1. New Jersey Devils: 45 Points (20-9-5)
So, the Devils are in first place and have three straight wins. However, the rest of the division can get some entertainment out of what former Devil Adam Henrique did to them this week, right? I mean the guy did a self-ally-oop-pass and then beat Cory Schneider top shelf.
OK, seriously though: why are the Devils doing so good? Well, look at their special teams. Both their power play and penalty kill are in the top eight in the league, at 20.6% and 83.5% respectively. Anytime that you operate at that level, you are going to have success. The Devils are the poster children of what happens when you play at your best when you’re down a man and when you have the man advantage.
2. Washington Capitals: 45 Points (22-12-1)
The Washington Capitals currently sit tied atop the Metropolitan Division, thanks in large part to their ability to stay healthy. Since top defenseman Matt Niskanen came back on November 14th, the Caps are 12-5-0 with 24 points, the third-most in the league over that time frame. And they’re getting even healthier: forward T.J. Oshie returned to the roster on Tuesday, giving the Caps a fully healthy roster for the first time since October.
The Caps got more good news when they got Aussie Nathan Walker back from the Edmonton Oilers on waivers. Walker, who is 23, plays on the wing and is a good young asset for the Caps. Walker needs more time in the AHL so he can get the minutes he needs to develop. Unfortunately, getting him through waivers has proven to be tough in the past, and the Caps are keeping him in the NHL for now.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: 44 Points (21-13-2)
The Jackets’ 4-5-1 record in their last 10 games is one of the worst in the Metro, just ahead of the Islanders. The big reason for this: goaltending. Going back to last season, I talked about how the Jackets’ superior goaltending was keeping them in the race. For the most part, that has still been true for this season.
However, we are starting to get a glimpse of what happens when their goaltending isn’t spectacular. Over their last 10 games, Columbus has allowed the second most goals with 37. Their shots against average have risen less than one shot per game, but their goals against per game have gone from 2.67 per game to 3.36 per game. Whether or not this is just puck luck, it shows how vulnerable a team like Columbus is that plays a defensive game.
4. New York Rangers: 42 Points (19-12-4)
The Rangers have worked hard to overcome their terrible start; however, they have also failed to take the next step to go from a wild card position to top three in the Metro. The Rangers are currently in no man's land: they don’t have enough talent to make a Cup run, but they also don’t have enough assets to trade to get the right players.
For all intents and purposes, they are past their prime: Rick Nash is in the final year of his deal and Henrik Lundqvist is 35. The Rangers could still be in buy mode because they haven’t won a Cup since 1994, but realistically they don't have the assets to make a run in the near future, so what do they do?
5. New York Islanders: 40 Points (18-13-4)
The Islanders got more good stadium news as their proposal for an arena at Belmont was selected as the winner. The new stadium will be adjacent to Belmont Park, home track of the Belmont Stakes, which means Eddie Olczyk will probably be calling a lot of Islanders games when the arena opens. The Islanders will return to Long Island starting in 2020.
On the ice, the Isles have been struggling as of late with a record hovering around .500 in their last 10 games. The most daunting task they face now is signing John Tavares, which may have been made easier with the new arena becoming a reality. However, the longer this process draws out the more likely he will be to hit free agency on July 1. The issue with this is once he sees the money on the table he could be much less likely to take a home team discount with the Isles. Tavares has 21 goals, which is the second most of any player this season.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins: 39 Points (18-15-3)
The Penguins have been struggling as of late mainly due to struggling to solidify their second defensive pairing. Granted, plus-minus isn’t a super reliable stat, but Olli Maatta and Chad Ruhwedel are a combined -7 in their last 10 games, posting 41.67% and 30% goals-for percentages respectively. Their shot share has been positive which means they are suffering similar fortunes as the Canes, catastrophic defensive breakdowns which leads to goals.
The Pens -10 goal differential is one of the worst in the Metro, only better than the Canes. When you look down on who’s on the ice when the goals are being scored, it's quite interesting and unexpected. This season Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby are by far the worst on the team with 28% and 33.33% goals for respectively. When your best center and defenseman are on the ice for twice as many goals against as goals for, it doesn’t bode well.
7. Philadelphia Flyers: 37 Points (15-12-7)
The Flyers are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games which have taken them from the basement of the division to competing for a playoff position. So what has caused that success? They have two balanced lines being led by players who are scoring in droves. The Flyers’ top two scorers are Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux with 42 and 39 points respectively.
Giroux this season has shifted from center to wing, and it has been very effective. On the wing, he is able to generate more offense and quarterback more breakouts which has led to an explosion in offense. On the second line, Voracek is playing on the right wing with Michael Raffl and Valtteri Filppula. With their top two scorers on different lines, it has been harder for opposing teams to hone in on just one line. Both players have scored over a point per game in their last 10 and show no signs of slowing down.
8. Carolina Hurricanes: 37 Points (15-12-7)
The Carolina Hurricanes are such a bipolar team, they win three straight but then lose 8-1 in an afternoon game against a struggling Maple Leafs squad. Then in their next game they win 4-1 against the Nashville Predators. The most important thing about looking at the Canes performance is context. The Canes are coming off of their longest and hardest road trip of the season. When the schedule came out we knew December would be the toughest month for them. The problem was to make sure December didn’t break the team, they needed wins in October and November, and when they didn’t deliver, the Canes had to have a better December.
Just think about this, the Canes have played 11 games in December and only two of them came at home. On top of this, the Canes have only dropped three games in regulation during this time span AND have won both home games. January sees another four-game road trip, but the home and away games will be even. February is where things get nuts: the Canes have 13 games but only three on the road including an eight-game homestand.
The NHL schedule has been extremely wacky this season and the road games vs home games are just a part of it. On top of this, the Canes have already played the Blue Jackets four times but have yet to play the Caps, Flyers, Devils, or Penguins almost three months into the season. I know the Canes have to be on a road trip for the state fair, but it seems unnecessary to have a seven-game road trip after this followed by only one game at home before another week on the road. Home games and road trips should be more balanced.