The NHL season will be here before you know it, meaning it’s time we dip into the futures market and see if we can make some long-term money in the 2019-20 NHL regular season.
In part two of my four-part series breaking down and predicting each division in the NHL, I will take a look at the Metropolitan Division and the eight teams within. You can check part one, where I breakdown the Atlantic Division here.
Let’s get right into the breakdown and the picks to see who we should be placing our bets on to come out on top in the Metro! The breakdown will be in the order of last year’s final regular-season standings.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary information courtesy of CapFriendly
Washington Capitals (+350)
- 2018-19 Record: 48-26-8 (104 Points)
The Capitals will make a bid for their fifth straight Metropolitan Division crown this season, however, in a tight division, it won’t be easy.
Washington edged the upstart New York Islanders by one point to win the division last season, although they were unceremoniously dumped in the first round at the hands of the rival Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs.
Due to salary cap constraints, the Capitals weren’t able to make any big splashes in free agency this offseason, but they did make some moves that didn’t exactly catch headlines.
In order to free up cap space to sign promising RFA forward Jakub Vrana (which they did with a two-year, $7M deal), the Caps sent veteran blueliner Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for fellow blueliners Radko Gudas. At just $2.345M in the final year of his deal, Gudas’ contract is much more palatable for the cash-strapped Capitals than that of Niskanen.
Washington also sent winger Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a pair of draft picks and a prospect. Burakovsky struggled to fit in in Washington at times, and the deal saves the Capitals some money on the cap as well.
The Capitals did sign winger Richard Panik to a four-year deal to add some scoring depth with the departure of Burakovsky, however, when it’s all said and done the Capitals are rolling with the same core they’ve had for several years.
Led by Rocket Richard machine Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals will boast a quality offense once again this season after finishing fifth in that department a season ago. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom form yet another formidable Eastern Conference one-two punch down the middle while Ovechkin, Vrana, Tom Wilson, and T.J. Oshie round out what should once again be a productive top six.
The blueline is also largely intact from last season, save for the Niskanen-for-Gudas swap. John Carlson will anchor the unit once again with his perennial Norris Trophy acumen, however, Washington will look for an improved season from Dmitry Orlov while Christian Djoos and Nick Jensen will be asked to play larger roles, especially if Michal Kempby isn’t ready to start the season.
If the Caps had just one wish, they would wish for vintage Braden Holtby to rear his head. After five straight seasons ranking among the best in the business, Holtby has struggled in each of the last two regular seasons and last year, he did not return to form in the postseason.
Holtby posted a 2.82 GAA and .907 Sv% across 59 regular-season appearances last season the heels of a 2.99 GAA and .911 Sv% in the 2017-18 season before he found his form and led the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Still just 29 years old, there should be plenty left in Holtby’s tank and a bounce-back season would do wonders for a Capitals team that doesn’t exactly sport the best crop of defenders in the NHL.
The offense will be good, but the defense is a little weak, at least on paper, but a return to form for their No.1 netminder would have Washington knocking on the door of a fifth straight Metro Division crown.
New York Islanders (+500)
- 2018-19 Record: 48-27-7 (103 Points)
In the 2017-18 season, the Islanders finished with 79 points and 17 points shy of a playoff spot while sporting the worst team defense in the league.
At that point, John Tavares fled for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency while the Islanders brought in long-time NHL executive Lou Lamoriello, who in turn hired head coach Barry Trotz to run the ship coming off of a Stanley Cup victory with the aforementioned Capitals.
Fast forward to the end of the 2018-19 regular season and the Islanders showed a 24-point improvement in the standings while boasting the best defense in the NHL. Heck, they even finished three points ahead of Tavares’ Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.
Armed with the same blueline as the prior season, Trotz managed to implement a system that emphasized defense first, and it worked despite the Islanders on-paper d-core looking rather suspect. Robin Lehner’s career year helped after Jaroslav Halak struggled the prior season, however, even Thomas Greiss posted a 2.28 GAA and .927 Sv% in 43 appearances last season after posting an ugly 3.82 GAA and .892 Sv% in 2017-18. That’s a prime example of the team in front of the goaltenders improving dramatically on defense.
Now the Islanders are tasked with repeating such success, only this time teams will be ready for them. Gone is Lehner who couldn’t come to terms on Long Island and wound up in Chicago with the Blackhawks on a one-year pact. Coming in is Semyon Varlamov coming off a season in which he lost his starting gig to Philipp Grubauer in the season’s second half. A rebound for Varlamov is most certainly not out of the question, especially if the Islanders can defend as they did a season ago.
Lamoriello retained all of his notable free agents as Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson all re-upped with the Islanders to join Mathew Barzal to form the core four up front on Long Island.
The Isles will march forward with an identical d-core to that of last season, a group that clearly found success working alongside each other under Trotz’s system a season ago.
To be completely honest, it’s hard not to expect some regression. Both Lehner and Greiss posted numbers well above career norms a season ago while the Islanders are no longer the underdog this time around. The Metro Division is going to be competitive and the Eastern Conference is a loaded one save for a couple rebuilding clubs in the Red Wings and Senators in the Atlantic. Even the lowly Devils and Rangers from last season will offer increased competition in the Metro.
They proved many of us wrong last season, but I’m not exactly favoring the Islanders to win this division this year and I’ll go on record saying I expect regression from Trotz’s club this time around.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+400)
- 2018-19 Record: 44-26-12 (100 Points)
It was another trying regular season for the Penguins as they once again struggled for much of the first half. However, in true Penguins fashion, they were right there at the end of the season and once again cracked the 100-point barrier in finished third in the Metro.
However, it didn’t take long for their season to come to a crashing end as the Penguins were handled by the Islanders in a four-game, first-round sweep. It wasn’t the end the Penguins had in mind, but the Islanders were just that type of club last season.
Changes were afoot in Pittsburgh as veteran GM Jim Rutherford has never been one to sit on his hands when things don’t go his club’s way.
The long-rumored Phil Kessel rumors came to an end when Rutherford sent the talented winger to the Arizona Coyotes in a deal for 25-year-old forward Alex Galchenyuk while the Penguins also received defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph in the swap.
The Penguins also shook up their blueline by dealing Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks for young winger Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round draft pick. Bottom-six speedster Brandon Tanev was also brought aboard on a six-year term, giving the Penguins’ forward group a little bit of a new look entering the season.
What we do know about this group is that they’ll be dangerous, as they have been since Sidney Crosby entered the league in 2005. He and Evgeni Malkin form yet another dangerous duo down the middle while there is plenty of scoring help on the wings in the form of Jake Guenztel, Patric Hornqvist, Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Kahun and Jared McCann who came into his own after coming to the Penguins from the Panthers mid-season last year.
The blueline boasts both talent and experience, but they aren’t the x-factor here.
That distinction goes to goaltender Matt Murray. It was a tale of two seasons for Murray, who struggled in the first half to the tune of a .376 GAA and .893 Sv% in October and a 4.52 GAA and .850 Sv% in the month of November. However, Murray rebounded with a stout 1.38 GAA and .959 Sv% in the month of December and ended up posting a 2.44 GAA and .927 Sv% in the season’s second half. It’s no coincidence that the Penguins’ second surge took place alongside stellar work from their netminder.
If Murray can find the season-long form that saw him post a 2.41 GAA and .923 Sv% across 49 appearances in his rookie 2016-17, and maintain his health in the process, the Penguins are big-time threats to take down the Metro this season.
Carolina Hurricanes (+500)
- 2018-19 Record: 46-29-7 (99 Points)
Few teams in hockey were as good as the Hurricanes after the All-Star break last season as Carolina just about stolen the Metro’s third seed from the Penguins, but instead notched the top Wild Card spot the east.
The second-half success continued into the postseason as the Hurricanes upset the rival Capitals in a hard-fought seven-game first-round series before shocking the hockey world again with a four-game sweep of the upstart Islanders in round two. They would get a taste of their own medicine in a sweep at the hands of the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, but the Hurricanes’ 2018-19 campaign was a rousing success well before that point.
The biggest offseason news out of Carolina this season was their matching of the Canadiens’ offer sheet extended to star center Sebastian Aho. It wasn’t a tough decision in the least, and the ‘Canes now have their 22-year-old franchise player under contract for the next five seasons at a reasonable cap hit just shy of $8.5M.
Carolina also acquired center depth in Erik Haula from the Vegas Golden Knights before inking former Senator and Blue Jacket Ryan Dzingel to a two-year pact in unrestricted free agency.
The Hurricanes also cleared some cap space in sending (https://www.nhl.com/news/chicago-blackhawks-acquire-calvin-de-haan-from-carolina-hurricanes/c-308038016) blueliner Calvin de Haan to the Chicago Blackhawks, netting 23-year-old blueliner Gustav Forsling and goaltender Anton Forserb in the process. The deal cost them prospect Aleksi Saarela in the process, but that was the cost of doing business in shedding de Haan’s salary. Forsberg is minors-bound while Forsling will compete for a spot on a deep Hurricanes’ blueline.
Carolina also re-upped goaltender Petr Mrazek on a two-year deal and traded for James Reimer, likely to provide a 1B-type presence behind Mrazek who enjoyed his best season since the 2015-16 campaign with a 2.39 GAA and .914 Sv% in 40 starts with the Hurricanes last season.
The ‘Canes strength remains that blueline as the rumor mill surrounding the likes of Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Brett Pesce ended up bearing no fruit. All three remain alongside left-shot Jaccob Slavin to once again give the Hurricanes an excellent top-four that combines youth and skill perhaps better than any top-four in hockey.
The Hurricanes struggled to score goals in the first half of last season but scored with the best of em’ in the second half. Question marks still surround the offense, although the top line of Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter will produce. Whether or not the likes of Dzingel, Haula, Jordan Staal, Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn can score enough in support of that trio remains to be seen. Carolina will also be looking for a big step forward from high-ceiling sophomore Andrei Svechnikov after scoring 20 goals in his rookie season.
If the goaltending can hold up, the ‘Canes should be competitive, especially with that d-core. They probably won’t crack the top half of the league in offense, but if they can prevent goals at a similar rate to the 2.70 goals against per game (T-7th) they yielded last season, they should remain on the outskirts of contention again this time around.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+2200)
- 2018-19 Record: 47-31-4 (98 Points)
It’s been a whirlwind several months on the transaction front both in and out of Columbus over the last several months.
After hanging onto both of his high-profile pending UFAs in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, GM Jarmo Kekalainen made the bold decision to buy heavily on the trade market in acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Ottawa Senators while also adding another pending UFA in rugged defenseman Adam McQuaid from the New York Rangers.
The move proved brilliant as the Blue Jackets shockingly swept away the league-best Lightning in round one before being ousted by the future Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins in six games in round two.
Despite falling short of the ultimate goal, you have to tip your cap to Kekalainen in his bid to push his chips all in search of a Stanley Cup.
However, it has come at a cost as Panarin is now a Ranger, Bobrovsky a Panthers, Duchene a Predator and Dzingel a Hurricane. The Blue Jackets now sit without much firepower up front and without a No.1 goaltender at the helm.
At this point, it appears the keys will be handed to Bobrovsky’s former backup Joonas Korpisalo who is coming off back-to-back poor seasons in relief duty. Most recently, Korpisalo posted a 2.95 GAA and .897 Sv% last season after producing a 3.32 GAA and identical .897 Sv% the season prior. He’s largely struggled since putting together a 2.60 GAA and .920 Sv% in 31 appearances as a 20-year-old in the 2015-16 season.
The upside could be high on the still-25-year-old, however, those 31 appearances as a rookie remain his career-high to this point and handing the keys to a goaltender without starting experience combined with weak performance in each of the last three years carries a wealth of risk.
Without Panarin and Duchene up front, the Jackets could struggle to score. They finished last season ranked 21st in the offense, and it’s going to be hard to improve that number without Panarin’s offense-driving presence next season. The Jackets did bring in Gustav Nyquist to soften the blow, but names like John Anderson, Boone Jenner, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand will be heavily relied upon to produce offense in support of Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois on the top line.
Despite the changes up front and in goal, the back end remains strong. Seth Jones could be a future Norris Trophy winner and is still just 24 years old while 22-year-old Zach Werenski is one of the better young blueliners in hockey. David Savard provides reliability with 25-year-old Ryan Murray will look to build on a career-year in which he posted a 0.52 points-per-game pace in 56 games last season.
I’m surprised the Jackets didn’t add a Robin Lehner-type goaltender this offseason. The market was thin, but there a question marks all over the crease at this point. Combined with a projected complete lack of offense, we can see why the Jackets are the biggest longshot to win the Metro at +2200.
There aren’t a futures play in my books this season.
Philadelphia Flyers (+750)
- 2018-19 Record: 37-37-8 (82 Points)
I expected new Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher to be among the busiest GMs in the league this offseason, and busy her’s been.
Fletcher didn’t grab any of the top headlines in re-shaping his club for the upcoming campaign, but definitely improved his team.
The biggest move of the offseason was acquiring the rights of pending UFA center Kevin Hayes from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. Fletcher knew he needed more depth at center in support of Sean Couturier while pushing young pivot Nolan Patrick down in the depth chart to continue his development in a fewer high degree of difficult situations.
Fletcher didn’t waste much time in inking Hayes to a seven-year, $50M contract. The Flyers are now more or less set down the middle with reliable production while wingers Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, and Travis Konecny round out what should a top-six that sees improved production from a season ago.
While the Hayes addition is a prudent one, the real need for this club was on the back end as the Flyers ranked 29th in team defense last season. Again, Fletcher addressed this need.
He didn’t break the tabloids with his moves, but he made prudent moves in taking advantage of a couple of cap situations around the league. The Capitals needed to move salary and Fletcher took advantage of his own cap flexibility in acquiring the reliable veteran presence of Matt Niskanen – and his $5.75M annual cap hit for two seasons – in a straight-up deal for blueliner Radko Gudas. There’s an immediate upgrade.
The next deal came when Fletcher acquired defenseman Justin Braun from the Sharks – a team that needed to move salary in order to re-sign Erik Karlsson, as well as RFA, forwards Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc. Braun isn’t flashy, but he’s about as reliable as it gets on the back end while he and Niskanen should both help a penalty kill that ranked 26th a season ago.
The Flyers didn’t need high-profile additions on the blueline. They required reliable, experienced defensemen that can break cycles and allow the Flyers to spend less time in their own end, something that will, in turn, help the offense improve on their 18th-ranking from last season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Flyers sneak into the top 10 in offense after the Hayes addition and these two important blueline additions.
The Flyers have a nice young crop of NHL defenders in Shayne Gostisbehere (26), Robert Hagg (24), Travis Sanheim (23) and most importantly Ivan Provorov who is just 22, but in need of a new deal in restricted free agency prior to the season.
They are also set in goal for the long-term with 20-year-old Carter Hart who managed a .917 Sv% last season despite playing behind one of the worst defensive teams in hockey. Hart is going to be special and one of the best goaltenders in hockey one day, however, for now, he will split time with veteran Brian Elliott who was brought back on a one-year deal this offseason.
Finally, let’s not forget that the Flyers have brought in a proven winner in veteran head coach Alain Vigneault. Although without a Stanley Cup, Vigneault brings a wealth of experience and respectability to this bench and armed with a new philosophy and systems, could turn this team around in a hurry.
I simply love what Fletcher has done to try and turn this club back into a contender after a down year last year. The moves were neither bold nor flashy, but necessary and prudent.
I like the chances of the Flyers getting back into the postseason this year despite a lethal Eastern Conference.
New York Rangers (+1000)
- 2018-19 Record: 32-36-14 (82 Points)
Prior to the 2017-18 trade deadline, the Rangers’ front office publicly declared a rebuild that focused on exchanging veteran players for youth and future assets.
Fast forward about a year and a half later, and the Rangers are about ready to contend in one of the most impressive and time-efficient rebuilds in the hockey of the NHL.
New York has dealt away veterans Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes in that time, turning those pieces into prospects and draft picks.
They also caught a chunk of good fortune in winning the second overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery and wound up with high-ceiling Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko to add to their deep group of high-upside youngsters.
While the above moves were mostly made for the future, the Rangers’ front office also made a couple of the biggest win-now moves of the offseason in signing the top free agent on the market in Artemi Panarin after trading for 25-year-old defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets.
In Panarin, the Rangers immediately upgrade their T-22nd ranked offense from last year with one of the most productive wingers in hockey. In Trouba, they get a young defenseman coming off a season in which he shattered a previous career-high with 50 points last season. Trouba is one of the games’ best young two-way blueliners and immediately becomes the anchor for this blueline for years to come after inking a seven-year, $56M deal as a restricted free agent following the trade.
The forward group looks mighty good for now and the future with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to complement the young likes of Kakko, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, and Brendan Lemieux.
The Rangers could still be weak on the back end after Trouba as a declining Marc Staal,m Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, and Anthony DeAngelo aren’t the best on-paper d-core in hockey. They did acquire defensive prospect Adam Fox from the Hurricanes, and the 21-year-old Fox sports a bright future as well.
Still, this blueline still needs some attention moving forward while the young forwards continue their development.
In goal, 38-year-old Henrik Lundqvist is on the decline coming off a career-worst 3.07 GAA and .907 Sv%, but the Rangers might just have something in 23-year-old Russian Alexandar Georgiev who posted a 2.91 GAA and respectable .914 Sv% in 33 appearances in relief of King Henrik.
Georgiev looked brilliant at times while most of his struggles came on the road as he sported a stout 2.23 GAA and .931 Sv% in 14 appearances at Madison Square Garden but a brutal 3.44 GAA and .902 Sv% in 19 appearances on the road.
With an impressive young group of forwards and a goaltender of the future already on deck, the future looks bright on Broadway. Whether the blueline can hang with some dangerous offenses across the east remains to be seen. I’m not sure they contend with the best of em’ quite yet, but it won’t be long before the Rangers shine under the bright lights in the Big Apple.
New Jersey Devils (+500)
- 2018-19 Record: 31-41-10 (72 Points)
The Devils had themselves a productive offseason as well.
They too caught a wealth of good fortune in stealing the first overall draft pick in the draft lottery and taking American center Jack Hughes with the top pick.
Less than 24 hours later, GM Ray Shero upgraded his blueline by acquiring P.K. Subban – and the remaining $27M left on his contract – from the Nashville Predators in a deal that didn’t cost him much at all except the dollars to pay Subban $9M over the next three seasons.
Shero also added veteran winger Wayne Simmonds in free agency and acquired prospect Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights, a player ready to step into the NHL immediately.
All of these moves make the Devils a better team next season. In fact, they automatically become better when we realize that they should get back a healthy Taylor Hall who skated in just 33 games last season thanks to a knee issue. There was simply no reason to rush him back in a lost season for the Devils last season – although one that luckily helped them nab the top pick in the draft.
While the Devils no doubt improved, let’s pump the breaks here for a minute.
New Jersey finished 26 points out of the playoffs last season. Subban improves the blueline, but most of the rest of the Devils’ d-corps from last season is returning this season, and New Jersey tied the Edmonton Oilers for 24th in team defense last season.
A healthy Hall sure helps, but the Devils tied for 25th in offense last season. I wouldn’t put a ton of emphasis on Hughes impacting their offense a ton as he struggled in his first taste of pro hockey this summer at the World Hockey Championship and this league is harsh on 18-year-old centers.
The goaltending is also in question. Mackenzie Blackwood was a big bright spot in an otherwise dark season in New Jersey last year as the 22-year-old posted a 2.61 GAA and .918 Sv% behind a bad defensive hockey club. However, he also posted a 2.95 GAA and .902 Sv% in 20 games at the AHL level prior to his call up, so we may need to take his small NHL sample with a grain of salt at this point.
Providing veteran support to Blackwood will be Cory Schneider who actually finished quite strong last season with a 2.46 GAA and .921 Sv% over his final 17 appearances of the season. However, Schneider has finished with a save percentage between .903 (last season) and .908 in each of the last three seasons while never getting his goals-against average under 2.82 in that time. At 33, it’s fair to wonder if he will post above-average numbers in the NHL again.
The trajectory is there. They have a young goaltender who is very likely the goaltender of the future. They will one day be strong down the middle with 2017 and 2019 first overall picks in Nico Hischier and Hughes, respectively. For now, they have one of the best wingers in hockey in Taylor Hall and just traded for a productive defensive in Subban.
That said, much of last season’s last-place (in the Metro) roster remains. I’m not betting on them to get into the postseason in a wildly competitive Eastern Conference and there value is nowhere near the Penguins, Islanders or Hurricanes to win this division despite odds that suggest they’re in that category.
There’s no futures play on the Devils in my books, either.
Metropolitan Division Picks
With five teams between +350 and +500 to win this division, it’s obvious we will have a wide-open division loaded with parity.
However, when it comes to a combination of talent and value, I’m going with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I like what they’ve done this offseason in acquiring forward help in Galchenyuk and Kahun who quietly recorded a healthy 37 points, without power-play time, as a rookie last season. Throw him alongside Crosby or Malkin and that figure improves.
The back end might have a few question marks, but you could do a lot worse than Kris Letang, Justin Schultz and the reliable Brian Dumoulin as your top three.
Where I am placing my confidence is in 25-year-old goaltender Matt Murray.
From the first of December through to the end of the season, Murray posted a .930 Sv%. In other words, a Vezina-caliber number put together across a four months and change span.
With an offense that could reach the top five in the league, or higher, and a goaltender with all the upside in the world coming off a wildly successful second half to last season, I like what the always-competitive Penguins give us here at +400 to win the Metropolitan Division next season.
Value Pick: Philadelphia Flyers
While the Penguins are certainly my choice to win the division, the Flyers offer a bigger payout should they capitalize on the savvy offseason moves made by their new GM.
The defense is going to be better, I’m certain of that. I’m wondering if it even has the upside to sneak into the top 10 under the tutelage of Vigneault, the additions of underrated blueliners Niskanen and Braun as well as a full season’s worth of Carter hart.
The offense should also improve with the addition of Hayes and the fact the Flyers will be spending less time in their own end this season thanks to the blueline upgrades. The Flyers should be able to get more out of their second line wingers with Hayes than they did with the youngster Patrick who still struggled at times in his sophomore NHL season last year.
All I see here is an improvement. Improvement on offense and defense and likely improvement in the strategy behind the bench with one of the most tenured NHL head coaches in recent history.
If you want some longer odds on a club that will be competitive next season, take the Flyers to win the Metro at nice +750 odds.