For the final part of my series of annual pre-season NHL predictions, I’m turning to the Central Division today. You can find my picks for the Atlantic Division here; my Pacific Division picks are here; and my projections for the Central Division are here.
And one more reminder, these picks are educated guesses, and they’re my personal picks. THN’s official picks are here.
Here’s my perspective on the Metropolitan – a.k.a. the toughest division in the league this year:
1. New York Islanders: Only the Vegas Golden Knights had fewer goals-against (124) than the Islanders (128) – a testament to both Isles head coach Barry Trotz, and to his team’s commitment to high-end two-way play. The Islanders finished fourth in the East Division in 2021, but they were only five wins behind the division champion Pittsburgh Penguins. And the additions/retentions GM Lou Lamoriello finalized this summer should push them to challenge for their first division title since 1987-88.
Those additions/retentions include the signing of unrestricted free agents Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise, and the re-signing of 2021 trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri. They’ll also have a full season with captain Anders Lee, who missed 35 games last year. The Isles’ all-around depth is impressive, and should serve them well in an Olympics-compacted regular season. Trotz again is likely to squeeze every drop of talent out of his lineup, and he knows his team has players like Chara and D-man Andy Greene – guys who won’t get many more kicks at the Cup can.
There is a sense of urgency on Long Island, to capitalize on their momentum from last year and their general belief in the roster that got them within one game of the Cup final. But there’s also enough young talent to position the Isles in a great spot for the future. Lamoriello has done his job, and now it’s time for the Isles’ on-ice employees to do theirs.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes won the Central Division in 2021, thanks in large part to great speed, excellent finishing, excellent goaltending from rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, and coach Rod Brind’Amour’s teaching of their young stars. However, Carolina GM Don Waddell had one of the busier seasons among his colleagues, first trading Nedeljkovic to Detroit, then signing two veteran goalies – former Ducks/Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen, and former Coyotes No. 1 Antti Raanta – to replace Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek.
Waddell made a splash on the free agent front as well, signing restricted free agent forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi away from Montreal, and adding veteran center Derek Stepan and well-traveled blueliner Ian Cole to give Carolina more experience. That’s a fair amount of change for a division winner, but Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon doesn’t appear to be an overly patient man.
The pressure is on Carolina to earn a high playoff berth and get to the Eastern Conference Final at least, but they have three tremendous forward lines and a defense corps led by Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei. The one unknown and potential trouble spot is the signing of former Rangers D-man Tony Deangelo, but so long as he doesn’t spoil the mood in the dressing room, the Canes are going to be a force.
3. New York Rangers: After finishing fifth in the East Division last season, the Rangers cleared house on the coaching side (sending David Quinn packing, and hiring Jack Adams Award-winner Gerard Gallant to replace him), and GM Chris Drury made major changes to his bottom-six group of forwards. First, he traded for former Lightning winger Barclay Goodrow, then he dealt for a pair of wingers – former St. Louis Blue Samuel Blais, and former Golden Knight Ryan Reaves – all in an effort to give more edge to the lineup.
But although the Rangers will likely be a tougher team to play against, they’re still going to win or lose based on the efforts of their skilled forwards – Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and youngsters Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière – and a defense unit that includes 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller. Their goaltending duo is comprised of Russians Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, two 25-year-olds who are starting to approach their peak years; if they deliver a firm and steady last line of defense, the Rangers have enough offensive skill to put them back in the post-season for only the second time in the past five seasons.
The time to make the jump from draft lottery team to playoff team is now for the Blueshirts, and they very well could leapfrog veteran teams like the Penguins and Washington Capitals on their ascent through the standings. Good health is a key for them, as it is for all teams. But so long as the injury bug doesn’t bite them hard, the Rangers have what it takes to take an evolutionary leap forward.
4. Washington Capitals: The Capitals finished second in the East Division last year, but they fell to the Boston Bruins in the first round – the third straight season they failed to make the second round. But GM Brian MacLellan chose to bring back almost an identical roster for 2021-22, losing only veterans Zdeno Chara and Brenden Dillon off their blueline. Otherwise, it’s the same group of players, back for perhaps one more attempted long playoff run.
It should go without saying that, in order to make their goals a reality, the Caps need their heavy hitters to supply the majority of the offense, but that’s doable for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman John Carlson. Their biggest challenge will come when they don’t have the puck, especially among a defense corps that isn’t particularly deep or physically imposing.
If Washington flames out in the post-season – or if they fail to make the playoffs – MacLellan will have all the justification he needs to alter their core. There’s enough veteran know-how to propel the Caps into a playoff berth, but it won’t be nearly as easy as it was for them in more recent seasons. The Capitals could be looking at a letdown this year, one that ends with them on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Indeed, it may come down to either them or their arch-rivals in Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the Metro, and that means one of them will be shocked by the season’s end.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins: Pittsburgh’s 2021-22 regular season will start off with their two best players – captain Sidney Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin – on the sidelines with notable injuries. Crosby is expected to be on the shelf for a few weeks recovering from a wrist injury, while Malkin is sidelined for at least two months of the year rehabbing a knee injury. Those losses are enormous, especially given how competitive the Metro is bound to be. You can’t make the playoffs in October or November, but you can dig yourself a huge hole in those months if things don’t go your way. At at the moment, things aren’t going the Penguins’ way.
As noted above, the Pens may wind up battling the Capitals for the final post-season berth in the Metro. And it could be that the performance of starting goaltender Tristan Jarry – whose flaws were exposed in a brutal performance against the Islanders in the first round of the 2021 playoffs – that determines whether Pittsburgh will be a playoff team this year. Crosby and Malkin can’t do it all, and we’ll see how the Penguins’ depth (or lack thereof) will contribute to the bottom line. A changing of the guard in the Metro could be beginning for a lot of teams, and perhaps the end of the Pens’ glory era.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers finished the 2021 campaign with the worst defense in the NHL – a whopping 201 goals-allowed – and GM Chuck Fletcher did not stand pat and hope his team rebounded this year. Instead, he radically remade his defense corps – bringing in veterans Rasmus Ristolainen, Ryan Ellis and Keith Yandle – and he dealt winger Jakub Voracek to Columbus for winger Cam Atkinson. As well, Fletcher signed journeyman forward Derick Brassard to improve his third line, and he inked fellow journeyman Nate Thompson to center Philly’s fourth line.
On paper, this Flyers group is more experienced and more talented, but the big question – as if often is in Philadelphia – concerns their goaltending. Starter Carter Hart is coming off of a disappointing season (3.67 goals-against average, .877 Save Percentage), and their new backup, former Sharks starter Martin Jones, has not posted an SP above .896 in any of the previous three seasons. If Hart rebounds, the Flyers could push the Caps and Penguins for one of the bottom two playoff berths. If their netminding doesn’t hold up, expect Fletcher to make an in-season move to address it. With this many veterans in the lineup, Philly can’t be satisfied with simply improving their individual stats. They need results, and they need them right away. Otherwise, Fletcher’s trade finger could be even itchier next summer.
7. New Jersey Devils: New Jersey has made the playoffs just once in the past nine seasons, and they haven’t won a playoff round since their Cup-winning season in 2011-12. That said, GM Tom Fitzgerald has done yeoman’s work in revitalizing their lineup, and they should be a significantly better squad this year.
But look at how far they have to go to get back in the post-season: they won only 19 games in 2021, and finished seventh in the East Division. Now, they’ll have to be better than many more talented, veteran-laden franchises just to get a sniff at one of the final playoff berths in the Metro. With new additions such as goalie Jonathan Bernier and elite defenseman Dougie Hamilton, they’re slowly rounding into better form, but a telling stat is the $12 million in cap space Fitzgerald has to play with this year: it may make more sense for the long-term good of the organization to remain patient, take on a couple bad contracts for a year or two, and add skilled prospects as they target a playoff spot a year from now.
The Devils could surprise people and finish higher than seventh, but again, look at their Metro competitors. Do they seem like a top-four team in this division? Not to this writer, they don’t. But better days are coming for them.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets had an awful year in 2021, with GM Jarmo Kekalainen moving puzzle pieces in and out via trades, and changing head coaches at the end of the season. They won just 18 games – only Anaheim (17) and Buffalo (15) had fewer victories – and they were as abysmal on offense (137 goals-for) as they were in their own zone (187 goals-against).
All in all, the Jackets looked like a team aching for a new direction, and Kekalainen agreed, dismissing veteran bench boss John Tortorella in favor of Brad Larsen, and trading blueline cornerstone Seth Jones to Chicago, and longtime Jackets forward Cam Atkinson to Philadelphia for winger Jakub Voracek. The moves left Columbus with more than $11.9 million in cap space, and there’s little doubt Kekalainen will leverage that during the season to add elite prospects to his system.
In the meantime, the Jackets are left with a very thin defense corps, a forward group that includes 2021 underachievers Patrik Laine and Max Domi, and a goaltending tandem (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) that is hardly the class of the league. It’s looking to be a long, ponderous season in Columbus, as a team well-versed in full-on rebuilds goes through more tumultuous growing pains.