Metropolitan Division 2018-19 predictions: Capitals, Penguins are running the show

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Alex Ovechkin (Getty Images)

Sporting News’ hockey experts Brandon Schlager, Jim Cerny and Jackie Spiegel predicted the final standings for the 2018-19 NHL season. The playoff seeding below was determined by the average finish for each team based on our combined projections.

The Metropolitan Division has placed a monopoly on the Stanley Cup.

Specifically, this pertains to the Penguins and the Capitals, winners of the last three. Not since the late 1980s has the NHL’s ultimate prize remained within a single division three years in a row, when the Flames and Oilers combined for four Cups between 1986-90, let alone four.

What’re the odds a Metro team keeps the Cup in house? Washington reigns supreme until proven otherwise, and Pittsburgh enjoyed a long summer of R&R for the first time in years. They remain the two most likely contenders. Columbus, Philadelphia and New Jersey were the division’s other playoff representatives a year ago, and Carolina is intent on making that leap for itself.

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Metropolitan Division: 2018-19 predictions

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Additions: Jack Johnson, Matt Cullen
Subtractions: Conor Sheary, Carter Rowney, Matt Hunwick, Tom Kuhnhackl

It couldn’t have been easy to watch the rival Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup. Alex Ovechkin and Co. finally broke the spell, going through the Penguins to do it, and a decade of torment is no longer something the Penguins can hold over their heads. That means the Metro is an even playing field for its two elite powers.

As long as the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with. Matt Murray wilted under the pressure to fill the Flower’s skates last season, for reasons physical as well as mental, and has a lot to prove in a rebound 2018-19 campaign. Pittsburgh can’t afford more goalie woes. If he’s not a steadying presence in net, the Stanley Cup might not be a realistic consideration. Even still, it feels like the NHL is sleeping on the Penguins a bit, and that’s dangerous.

2017-18 finish: 100 points, second in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 104.6 points, first in Metro
Year over year: +4.6 points

(Schlager: 108 points; Cerny: 102 points; Spiegel: 104 points)

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2. Washington Capitals

Additions: None
Subtractions: Philipp Grubauer, Jay Beagle

Now that the Capitals are through with their summerlong bender (we think?), it’s time to get down to business trying to pull off the repeat. The will they, won’t they discussion is one of the NHL’s intriguing storylines.

Going back to back is exceedingly difficult, of course. But Washington returns its entire Cup roster, save for the backup goalie and a fourth-line center. By that measure, the Caps are every bit as dangerous and should be regarded as No. 1 until someone proves otherwise. Rookie coach Todd Reirden is no stranger to these players and should adjust seamlessly, even if Barry Trotz’s shoes are big ones. And the core of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby and John Carlson remains one of the best in hockey. This time, the pressure is off — and it might have a liberating effect.

2017-18 finish: 105 points, first in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 103 points, second in Metro
Year over year: -2 points

(Schlager: 104 points; Cerny: 104 points; Spiegel: 101 points)

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

Additions: Anthony Duclair, Riley Nash
Subtractions: Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, Jack Johnson, Matt Calvert, Mark Letestu

The Blue Jackets are a difficult team to gauge entering the 2018-19 season. There are too many moving parts, with the uncertain futures of stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky hanging over the franchise. Both can become unrestricted free agents next summer. And given the choice between Columbus and elsewhere, both seem likely to choose the latter. 

That puts GM Jarmo Kekalainen is the impossible position of deciding between what’s best in the present for a team that’s become a legitimate contender, and maintaining a strong, healthy outlook for the future. Seth Jones’ injury only complicates matters further. Prevailing wisdom is that the Blue Jackets are operating as all in on this season, intent to hang on to their superstars to make a playoff run, free-agent decisions be damned. But what happens if a slow start forces Kekalainen to alter those plans?

2017-18 finish: 97 points, fourth in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 101 points, third in Metro
Year over year: +4 points

(Schlager: 98 points; Cerny: 107 points; Spiegel: 98 points)

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4. Philadelphia Flyers

Additions: James van Riemsdyk
Subtractions: Valtteri Filppula, Brandon Manning

A handful of fortunate teams wildly outperformed expectations last season, and the Flyers were one of them. Claude Giroux returned to MVP form, Sean Couturier emerged as a two-way force and coach Dave Hakstol​ went from lame duck to genius in the span of a few months. There’s a lot of reason for optimism in Philly, both on the current NHL roster and a deep prospect farm system SN ranked No. 2 overall, headlined by 2018 first-rounder Joel Farabee and goalie of the future Carter Hart.

To say Philadelphia has big expectations for Hart, 20, is a gross understatement. He already bears the weight of decades worth of Flyers goaltending woes on his shoulders, and navigating an impatient fan base is going to be crucial to Hart’s development. Of course, the crease is again the team’s biggest question mark this season. Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are holding down the fort until Hart is ready for the NHL, which may not be for another year or two.

2017-18 finish: 98 points, third in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 97.3 points, fourth in Metro
Year over year: -0.7 points

(Schlager: 101 points; Cerny: 96 points; Spiegel: 95 points)

5. New Jersey Devils

Additions: None
Subtractions: Patrick Maroon, Micheal Grabner, Brian Gibbons, John Moore, Jimmy Hayes

What are the Devils, if not for Taylor Hall? It was an MVP race to remember last season, with Hall edging out a half dozen other worthy contenders. He simply had one of the most outstanding individual seasons the NHL has seen in some time, during a season where there were several others nearly on par. Curiously, the Devils made zero offseason additions in an attempt to ride the momentum of their surprise playoff berth, and their ranks are decidedly thinner after a few free-agent departures left unfilled.

By natural progression, Nico Hischier should continue to develop into a dynamic partner for Hall. But New Jersey’s other youngsters will have to take big steps forward, too, in order to stick with Ray Shero’s rebuilding plan and justify the summer inactivity. The playoff may not be in the cards again.

2017-18 finish: 97 points, fifth in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 90.6 points, fifth in Metro
Year over year: -6.4 points

(Schlager: 85 points; Cerny: 90 points; Spiegel: 97 points)

6. Carolina Hurricanes

Additions: Andrei Svechnikov, Dougie Hamilton, Calvin de Haan, Micheal Ferland, Petr Mrazek, Jordan Martinook
Subtractions: Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, Cam Ward, Marcus Kruger, Joakim Nordstrom

New owner Tom Dundon wasted no time flipping the Hurricanes franchise upside down. His bold stamp is noticeable all over the place, from hockey operations through marketing, and it undergoes its first real test in 2018-19, for better or worse.

Since Dundon took over, GM Ron Francis, coach Bill Peters and longtime franchise staples Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward have left, meaning this team is unmistakably his. The new era features icon Rod Brind’Amour as coach and introduces offseason acquisitions Andrei Svechnikov, Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan as fresh faces. Regardless, fans are running out of patience for a team that last made the playoffs in 2009.

2017-18 finish: 83 points, sixth in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 86.6 points, sixth in Metro
Year over year: +3.6 points

(Schlager: 90 points; Cerny: 92 points; Spiegel: 78 points)

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7. New York Rangers

Additions: Fredrik Claesson
Subtractions: David Desharnais

Well, the Rangers said it wasn’t going to be pretty. After declaring full rebuild last season, the Blueshirt braintrust completed the first phase this summer, hiring coach David Quinn away from his cushy post at Boston University to guide the influx of fresh-faced prospects expected to graduate to the NHL the next few seasons. Henrik Lundqvist remains, but how long until the King decides a Cup chase is more interesting than waiting out the process? For once, expectations on Broadway are non-existent. Maybe that will lead to a surprise. More than likely, the Rangers are fine with sticking to their plan, with an eye on Artemi Panarin and the 2019 free agent class.

2017-18 finish: 77 points, last in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 82 points, seventh in Metro
Year over year: +5 points

(Schlager: 80 points; Cerny: 82 points; Spiegel: 84 points)

8. New York Islanders

Additions: Robin Lehner, Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin
Subtractions: John Tavares, Calvin de Haan, Jaroslav Halak, Chris Wagner

John Tavares is gone for good. That doesn’t mean the outlook is totally bleak for the Islanders, but they’re going to be significantly worse before they get better. New hockey czar Lou Lamoriello and his coaching hire, Barry Trotz, weren’t able to convince Tavares to stay. And Lamoriello didn’t help ease the pain by making a series of this offseason’s most truly head-scratching personnel decisions, acquiring old Leafs creature comforts Leo Komarov and Matt Martin.

At least there’s still Calder winner Mathew Barzal, who could elevate himself to superstar status if his sophomore season is just as good. The franchise has a new face, and that might be for the best. Hang in there, Islanders fans.

2017-18 finish: 80 points, seventh in Metro
2018-19 finish (projected): 75 points, last in Metro
Year over year: -5 points

(Schlager: 74 points; Cerny: 81 points; Spiegel: 70 points)