With the NHL All-Star Weekend behind us, and the league’s trade deadline coming up on February 25th, it’s time to take a look at some of the positives and negatives for each team thus far in the 2018-19 season and for some teams, for seasons to come.
We start with part one of a four-part, “Pros and Cons” series in the Eastern Conference with the Metropolitan Division teams.
New York Islanders (1st Place – 29-15-6, 64 pts.)
PRO – General manager Lou Lamoriello, head coach Barry Trotz and goaltending coach Mitch Korn have solved many of the Islanders’ problems from last season. Who needs the offensive skill and firepower of John Tavares when you can win games with defense and goaltending? The goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner (2.02 GAA, .931 SV%) and Thomas Greiss (2.50 GAA, .920 SV%) have been outstanding for the Isles this year, and it’s a tight race for the top spot in the metro, but the Isles are trending upwards, while their rivals for first have all had their struggles at times this season.
CON – Without Tavares, they seriously lack a superstar that can take this team to the next level. Sophomore Mat Barzal and captain Anders Lee are leading the way offensively, but Trotz doesn’t have an Ovechkin, Backstrom or Oshie like he did last season. Depth scoring will be heavily relied on down the stretch. Should the Isles (and they should) make a return to the playoffs this season, Trotz’ Stanley Cup-winning system with the Washington Capitals won’t find the same success just yet with the Islanders, but it’s still early days for this regime…
Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd Place – 28-17-6, 60 pts.)
PRO – Sidney Crosby isn’t slowing down (and this could be the case for a few more years to come). Crosby (58 points in 47 games played), Phil Kessel (55 pts., 50 GP) and Evgeni Malkin (55 pts., 50 GP) lead the way offensively, and there’s no surprise there. The ever-experienced playoff competitors are in the battle for first in the Metro again, and the offense is again, the big reason why. Even if the Pens were to move a player like Phil Kessel (not likely this season), it seems anyone who fits into the top-6 forward group will produce points playing with Crosby or Malkin. GM Jim Rutherford has made a number of sly moves this season to keep things fresh, including trading the aging Carl Hagelin for left winger Tanner Pearson earlier this year, trading for young D-man Marcus Pettersson from Anaheim, and yesterday’s trade of Derrick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to Florida in exchange for Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann and two draft picks shows Rutherford is always looking to improve his team. With Bjugstad and McCann, the Pens have a much more balanced group of forwards and much-needed depth at center.
CON – Is it a matter of endurance with this team? The Pens won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Last season, they were ousted in the second round by their rival Washington Capitals, and in the last three seasons their star players have, well, aged three years. That’s a lot of hockey and a lot of aging for hockey standards. Kris Letang has been healthy this season, but has had his share of injuries. Goaltender Matt Murray (15-7-1, 2.96 GAA, .910 SV%) has been inconsistent this season, which is now a second consecutive season as the clear-cut number one man in Pittsburgh, and Murray has still yet to prove he can reach the status of the league’s elite. Was Murray ready to take the #1 job in Pittsburgh or was former netminder Marc-Andre Fleury the real key to the team’s success in the last half decade?
Washington Capitals (3rd Place – 28-17-6, 62 pts.)
PRO – Todd Reirden has kept the Stanley Cup-winners, winning. After Barry Trotz led the franchise to it’s first Stanley Cup last June, the question for Reirden as a first-year head coach with big shoes to fill was always going to be whether or not he could continue that success. It’s rare for a team to win the Cup and lose their head coach immediately afterwards, but irregardless of where they are in the division standings right now, Caps fans can be confident in a return to the playoffs again. Alexander Ovechkin (37 goals in 50 games) is having another terrific season and defenseman John Carlson is proving his new multi-year contract’s worth as an early candidate for the Norris Trophy (48 points in 50 games). A repeat of last spring, though, looks to be a tougher task this time around (but hey, nobody thought they could do it last year either).
CON – Inconsistency. For everything positive about the Caps’ season, many individual player performances have not been up to par. Goaltenders Braden Holtby and Phoenix Copley (3.06 GAA, .904 SV% combined this season) have both been especially bad lately. Where Washington needed Phillip Grubauer (now with Colorado) last season to help spell Holtby at times and keep the team in games, they haven’t gotten that from Copley this year. Missing defenseman Christian Djoos since December hasn’t helped either. Offensively, the bottom six just hasn’t produced enough in a league that is now averaging over six goals per game, and without Trotz’ defensive system, inconsistent scoring won’t keep this team in big games. The Capitals are also ranked last in the league in faceoffs, winning only 46.2% and have the 25th-ranked penalty kill (77.3%); both statistics which are heavily scrutinized come the postseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets (4th Place / 2nd Wild Card Spot in East – 28-19-3, 59 pts.)
PRO – TORTS. Head coach John Tortorella is proving why he is one of the league’s top minds, as the team continues to find success in a tough division despite the cons (distractions) below. Tortorella always seems to find a way to get the most out of players throughout a lineup. Fans have been treated to a season that sees Columbus in the top 10 in the league in goals per game (3.22 GPG), despite having one of the league’s worst power plays (15.44%, 26th in NHL). Winger Cam Atkinson (28 G, 22, A, 50 P in 48 GP) is quietly having a career year and offensive contributions from the defense are not in short supply, as Seth Jones (31 points), Zach Werenski (27 points) and Ryan Murray (25 points) are fourth, fifth and seventh on the team in points this year.
CON – Pending unrestricted free agents. On the ice, Sergei Bobrovsky has had a down season despite his status as one of the league’s elite goaltenders. Off the ice, there could be trouble in paradise for the franchise that may see Bobrovsky and fellow countryman Artemi Panarin leave as free agents this July, if not via trade before the February deadline. Panarin’s agent stirred up some media banter earlier this week with the announcement that contract talks would not occur until after the season concludes, which could force Columbus’ hand in trading the talented left wing. In addition, a Blue Jackets team without Bobrovsky could be fighting for the Metropolitan division title (or worse, a playoff spot) with Joonas Korpisalo (9-3-2, 2.95 GAA, .901 SV%) between the pipes.
Carolina Hurricanes (5th Place – 25-20-6, 56 pts.)
PRO – If any positives for this team don’t include “Rod Brind’Amour,” then please let me know. As a player, he was a leader on and off the ice and one of the league’s smartest two-way forwards. In his first pro season behind the bench, Brind’Amour has injected an energy and a confidence into a Hurricane team/franchise/fanbase that has the Canes fighting for a playoff spot. The Canes have a terrific young defensive group. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen,and Andrei Svechnikov are the now and the future on offense. In addition, with the recent aquisition of Nino Niederreiter and the presence of veteran captain Justin Williams (a “young” 37 years of age), the team has begun to find a balance which has lacked in recent years.
CON – Inexperience, everywhere. Was the word “young” thrown around more than once above? Same goes for Brind’Amour, who in NHL coaching terms, is still young. First year coaches have a learning curve to navigate before making the significant impact they aspire to and the youthful roster has and will continue to experience growing pains. But damn this is a team to watch out for in the near future.
New York Rangers (6th Place – 22-21-7, 51 pts.)
PRO – Rebuilding according to plan. Last season, a Rangers team that began the year with Ryan McDonough, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Nick Holden and Michael Grabner, as well as Alain Vigneault at head coach, had 55 points through 51 games at the start of February. The current Rangers squad has 51 points in 50 games, so it hasn’t been that bad, all things considered. First-year head coach David Quinn has done a fine job adapting to the NHL from the college ranks this year after last season’s trade deadline fire-sale of the above players and the firing of Vigneault at season’s end. Young players the Rangers will look to in the future such as Filip Chytil, Brett Howden and Lias Andersson (AHL) have taken a step forward this year as well. Salary cap space and New York City are a dangerous combo that could ruin other teams’ free agency plans. The Rangers may not be built for a cup run in the next few seasons, but the allure of the Big Apple could speed up the process come July 1st.
CON – Last season’s rebuild looks to continue for another season as questions surround many players’ futures. The current roster is filled with young players still trying to find their footing. Center Kevin Hayes and defenseman Adam McQuaid, two of the club’s veteran players, are without contracts this summer. Pavel Buchnevich and 31-year old fan favorite Mats Zuccarello have been the subject of trade rumors throughout the season too. Management will have a lot of decisions to make in the next couple of weeks. Should players like Zuccarello and Hayes be shipped out, and the Rangers don’t attract any top-6 caliber forwards this summer, the kids are going to have to step up and do so quickly for this team to remain competitive.
Philadelphia Flyers (7th Place – 22-23-6, 50 pts.)
PRO – Newly appointed GM Chuck Fletcher has never missed the playoffs, a recent six-game winning streak, and oh, a rookie goaltender who was just named January’s “Rookie of the Month” all have Flyers fans believing they might just push for the playoffs. While goaltender Carter Hart has saved what was turning to be a horrendous Flyers season, the long-term positive for Flyers fans is still their young defensemen with high potential. The Flyers have one of the youngest backlines in the league, including Ivan Provorov, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and in the minors, the 6’7″ Samuel Morin (expected to return in February after an early season injury in the AHL) all ages 22-23, with a couple of professional years under their belt now. Leading those four youngsters is the 25-year old Shayne Gostisbehere, and the Flyers can certainly lock down five of six starting spots. If Carter Hart is really ready to take over the #1 job in Philly, the Flyers will be a tough team to score against for years to come.
CON – Is Carter Hart ready to take the reigns as the #1 goaltender? Despite the team’s lackluster performances at every end of the ice this year, the same major problem has persisted for the Flyers dating back to the Ron Hextall days… and no, not the “Ron Hextall, recently fired general manager” days, but the “Ron Hextall, starting goaltender” era. While the injuries to Brian Elliott and Michael Neuvirth have caused the Flyers to play a slew of AHL-caliber goaltenders this season, the NHL debut of Hart was inevitable at some point, and he has thus far been impressive in not just his first NHL season, but his first pro season. If Hart goes down with an injury or falls into some early growing pains, the Flyers will need someone reliable to step in.
New Jersey Devils (8th Place – 19-24-7, 45 pts.)
PRO – The future is still bright for the Devils, and their mass amount of available salary cap space coupled with a number of the organization’s top prospects (Mackenzie Blackwood, Ty Smith, Mike McLeod) showing positive signs this year should work out well for GM Ray Shero and the Devils for seasons to come. Performances of key core players such as first-time All-Star Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, Damon Severson and Blake Coleman have been positives for a team without their MVP, Taylor Hall, due to a lower body injury sustained in December. If the Devils can lock up Hall long term before July 1st, 2020, Shero and head coach John Hynes have built a dangerous offensive team for years to come.
CON – Defense/Goaltending. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid’s struggles this year have been one problem, but poor play in the defensive zone hasn’t helped either. The Devils will go into next season with mostly the same defensive group, hoping for continued progression from Severson, Will Butcher, Steve Santini, and Mirco Mueller and the possible arrival of Smith from juniors can help if he adapts to the speed and strength of the NHL quickly. Will Shero and Hynes remain patient with the current group hoping for further development? Or will a move be made (at the deadline or in the off-season) to strengthen the backline? Rookie goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood has been impressive in the NHL and AHL this season, so it’s up to Schneider’s health and confidence to decide who the #1 goaltender will be heading into next season.
This concludes our NHL Pros and Cons feature on the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division teams. Next week, we’ll take a look at the East’s Atlantic Division, featuring the league’s current President’s Trophy leading Tampa Bay Lightning, the resurgence of the Buffalo Sabres and “Les Habs,” and the much-maligned franchise that is the Ottawa Senators.
Ed is a 2010 graduate of Temple University with a degree in Sport and Recreation Management. A New Yorker at heart, he now resides in Philadelphia and supports the NY Giants, NY Mets, NJ Devils, West Ham United, and the Philadelphia Union. A former hockey coach and amateur scout, Ed is also the founder of the Prospective Hockey Central mobile app, connecting scouts and players in the recruiting process.