Coming into this season, the biggest obstacle to the Columbus Blue Jackets making the playoffs — besides their own youth and inexperience, coaching, or defense — was the high level of competition within the Metropolitan Division. The Jackets finished sixth last year, and nearly everyone else in their division made bold moves to either improve or stay good.
It’s still very early in the season, but let’s take a look at some early trends and try to guess what it means for the rest of the season.
Note: teams are sorted in descending order by points percentage
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins (4-0-1, 900 points percentage, 26 goals for, 11 goals allowed)
Regulation wins: Arizona, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, at Columbus
Overtime: OT loss at Montreal
Regulation losses: None
Preseason expectation: The Pens are one of two teams (with Washington) who have been perennial contenders in the division since its establishment, but Father Time remains undefeated in this league and it is fair to ask when that day will come for this team. Remarkably, certain doom was averted in the off-season, as they were able to retain the services of all of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust along with head coach Mike Sullivan. So it was more likely than not they’d remain good in short term.
So far: Yeah, I take no pleasure in reporting that the Pens are still good. They haven’t been tested much, but they’re taking care of business. Sidney Crosby at age 35 is on a 164 point pace.
Looking ahead: 12 of their next 16 games are on the road, including the four game northwest swing starting tonight. This core has been around long enough that they know how to pace themselves for the long season.
#2 Carolina Hurricanes (3-1-1, .700, 17 GF/12 GA)
Regulation wins: Columbus, at San Jose, at Seattle
Overtime: loss at Calgary
Regulation losses: at Edmonton
Preseason expectation: The defending division champion re-loaded with the cheap additions of Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty. It’s Rod Brind’Amour’s group’s division to lose.
So far: The stars have been doing their job, with Andrei Svechnnikov and Sebastian Aho leading the way with eight points apiece, and Martin Necas continuing to be an underrated secondary scoring threat with seven. Both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta have save percentages of .920 or better.
But...the wins have been against bad teams, and they lost to the two good teams they faced.
Looking ahead: Continue dominating bad teams and at least split with good teams and they will be in good shape to keep doing what they have been doing for the last four seasons.
#3 Philadelphia Flyers (4-2-0, .667, 17 GF/14 GA)
Regulation wins: New Jersey, Vancouver, at Tampa Bay, at Nashville
Regulation losses: at Florida, San Jose
Preseason Expectation: Despite GM Chuck Fletcher’s assertions to the contrary, the Flyers looked to be in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, as bad team that made little effort in the off-season to get better. New head coach John Tortorella would certainly get the most out of the roster he had, but long-term injuries to Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis meant little high-end talent was in place to make a push for the playoffs.
So far: To the shock of everyone other than Fletcher (even Torts was downplaying the team’s chances at the end of camp), the Flyers won their first three games, all in regulation. You could shrug off wins against the Devils, Canucks, and Predators, but beating the Lightning on the road and only losing by a goal at Florida is a promising sign that this team — in typical Torts fashion — can hang with anyone. Carter Hart having a 1.75 GAA and .949 SV% certainly helps (but if they have to rely on Felix “Darude” Sandstrom, then they might be in trouble)
Looking ahead: A 3-0 shutout to the lowly Sharks at home is a harsh reality check. The schedule gets significantly more difficult, with the Flyers facing the Panthers, Hurricanes, Rangers, Leafs, Senators, and Blues before Torts’ homecoming in Columbus on November 10.
#4 New Jersey Devils (3-2-0, .600, 14 GF/14 GA)
Regulation wins: Anaheim, at New York Islanders, San Jose
Regulation losses: at Philadelphia, Detroit
Preseason expectation: The Devils were a darling of the analytics community for their underlying numbers and young stars like Jack Hughes, but were done in by horrible goaltending. If that could improve, this team could challenge or a playoff spot.
So far: The season started poorly with back-to-back 5-2 losses. Their fortunes have turned since then, but this team has not yet faced a team that was in the playoffs last year. About the goaltending: big offseason signing Vitek Vanecek proved why Washington let him go, with five goals allowed and just 17 saves in his one start. Incumbent Mackenzie Blackwood has a 2.02 GAA, but just a .904 SV%.
Looking ahead: The schedule shapes up nicely for the Devils to bank points before the calendar turns to 2023. I still don’t trust that goaltending, however.
#5 New York Rangers (3-2-1, .583, 20 GF/20 GA)
Regulation wins: Tampa Bay, at Minnesota, Anaheim
Overtime: OT loss vs. San Jose
Regulation losses: at Winnipeg, Columbus (lol)
Preseason expectation: The Rangers returned to the playoffs behind a Vezina-winning breakout year from goalie Igor Shesterkin, and demonstrated a more balanced game on their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Some felt they could challenge the Hurricanes for the division title, but some wondered whether Shesterkin could play at that level again.
So far: Beating the Lightning in a nationally-televised ECF rematch was a statement win to start the season, followed by a road demolishing of a good (allegedly) Minnesota team. Just a .901 SV% for Shesterkin, but a return to form from the Breadman, with Artemi Panarin scoring 12 points in the first six games. Free agent signing Vincent Trocheck has added 6 points if his own as the second line center.
Looking ahead: November features 10 non-playoff teams in 18 games. The tougher games are at home, and the road trips aren’t against challenging teams.
#6 Washington Capitals (3-3-0, .500, 19 GF/21 GA)
Regulation wins: Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles
Regulation losses: Boston, at Toronto, at Ottawa
Preseason expectation: Unlike Pittsburgh, the Capitals seemed closer to hitting their expiration date. Major injuries to Nicklas Backstrom (hip) and Tom Wilson (ACL) don’t help. Could adding Stanley Cup-winning goalie Darcy Kuemper help?
So far: Well, Kuemper has a 3.04 GAA and .899 SV%. Guess that playing behind the Colorado defense helped him, huh? Alex Ovechkin misses Backstrom, with only two goals through six games, and a minus six rating. The closest thing to a statement win was scoring four third period goals to beat the Kings.
Looking ahead: Road opponents in the next month include Dallas, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, and St. Louis. Vegas, Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Colorado come to DC. The Caps could find themselves still on the outside looking in on American Thanksgiving, and history shows it is difficult to get back into a playoff spot after that.
#8 New York Islanders (2-4-0, .333, 19 GF/18 GA)
Regulation wins: Anaheim, San Jose
Regulation losses: Florida, New Jersey, at Tampa Bay, at Florida
Preseason expectation: The Islanders were a popular preseason pick last season (including by yours truly), but got off to a disastrous start. Due to delays in construction of their new arena, they spent their first 13 games on the road. Then in December their roster was struck by a COVID outbreak that left them shorthanded for several games before the whole league shut down. They recovered in the back half but still finished way out of a playoff spot. Barry Trotz was fired as head coach, only to be replaced by his longtime assistant Lane Lambert. GM Lou Lamoriello bolstered the lineup with the addition of...uh...hold on, I thought I had it in my notes here...ah yes: Alexander Romanov! Wait, is that it?
So far: The good news is they get to spend more time in October at home, with their first four games all at UBS Arena. The bad news is they split those, before losing both games in a Florida road trip. Mathew Barzal and his new contract extension have yet to score a goal, but captain Anders Lee does have seven points in six games.
Looking ahead: One wonders how much longer Lambert will ride Ilya Sorokin (1-3-0, .908 SV%, 2.84 GAA) over Semyon Varlamov (1-1-0, .917, 2.53 GAA). This week they have a 3-in-4 against the Rangers, Hurricanes, and Avalanche. I think they’re capable of playing better than they have been, but so far it’s hard to see evidence that they’ve done enough to make up a 16 point gap from the postseason cut-off.
Of the good teams, only Washington is truly struggling to start the season. Of the non-playoff teams from last year, the Devils and Flyers are both proving to be more competitive. An already challenging division looks to be an even bigger challenge this year for the Blue Jackets. Of course, at this early stage it only takes a four game win streak or losing streak to shuffle the standings from where they are now.
Prior to the Finland trip, the Jackets visit New Jersey, and upon their return they host the Flyers twice and visit the Islanders once. Those four games are winnable, and could help separate the Jackets from their peers in the bottom half of the division.