Before the puck even dropped on this NHL season, the Metropolitan Division was the object of derision. One month into the action, things have turned ugly.
Commentary was predictably plentiful when the NHL announced it was adopting a new divisional alignment for the 2013-14 campaign. Gone was the old conference format where the top eight teams in the East and West punched playoff tickets, pushed aside in favour of a set-up that will feature division rivals facing each other year after year in the post-season, as was once the case when teams raised banners with ‘Norris’ and ‘Smythe’ on them.
Even if it meant lopsided numbers with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, it was easy to embrace the logic of having Detroit and Columbus play in a conference named after the time zone they’re in, and exciting to contemplate the increased possibility of post-season showdowns between blood rivals like Calgary and Edmonton (at some point).
The one aspect of the makeover that was met with unanimously raised eyebrows was the naming of the two Eastern Conference divisions. Atlantic just seemed a bit contradictory for a division with three teams on the Great Lakes, but hey, we’re willing to acknowledge "Big Body of Water Division" doesn’t exactly flow. But Metropolitan? Was this some sneaky way of subliminally tricking hockey fans into buying tickets for an art museum?
If the name seemed unfortunate, the performances have followed suit. The only squad in the eight-team Metropolitan currently above .500 is the Pittsburgh Penguins. The only team besides Pittsburgh to score more goals than it has allowed is the Columbus Blue Jackets and their whopping plus-2 differential. A trio of clubs—the Rangers, Flyers and Devils—have three or fewer wins this year.
Should we all have seen this coming? Probably, to some degree. New Jersey has just lost too many ‘A’ players the past two summers to compete, while Columbus, Carolina and the Islanders were viewed as clubs that would, to varying degrees, be kicking and scrapping for a playoff sniff. We knew Philadelphia and Washington were wild cards coming into the season, but in the case of the Flyers, we had the formula all wrong. Philly is actually getting strong goaltending from Steve Mason and its goals-against average is right in the middle of the NHL pack. It’s the offence that’s been the Flyers’ downfall, with only the lowly Buffalo Sabres and banged-up Rangers scoring less frequently per game. Captain Claude Giroux is still being outscored 1-0 by Phoenix goalie Mike Smith this season.
The Caps, meanwhile, have been their usual carefree selves when defending, and thus far are worse than all but six squads in terms of five-on-five goal differential. The worst outfit in that category—by a mile—is the Rangers, who seem bound and determined to make the Sabres feel better about themselves.
That said, we’ll cut the Blueshirts some slack as they started the season with a torturous nine-game roadie, are adjusting to new coach Alain Vigneault and have played the majority of the season without lead horses Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash. In Philly, we’ll concede that if Mason stays strong in the Flyers crease, the offence will return at some point. Washington? We’re sticking with "who knows?" there.
Even allowing for decided improvement, it seems completely plausible that the top six teams in the Atlantic—Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Detroit and Ottawa—could all finish with more points than the third-best team in the Metropolitan. That means even with the wild-card format that allows the fifth-place team in one division to bump an inferior fourth-place club in another, the door is open to a sixth-place Atlantic team watching a third-place Metropolitan team with fewer points play on in the spring. We understand the league’s desire to place emphasis on divisional standings, but something just doesn’t sit right with that. It’s like the gory days of the mercifully defunct Southeast Division, where a team’s options were win the group and get home-ice advantage in the first round, or miss the playoffs altogether.
If nothing else, that division had the decency to lend itself to easy ribbing, with "Southleast" a natural, unflattering handle to reach for. Metro-appalling-ton? We’ll try harder. Hopefully the division’s teams do, too.