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Metropolitan Division Weekly Roundup: Teams Heat Up, Canes Stay Stagnant

The Canes and Islanders have lost ground on every other playoff team in the division.

NHL: FEB 04 Hurricanes at Blues

1. Washington Capitals: 77 Points (36-13-5)

On Tuesday Alex Ovechkin recorded his third hat trick in six games against the Los Angeles Kings, his 27th career hat trick. It was a natural hat trick; he scored three goals in a row without another player on the Caps or Kings scoring a goal. It took him just 4:24 of game time to complete the hat trick, which is the second fastest in franchise history behind Stan Gilbertson who scored one in 3:26 against the Penguins In 1975. This brings Ovechkin’s career total to 698 goals, which is two goals away from being only the eighth player ever to score 700 NHL goals.

Some bad news for the Capitals is that backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov is considered day-to-day with an upper body injury. He has been the more consistent goalie this season over Braden Holtby. The Caps called up Vitek Vanececk to replacement. Vanececk was named the MVP of the 2020 AHL All-Star Game just last week. He will likely get his NHL tryout while Samsonov is hurt, which will allow the Caps to assess him against both Samsonov and Pheonix Copley who had a good 2018-2019 season. The Caps, as always, have an embarrassment of riches at the goaltender position.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 71 Points (33-14-5)

The Penguins have one of the strangest schedules in the league coming out of the All-Star break. They played a game against the Flyers and Caps last weekend. Now they are off until tomorrow, so they had another five-day break, which makes it tough for them to get into any rhythm. They now play their next five games against tough teams: two against Tampa Bay, two against Toronto, and one against Florida. They played well in their two-game stretch, but this next one will really test the team.

I would have thought that the Penguins would have made a trade around this time to have some extra time to assimilate a new player to the locker room. They haven’t pulled the trigger on one yet, but are still poised to trade Alex Galchenyuk and upgrade the third-line center. Galchenyuk only has eight points since the start of December, so I’m not sure what kind of return they are going to be able to get from him. They are going to have to throw in other assets to realistically get another center in return. The past two seasons they have also traded for centers with term, but have had other significant players like Phil Kessel to trade in return.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets: 67 Points (29-16-9)

The Blue Jackets came out of the All-Star break in the same form that they went into. Their worst performance was their first night back when the lost to the Sabres in overtime. Since then they have strung together back-to-back wins and extended their point streak to nine straight games. Their last regulation loss came on January 9th against San Jose and they have only two regulation losses in 2020. This run has moved them from sixth place in the Metro at the beginning of the year all the way up to third passing the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes in the process.

The Blue Jackets continue to be led by goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who is getting it done every way for the Blue Jackets. On Tuesday he won a goaltender duel against former Blue Jacket Sergei Bobrovsky and earned his fourth shut out of the season. This was Merzlikins’ second shutout in his last four games, and in both shutouts he faced over 30 shots. His .929 sv% is tied for first in the league. Since 2020 began he has a .949 sv% and has just taken two games off in that time span. He has played better than every other goalie and more games than any other goalie in the NHL in 2020.

4. New York Islanders: 66 Points (30-15-6)

The Islanders have been the worst performing team fighting for the playoffs in the Metro recently, with a 4-4-3 record in their last 10 games. However, they do have two or more games in hand over every other team in the division that is fighting to get in, which makes the standings a little deceiving.

When looking at points percentage, they still rank third in the division with a .647, which also ranks sixth in the league. This is better than the Blue Jackets (.620), Flyers (.613), and Hurricanes (.594). So, if all teams had played the same amount of games at this point the Islanders would be in third place in the division, not fourth. This continues to artificially move them down in the standings, and the Islanders are still a formidable foe in the playoff race.

Before their latest game on Tuesday, the Islanders called up 21-year-old Kieffer Bellows to face the Dallas Stars. Bellows was selected 19th by the Islanders in the 2016 NHL Draft and is playing in his second professional season in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. In just 45 games this season he has bested his goals and points totals from last season, which was enough to earn him the callup to help the struggling offense. And help he did: the rookie forward earned a point in his NHL debut with an assist on Derick Brassard’s goal in the second period.

5. Philadelphia Flyers: 65 Points (29-17-7)

The Flyers are rumored to be shopping Shayne Gostisbehere at the deadline. The main reason to trade him is for cap space. The Flyers have just $1.33 million in deadline cap space. If they want to add anyone at the deadline, they will first have to shed some salary. They don’t have a ton of contracts that are easily movable, since they have mainly older players signed to long term deals. They could look at trading Matt Niskanen to free up space, but it sounds like they are leaning towards Gostisbehere which is crazy.

Gostisbehere is 26 years old and is only on the books for $4.5 million through the 2022-2023 season. If the Flyers do trade him, they would just have Ivan Provorov, Niskanen and Travis Sanheim under contract for next season. Though he has just 12 points this season, Gostisbehere has a positive Corsi. This just seems like a very overreactive decision to trade a young defenseman to make a push for the playoffs. It’s the same kind of decision as signing a 30-year-old James van Riemsdyk to a four year, $7 million AAV contract. It seems like auctioning off the future for a mild return in the present.

6. Carolina Hurricanes: 63 Points (30-20-3)

With a loss on Tuesday the Hurricanes are now out of the playoffs, two points behind the Flyers, and four points out of third in the division. They have lost ground on every team in the division and have only kept pace with the Islanders over their last 10 games. They have managed to fall out of a playoff position despite having the sixth best goal differential in the league with 24. They just haven’t been able to play consistently enough to make a charge in the standings.

The latest struggles for the Canes appear to be a goaltending issue, but in reality the team is just letting up too many high quality chances. As you can see from the chart above, they have the third highest expected goals against in the league, behind only the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets. The Canes are still good at limiting shots generally, but they are letting up incredibly dangerous shots. We knew things were going to be tough without Dougie Hamilton, but we didn’t expect it to be this bad this quick. The chart below shows that the Canes have given up the most dangerous shots in the league over the past 25 games, and the Canes haven’t been without Hamilton for 25 games yet, so it shows just how drastically things have changed.

This is why Don Waddell wants to trade for a defenseman, but the Canes are in such a log jam with their defense. Lately Trevor van Riemsdyk is playing with Jaccob Slavin as opposed to being the 6/7 guy. The other player sharing that role, Haydn Fleury, is now getting PK time and doing ok in that role. He stopped two would be goals on Tuesday and has looked more better with each game that he has played this season.

They also have Jake Bean, who has been incredible in the AHL. At a certain point they are going to have to cut bait with one of these guys and hopefully get something in return for them. The only way for them to improve is more NHL time, but that’s hard when you’re stuck in one of the hardest playoff races in recent memory and just one mistake can kill your chances for the last two months of the season.

7. New York Rangers: 56 Points (26-22-4)

On Tuesday it came out that the Rangers are expecting Chris Kreider to have similar trade value to Kevin Hayes. Last season Hayes fetched Brendan Lemieux and a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The main difference between the two are positions: while Hayes plays center, Kreider plays wing, which inherently lowers his value. The other interesting point of any Kreider trade is that he is more likely to sign back with the Rangers than with any new team that he is traded to. Both these factors would likely lower the actual value of Kreider, but there is no harm is starting the negotiations at a player and a first-round pick, similar to the Eric Staal trade a few years back for the Hurricanes.

8. New Jersey Devils: 46 Points (18-24-10)

According to reports, the Canes have been talking to the Devils about defenseman Sami Vatanen. Vatanen’s 23 points ranks sixth on the Devils for all skaters, but leads all Devils defensemen. He ranks third among defensemen with a 47.8% Corsi. While that seems low, there is only one Devils player with a positive Corsi, Nikita Gusev, with just 50.1%, so he just ekes in. Vatanen can fill in the top spot next to Slavin like a Dougie Hamilton light.

Vatanen is in the last year of his contract with a cap hit of $4.875 million, just under the Canes deadline cap space of $5.5 million. The Canes want to stay under this limit and not have to use LTIR for Hamilton so they can reactivate him if he is healthy before the playoffs. The other option would be playing him on LTIR and being able to go over the cap by essentially his cap hit, around $5.75 million, but they couldn’t use Hamilton until the playoffs. That was the strategy the Blackhawks used a couple of years back when Patrick Kane was hurt. He missed the rest of the regular season but came back in before game one of the first round.