The Washington Capitals are going into the 2019-20 season as the favorite to win the Metropolitan Division for the fifth straight year. The division is one of, if not the best in the NHL and it got a lot better in an eventful offseason. NoVa Caps takes a look at the top threats to dethrone the Capitals from the top spot in the division.
The Hurricanes have always been a strong team analytically and that finally translated into success on the ice last season, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final after returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in a decade. Carolina used the off-season to bolster an already impressive defense core with the acquisition of Jake Gardiner in free agency. The Hurricanes’ defense tied the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning for the seventh-fewest goals-against in the NHL last season (221) and was third in the NHL in shots-against per game (28.6). If a defenseman gets hurt, the team has a strong pool of young defensemen that features Hadyn Fleury and Jake Bean.
On offense, the Hurricanes may have lost captain Justin Williams and forward Michael Ferland, but forwards Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula should produce enough to offset those losses. Center Sebastian Aho, who led the Hurricanes with 30 goals and 83 points last season, and forward Teuvo Teravainen, who led the team with 55 assists and was second with 76 points, are just entering their primes after taking big steps last year.
To keep up with the Capitals for the top of the division, the Hurricanes must get a similar level of goaltending as they had a season ago, when their goalies posted a .921 save percentage. They were second to last in team save percentage (.909) in 2017-18. While Petr Mrazek was impressive last season, he has been streaky throughout his NHL career as he never had posted a save percentage above .910 in three consecutive seasons until last year. Curtis McElhinney, who took over the net when Mrazek got hurt in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and led the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final, left in free agency, so James Reimer will have to improve his the .900 save percentage he had with the Florida Panthers last season.
New York Islanders
While it remains to be seen whether goaltender Semyon Varlamov can match the level Robin Lehner had for the Islanders last season, Capitals fans know all too well never to count out a team led by head coach Barry Trotz, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner.
The Islanders have a nice top-six forward group and it should improve as long as center Matt Barzal bounces back from a disappointing season last year, when he recorded 18 goals, 62 points, and a -5 rating a season after winning the Calder Trophy. Forward Jordan Eberle showed promise in the first round, when he recorded a goal per game, but he underperformed in the regular season as he had only 19 goals and 37 points. The Islanders lost center Valteri Filpulla in free agency but as long as Derick Brassard returns to the form he showed while he was with the New York Rangers (where he recorded at least 45 points in each of this three full seasons) they should be fine. They could use some help around Brassard, though, with forwards Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnackl expected to play with him. Even if the third-line has some holes, the fourth-line of center Casey Cizikas, forward Matt Martin, and forward Cal Clutterbuck should chip in on the offense.
New York’s defense may not be the best in the league like it was last season but it should be in the top half in the league under Trotz’s leadership. All of their defensemen had a plus rating last season and Ryan Pulock had a nice season, as he posted 37 points and a +21 rating in 2018-19.
The big question is in goal as the team save percentage goes down from a league-best .936 to .918 with Varlamov replacing Lehner. That would have been 20th in the NHL last year. Though, Varlamov’s .909 save percentage with the Colorado Avalanche last season should improve with a Trotz-coached defensive unit in front of him and some time with goaltending guru Mitch Korn.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils improved over the offseason with the acquisitions of number one overall pick center Jack Hughes, defenseman P.K. Subban, and forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds. Perhaps most importantly, forward Taylor Hall, the 2018 Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, is healthy again after missing 33 games last season. Add those three to a forward group that already has Kyle Palmeri, Nico Hischier, and Blake Coleman — who all had successful seasons last year — and the Devils’ offense, which was tied for 25th in the NHL with 219 goals last season, should be much better.
Subban adds to an already-skilled backend with Will Butcher, Sami Vatanen, and Damon Severson rounding out a solid top-four unit. That should help a Devils’ defense that allowed 271 goals last season, which tied the Edmonton Oilers for the sixth-most in the NHL.
While the Devils’ offense and defense are looking good, goaltending is the question mark after the team dealt their starter, Keith Kinkaid, at the trade deadline last season and finished the year with the fifth-lowest team save percentage (.911). Corey Schnieder didn’t win a game until February 15 last season but improved after that as he posted at least a .923 save percentage in nine of his last 14 games of the regular season last year. If Schnieder doesn’t get back to his old form, the team will be forced to ride backup Mackenzie Blackwood, who has just 21 NHL games under his belt.
By Harrison Brown