Does the second week of September feel too soon to start dishing out some NHL preview and prediction pieces?
Well, let’s put it this way. Training camps open up about 9-10 days from now, and from there, the 2021-22 NHL regular season is just around the corner.
So, with camps on the horizon, let’s kick off the first of many NHL future pieces and the first of four division preview pieces you’ll see here at The SportsGeek this week.
We’ll start with the Metropolitan Division which once again looks like the deepest and most complete division in the league this season. We’ll break down each team before getting into the best value bet and the top team to fade.
*Odds courtesy of BetUS
New York Islanders (+375)
The seemingly perennially underrated New York Islanders will enter the 2021-22 NHL season as the favorite in the league’s deepest division as they’ll once again be highly competitive and right in the mix.
It was a fairly quiet offseason for a team that came the closest to knocking out the Lighting as repeat champions last spring, most notable retaining key 2020 trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri on a four-year deal while adding veteran Zach Parise following his buyout from the Minnesota Wild. Veteran fourth liners Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin — not to be underrated themselves — were also retained to once again form one of the league’s best fourth-line units.
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While the forward group largely remains intact and should resemble the unit that finished a little below league average with 2.71 goals per game and an 18.8% power play clip, this team is once again going to go as far as the back end takes them.
A top six that features Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene and Sebastian Aho (so far) may not stand out to the casual observer, however this is largely the same group that led the club to second overall with 2.23 goals against per game. Keep in mind Pelech was retained on a lucrative eight-year extension this summer, showing exactly what the Islanders’ brass thinks of a player that is now being considered for the Canadian Olympic team for the 2022 Beijing Games.
The biggest subtraction would be rearguard Nick Leddy who was dealt to the Wings for Richard Panik and a second-round draft pick in 2021. Leddy’s $5.5M cap hit was likely the biggest motivator behind the deal, and the fact he wasn’t likely to be retained in the summer of 2022.
While the blueline has done its work along with sound defensive efforts from their forward group, the Islanders are a candidate to put forth one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL this season.
Between Russian veteran Semyon Varlamov and fellow countryman and sophomore Ilya Sorokin (also extended this offseason), the Isles’ crease is about as reliable as it gets. Varlamov not only turned in a carry-year that saw him post a 2.04 GAA and .929 Sv% with seven shutouts in 36 games, but the 33-year-old also paced the NHL with 21.97 goals saved above average (GSAA).
Semyon Varlamov put on a show in goal tonight ❌🛑
— SNY (@SNYtv) January 7, 2020
Add in Sorokin and his stout 2.17 GAA and .918 Sv% with three shutouts in 22 games as a rookie — and a +5.87 GSAA mark — and the Islanders are in great shape even if the forward group once again resides in the league’s bottom half.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+400)
The saying both inside and outside of Pittsburgh for the last 15 years has been that the club will be competitive as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are anchoring the top two lines down the middle. That should remain true, but I see more questions than certainty on this Pittsburgh club.
Nothing inside the top six remains up for debate as the team’s top two lines, but there’s some questions across the board thereafter. The loss of Jared McCann is bigger than many think after the burgeoning young center collected 32 points in 43 games last season, although 36-year-old Jeff Carter remains a productive third-line-caliber these days.
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At the end of the day, the team scored 3.45 goals per game to rank second in the league last season, so the biggest question marks are on the back end.
The team’s biggest problem in recent years as been health. Health cannot be predicted, however Crosby and Malkin both have lengthy injury histories and nearly the team’s entire blueline misses notable time a season ago. At full health, it’s a solid group with Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang at the top and John Marino and Marcus Pettersson underneath, but health has to be improved if they’re to hold their heads above water in this division.
The biggest x-factor? That would be goaltender Tristan Jarry who looks to rebound from a trying 2020-21 campaign. Jarry managed to rebound some after a disastrous opening month of the season, but at the end of the day he finished the campaign with a 2.75 GAA and .909 Sv%, posting a +1.34 GSAA figure that was actually slightly bested my backup Casey DeSmith (2.03).
If Jarry is closer to the 2019-20 version (2.43 GAA/.921 Sv%) next season, the Penguins will be fine and likely competing for a division crown. but the pressure is on the 26-year-old Jarry to rebound in support of what be one of the league’s better offenses — barring health — again next season.
Carolina Hurricanes (+450)
It should be an interesting season for the Hurricanes, the team that underwent some notable change in the offseason.
In fact, they have an entire new goaltending tandem in the form of former Maple Leaf Frederik Andersen and the oft-injured Antti Raanta who has performed quite well when healthy in recent seasons. It’s obviously a new tandem, but one that should by all means be an adequate — at least — behind a team that’s known for playing sound defense.
Speaking of the defense, gone is Norris Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton who signed with the Devils as part of the most lucrative free-agent deal handed out this winter, a somewhat surprising landing spot despite the fact he was going to get paid elsewhere certainly was not.
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The back end remains in good shape without the team’s No. 1 defender in recent years, however, led by Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei and will be complemented by some newcomers in Ian Cole, Ethan Bear and the controversial signing of Tony DeAngelo. The new-look back end deserves some patience to perhaps soprt some things out early in the season, but there shouldn’t be many issues despite the several new faces on board.
Speaking of new faces, the team more recently made its biggest headlines of the summer when they extended an offer sheet to (former) Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a direct shot of retaliation — despite what GM Don Waddell wants to tell you — for the Habs attempting to acquire ‘Canes stud Sebastian Ago (not to be confused with the Islanders’ d-man) last summer.
The offer sheet more or less handcuffed Habs GM Marc Bergevin who ultimately chose not to match and will instead receive the Hurricanes’ first and third-round draft picks in the 2022 draft. The move gives Carolina some serious, serious depth down the middle between Aho, Kotkaniemi, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal and Jordan Martinook. Obviously, one or more of those players will play the wing, but that’s some of the best center-ice depth in the league, and that matters over the course of the season.
Washington Capitals (+450)
Not to be forgotten are the Washington Capitals who have turned out to be the cream of the Metropolitan Division crown, winning the division title in each of the last five seasons of its existence while tying the Penguins with 77 points atop the similar East Division last season, but losing on the second tie-breaker (regulation + overtime wins).
The Caps swiftly handled their biggest offseason requirement, bringing back Alex Ovechkin for the next five seasons to once again anchor what was the best offense in hockey last season. Like many clubs around the league these days, it’s the veterans that continue to do the heavy lifting in D.C. By veterans I’m speaking of the 35-year-old Ovi, 33-year-old Nicklas Backstrom, 34-year-old T.J. Oshie and 31-year-old John Carlson.
The legacy of Alex Ovechkin (@ovi8) continues.
— NHL (@NHL) February 22, 2020
In fact, all seven of the Caps’ defenders on NHL contracts are art least 30 years of age while 24-year-old Daniel Sprong and 26-year-old Anthony Mantha represent the club’s two youngest forwards. In fact, I would label Mantha as a major factor up front, one that was surprisingly dealt to the Caps at the 2020 trade deadline that involved Jakub Vrana going the other way to Detroit. Mantha collected a goal in each of his first four games with the Caps before cooling off, but if he has a nice opportunity to reach his 35-goal potential this season in Washington.
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The club will get a key blueliner back this season in Michal Kempny who missed all of last season with an Achilles’ injury. Veteran Zdeno Chara likely isn’t returning, but the club largely returns the same blueline that finished the middle of the pack at 17th with 2.88 goals against per game, but also a group that ranked eighth in terms of high-danger chances against/60.
What this team really needs is some more consistency in goal, something they didn’t even have in the final few regular seasons of Braden Holtby’s tenure. The crease was destabilized prior to the 2020-21 season even getting underway with Henrik Lundqvist undergoing open-heart surgery, an ailment that officially ended his career this summer.
Making matters worse were some health and safety protocol violations from a group of Capitals players, including sophomore goaltender Ilya Samsonov who was set to carry the load last season. Instead, he made just 19 appearances and posted an underwhelming 2.69 GAA and .902 Sv% in that time while rookie Vitek Vanecek turned in a identical 2.69 GAA alongside a .908 Sv% in what was extremely important stop-the-bleeding type work from the Czech netminder.
After being selected by the Kraken in the Seattle expansion draft, Vanecek returns to Washington via trade to team up with Samsonov in what the Capitals hope is a far more reliable situation between the pipes this season.
New York Rangers (+500)
There wasn’t a more perplexing situation in hockey last season than what transpired in New York towards the end of the regular season.
The Rangers were a non-playoff club in the difficult east, but that was to be expected. However, shortly after Tim Wilson hurled Rangers star Artemi Panarin to the ice and a subsequent public lashing of the NHL by the Rangers, New York cleaned house, firing team president John Davidson and Jeff Gorton despite what appeared to be a tidy and efficient turnaround from a rebuilding club to a fringe contender in less than two calendar years.
Head coach David Quinn was fired as new GM Chris Drury’s first major move following the season, and veteran (and successful) bench boss Gerard Galant was brought in to lead the young New York core back to the promised land.
I mean, the pieces are there. Led by the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome alongside high-upside youngsters in Alex Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov, the Rangers have a dynamic combination of youth and high-end veteran experience up front. Led by a bounce-back seasons and positive shooting-percentage regression from Zibanejad specifically, expect the offense to improve from their 10th-ranked offense from a season ago.
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The team also signalled a serious win-now mentality by adding grit and sand paper on the peripherals in signing Barclay Goodrow and trading for tough guy Ryan Reaves.
Adam Fox was a surprise Norris winner on the back end, but the top four is in good shape alongside Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and whoever claims the final top-four spot between K’Andre miller or Patrick Nemeth.
Perhaps most exciting about this Rangers club is what they have in goal between Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. While Georgiev is apparently seeking a trade, it’s Shesterkin that could truly carry New York to a potential postseason spot. Shesterkin posted some eye-popping KHL numbers in his native Russia before heading west and posting a 2.59 GAA and .921 Sv% through the first 47 regular-season games of his NHL career. He also placed 12th with 7.93 GSAA last season.
Between what appears to be a dynamic offense, excellent young goaltending and an improving blueline, this could be the year the Rangers turn into a true threat.
Philadelphia Flyers (+700)
The theme of the 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers season? Atrocious goaltending. In fact, despite ranking 12th in terms of high-danger chances against at 5v5, Philadelphia goaltending produced the worst 5v5 save percentage at just .895. Of the 47 goaltenders that appeared in at least 20 games last season, Carter Hart’s .877 Sv% was by far the worst in hockey. Second-worst on that list was (former) backup Brian Elliott at .889.
The Flyers understandably allowed Elliott to walk in free agency, and newcomer Martin Jones ranked 40th of those 47 goaltenders with an .896 Sv% and he’s been one of the worst goaltenders in hockey behind a suspect Sharks blueline, but the Flyers surely hope a change of scenery can get him back into the form he showed earlier in his career with the Kings.
Nonetheless, the Flyers’ season relies on whether Hart can rebound in a big way or not. Hart posted a 2.59 GAA and .915 Sv% across the first two seasons of his career in 74 appearances, so he’s certainly capable. At just 23 years of age, he’s hardly the only young goaltender to encounter speed bumps, and a bounce-back effort is likelier than another full-scale disaster that was last season.
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Otherwise, the Flyers looked to improve the group of defenders in front of him. Most notably, GM Chuck Fletcher acquired two-way defender Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators while another veteran was brought in with Rasmus Ristolainen finally getting a trade out of Buffalo. Keith Yandle was signed to a cheap one year deal in free agency, and Shayne Gostisbehere was traded to the Arizona Coyotes.
Active and aggressive.
Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher explains the strategy behind adding Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen and Cam Atkinson, and why it was important to get started before free agency. pic.twitter.com/T4HncIQoGX
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) July 25, 2021
It’s certainly a new-look blueline, and despite the solid underlying metrics from their group last season, this version of the Flyers’ blueline looks and feels more complete from head to toe.
The team remains strong down the middle with Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Claude Giroux as high-end options, although Giroux has spent the bulk of his time as Couturier’s winger on the top line. The club will look for a goal-scoring boost from Cam Atkinson who was acquired from Columbus in a straight-up deal for play-maker Jakub Voracek.
The club’s offensive production was league average at 15th overall, but their power play slipped to a share of 17th with a 19.2% clip. With a new look in the top nine, Fletcher and co. will look for the club to get closer — or into — the league’s top 10 this season.
New Jersey Devils (+1800)
Obviously, the biggest headline out of New Jersey this summer was the seven-year, $63M contract handed out to new No. 1 defender Dougie Hamilton, easily the top free-agent deal handed out in the offseason.
Hamilton wasn’t the only key addition to what certainly looks like a beefed-up Devils blueline as former Avs rear guard Ryan Graves was traded to the swamp for expansion-draft reasons. With Hamilton, Graves, P.K Subban and one of Damon Severson or sophomore Ty Smith in the club’s top four, it’s a much-improved group that ranked 25th in high-danger chances allowed at 5v5 a season ago.
In goal, Mackenzie Blackwood is another young netminder that will be looking for a rebound campaign after turning in a career-worst 3.04 GAA and .902 Sv% last season. Like with Hart, the odds of a rebound look promising as Blackwood posted a .916 Sv% across his first two NHL campaigns in 70 appearances. This despite playing behind one of the weakest defenses in hockey over that time.
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It won’t be solely up to Blackwood this season as it has in the past two, however, as a reliable, veteran backup was brought in via Jonathan Bernier who turned in a rather solid .914 SV% across 24 games with the Red Wings last season, also one of the worst defensive teams in hockey. Bernier owns a career .913 Sv% in nearly 400 regular-season appearances, making him a nice fit as the 1B option behind Blackwood.
The main question mark is whether this team can score enough goals to support the seemingly improved back end. New Jersey ranked 26th in overall offense a season ago and 28th with a 14.2% power play clip, but they remain a very young and unproven group as a whole.
Perhaps Jack Hughes can make a significant leap after an underwhelming rookie campaign, and Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha will look to continue their development in a league that’s extremely tough on young centers. All three of those players are 24 and under.
Tomas Tatar is an underrated winger who helps generate scoring opportunities and he signed a two-year deal with the Devils in the offseason. At 30, Tatar is easily the elder statesman on a Devils offense that should be in tough to score goals again this time around.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+7500)
The Blue Jackets will be in extremely tough to compete in this division, and the odds are clear evidence of just that. However, that’s not to say that GM Jarmo Kekalainen didn’t enjoy a productive offseason.
In fact, he was able to use the Seattle expansion draft to his advantage, acquiring 23-year-old defenseman Jake Bean from a Hurricanes team that was going to be unable to protect him. They also got a king’s ransom for free-agent-to-be Seth Jones who was traded to the Blackhawks for 21-year-old highly skilled defenseman Adam Boqvist, as well as the 12th overall pick in the 2021 draft, among other picks acquired.
Obviously, there will be some growing pains with the youngster and the Jackets’ blueline is a shell of what it was at this time last season, but the future is at least bright.
Whether or not Patrik Laine can get close to vintage form now that John Tortorella isn’t behind the bench remains to be seen. Obviously, it was a rocky half-season tenure for Laine to begin his Blue Jackets career, but perhaps a playmaker in Voracek can help the former 40-goal man.
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Along with Laine, there’s some additional high-upside young pieces in Oliver Bjorkstrand and Jack Roslovic, the latter of whom was acquired with Laine and is also a former first-round draft pick. Veterans Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Gustav Nyquist are the likeliest of forwards to compete for top-six roles.
Where the Jackets can truly be above-average is between the pipes with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins once again set to share the crease. The tragic passing of Matiss Kivlenieks hurts the depth, but both Korpisalo and Merzlikins have showed No. 1 promise.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 21, 2021
Merzlikins has posted a 2.54 GAA and .920 Sv% across his first 61 career regular-season appearances while Korpisalo appears to been in for the 1B option to start the season after posting an ugly 3.30 GAA and .894 Sv% in 33 games last season. With a 2.90 GAA and .905 Sv% for his career in 160 regular-season contests, Merzlikins has the superior career numbers to this point and should get the opening-night nod.
The Best Fade
Pittsburgh Penguins (+400)
As per the odds in the top six of the eight-team Metro, it should be a tight race towards the top. However, I’m not sure the Penguins hold enough value here as the second-favorite and just slightly longer than the favorite Islanders (+375).
This isn’t betting against Crosby and Malkin, but both have lengthy injury histories and Malkin specifically has maxed out at 78 games over since the 2008-09 season. He appeared in just 33 of 56 games last season and fell below a point-per-game in the process. He just cannot stay on the ice and losing McCann is a notable blow to their center-ice depth.
I don’t have much of a beef with the Penguins blueline who put up strong underlying metrics despite brutal injury luck last season, but even at full capacity, Tristan Jarry isn’t going to be the best goaltending in this division. The Islanders have two themselves that are likely going to be better, but you could make a case that every other team in the division is stronger in goal than Pittsburgh, including the +7500 Blue Jackets.
As I noted in the dedicated Penguins section above, there are too many question marks here for me to bet Pittsburgh to win the toughest division in hockey at such short odds.
The Best Value Bet
Philadelphia Flyers (+375)
The Islanders contain nice value themselves as +375 given how that back end looks, but if we’re looking for some additional value give me the Flyers at long +700 odds.
The work Fletcher put forth this offseason was impressive. Ellis is a fantastic addition to the blueline, and Ristolainen’s weak underlying data should improve on a far superior club in Philly. I’m only on board with the Atkinson-for-Voracek deal as it adds a legit, 35-goal scorer to a group that need to take a step forward after a subpar 2020-21 season.
I believe this club is deeper than many might think. The blueline is in far better shape after they were somewhat handcuffed by a surprising Matt Niskanen retirement last summer, and their top-six is chock-full of defenders who contribute at both ends of the ice.
The depth up front is extremely strong as the club will throw out at least three offensively-capable scoring lines. They’ll also start with the puck plenty after finishing last season as the second-best faceoff team in the league a season ago at a stout 54% clip while Couturier and Giroux are two of the best in the business in that department.
The path to the top of the Metro is going to be an extremely difficult one for whoever is crowned as the division camp come season’s end, but a re-built Flyers club is worthy of a value look at +700 odds.