The Washington Capitals sit atop the Metropolitan Division, which isn’t entirely surprising. What is surprising? The New York Rangers are in playoff position, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are not. We debate which of those three trends will continue, and make some creative trades to get the fast-starting Carolina Hurricanes back into the mix:
The Capitals are back on top. Will they win the division?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: In the Capitals’ dressing room the other day, I asked around about whether this regular season felt different now that they’re defending Stanley Cup champions. To a man, they said it’s “nothing new.” It’s been back to business for the Capitals. Now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over, some of them have shaken off their Cup hangovers and they’re getting healthier, Washington should do what it normally does: Win a division title, as it has in eight of the past 11 seasons, with a dominating power play and (hopefully) goaltending that improves a bit more as the season rolls on. Oh, and Tom Wilson collecting points rather than seeing his salary collected by the NHL during another suspension.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I don’t see why not. In my view, the Columbus Blue Jackets are Washington’s toughest in-division competition. I still believe the Penguins will make a gutsy second-half run, but they have a lot of ground to catch up to surpass Washington. What impresses me most about the Capitals so far is that they haven’t fielded a full roster due to injuries and, of course, the Tom Wilson suspension. Sure, some of the offensive surge is thanks to a 10.02 shooting percentage (third-highest in the league) and the depth on defense gives me pause. But this is a well-oiled veteran team and they’ve demonstrated zero signs of a Cup hangover.
Ben Arledge, NHL editor: Yeah, they will. They shook off a slow start following the spring’s championship to climb back into the division lead, and there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate threat to dethrone them in the division. Alex Ovechkin has rolled out 18 goals, John Carlson already has 26 points from the blue line and Braden Holtby is rounding into form with four straight wins. I don’t think this team will find its way back to the Stanley Cup Final, but it sure seems like a division winner at this point.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN The Magazine researcher: It’s a toss-up between them and Columbus. While the Capitals have been missing players, the Blue Jackets were without top defenseman Seth Jones for nearly a month. The Blue Jackets have notched points in 12 of 17 games since his return, but they have been generally inconsistent. I would give the Capitals a slight edge, though, due to Holtby’s .968 save percentage since Nov. 13, best in the NHL in that span.
What is driving the Rangers’ success, and is it sustainable?
Wyshynski: Former Rangers great Adam Graves said it’s “the young guys” who have energized this team to its unlikely playoff push in what’s allegedly a rebuilding year.
“For me, it’s that energy. It’s that compete level. It’s a young man’s NHL now. You see it in other cities. For us, it’s early, but I like the way we’re competing,” he told me recently. The Rangers have 10 players under the age of 25 that have seen ice time this season. Players like Brett Howden, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Anthony DeAngelo have been a shot of adrenaline for the veterans on the roster. And obviously, Henrik Lundqvist has been there to cover up for many a rookie mistake all season. Is it sustainable? At some point, the kids will hit the wall and the bareness of this reloading roster will be exposed. And that’s not a bad thing. Get your high draft pick, sign Artemi Panarin next summer and away you go in 2019-20, Rangers …
Kaplan: Rookie coach David Quinn deserves credit for galvanizing his guys in what really should have been a lost season. I was skeptical at first, but his inspiration-through-benching tactic seems to work. Remember when we made a big fuss when Quinn scratched Kevin Shattenkirk less than a week into the season? Turns out, it’s just Quinn’s style. He’s demanding accountability. He’s has also healthy-scratched Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith. The list goes on. As for whether the success is sustainable? Look, in the muddled Metropolitan Division, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything. They’ll need to pick up the offense a bit (entering Tuesday, they ranked 21st with 2.84 goals per game) but as long as Lundqvist is playing out of his mind, this team has a chance.
Arledge: Well, Lundqvist rolling out a .931 even-strength save percentage will keep any team afloat. He’s been sensational. The Rangers are getting a nice little breakout from Chris Kreider, and some of the kids are arriving on the scene a little earlier than expected. The Blueshirts could back their way into a playoff spot, but King Henrik will be 37 in March, so you can’t put it on him to carry this team all the way. As Emily pointed out, some more scoring will have to develop. New York leads the league with four shootout wins and has gotten at least a point in nine of their 12 one-goal games. The Rangers are finding ways to win right now, but they will need more than that to continue the success.
Chandan: Luck and Lundqvist are what’s driving the Rangers. Lundqvist is currently sporting a .921 all-situations save percentage, his best since 2014-15, including a .937 rate at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers as a team are 5-0-1 when leading after two periods but are merely 2-6-1 when trailing after two. Their record seems to imply a timeliness of goals, as they’ve only spent 28 percent of game time leading, by far the worst of any team currently in playoff position. The Rangers have also won with the seventh-weakest strength of schedule and will face a brutal stretch in February.
Why are the Penguins struggling so badly?
Wyshynski: As others have noted, it all tracks back to the instability in goal, where Matt Murray has been one of the epic busts of the NHL season this far. Another main culprit is an eroded supporting cast behind the team’s big guns. The Penguins have only six players with a points-per-60 minutes rate of over 2.00 at 5-on-5. Players like Bryan Rust, Matt Cullen, Riley Sheahan and Daniel Sprong have five points or less at even strength. The Penguins used to be able to overwhelm you with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin‘s lines, and then at least play to a draw with their other lines. But they have eight forwards on the negative side of even-strength goal differential through 22 games. In the end, it does all track back to the crease and the lack of quality goaltending.
Kaplan: Let’s not overcomplicate it. Part of the issue is goaltending. Murray hasn’t been himself (and he wasn’t for most of last season either). His 4.08 goals-against average ranks last among qualifying goaltenders, and his .877 save percentage is second worst. He was pulled in two of his past three starts before being put on injured reserve again. The Penguins’ stars are producing just fine. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist have all put up decent numbers, but the depth players are struggling. No one else on the roster has put up more than 11 points. Now I fully believe they will turn it around, because that’s a signature Penguins move. I think GM Jim Rutherford is impatient. The Carl Hagelin-for-Tanner Pearson swap hardly feels like his last move this season, and a new face could add a scoring punch and be the antidote to the dreary vibes.
Arledge: Unlike the Rangers, Pittsburgh can’t seem to finish off the close ones, winning just 30 percent of its one-goal games. The Pens have also blown half of their first-period leads this season. Murray has been pretty awful in goal, as his save percentage at even strength is below .900. He probably isn’t what he was touted to be through those two Cup runs, but he’s better than this. And with the big names already producing, you have to expect Pittsburgh to turn the ship around a bit if he gets his game going. Although I think the Penguins are no longer a surefire contender, they should work their way back into a playoff spot given the competition in this division.
Chandan: We’ve covered the reason for their struggles, but here’s why I think the Penguins can turn it around: Despite all the goalie troubles, they’re still only two points out of the playoffs. With even league-average goaltending, they would be the third seed in the Metro, and it looks like Casey DeSmith is just what the doctor ordered. Since taking over for Murray, he’s notched an even-strength save percentage of .926 in 11 starts, and withstood the Winnipeg Jets‘ attack last night. The top two lines are producing, and I agree with Emily that there should be another move for forward depth.
Make a trade for the Hurricanes that gets them into the playoffs.
Wyshynski: From a functional standpoint, I’d like to see the Hurricanes make a deal for a goaltender that will stabilize that position but won’t tether them to a netminder in the long term. Which is why Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings would be an interesting option: entirely average, entirely needing a new challenge, and headed to unrestricted free agency next summer. But from a fantastical standpoint … how cool would it be to have Ilya Kovalchuk raising their shooting percentage, manning their middling power play and acting as a veteran sage for Russian rookie Andrei Svechnikov? Yes, I’m calling for a Seal Team 6 rescue from the mess that is the Los Angeles Kings … although the Kings would have to retain some of that contract, and Kovalchuk would have to somehow be convinced to move his family from Beverly Hills to Raleigh. So, in summary: Seal Team 6 plus several hypnotists.
Kaplan: Sergei Bobrovsky for Justin Faulk. Who says no? (Except for every GM unwilling to trade within the division). Look, I love the Scott Darling story, I just don’t see it working out in Carolina. I think the team needs to make a tough decision and cut the experiment short less than two years into his four-year deal. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are serviceable replacements, but neither dazzles like Bobrovsky can. Faulk is the casualty of a surplus of blueliners in Carolina. Pending UFA Bobrovsky, motivated after the contract situation did not go as he pleased in Columbus, gets to steer a young team to a surprising playoff berth, then figure out the rest of his future after that.
Arledge: William Nylander for Justin Faulk. If Toronto can’t lock up Nylander by the Dec. 1 deadline, why not go get a defenseman? At No. 28 in the league in scoring, Carolina could certainly use Nylander up front, and it has the defensive depth to move Faulk, who is still only 26. The Hurricanes have been rumored to be in on Nylander, and there’s a glaring need on the Maple Leafs’ blue line. This makes sense for everyone, no? Carolina might even be able to do better on the deal, as Toronto is losing bargaining position by the hour in the Nylander contract standoff.
Another interesting option would be offering Faulk to the Kings for one of their older offensive weapons. Jeff Carter turns 34 at the turn of the calendar year and is under contract until 2021-22. A last-place Los Angeles team might be interested in jump-starting its rebuild — a D corps with Faulk and perennial Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty is a great foundation — and the Canes could certainly use Carter’s nose for the back of the net.