Metro Watch: Top Teams Starting to Separate

Don’t look now, but the top of the Metropolitan Division is starting to separate the contenders from the rest of the pack. These contenders are showing how good they are too.

Welcome to our Metropolitan Division watch for the games completed as of Nov 8, 2019. In this space, we will look at the state of each of the eight teams in the Metro and how they’re trending.

If there is an early takeaway from the division, it’s that you could draw a line separating the top-four teams from the bottom-four teams and you’ll have a good glimpse of who’s a contender and who has stuff to prove.

Taking this one step further, we can break down the division into four tiers. These are elite, good, bubble and lottery dreams. Two teams make up each tier.

If you’re in one of the top-two tiers, things are looking good. If not, you better start turning things around before the gap gets too wide. How does the Metro stack up at this point? Let’s start with the elite tier.

The Elite Tier

Washington Capitals

Here they are again. The Washington Capitals are at the top of the NHL hill. What an amazing run of hockey this franchise has been on in the 2010’s. After years of heartache, they won their Cup and are looking for more.

The big story in the early going is defenseman John Carlson. He has 26 points in his first 17 games, good for fifth place OVERALL in the points race. Let me give you a quick list of names who have less points than Carlson at this point.

Nathan MacKinnon. Elias Pettersson. Alex Ovechkin. Auston Matthews. To spin it another way, the only four players with more points as of this writing are Connor McDavid, Brad Marchand, Leon Draisaitl and David Pastrnak. Carlson is nine points clear of second place in defensemen scoring (Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi.)

Washington Capitals Jakub Vrana
Jakub Vrana is giving the Capitals another scoring threat on an already loaded team. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Capitals are 12-2-3 and are the only team in the NHL to average over four goals per game (69 goals in 17 games played.) You can tell this team is upset they got bounced in round one and are playing with a chip on their shoulder.

The other early headline for me is the emergence of young Jakub Vrana. He has nine goals this season including a hat trick against Calgary on Nov 3. This team is showing the formula of how to stay at the top over the course of time. They have elite players in key positions. They have young players making important strides in their development and are showing they’re ready to contribute. This is a legit Stanley Cup contender who is showing no signs of slowing down.

New York Islanders

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. The New York Islanders are picking up right where they left off and suffocating the life out of their opponents night in and night out. A long winning streak was just ended at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Why are these Islanders in the elite category? They don’t give you anything. They’ve allowed just 34 goals in 15 games, tops in the NHL for goals against. They’re not going to score in bunches but they don’t have to. They have a committee who can contribute at different times.

Recall Carlson leads Washington in points with 26. The two leading scorers on the Islanders are Josh Bailey and Mat Barzal, each with 12 points. So they don’t score a bunch. But look at their goaltending.

  • Thomas Greiss: 2.00 GAA, .937 save percentage.
  • Semyon Varlamov: 2.37 GAA, .924 save percentage.

These are elite numbers. Barry Trotz is a hall of famer and has this team in great position. It doesn’t matter who’s in net. They rotate and get similar results. If the offense starts to figure things out even more, they can be downright scary.

The player of note for them is defenseman Devon Toews. He’s off to a 2-7-9 start in 15 games. He had 18 points all of last season. He gives the Islanders an extra element of offense from the blue line. He was passed over twice in the NHL Draft before the Islanders took him. Smart move.

New York Islanders Devon Toews
New York Islanders defenseman Devon Toews is off to a tremendous start this season. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Good Tier

Pittsburgh Penguins

The general rule of thumb for the Pittsburgh Penguins once again still proves true. It doesn’t matter what things look like on the outside, but if you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your team, you are a contender, simple as that.

But perhaps more impressive, the Penguins proved they are a good team this season even when they didn’t have Malkin for a stretch. It shows you that they are more than just their two superstars.

Let me throw a few names at you. Patric Hornqvist. Jared McCann. Nick Bjugstad. Dominik Simon. Brandon Tanev. Dominik Kahun. Bryan Rust. Sam Lafferty. These players are making key contributions in games but don’t get the attention they deserve.

Nick Bjugstad,Patric Hornqvist,Bryan Rust
These Pittsburgh Penguins have depth. That makes them a good team. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The question with the Penguins has always been who will provide depth scoring. These players are doing that in spades to start the season. Just look at their recent game against the Islanders.

Down 3-0 after two, the Penguins scored three unanswered to force overtime before Rust collected his second of the night to win it. Good teams find ways to come back against good competition. It is very unwise to say the Penguins’ window is closed. And you know they’ll look for a move or two to make them even more dangerous. This is a good team. Let’s see how they play without Kris Letang though.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have lost three games in a row but that doesn’t take away from their overall outlook. This is still a very good team in the midst of finding their game. But I do wonder about their goaltending some.

The early offensive storyline here is the play of Erik Haula. His eight goals lead the Hurricanes. This is after he was limited to just 15 games last season due to injury. He’s fit right in and have provided the team a nice boost early on while the rest of the team is finding their way.

Carolina Hurricanes Erik Haula Tampa Bay Lightning Curtis McElhinney
Erik Haula is the early positive story for the Carolina Hurricanes. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

The Hurricanes are coming off losses of 5-3, 4-1 and 4-2 against three of their Metro rivals. While their underlying numbers look impressive, their finish hasn’t been as good. Still, it’s only a matter of time before it clicks again. They play a home-and-home series with Ottawa coming up and then have an easy schedule throughout the rest of November.

As stated earlier, I do wonder about the goaltending some. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are performing at just under league average. How far they go will depend on this duo and if they can up their level of play. If the Hurricanes don’t see an improvement in this area, they’ll fall to the bubble but will be right in the thick of things anyway.

The Bubble Tier

Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers will be in the race all season. I’m just not quite sure what to make of them yet. They’ve been excellent at home (6-1-1) and bad on the road (2-4-1). They have won two in a row, 4-1 over Carolina and 3-2 over Montreal.

The reason the Flyers are listed as a bubble team for now is because I’ll learn much more about them in their next five games. Just look at this schedule.

  • At Toronto
  • At Boston
  • vs. Washington
  • at Ottawa
  • vs. New York Islanders

Four of these games are rough. This set will give me a better idea of who this team really is. They’ve had good moments, but I need to see it more especially against good opponents.

On the good side, Travis Konecny has arrived. He leads the Flyers in goals, assists and points and is a catalyst of their offense. But on the concerning side, the goaltending is not up to standards early.

Philadelphia Flyers' Michael Raffl Travis Konecny
Travis Konecny is leading the Flyers offensive charge in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Carter Hart hasn’t been himself, but has been better of late. And Brian Elliott’s GAA is over three. All the ingredients add up to a bubble team for me. If the goaltending improves, they can be good. The Flyers are good enough to make the playoffs, but it’s up to them to find that needed level of consistency.

New York Rangers

The Rangers are coming off wins in consecutive days this week and have won four of their last five overall after getting off to a bad start. The talent is there and it is young. The question has always been can their defense and goaltender answer the bell.

At the 14-game mark, the Rangers are on an 88-point pace. That would put them fighting for a wildcard but falling short. This feels like their peak for me given the back end questions they have, but it is an exciting glimpse of what the future holds on Broadway.

Two good stories have played out in the early going both on defense. First, Tony DeAngelo is enjoying a great offensive start. He is at 12 points in 14 games including four points in his last three games. The former OHL Defenseman of the Year is finally starting to find his groove.

And second, rookie Adam Fox is off to a good start in his career. He has points in three straight games. But what stands out to me is just how composed he is for a 21-year old defenseman. The stage isn’t too big for him. His emergence gives the Rangers another good element to look forward to.

I still don’t think this is the Rangers’ year, but it’s heading in the right direction. DeAngelo and Fox emerging is great news for a team you should buy stock in for future seasons.

Tony DeAngelo New York Rangers
Tony DeAngelo is coming into his own this season on Broadway. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Lottery Tier

Columbus Blue Jackets

Being in seventh place with teams to climb over put the Blue Jackets here for now. While I think they are better than record indicates, I wrote recently why their record has been deserved in full.

We figured this would be a tough season given their offseason losses. But key players are struggling on top of that. They have three regulation wins in 16 games to show for it. If Cam Atkinson gets hot, if Josh Anderson remembers who he is, if Seth Jones and Zach Werenski rediscover their top form, then Columbus can make it a race. But that hasn’t happened yet.

On the good side, Joonas Korpisalo is starting to get comfortable as a number one. He is 6-6-1 on the season and should get a majority of the starts upcoming. Pierre-Luc Dubois is playing well showing why he’s an important part of this team’s future.

Joonas Korpisalo Columbus Blue Jackets
Joonas Korpisalo is slowly adjusting to being a full-time number one in the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However their poor start has given them a tough hill to climb in the Metro. I do not see them finishing above sixth. Long term this season can be viewed as good if enough players take important steps in their development. But if you put the Blue Jackets against any of the Metro top-four, you can see the gap.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils occupy the basement in the Metro by three points as of this writing. I’m not sure I saw this coming so soon. They’re coming off a 4-0 loss in Edmonton where they couldn’t finish anything.

Here’s my question. How hot is John Hynes’ seat? Given the expectations coming in, four wins in their first 15 games is simply not good enough for a team that had all the momentum in the offseason. Couple that with Taylor Hall’s uncertain future and that leaves us with more questions than answers in Newark.

On a good note, Jack Hughes is starting to get more comfortable. He has four points in his last five games and is showing flashes of his upside. Interesting dynamic going on here with future greatness coupled with hard questions. How will Ray Shero and company address these things? Trade? Coaching move? Both? Its getting very interesting in Devils territory.