Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Given that we’ve just completed the All-Star break and passed the unofficial midway point of the 2021-22 season, it’s a good time to take a look at how the other teams in the NHL are doing, including their current performance and how they are doing in comparison to preseason expectations.
This look will be divided into two parts: one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference (here). Here is the update on the teams from the Eastern Conference.
The Metropolitan Division has four teams bunched close together, as in just five points between first place and fourth place, with a large chasm between fourth and fifth place. It’s a fine line between winning the division and getting home-ice advantage for at least two rounds or being a wild card team who will be forced to win it on the road.
The Playoff Locks
Carolina Hurricanes – last year the Hurricanes finished first in their division, the temporarily reconstituted Central Division. They acquired a new goaltender in Frederick Anderson and let last season’s goaltenders go. They also acquired controversial defenseman Tony DeAngelo. It appears their offseason moves have worked well, as this year’s edition of the Hurricanes might be the best team in decades.
New York Rangers – the pundits were relatively bullish on the Rangers before the season started, despite all of the late-season and off-season upheaval, which included management changes. But somehow the Rangers are tied for first place in points, despite most of their advanced possession metrics being south of 50%. The team features Adam Fox, a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman, Igor Shesterkin, a goalie with a save percentage north of .935, and Chris Kreider, who leads the league in goals and has a shooting percentage north of 20%.
Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins struggled early in the season thanks to key players being out for extended periods of time due to either Covid or injuries. Prior to the season, some pundits were wondering if this could be the year Pittsburgh falls out of the playoff picture entirely. But they hung close. Once all their key players were back in the lineup, they went on an extended hot streak, but then ended the first half by losing their last four in a row, mostly to mediocre teams.
Washington Capitals – The Capitals are currently in a wild card spot, despite having numerous key players miss a significant portion of the season due to injuries, Covid, the flu, or all of the above. Their power play percentage has been so bad, it’s vying for league worst despite the talent on the team. The Capitals has also relied on a high number of rookies, with three players from the NHL draft class of 2020 appearing in most of the games.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Prior to the season, the Blue Jackets were expected to finish in last place in the Metropolitan Division. But they are actually just barely below hockey .500 and not far below “real” .500. Both Boone Jenner and Patrick Laine are doing much better than they did last year, although the latter has missed over 20 games with injuries.
New York Islanders – Prior to the season, pundits figured the Islanders would be a Stanley Cup Contender. Instead, they got off to a poor start that found the team in last place, thanks to players either being injured or in Covid protocol and extended road trip to begin the season. The Islanders rebounded somewhat but it may be a case of “too little, too late”. Money Puck gives them a 9.4% of making the playoffs. They would only make the playoffs if they had a hot second half and if one of the Top 8 teams in the Eastern Conference collapsed.
Philadelphia Flyers – It has not been a good season in the City of Brotherly Love. They had not just one but two losing streaks of ten games or more. Their first losing streak was 10 games, all in regulation. Their second streak included overtime and shootout losses. They look to be sellers at the deadline with every player available, including Captain Claude Giroux.
New Jersey Devils – The Devils were hoping to do better this season, but once again, find themselves in the basement of their division. Mackenzie Blackwood, their number one goalie, has a save percentage lower than .900 and his backups have not been better. At least Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes are recording nearly a point a game.
Florida is a great state to be in if you’re a professional hockey team, as the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers are battling it out for the Atlantic Division lead and likely the Presidents’ Trophy. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins hold third and fourth place, both behind the division leaders but nearly 10 points ahead of the fifth place team. Just as in the Metropolitan Division, it’s evident which four teams will make the playoffs.
Photo: Mark LoMoglio/Getty Images
The Playoff Locks
Florida is featuring an MVP-caliber season by Jonathan Huberdeau, along with great depth in offense where seven players have scored at least ten goals already. They now employ three of the Top Four picks from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett. They acquired both of the Sams in trades – Reinhart at the 2021 trade deadline and Bennett prior to this season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are trying for a three-peat in Stanley Cup championships. Nikita Kucherov is back after missing time due to an injury. They have the best goaltender on the planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy. They are still a powerhouse despite the fact they lost Yanni Gourde in the expansion draft and were forced to trade other players for salary cap reasons.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are on pace for one of their best years in franchise history. The core four (Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Taveras, and Mitchell Marner) are producing points, as is defenseman Morgan Rielly even though Marner missed several games due to injury and then COVID protocol. As usual, Matthews is among the league leaders in goals. Unfortunately they are stuck in third place behind the Florida juggernauts.
The Bruins started the season with a comparatively light schedule, as far as playing games was concerned. They had several games postponed in both November and December, due to Covid outbreaks, so they were behind in games played. Boston is still solidly in a playoff position, but in fourth place. Boston’s destiny for 2021-22 may be one of the best wild card teams of all time.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has two rookies doing very well for them in forward Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider. The team is making good progress in the standings, close to .5oo in standings points, which is an improvement over recent years where they were at or near the bottom of the standings. Jakub Vrana is now at least skating, even if still in a no contact jersey.
The Sabres got off to a decent start but have reverted back to their more typical performance, as in near the bottom of their division. They already traded Jack Eichel to the Las Vegas Knights and will commence with yet another rebuild. At least they’re not as bad as they were during the 2020-21 season and at least they’re not dead last in their division.
It’s another bad season for Ottawa, but at least they’re not in last place in the Atlantic. Drake Batherson was leading the Senators in goals and points but he’s now injured, thanks to Buffalo Sabres goalie, Aaron Dell. After a brief holdout, Brady Tkachuk signed a long term contract and is now the Senators’ Captain. He replaced the injured Drake Batherson in the All-Star Game.
Last season Montreal was the year’s Cinderella story, making the Stanley Cup Finals after pulling off multiple upsets. This year, whatever can go wrong has gone wrong. Carey Price had knee surgery, went into the Player Assistance Program, is trying to rehabilitate his knee and has not yet played this season. They have dealt with multiple injuries including Shea Weber, who is likely never going to play in the NHL again and Brendan Gallagher missed nearly a month. Montreal fell to the Atlantic Division Cellar and now has a worse winning percentage than the Arizona Coyotes.
By Diane Doyle