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State of the Metropolitan Division: The other guys

Where the teams the Flyers chase are trending, for better or worse.

NHL: Stadium Series-Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t hate the Flyers, hate the division.

There are a ton of reasons why the Flyers haven’t had more success over the past few years, but one at the very top has been just how darn good their division has been. From the days of the Atlantic to the Metropolitan to date, the Flyers have consistently dealt with elite teams in their own division that they haven’t been able to keep up with.

Case in point being that four of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions have been teams in the Flyers’ own division. Granted the Penguins took care of three themselves, but the Capitals captured their first Cup after years at or near the top of the Eastern Conference. Though they —thankfully— didn’t win a Cup, the Rangers enjoyed a pretty good run of success since the lockout, too. Columbus just won their first playoff series ever, but have made the playoffs three-straight years now. Heck even the dang Devils stumbled their way to a Cup Final in the last 10 years.

The only two teams to really not produce much of anything have been the Islanders and Hurricanes, who are —of course— currently duking it out for a spot in the Eastern Conference Final.

None of that is particularly promising for the Flyers, who have alternated making the playoffs each of the last seven years. They’ve proved to be terribly inconsistent year-to-year, and haven’t put together back-to-back “good” seasons since the Peter Laviolette era. Floundering would be the word to describe the Flyers since they fell in the Eastern Conference Semifinals back in 2012 against those Devils.

While the Flyers were busy using an NHL-record eight goaltenders this season and continuing to be stuck in neutral, several of their division foes raced past them. In this space we will take apart the division and investigate just what the Flyers are dealing with in the wild, wild, Metro.

Then we’ll take a look at how the Flyers stack up, but first: the other guys.

Carolina Hurricanes

99 points, 1st Wild Card, advanced to Eastern Conference Finals

Trending: Up

Everything has fallen into place for the Canes this season as they’ve rode the energy of the Storm Surge all the way to a likely Eastern Conference Finals berth.

Carolina has been the apple of the analytics darlings eyes for years now, but this is their first postseason since being swept by the Penguins in the ECF a decade ago. Rod Brind’Amour pushed all the right buttons down the stretch to get them in the playoffs and a first-round upset of the defending champion Capitals has given the Canes a ridiculous amount of confidence.

They’re paced by a pretty young core with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov up front with Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce on defense. Nino Niederreiter was a shrewd pickup and the Canes have depth everywhere except in goal. The Scott Darling experience was a disaster, and they were bailed out by friend of the site Petr Mrazek this year. Veteran backup Curtis McElhinney has been good, too, but the Canes’ biggest question mark present and future is definitely between the pipes.

Much can change for the Canes depending on how the rest of their playoff run goes, but they’ve got a good young core with some free agents (Justin Williams, Michael Ferland) to deal with going into next season. Even with a new owner, they’re not going to be a cap team, but have a bunch of draft capital (Four picks in the first two rounds this year) to get creative.

Columbus Blue Jackets

98 points, 2nd Wild Card, currently down 3-2 in Eastern Conference Semi’s vs. BOS

Trending: Down

The Blue Jackets rode an up-and-down season down to the wire, but rewarded their front office for going all-in and is on the verge of a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Instead of selling off prominent free-agents to be Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, the BJ’s held onto both and held down the final playoff spot. From there on it was the David vs. Goliath showdown with the NHL-best Lightning and the Jackets needed just four games to smoke the Bolts right from the playoffs.

They could be on a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup, and they’d better hope they win it because otherwise things are going to be messy in Columbus. Both Panarin and Bobrovsky are free agents pegged to be flying the coop while playoff hero Matt Duchene is also slated for free agency. Seth Jones is still around, as are Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nick Foligno. But after that, the Blue Jackets have issues without the top-end skill of Duchene and Panarin. Alexander Wennberg is overpaid, ditto Brandon Dubinsky, and Zach Werenski is due for a large raise as he heads for restricted free agency.

Columbus could very well win the Cup, but even if they do, things will be very different come next season and not in a good way with a lack of prospects and draft picks from going all-in on this current ride.

New York Islanders

103 points, 2nd in Metro, eliminated in Eastern Conference Semi’s vs. CAR

Trending: Neutral

And here’s the team currently getting steamrolled by the aforementioned Hurricanes. Even with their (likely) defeat to the Canes, it’s been a heck of a season on Long Island/Brooklyn.

The hiring of Lou Lamoriello in the front office and the stealing of Barry Trotz set up the Islanders pretty, pretty, pretty good. Trotz turned an abysmal defensive team around totally and got far more out of the Islanders’ roster than he ever should have. Paced by that team defense and some other-worldly goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, and the Islanders nearly won the Metro outright before sweeping the Penguins in the first round.

Assuming the Isles don’t complete an historic comeback against the Canes, things look rather precarious for them to repeat their 2018-19 success.

For one, there’s bound to be a ton of roster turnover with Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all set to hit free agency. There’s also Lehner, who posted career bests in wins, save percentage and goals-against average, and is due for a raise in free agency.

They do still have Mathew Barzal, their leading scorer, on a rookie deal for next season, but there are many questionable veteran contracts like Andrew Ladd, Cal Clutterbuck, Leo Komarov, and Johnny Boychuk for the Isles to deal with as they try to improve the roster.

This season has been a great ride for the Isles, but there’s a lot of work to do this offseason and they get a neutral because we’d love to see Lehner and Greiss repeat their outstanding work before we can fully buy in.

Washington Capitals

104 points, 1st in Metro, lost in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. CAR

Trending: Neutral

The defending Cup champions were bounced in the first round by the upstart Canes in seven games after winning the Metro for the fourth-straight year.

In that series the Canes dominated possession and had the Caps worn out before Brock McGinn’s overtime goal sent them home packing in the end. While they’d do everything over again in a heartbeat, the Capitals’ outlook going forward is similar to that of their bitter rivals in the Penguins. Both have won with their current core, but is watching that core age and also watching the additional capital used to keep that core competitive add up quickly.

Alex Ovechkin will be 34 in September, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, and Braden Holtby will turn 30 before the start of next season. Brett Connolly will go to free agency and Jakub Vrana goes to restricted free agency and due for a large raise.

Still in prime shape to defend their Metro title for a fifth-straight year, the Caps will need to continue to get strong play from their key veterans in order to be a Cup contender. They’re in neutral because they don’t have a ton of ways to add to their roster, and more than likely will see pieces leave thanks to a tight cap situation.

Pittsburgh Penguins

100 points, 3rd in Metro, lost in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. NYI

Trending: Down

Could the Penguins’ reign of terror finally be coming to an end? While a four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders of all teams is certainly cause for some panic, the Pens still have two of the best 10 players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a solid supporting cast around them.

No doubt the Pens will be looking to retool, and those Malkin trade rumors are popping up again along with names of Kris Letang and Phil Kessel as well per the incomparable Elliotte Friedman via 31 Thoughts.

Most of the teams in the Metro were up-and-down this season, and the Penguins were no different. Pittsburgh was plagued by defensive issues and rather pedestrian goaltending from Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith in an uneven season. A late surge down the stretch helped push them into the postseason, but they managed just six goals in four games against the tight checking Islanders in the clean sweep.

Much like the Caps, the Penguins have spent a ton of capital to keep the Crosby/Malkin core competitive, and don’t have many prospects or draft picks in the cupboard to try and refresh this roster. Perhaps where the most help is needed is on defense, where acquisitions Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson have been underwhelming and key cogs Kris Letang and Justin Schultz have failed to stay healthy. Up front, the Pens need more from Patric Hornqvist, and hope that a full season of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann can help add desperately needed secondary scoring.

Getting a clean bill of health for a number of players would help the Penguins, and a more consistent Murray would help clean up some defensive issues, but Pittsburgh needs Crosby to play at a near-MVP level in his age-32 season in order to prevent more regression from this group.

New York Rangers

78 points, 7th in Metro

Trending: Neutral

It’s a second-straight year out of the postseason for the rebuilding Rangers, who continued to sell off valuable pieces as they try to setup their next run of success.

GM Jeff Gorton has setup the Rangers with a boatload of draft picks and NHL-ready prospects over the past two years as on-ice success has taken a backseat. The Rangers will pick second overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, and have at least four picks in the first two rounds with a third possible if the Stars advance to the Western Conference Final via the Mats Zuccarello trade.

Those assets are going to be needed as the Rangers’ NHL roster won’t exactly blow you away. Mika Zibanejad is a nice player, as is Chris Kreider, but much of the Rangers’ future lies with guys like Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and (probably) Kappo Kaako. They do have a pretty solid and deep defense, and that will include the recently acquired Adam Fox. There is no obvious replacement for future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist, who is 36 and signed for two more seasons with a cap hit north of $8 million per season.

But while the Rangers’ forward group leaves much to be desired, the do have plenty of cap space to make a splash in free agency in the form of say Artemi Panarin or Matt Duchene, and have enough picks and prospects to add via the trade market. We’re keeping them in neutral because all of those assets are nice until they’re actually used to make the NHL team better (Ahem, Ron Hextall).

New Jersey Devils

72 points, 8th in Metro

Trending: Down

The Devils have won the lottery for the second time in three years, and will likely select Jack Hughes to add to a top heavy forward group that includes former No. 1 overall picks Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier.

That’s the good news is that a forward group that includes those three could rival any in the league, but the Devils have much work to do after those skilled hockey men. Kyle Palmieri is nice, but he does most of his damage on the power play (11 of his 27 goals a year ago), and Travis Zajac is now 33 and on the downside of his career. Blake Coleman scored 22 goals, but him being the sixth-best forward on any team isn’t a great sign.

Things are interesting on defense, too. Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, and Will Butcher are useful pieces, but captain Andy Greene is 36 and the rest is up for grabs. The Devils have plenty of room to add here, and GM Ray Shero should very well open up his checkbook this summer.

In goal, there’s hope that Cory Schneider can regain his form, but he’s now 33 and signed for three more years with a $6 million cap hit. Mackenzie Blackwood played well in his 23 games, and might need to shoulder a heavier load next season should Schneider not be able.

Even with the addition of a dynamic young player like Jack Hughes, there too many questions everywhere else for a team that finished with the third lowest point total in the NHL a year ago to give them anything but a down arrow.

We’ll update this as the Stanley Cup playoffs progress with the Canes, Isles, and Blue Jackets still alive.