded by acquiring over-the-hill entities such as Leo Komarov and Val Filppula. I also would not call Robin Lehner a solution for goaltending. Finally, nothing was done to remedy the blueline that had a historically awful 2017-18 campaign, allowing close to 300 goals. De Haan even took his services to Carolina, further weakening the defense corps. I would expect the Isles to be near the bottom of the division.
The New Jersey Devils are a bit of a peculiar case. Last season, they had the good fortunes of getting the 1st overall pick from outside of the bottom 10 and used it to draft Nico Hischier, who along with Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman, was part of the resurgence of youngsters to make a huge difference for the Devils in 2017-18. Not to mention, Taylor Hall also enjoyed a career season, winning the Hart Trophy in the process. Many of these things would need to happen again for the Devils to squeak back into the playoffs. That, or Cory Schneider would need to return to form at age 32. Overall, I expect a dip in the Devils’ ability to contend for the playoffs.
The New York Rangers are officially entering a rebuild. While it seems that Henrik Lundqvist will stick around for it, the same may not be able to be said about guys like Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Marc Staal. Unless Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil put the team on their backs, the Rangers are more likely to compete for draft position instead of a playoff position.
The tallest giants standing in the Hurricanes’ way will likely be the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Columbus Blue Jackets. While Philly will need their young defensemen to take a step and for Brian Elliott to have a bounce-back season, their forward corps might be strong enough to counteract some of those issues, especially considering the addition of James van Riemsdyk. Pittsburgh is also always a threat. They’re stacked up front and Matt Murray is poised to come back with a strong season after an underwhelming campaign in 2017-18. For the Jackets, this is probably Panarin’s last season in Columbus, so they would do well to go all in for a Cup run. Their deep forward corps and Vezina-caliber goaltender will make life difficult for the rest of the division.
At the same time, however, outside of the JVR addition for the Flyers, none of the top teams in the Metro fixed the holes on their respective rosters. Pittsburgh added some defense insurance in Jack Johnson, but he’s not exactly a top four defenseman anymore. The Flyers are still running with question marks in nets, and the Jackets simply added to their bottom six forwards. Impactful, maybe, but certainly not a slam dunk.
Metro Division Title Is in Reach
Like I said, the Metro remains as one of the, if not the toughest divisions in the NHL. However, at bare minimum, the expected drop in play among the fringe playoff teams of the division coupled with the incredible improvement of the ‘Canes opens the door wide for Carolina to finally end their playoff drought. Additionally, one aspect that may be overlooked is expectations.
The Capitals, Penguins, and Jackets all have massive expectations riding on them, and they will be targeted by the rest of the league because they’re known as good teams. Nobody will give them the night off. The ‘Canes, on the other hand, have the potential to catch other teams by surprise if they come out with their best foot forward, similarly to what the Vegas Golden Knights did.
Realistically, I don’t necessarily see the Hurricanes becoming division giants overnight, but we definitely can’t rule it out. If their goaltending was league average last season, the ‘Canes would probably have made the playoffs. If their goaltending is at least league average next season and their summer acquisitions pan out as expected, it would be unwise to sleep on the Carolina. ‘Canes management has done well to build upon an already strong, up-and-coming squad.