Last week, we looked at how the Ottawa Senators might fare in next year’s Atlantic Division and found that while it’s unlikely they finish in the top three, they should find themselves in a tight race for one of two wildcard spots. However, even if they finish among the top five in their division, the Metropolitan is filled with contending teams, as well as rebuilding clubs on the rise. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
The Hurricanes have been a solid team for a few years now, but only now have they acquired the goaltending necessary to truly contend for a Cup. Alex Nedelijkovic has taken over the crease, with a .932 save percentage, while Petr Mrazek has been a very capable backup, with a solid .923. They’ll be able to keep most of their entire team intact throughout the offseason, though the Kraken will have the opportunity to snag a promising young defenseman in Jake Bean. On top of that, they’ll have a difficult negotiation coming up with their franchise blueliner, Dougie Hamilton. Expect the magnitude of that deal to rival Alex Pietrangelo’s over in Vegas. I’d bet on Carolina taking the division next year, if the Senators can compete with them two years from now, you’ll know the team’s in fantastic shape.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Ever since the Blue Jackets went all in back in 2019, they’ve been trending downwards, and have entered a state of free fall this year. Was it worth it to expend their future for a single playoff run? They did win their first playoff series in franchise history, so I’m sure a large group of their fans would say yes. Now, John Tortorella’s magic has run out, and he’s parted ways with the team (cue the Patrik Laine celebration). The bulk of their core, featuring Laine, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jack Roslovic, Seth Jones, and Zach Werenski, will remain intact through the expansion draft, and with over 25 million in cap space they’ll have the room to be creative in filling some of the holes in their lineup, particularly the one left by the David Savard trade. They look okay on paper, but Ottawa’s ahead of them in the standings this year, so they really can’t afford to finish behind them next season.
New Jersey Devils
New Jersey’s pretty far back of the rest of the division, but they’ve got an ace up their sleeve; a one-two punch at center featuring Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, both former first-overall picks. They ran a decent crop of rookies this year, highlighted by defenseman Ty Smith, who’s got 23 points in 48 games. Unfortunately, their goalie of the future Mackenzie Blackwood has taken a step back this season, posting a .902 save percentage. They have almost 40 million in cap space to field a competitive team, but like with any team looking to improve through free agency, there’s no guarantee the players they acquire will be worth their contracts. Ottawa’s player development should keep them ahead of New Jersey, but if Blackwood has a bounce-back season, the Devils could surprise some people.
New York Islanders
The Isles are pretty well-off, with a strong goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin; with save percentages of .929 and .918 respectively; as well as a solid core led by Mat Barzal and Ryan Pulock. They’ve also got Jean-Gabriel Pageau to handle the tough matchups, and they’ll be able to protect him and every other key piece of their team in the expansion draft. The one thing that could go against them is that several of their players; Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Josh Bailey; are over thirty years of age and could see their production drop next year. Should that happen, the team will be in a tough spot going forward, particularly with respect to those three and their accompanying long-term deals.
New York Rangers
The Rangers have implemented an out-of-the-box rebuild over the last few years, highlighted not by shrewd drafting, but by insane lottery luck, as well as their clout. Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox are their two best players and are playing for the Rangers only because, well, they’re the Rangers. Unfortunately, things have been trending downward of late; not only did they miss the playoffs this year, but their owner, James Dolan, has seized the reins of hockey operations, removing GM Jeff Gorton and President John Davidson in the process while promoting Chris Drury. The move seems out of left field considering the positive direction of the franchise, and shaking things up at this stage could end up doing more harm than good. All that aside, they’ll have no problem scoring or preventing goals, but with everything that’s happened recently, they may end up being their own worst enemy. Sens fans can only hope.
“Where goalies go to die”. Indeed, just one season after Carter Hart gave Flyers fans some hope for a long-term solution in net, he decided to become one of the worst, if not the worst, goaltenders in the league. This could be an example of why even the most promising young goalies shouldn’t be rushed to the NHL. The good news for Philadelphia is that he’s still just twenty-two years old, the Flyers are strong everywhere else, and their 25-23-8 record is actually really solid considering the goaltending they’ve received this year. Furthermore, they have enough cap space to go after a starting goalie in the offseason and probably won’t lose any more than a decent bottom-six forward to Seattle, such as Oskar Lindblom or Scott Laughton. Still, a team with a volatile situation in the crease should be considered a prime target for Ottawa to leap in the standings.
Eventually, the Penguins will go the way of Chicago and Los Angeles and plummet to the abyss of the NHL standings, but thanks to timely acquisitions of players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, John Marino, and Cody Ceci (!) over the years, that time is still a ways away. They may struggle in goal, as Tristan Jarry has been inconsistent; a .909 save percentage shouldn’t inspire a ton of confidence from their fans. GM Ron Hextall will have to navigate his team through a tricky expansion draft; Zach Aston-Reese is one of the more underrated defensive forwards in the league, likely to be exposed to Seattle. One of Marcus Pettersson and Mike Matheson will most likely be exposed as well, so those are important roles that may need to be filled in the offseason. Overall, Pittsburgh is on a decline, but not a steep one. They’ll likely be out of reach next year.
The Capitals are in a bit of a similar situation as the Penguins; their core is aging, and their future in the crease is questionable. They’ll likely lose a goalie to Seattle; either Ilya Samsonov, a former first-round pick who’s been a capable starter in the past, or Vitek Vanecek, who has a slightly higher save percentage than the former, at .907. In terms of player development, the prospect pool is led by Connor McMichael, who’ll look to break into the NHL next year and help to bolster the Capitals’ forward depth. They could see some regression, particularly from Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Alex Ovechkin, but the latter’s known to be an absolutely insane athlete, and I’ll bet he goes long enough to break Gretzky’s goal-scoring record. That being said, if they’re unable to find a solution in net, the Capitals could see their window of contention slam shut.
Eight teams, all with varying degrees of success. None of them will be an easy out, but the Senators will likely need to beat out over half of them to qualify for the playoffs. At this point, I’d bet on Ottawa finishing behind Carolina, Pittsburgh, and the Islanders, but they’ve got a decent shot at beating any of the others. Like I stated before, some of these teams will likely be worse next year, while the Senators’ young players are due to improve, which will give them a fighting chance. They’ll need solid goaltending from at least two of Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, and Filip Gustavsson, as well as much better special teams than in years past. It’s going to be a wild race, so hold onto your hats!
Until Tim Stützle’s next hat trick, of course.