It’s a simple, but important question for this NHL regular season: which of the league’s four divisions is going to be the toughest to earn a playoff spot in?
Well, we know right away you can rule out the Pacific, and that goes even if the Seattle Kraken pull a Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural year. And we also know the Atlantic, even with the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, is going to have a few softer touches (hello, Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo), so they’re not really in the running, either.
That brings us to one division in each conference that is going to have four teams in the post-season, and at least two or three franchises will be bitter with disappointment when they fail to qualify for a playoff berth. So, which is the toughest division – the Metropolitan, or the Central?
It’s close – and you well may be able to make a convincing argument for either one – but for this observer, it’s the Metro that’s the toughest. Of the Metro’s eight teams, all but one – the rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets, whose players are currently talking optimistically about the playoffs, but are engaging in wishful thinking – will be competitive in the 2021-22 campaign.
For starters, the Metro has the New York Islanders, an organization that proved in the past post-season that their previous run to the conference final in 2019-20 was no fluke. The Isles added blueline behemoth Zdeno Chara to shore up their back end, and have an excellent mix of talented young players just coming into their own, and veterans hungry for a championship. Until another team proves they should be regarded as the team-to-beat in the Metro, the Islanders have earned that label.
But the Isles won’t be the only team in the greater New York Area that will challenge their opponents more often than not. The New York Rangers cleaned house on the management front after missing the playoffs last year, but they’ve only made some targeted improvements on their bottom six group of forwards, and their third defensive pairing. New head coach Gerard Gallant has been gifted with a skilled collection of top-six forwards and top-four defenders, and given that the Rangers finished with five fewer wins than the Islanders did when they locked up the final playoff spot in the division last year, it’s certainly not inconceivable they ride their best players to a playoff berth this time around.
And the New Jersey Devils might be the dark horse in this division, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t improved enough to bump off a more experienced competitor. Indeed, the acquisition of veteran D-man Dougie Hamilton should pay off right away at both ends of the ice; and journeyman goalie Jonathan Bernier will help push Mackenzie Blackwood in the games-played category. New Jersey will need youngsters Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Yegor Sharangovich and Ty Smith to continue their development in order to qualify for the post-season, but head coach Lindy Ruff will give them the structure and opportunity they need to succeed.
So, right away, we have three potential playoff teams, and we’re not counting a pair of squads that have won a Cup with their current core: the Washington Capitals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens already are dealing with injury problems – captain Sidney Crosby will start the season on the injured list for a minimum of a couple of weeks, while noted beast Evgeni Malkin will miss at least the first two months of the year rehabilitating a wonky knee – and their overall depth has been chipped away at as they tried to bring in talent that would help deliver them to another Cup win. But they finished first in the division last year, and nobody should look past them this time around. The Caps, meanwhile, finished with the same amount of points Pittsburgh generated in 2021, and they still have a solid top-six forward unit, as well as a high-impact top-pair defense duo in Norris Trophy contender John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. Questions about their depth and overall defensive acumen also remain, but the Capitals easily could catch fire at any time in the season and build up enough of a points buffer to ensure they don’t miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14.
That makes five potential playoff teams in the Metro, yet we still haven’t considered a team that won its own division – the one-year-only Central Division – last year: the Carolina Hurricanes, who were tremendous to begin with, but who weren’t satisfied with the status quo and used their abundance of salary cap room to bring in new faces Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Derek Stepan, Ethan Bear, Ian Cole and Tony DeAngelo. We’ll see how the controversial DeAngelo in particular fits with this team, but that’s a good amount of roster turnover for a group that finished last season with 36 wins. Only the Florida Panthers and Penguins, both of who won 37 games), and Vegas (40) and Colorado (39) had more victories last year, so it’s only fair to presume Carolina will once again be a high-tempo menace in 2021-22.
And that brings us to the seventh, and final Metro Division team that could grab a playoff spot this season: the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly GM Chuck Fletcher’s dismay with the Flyers’ abysmal defensive attack last year was reflected in the drastic moves he made in the summer, almost completely remaking his defense corps (bringing in former Sabres mainstay Rasmus Ristolainen, former Nashville Predators veteran Ryan Ellis, and longtime Panthers D-man Keith Yandle), and adding a few experienced forwards (former Blue Jacket Cam Atkinson, and well-traveled centers Derik Brassard and Nate Thompson to bolster Philadelphia down the middle. The Flyers clearly mean business, and there is great internal pressure for them to avoid missing the playoffs for what would be the third time in the past four seasons.
As noted, you could make a great case that the Central Division has more bona fide Cup frontrunners – the Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues could battle their way to a Cup Final – but I’m not so sold on the Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, and Minnesota Wild. The Preds, Hawks and Wild could put together an above-average year, but each of those three teams also has a potential downside that could prevent them from making the playoffs. And the Arizona Coyotes? They’re in the midst of yet another rebuild, and have next to no chance of jump-starting it with a surprise playoff run.
What the toughest division comes down to, at least, for this writer, is the number of teams you could project to enjoy some serious post-season success, and I think the Metropolitan has more (Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina, Washington and the Islanders and Rangers) than the Central (Avs, Blues, Stars and Jets). You never know, of course, what fate and the injury bug have in store for any team or group of teams, but the Metro is going to be a brutal slugfest all season long, in a way no other division will. That gives them the edge.