Let’s be clear: This year’s Metropolitan can’t be called a bad division.
No, that would be too kind. Last year’s Southeast was a bad division, but it doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to the league realignment that broke it up and stuck half its teams in the old Atlantic with the Columbus Blue Jackets. That gave us the brand-new Metropolitan, a division that makes the Southeast look like the late 1988-89 Smythe.1
So, no, the Metropolitan isn’t bad. It’s terrible. Horrid. Abysmal. It’s … [flips through thesaurus to find more synonyms for "bad"; reaches a page that just says "see Metropolitan Division"; sighs heavily and closes book] … look, it’s just really very bad.
But why? How did we get here? And is there any hope it can turn things around? And what does it mean for the division’s one and only good team?
Let’s play a round of 12 questions and see if we can figure it out.
1. Just how bad is the Metropolitan?
Pretty bad. The overall record of the division’s eight teams is 49-58-11, for 109 points in 118 games. That’s a points percentage of .462, which would average out to 76 points over a full season.
To put that in perspective, in 2011-12,2 not a single Eastern Conference team had fewer than 78 points. This year, an entire division is looking up at that total.
But as bad as it sounds, that overall record is actually misleading, since it includes the 25 games when the Metro3 teams were playing each other. In matchups against teams in the other three divisions, the Metro is just 24-36-8, a 67-point pace. Those are draft lottery numbers. And remember, we’re including a very good Penguins team in all of this.
Granted, it’s still early. But through the season’s first month, the Metro hasn’t just been bad, it has been historically bad.
2. Could you hammer that point home with a few more facts and figures, preferably in bullet-point form?
• Of the Metro’s eight teams, only Pittsburgh is among the league’s top 15 in terms of points. All seven NPMTs4 are sitting in the league’s bottom half.
• Teams with a points percentage of .500 or lower in the Metro: six. Teams with a points percentage of .500 or lower in the other three divisions combined: six.
• The division includes the three lowest-scoring teams, as well as four of the nine worst teams in terms of goal differential.
• The majority of the rest of the league — 13 of the other 22 teams — have earned at least a point in every single game they’ve played against a Metro opponent this season.5
• Oh, and one more thing: According to CapGeek, guess which division has the highest average roster cost? Of course.
3. So who has been the division’s biggest disappointment?
Unlike most games featuring Metro teams, this is a tough competition. The Blue Jackets were hoping to build on last year’s late-season momentum, the Devils were counting on a rebound, the Rangers were supposed to be Cup contenders, and the Capitals came to the division after having won the Southeast five out of the last six years. You could make a solid case for any of those teams.
But if we’re going by sheer misery, it’s hard to top the Philadelphia Flyers.
Sure, the Flyers missed the playoffs last year, largely due to a poor start. But they could build off a 10-5-0 finish, and the season’s whipping boy, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, had already been shown the door.6 They’d moved quickly to add good players like Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit. Given that the team had put up back-to-back 100-plus-point seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and went to the final in 2009-10, it wasn’t outrageous to suggest it could reemerge as a playoff team, if not a solid Cup contender.
Instead, they’ve been a disaster. An 0-3 start cost coach Peter Laviolette his job, and they’ve been only marginally better since Craig Berube took over. Claude “The Best Player in the World” Giroux has yet to score. Scott Hartnell has a single point. They have the league’s worst offense. Luke Schenn can’t even crack the lineup anymore. Steve Downie, recently acquired in an attempt to add toughness and shake up the team, got hurt in a fight. Their goaltending has been pretty good, and if that’s not a sign that everything is all screwed up in Philadelphia then I don’t know what is.
Is there hope? If the league retroactively starts awarding points for “punches landed on the back of Braden Holtby’s head,” the Flyers will be right back in this thing. Otherwise, they’re basically already done.
4. Which team is the most likely to emerge as a legitimate threat to the Penguins?
We’re going to go with two teams here. The Capitals are the obvious choice. At 8-7-0,7 they’re the only other team in the division with more wins than losses, and they’ve won three straight and six of their last eight. They’ve been inconsistent so far, but the talent is there, and it’s worth remembering that they also started slow last year and then caught fire in the second half.
Then there are the Rangers. They dug themselves a hole by starting 1-4-0, but that included tough road losses to the Sharks, Ducks, and Blues. They’ve played only five games at home thanks to the MSG renovations, and they’ve got a nine-game homestand to look forward to next month. Despite some early-season struggles and injuries, Henrik Lundqvist looks like he’s rounding back into the form that put him in the “best goalie in the league” discussion. And they even beat the Penguins on Wednesday night.
So look for the Rangers and Capitals to push their way back to the top of the division, likely at the expense of teams like the Islanders and Hurricanes.
5. Oh man, I forgot the Hurricanes were even in this division.
That’s technically not a question.
5. Oh man, I forgot the Hurricanes were even in this division … ?
Close enough. And yes, it’s easy to forget the Hurricanes are part of this mess. That’s partly because they weren’t part of the old Atlantic Division, and partly because Raleigh-Durham isn’t exactly the most “metropolitan” area out there.
But it’s mostly because, as of right now, the Carolina Hurricanes just aren’t that interesting. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, and they’re 5-7-3 this year. Despite a roster that features more than a few big-name players up front,8 the team doesn’t have a player who has managed double-digit points yet. And arguably their most important player, goaltender Cam Ward, is out for up to a month after suffering a lower-body injury two weeks ago.
So it’s tempting to dismiss Carolina altogether. Except that — after an opening month when just about everything that could go wrong did — the Hurricanes are still holding down the fifth spot in the division, just two points out of a playoff spot. They’re still in the mix.
If they do manage to sneak into the postseason, don’t be surprised if they stick around for a while. Remember, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs just three times since 2001, but they won nine rounds in those three trips.
6. Wasn’t this supposed to be the year that the Blue Jackets finally made some noise?
There was good reason to think it could happen. After years of being a punch line,9 the Blue Jackets emerged as one of the better stories of last year’s shortened season. New GM Jarmo Kekalainen was an inspired choice, Sergei Bobrovsky emerged as the most unexpected Vezina winner in a decade, and a team that was used to being a seller instead went out and acquired big-name players like Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton. Factor in the team’s move to the traditionally weaker Eastern Conference and you could forgive long-suffering Blue Jackets fans for allowing themselves a little optimism for once.
Which makes the team’s 5-9-0 start all the more disappointing. Columbus began the season 2-5-0, climbed back to .500 with a three-game win streak, and have since dropped four straight. The stars have been OK, with Bobrovsky mostly solid and Gaborik leading the team in scoring.10 But the effort level has been questionable at times, a frustrating turn for a fan base that knows all too well that a slow start can torpedo a team’s playoff chances. Today, the Blue Jackets sit five points back of the Islanders for the final spot.
7. Speaking of the Islanders, does any of this help explain the Thomas Vanek trade?
To some extent, yes. There’s a general consensus that the Islanders overpaid to get Vanek, giving up a good player in Matt Moulson plus first- and second-round picks. That seems high for a rental, which it’s presumed Vanek will be.11 It’s the sort of deal you expect a team to make when it’s one piece away from a Cup run, and the Islanders just aren’t there yet.
But that’s the sort of logic you’d apply in a normal year, and maybe you have to adjust the thinking for this season’s Metro. After all, somebody has to emerge as a clear no. 2 to the Penguins. It’s not hard to imagine the Islanders looking at how the rest of the division was shaping up, and thinking, Hey, why not us? Let’s take a swing at this.
8. Should we talk about the Devils now?
Do we have to?
I’ll ask the questions.
Fine. Yes, we should probably mention the Devils. They’ve won just three games, tied with the Sabres and Panthers for the fewest in the league, and sit at 3-7-4 on the year. That’s good for 10 points, tied for third-worst in the NHL but still one better than the Flyers have managed.
So we can’t call them the last-place Devils. Yet. That’s about where the good news ends for an aging team that could be among the league’s worst all year long and doesn’t even have a first-round pick to look forward to.
And if you’re checking your calendar and wondering if this is the part of the season when the Martin Brodeur trade whispers start up, you’re on the right track.
9. So, this is all a very good thing for the Penguins, right?
On the surface, the season is playing out like a dream scenario for Pittsburgh, which is already six points up on the second-place Capitals. While every other contender around the league will be fighting and clawing for a playoff spot all season long, the Penguins might have all but clinched the Metro’s top seed by the Olympic break.
But is that really a good thing? After all, there’s something to be said about the benefit of good teams pushing each other to higher levels of excellence. Maybe the division allows the Penguins to head into the playoffs well-rested, healthy, and ready to flip a switch and elevate their game. On the other hand, maybe they’ll feel like the guy who has been drilling long balls off the batting practice machine and suddenly has to remember how to hit live pitching.
And remember, given the strength of the Atlantic Division and how the playoff seedings work in the case of a crossover, the Penguins could actually win the Metro by a mile and then end up with a tougher first-round matchup than they’d get if they finished second.
10. Wait, what?
11. Would now be a good time for a refresher on how the NHL’s new playoff system works?
It would indeed, so here goes: After years of giving division winners the top seeds in each conference and then just letting the rest of the teams fight it out for the remaining spots, the league is now using a division-based playoff seeding … sort of. This is the NHL, so it couldn’t be that simple.
Under the new system, the top three teams in each of the four divisions are in automatically. That leaves two wild-card spots per conference, which go to the remaining teams with the best records.12 The division winner with the best record gets to face the wild-card team with the worst, even if that team is from the other division.13
To get back to our Penguins scenario, let’s say both wild-card teams come from the Atlantic, which feels like a pretty safe assumption right now. If both of those wild cards have better records than the Metro’s third seed, that would leave the Penguins with a tougher matchup than the Metro’s second-place team gets, even if Pittsburgh wins the division by 20 points.14
Confused yet? Let’s all just hope the Metro also-rans start catching up to the Atlantic and spare us all this sort of headache.
12. So even though the Metro spends more than anyone else, the division is made up of teams ranging from disappointment to downright disaster with the exception of one, and that one good team might wind up with a tougher playoff matchup because of it?
You’ve got it.
That’s really bad.