The NHL All-Star game is upon us, meaning the season is unofficially half finished. Now, it is time to look at the Metropolitan Division’s contenders and pretenders.

Washington Capitals

For the Caps, it has been Cup or bust for years now. In the Alexander Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never been past the conference semis in a single postseason.  If this trend continues, Ovechkin has the potential to be the greatest player to not have his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.  It feels like a yearly tradition for the common hockey fan to ask themselves; “is this Ovi’s year?”  Well, yet again the Capitals appear to be a formidable threat and sit atop the league standings.  So does tremendous regular season success finally carry any weight or meaning this year?  The answer is yes.

By any measurable stat or known metric, Washington is blowing the doors off of their opponents.  One stat that shows how dominant the Capitals have been is GF% at even strength.  The Capitals have 64.7% of the even strength goals in games they play. In the era of advanced stats, no one has ever hit 62% for a season and the Capitals are floating around at 65%.  These numbers are… mind-numbing.  It is impossible to pinpoint a specific weakness on the Capitals.  However, look for them to still push and try to make a big splash this coming trade deadline to fully solidify their cup aspirations.  The clock is ticking for Ovi and the Caps.

Contender or Pretender: Cup Contender

Columbus Blue Jackets

In a year chock-full of surprises, the success of the Columbus Blue Jackets is unanimously the biggest one.  Columbus rode their historic 16 game winning streak to the top of the NHL standings. Everyone around the league began to take notice a.  They have imposed their will on teams with dominant goaltending and an overwhelming power play (1st, 25%). It really is an outstanding job by new head coach, John Tortorella.  Tortorella is seemingly a lock to win the Jack Adams award, as he has gotten a team with universally low expectations from around the league, to fully buy in to the system.

While the Jackets are flying high, are they really a legitimate contender?  The Blue Jackets have not fully plummeted since the end of the streak (5-6-0), but one thing that really stands out is their corsi numbers during the streak and how they have fared since its conclusion.  Since the end of the streak, Columbus owns a corsi of 50.4, while during the streak it was 51.04.

Although the Blue Jackets looked unstoppable during their 16 game win streak, a relatively identical corsi number shows that there was not a sizable difference in terms of their control or level of play.  However we begin to see significant deviation when looking at Columbus’ sv% and sh% during and after the steak. Their sv% has fallen to 89.09 from 95.42 and their sh% to 8.36 from 10.77. So, did the Blue Jackets really find a new level in their team play during that stretch?  Can it possibly be reached again?  Or did Sergei Bobrovsky stand on his head for 16 games, and more pucks started bouncing in?

Time will tell, but I don’t think they be able to compete with teams like Washington, Pittsburgh, or even Montreal (teams who control play much more) in a best of seven series. The Blue Jackets are this years’ fun story, but their inevitable drop off due to a dip in puck luck and unsustainable play from Bobrovsky will bite them in the end.

Contender or Pretender: Playoff Contender

Pittsburgh Penguins

Last years’ champs look like they have not lost a step.  The Penguins’ skill in itself is just too overwhelming to quantify into a statistic.  Yes, they are first in scoring and overall have been extremely impressive, but just phrasing the amount of talent they possess is hard to do. Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel. With just competent goaltending, the Penguins have a roster that should be classified as a perennial Cup contender.

What makes things worse for the rest of the Metro is that it appears they actually have good, and maybe even great goaltending at times. Matt Murray is battle-tested and has proven himself as the goalie for the foreseeable future with a sv% of .922, this year. The only gripe with the Pens this season is that their underlying numbers seem to have taken a slight dip as last year they were ranked 2nd in even strength corsi and this year have fallen to 8th. Expect Pittsburgh to begin to climb up these rankings when they really start to turn it up down the stretch.

Contender or Pretender: Cup Contender

New York Rangers

The question for the Rangers is whether or not a paper-mâché defense and a goalie, who appears to have lost multiple steps, can hold it together enough to let the high octane offense get them by.  The Rangers currently rank 26th in even strength corsi.  This is not a statistic indicative of a championship team.  In fact, the Rangers are sandwiched between two awful teams in terms of corsi rank. Colorado is directly below them while Buffalo is directly above. For the Rangers though, it is more complex to analyze level of play than just plainly looking at possession numbers.  The Rangers may not generate as many shots as the rest of the league’s elite, but when they do, they make the shots count.

The Rangers are shooting the puck, in all situations, at a tremendously high 11.69%(!) in a league where slightly below 9% is the average.  Is this indicative of luck and will the tremendously high shooting percentage fall?  Inevitably, the incredibly shooting percentage will begin to level towards the average. I don’t believe it will plummet though, as the high percentage is a product of Alain Vigneault’s system of putting an emphasis on creating shots off the rush. There is no offense that is powerful enough to make up for the deficiency the Rangers have with an aged Henrik Lundqvist in goal and an incompetent defense.  The Rangers may be exciting with Vigneault rolling four lines of pure speed and skill, but the team does not appear properly built to win the ultimate prize.

Contender or Pretender: Playoff Contender; Cup Pretender

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have had a turbulent “flight” this season.  They had strung together 10 straight wins and held a commanding 9 point lead for the final wildcard. Now, only one month later, the Flyers are on the outside looking in.  There are a myriad of questions that Flyers’ management needs to ask themselves about the state of their club.  Is Claude Giroux “that guy”?  Why has there been no secondary scoring?  Why is Shayne Gostisbehere a shell of his rookie self?  And why have Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth not been able to stop a beach ball? These are all things that General Manager, Ron Hextall, must find answers for soon if the Flyers want to muster up some sort of run this postseason.

The Flyers have been strong at controlling even strength play (6th in Corsi) and have a very dangerous power play.  The Flyers just have not been able to bail themselves out with a crucial goal or big save to help them steal more points.  They currently rank 21st in GF60 and 28th at GA60 at even strength.  These two statistics are generally trademarks of bad teams.  The Flyers are definitely not shy about pulling the trigger and making drastic moves to try and give this club a face lift.  Remember, this is a team that is only 5 years removed from trading away the faces of their franchise in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Hextall will make a move to shake things up, and Philly will find a way to secure the last wildcard again this year.

Contender or Pretender: Playoff Contender

New York Islanders

Jack Capuano has finally been fired. Although, it was interesting timing, considering the Islanders had won their previous game 4-0, Doug Weight has taken over as the interim head coach.  In the midst of all this turmoil, the Islanders have quietly made up ground in the east. They now appear to be in the playoff conversation.  So now that the Islanders have clawed their way back to contention, the question is; “were the Islanders actually ever that bad?”  Yes.  The Islanders are a bad hockey team.  You can actually make a very valid case that the Islanders have gotten lucky this year and should own a worse record.

The Islanders rank 6th in the league in PDO (combined sv% and sh%), which is indicative of bounces going your way and skill players performing at a higher than average rate.  The average PDO across the NHL is 100.0 and the Islanders have one of 101.4. The Islanders have coupled a positive performance from Thomas Greiss by ranking 29th in Corsi (directly below NJ and Colorado).  This is a huge dip from the squads that had made the playoffs, 18th in corsi in 2016, and 6th in 2015.  The Islanders’ problems became systematic more than a deficiency of talent.  If the Islanders want to regain their playoff stature of years past, they need to find the right coach for the job.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina wont make the playoffs this year because they do not possess anyone who can stop the puck.  But man, if they can find that guy for next year, this is the team that will catch everyone by surprise.  The Hurricanes have done a tremendous job in dictating play this year as they rank 4th in even strength Corsi.  Hats off to Head Coach, Bill Peters for getting his team to play hard on a nightly basis without having a plethora of talent to work with.

The Hurricanes are not dead yet, as they are only four points out with plenty of hockey yet to be played.  However, they do not have the talent throughout the lineup to continue to push for a playoff spot.  Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, and Jeff Skinner are all young dynamic players, but they lack the real punching power competitive teams possess.  Star forwards and strong goaltending do not fall from the sky, but you have to admire the brand of hockey Carolina has been playing.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

New Jersey Devils

While the Devils have recently managed to grab a few points to propel themselves back to some state of relevancy (four points out of a playoff spot), the team still does not appear to have the makings of a playoff team.  It is just really hard to pinpoint something the Devils do well this year.  Last year, New Jersey remained afloat off the backing of an effective power play and strong goaltending.  This year, the power play has been rancid and the goaltending has been wildly inconsistent.

The Devils are tied for 27th in corsi, 28th in GF60, and start play in the defensive zone more often than every team except Arizona. What do the Devils do particularly good?  Well this year… nothing. Having Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider to build around is not that bad of a place to start an accelerated rebuild.

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Playoff Predictions: Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, New York Rangers (WC), Philadelphia (WC)

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