NHL 2021-22 Metropolitan Division preview: Doubt the Isles at your peril

Mathew Barzal goes end-to-end and dekes out the entire Capitals defence for a gorgeous goal.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Metropolitan Division’s 2021-22 campaign will begin with its most prominent stars out of the spotlight.

Discussion of the Metro has been dominated for years by the Capitals and the Penguins, whether it was Sid vs. Ovi, that three-year stretch that saw the two icons claim banners and rings, or the unending questions of whether they’re able to do it again. But the landscape looks different this time around.

The veterans’ squads have been ousted in the first round in two of the past three seasons — three for three in the Pens’ case — and it seems Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will both be sidelined through the early goings this year, along with their fellow star pivots, Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Meanwhile, in the shadows, the Islanders have reeled off two straight runs to the third round, and came dangerously close to pushing their way to that fourth and final one last post-season. Maybe the veterans manage to finish on top yet again, maybe it’s someone else’s time, but either way, it’s time to give the Islanders the respect they’re due.

Here’s your Metropolitan Division preview.

(Note: Teams are listed in the order we believe they could finish)

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2021 season outcome: 32-17-7 record, Fourth in the East Division. Eliminated in the third round by the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: Zach Parise (F), Zdeno Chara (D)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Nick Leddy (D), Jordan Eberle (F)
 
The good news: Perennially overlooked amid the flashier teams that surround them in the Metro, the Islanders have been a force since Barry Trotz took over three seasons ago, the evidence no clearer than the fact that they’re months removed from falling one game short of a shot at the Cup Final. At this point, after a second straight trip to the third round, there’s no sleeping on the Isles. Expect more of the same, especially with the club returning a roster fairly similar to the one that lasted seven games against the juggernaut Bolts.
 
The bad news: The knock on this iteration of the Islanders has long been that they don’t have the star power to hang with the top teams around them, or the top contenders league-wide. They’ve proven they can roll through most clubs they’ll come up against in the post-season, that they should be expected to go on a run — the question is what happens if they once again find themselves up against a stacked contender like the Lightning. Have they done enough to enable them to get over that last hurdle, or are they built only to get that far? Eventually, we’ll need an answer.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2021 season outcome: 36-12-8 record, First in the Central Division. Eliminated in the second round by the Lightning.
 
Notable off-season roster additions:  Frederik Andersen (G), Antti Raanta (G), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (F), Ethan Bear (D)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Dougie Hamilton (D), Alex Nedeljkovic (G), Petr Mrazek (G), James Reimer (G)
 
The good news: After a few years of steady climbing, the Hurricanes ascended to bona fide contender status last season, winning their division and firmly establishing themselves as one of the best squads in the game. A forward corps that’s led by some quality young talent, namely dynamic pivot Sebastian Aho, should allow the ‘Canes to make noise again offensively, and if their off-season haul works out as intended, they may be able to pick up where they left off last season.

The bad news: The problem is it’s a big ‘if.’ There’s little doubt the Hurricanes can be as high-flying as they were last year — the questions will come in the other half of the rink, where they’re simply a different team this year. Blue-line leader Dougie Hamilton has moved on — a significant blow to Carolina’s top power-play unit, specifically, which was among the league’s best last year — as are the trio of netminders that together allowed the fifth fewest goals-against per game last season. Whether the new-look defensive corps and goaltending tandem — Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta — can match their predecessors’ level will be the key question in Raleigh this season, but it’s a gamble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2021 season outcome: 37-16-3 record, First in the East Division. Eliminated in the first round by the New York Islanders.
 
Notable off-season roster additions:  Brock McGinn (F)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Jared McCann (F), Brandon Tanev (F)
 
The good news: The Penguins have been here before. The club’s veteran core has been counted out more times than they’ve won — and they’ve won a fair amount in their time. For all the doubts and the visions of their championship window slamming shut, the Pens are coming off a season that saw them emerge as division champions, and will bring back a squad that looks fairly similar to the one that accomplished that feat. If they can recapture what they found last season and build on it, we’ve seen what their stars can do.
 
The bad news: The key issue in Pittsburgh is fairly obvious. While the Penguins proved last year they can still do some damage in the East, their two most dangerous players — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — will be sidelined to start the year. But a bigger question mark remains even after the two-headed monster returns. The Pens are fresh off a post-season that saw one of their best rosters in recent memory undone by shaky goaltending. With Tristan Jarry back as the starter, questions will remain until he’s tested in the playoffs again.

NEW YORK RANGERS

2021 season outcome: 27-23-6 record, Fifth in the East Division. Missed the playoffs.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: Gerard Gallant (Coach), Ryan Reaves (F), Barclay Goodrow (F), Sammy Blais (F)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (D), Jack Johnson (D), Brendan Smith (D)
 
The good news: It might not yet be the Rangers’ time, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism throughout the roster. The club has promising youth in Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. It has dynamic veterans in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, and a newly minted Norris Trophy winner on the back end in Adam Fox, with some quality pieces behind him. Not to mention an interesting addition in head coach Gerard Gallant. The Rangers have been steadily pulling in this direction since “The Letter,” and there’s plenty of reason to assume another step forward comes in 2021-22.
 
The bad news: As is usually the case in rebuild mode, the issues could come in the depth that supports that top-tier talent. A glance at the Rangers’ off-season business makes clear their desire to play a more physical brand of hockey this season. Will that create an environment where Panarin and Co. are enabled to better do their thing, as intended, or will it detract from their efforts and pull the club a few steps back? Will it add a new element to a team already on a steady ascent, or will defensive liabilities undo the offensive success that comes from the top of the lineup? How that balance plays out could determine whether the Rangers find themselves on the outside looking in once again.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

2021 season outcome: 36-15-3 record, Second in the East Division. Lost in the first round to the Boston Bruins.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: None.
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Brenden Dillon (D)
 
The good news: This iteration of the Capitals has been at or near the top of the division for years, so running it back and seeing what they have left is worth a shot. A hair away from winning their division last season too, the Caps still have some supremely talented veterans and will now get to see a full year of Anthony Mantha, who looked ready to do some damage after coming over via trade late last season. If he can become a key contributor and make good on his potential, the club has enough talent spread throughout their roster to make some noise.
 
The bad news: Missing Nicklas Backstrom, and potentially Ovechkin, to start the year will throw a wrench into the club’s offensive plans, but even so, much like the club they were battling for the division title last year, the questions are in the cage. The jury’s still out on whether young guns Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are a strong enough duo to carry the Capitals to the post-season, let alone through it. Neither was particularly inspiring last season, and continuing on that track might just undo whatever winding back the clock the team’s vets have in store this year.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2021 season outcome: 19-30-7 record, Seventh in the East Division. Missed playoffs.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: Dougie Hamilton (D), Tomas Tatar (F), Jonathan Bernier (G), Ryan Graves (D)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Will Butcher (D)
 
The good news: It’s all optimism in Jersey right now. The club landed a marquee talent in free agency by bringing in Dougie Hamilton. Veteran Tomas Tatar is a quality boost for the young squad too, and Ryan Graves and Jonathan Bernier figure to have a positive impact as well. That’s on top of what should hopefully be another step forward from star centremen Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes — and other quality young pieces like Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen and Alexander Holtz. It’s all moving in the right direction.
 
The bad news: How much will things actually move in that direction in 2021-22? The Devils have been mediocre for so long, they’ve accrued an impressive roster of young, promising talent. Now they’ve supplemented it with quality off-season additions. But is that enough to put them over the top and back into contention for a playoff position? It won’t come easy in a division that has plenty of quality scattered throughout its top few clubs, meaning a moral victory of progress without playoffs could wind up being in the cards once again.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2021 season outcome: 25-23-8, Sixth in East Division. Missed playoffs.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: Ryan Ellis (D), Cam Atkinson (F), Rasmus Ristolainen (D), Keith Yandle (D), Derrick Brassard (F), Martin Jones (G)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Jakub Voracek (F), Shayne Gostisbehere (D), Nolan Patrick (F), Brian Elliott (G)
 
The good news: The Flyers have more talent throughout their roster than would be expected of a club that finished as low as they did in 2021. Maybe that just gets chalked up to a rare, unrepeatable disaster in Philly, particularly on the part of young netminder Carter Hart. But they have what they need to be better than they’ve been, and if Hart can return to the form he showed through his first two seasons, and if the club can get the type of performances from their veterans that should be expected, perhaps a fight for a post-season spot is within reach.
 
The bad news: Of course, we need only look at what happened last season to know that those performances aren’t guaranteed. The pressure will be on Hart to bounce back this season, but there could be questions in front of him, too. The Flyers were busy in the off-season, remaking their blue-line corps by shipping out Shayne Gostisbehere and bringing in Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen and Keith Yandle. It’s a lot of change for a team that already looked shaky, and the last thing Hart needs in 2021-22 is to play behind a defensive corps that winds up taking too long to get on the same page.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2021 season outcome: 18-26-12 record, Eighth in Central Division. Missed playoffs.
 
Notable off-season roster additions: Jakub Voracek (F), Jake Bean (D), Adam Boqvist (D)
 
Notable off-season subtractions: Seth Jones (D), Cam Atkinson (F), John Tortorella (Coach)
 
The good news: Jakub Voracek is back home? There are no two ways around it — this season likely won’t be kind to Columbus, which lost a few key pieces and finds itself in need of a lottery pick to breathe some life back into the team. But there will be intrigue around what exactly the Blue Jackets look like on the ice with the club moving on from the John Tortorella era. There’s even a chance that shift allows Patrik Laine to awaken and reclaim the potential he showed in Winnipeg. That’s the best-case scenario.
 
The bad news: That best-case scenario still isn’t great. Even with a new coach, some new faces in the room, and the potential of a Laine reawakening, it’s tough to envision these Blue Jackets challenging for much in the Metro. They’re staring down a season in the basement and hopefully a top-three pick a year from now, but it’s going to be a long 82 games until then.

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