Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.
Today's topic: Who is the Caps' biggest competition in the Metropolitan Division?
Andrew: The Capitals have, since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin and Co., been one of the NHL’s most consistent franchises. That’s certainly going to be challenged this upcoming season, as I think (outside of the Blue Jackets) the Metro Division will be hotly contested from top-to-bottom.
It’s a tough call, and it’s easy to make a point for each team in the division, but I lean (ever so slightly) to the Islanders at the moment. They play a physical and difficult to manage style of hockey, and coach Barry Trotz is leading a well-oiled machine on Long Island.
They’re a team that might not have elite-level talent like some of their counterparts in the Leafs, Avalanche, Lightning and the like, but they play a style of hockey that creates high-danger chances for their offense and prevents them on defense. With a talented netminding duo, that’s a great combination.
Did the Islanders have as much talent as the Lightning? They most certainly did not. But that sure didn’t keep them from nearly forcing their way into the Stanley Cup Final (in a matchup they likely would’ve won, for whatever that’s worth). They’ve done a fantastic job with maximizing each individual player’s talent for the betterment of the system, and I can’t see that stopping anytime soon.
There are rumors abound about what the rest of their offseason may hold, but I’m confident those moves won’t do anything to dissuade me here. At the moment, the Islanders might be my pick to win the division.
JJ: Just like every year, it is hard to go through the Metro and identify clearly who the top team is, let alone the three, four or five teams that are clearly playoff-bound. It is always an ultra-competitive division and should be again in 2021-22.
Let's go through this team by team. You can take out Columbus right away. I love the offseason New Jersey had, but I do not think that will vault them into division contender just yet. The New York Rangers got worse and will quickly realize that there are other teams they will have to play against besides just Washington and Tom Wilson. When they have to do things like score goals and win, that may suddenly be more difficult.
I also have zero faith in Philadelphia. They made a lot of offseason moves and I like the addition of Ryan Ellis, but there is no safety net behind Carter Hart with Martin Jones now serving as the backup. Maybe Hart rebounds and they look like the 2019-20 Flyers again, but a collapse like in 2021 makes me hesitant to trust that Alain Vigneault has the pulse of that locker room.
That leaves us with four contenders. You can never count out Pittsburgh. I have been trying to for years and they always surprise me. The goaltending may catch up to them this year or...it might not because Mike Sullivan just manages to squeeze everything out of this team that he can despite an aging core.
I hate the offseason Carolina had, but my issue with them is that they totally sabotaged their upward trajectory by losing both Dougie Hamilton and, more egregiously, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. In the short term, however, they are still really good.
And then there are the Islanders, consistently one of the top playoff contenders but a team that also does not seem to really flip the switch until the regular season is over.
The Islanders, Hurricanes and Penguins all look like teams that could challenge for the division crown, along with the Caps. In addition, New Jersey looks like a definite playoff team and the Rangers and Flyers both could be surprisingly good if things fall the right way for them. That's seven different teams that I would not be surprised to see in the playoffs.
Perhaps the better question is not who will win the Metro, but who will get left out of the postseason come April?