The Metropolitan Division has had better years.
As recently as 2016-17, the Metro had four teams that reached 100 points and came within one point over sporting five of the eight teams from the Eastern Conference in the playoffs.
This season, things are at least off to a slow start. The Capitals took some time to get going, although they have found their game while rattling off six straight wins to take over the top spot. The Blue Jackets have played fairly well after a slow start themselves, although their 30 points would tie Boston for fourth place in the Atlantic Division.
The Rangers have went on a run lately thanks to some stellar play on home ice as they hold down the third spot in the division. The Hurricanes and Islanders are still hanging around the fringes of the playoff race while the Penguins, Devils, and Flyers have put forth uninspiring starts to their respective seasons, albeit with plenty of season left to play.
That last point is key. There is indeed almost three-quarters of the regular season remaining, and considering no one is running away with this thing, this could very well be the most wide-open division in the NHL.
That’s what is going to make this exercise fun. What we will do here is identify the favorite to win the division, a team whose odds hold some value to win the division and team I believe is overpriced at their current odds to win the Metro.
First, let’s take a look at each Metropolitan team’s odds to win the division, courtesy of Bovada.
If you didn’t think this division was wide open, the proof is in the pudding. Every other division in hockey has a team with at least +7500 odds to win the division. Betting-wise, this easily the most wide-open division in the league.
With that, let’s get started with who I believe ends up winning this division
Washington Capitals (+260)
The Capitals are the betting favorite to win the division, and I think they get the job done again for the fourth straight season. As a side note, it’s rather remarkable that the Penguins have just one division crown since the Metro was formed prior to the 2013-14 season despite winning two Stanley Cups in that time.
Nonetheless, the Capitals are still the best all-round team in the division. They have gone on their recent run despite missing Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie from the lineup. Sometimes teams find their game when facing adversity and you can count the Capitals among them.
The Caps’ offense is getting the job done in spades as their 3.46 goals per game ranks sixth and their power play has been about as deadly as it gets with a 28.4% clip, fourth-best in the league.
The Caps have once again made Capital One Arena in Washington a very difficult place to play for opponents. They are 7-3-2 on home ice this season. Washington has scored about as much at home as they have on the road this season, but the true difference at home as been their defense where they are allowing just 2.50 goals per game at home, good for ninth league-wide.
This follows a familiar trend from last season. Washington ranked in a 21st-place tie last year in terms of road defense with 3.29 goals against per game. This season, the Caps check in at 24th with 3.58 goals against per game away from home. Their offense has traveled well in both years, but their defense has just been far superior at home.
Check out the home/road splits from goaltender Braden Holtby in each of the last two years:
|2017-18||2.41 GAA / .921 Sv%||3.90 GAA / .889 Sv%|
|2018-19||2.51 GAA / .922 Sv%||3.16 GAA / .907 Sv%|
Holtby has shown up when it matters most in the postseason, however, he’s just hasn’t gotten the job done on the road in his career.
Still, the Caps might get away with it. Something to keep an eye on as the season moves along would be the status’ of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus. They have an extremely tough decision to make as both of these players are free agents at season’s end and both are integral parts to their current chances. It’s possible Jarmo Kekalainen trades one or both of these players, meaning the Caps could shed one of their competitors at some point this season.
I think we are getting solid odds with the Capitals and they are only going to get healthier from here on out. I would take Washington as a safe play to win the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+650)
Looking at the table of odds above, it appears the oddsmakers are putting the Penguins’ chances right in line with that of the Hurricanes, Rangers, and Islanders to win this division. Things haven’t gotten off to a good start in Pittsburgh, however, it would be a big mistake to write them off this early.
They came up five points short last year, but the Penguins struggled mightily in the first half of the season and then turned up the heat in a big way in the second half.
There’s nothing wrong with the Penguins’ offense. They rank seventh with 3.38 goals per game and have been even better on the road where they’ve tallied 3.58 per game to rank third in the league. They have also missed Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, and Derick Brassard for stints this year.
It’s obvious the Penguins’ issues reside on the back end. It has appeared Pittsburgh solidified their blueline in the offseason with the Jack Johnson addition, however, a season-ending injury to Justin Schultz and ongoing health issues with Matt Murray have put a dagger in that theory.
They rank 23rd with 3.25 goals against per game and have been blown away with 3.67 goals against per game at home, good for 30th league-wide.
Even when healthy, Murray was terrible. He sits on the IR with a 4.08 GAA and .877 Sv% on the season with just four wins in 11 starts. There is a murky timeline with Murray’s injury, but at least it’s been labeled as a lower-body injury and not a concussion like we have seen from the netminder in the past.
Still, if you are taking the Penguins to win this division, you’re going to have to buy into the fact that Murray is going to make a healthy return in relatively short order and play to his potential once back in the lineup. If he continues to struggle for the second straight season, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins making a true run at a division crown.
I also like the fact that they have one of the most aggressive GMs in the league at the helm. Jim Rutherford has already made on trade in an attempt to kick his team in the rear end. Rutherford understands the time to compete for Stanley Cups with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still in their primes is now. He will upgrade the team if upgrades are needed. Maybe that even means in goal.
Nonetheless, these are still the Pittsburgh Penguins and they still sport superstar talent. In a wide open division, I like the value we are getting with the Penguins here and I certainly think it’s worth a play.
New York Rangers (+650)
Truth be told, there are about three teams I would want better odds from if I am going to take them to win the division: the Rangers, Hurricanes and Islanders.
I am landing on the Rangers as I think they are the most inexperienced group of the bunch and have benefited most from their play at home and have not played well on the road at all.
At the beginning of the year I predicted the Rangers to surprise to the upside, and they have, but there’s no way this win this division.
The offense has picked up lately, but they still rank 22nd with 2.84 goals per game. The problem has been on the back end, and not at home where they are 10-4-0 this season and rank third with just 2.14 goals against per game. The problem has been road defense where New York ranks 30th with 4.18 goals against per game. They have been outscored by an average of 1.55 goals per game on the road while being outshot by an average of 5.5 shots per game away from home.
Another angle to look at here is from a front office point of view. The Rangers made a mildly surprising move by declaring themselves sellers while still on the fringes of contending about a month before the trade deadline last year. The declaration expedited their rebuild in trades that saw Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller depart the Big Apple.
What this means is that the Rangers will not be buying under any circumstances this year. Buying in today’s NHL means sacrificing future assets for win-now assets. A front office that just declared a rebuild one year ago is not going to sell future pieces to win this season, even if they hang around in the Metropolitan race.
While the Penguins and other clubs in the division will look to buy if they are contending, the Rangers will likely stand pat or even sell a player like Mats Zuccarello who is a pending free agent.
I like the direction and future of this team given the young talent aboard. I believed in them to be relatively competitive this season given the circumstances, but their season is not going to result in a Metropolitan division crown, regardless of their current spot in the standings.
Avoid this play.