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Weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot: Special Paused Season Edition

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In the twenty-fourth weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot of the 2019-20 NHL season, the NHL paused the league on Thursday, March 12 due to the global pandemic of the Coronavirus. This post takes a snapshot of the Metropolitan standings as the league is paused and details the statuses and fates of the conditional picks owned by the New Jersey Devils.

Washington Capitals v Buffalo Sabres
The most recent shot of Alexander Ovechkin in the photo queue. It will be some time before he and the NHL returns to action.
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

On Thursday, March 12, 2020, the National Hockey League paused the 2019-20 regular season in response to the Coronavirus / COVID-19 outbreak. Many leagues in many sports around the world followed suit or outright cancelled the remainder of their seasons. The only hockey that is active as of this writing are the playoffs in Russia for the Kontinental Hockey League, their Junior Hockey League (MHL), and the Supreme Hockey League (VHL). Their games are in empty arenas as a precautionary measure. Who knows how long that will continue. Especially with Jokerit’s announcement yesterday that they have withdrawn from the KHL postseason. Regardless, the league that this site focuses on is inactive for now.

The hope is that the season and the playoffs will resume. There are a lot of variables at play. The league is monitoring the health situation on a weekly basis, but they are also determining arena availability in case the pause goes on for months instead of weeks. As the situations change and as we end up getting closer to scheduled dates, then there may be further changes. The situation is fluid. That stated, I would expect the NHL and the NHLPA to push for completion later. Both the owners and the player’s union have incentive to do so as it is absolutely in their best interest to generate hockey-related revenue and the best way to do that will be to finish up the 82-game season and then run the playoffs. Assuming that does (and I hope it does) happen, then the NHL would resume their schedule from March 12, 2020 and go through the remaining games per everyone’s schedule.

This means that the standings as of the morning of March 12, 2020 would apply. Normally on Sundays, I take a weekly snapshot of what happened within the Metropolitan Division and what games are coming up for each of the eight teams. Today is Sunday. We cannot look ahead. But we can look at the standings for the division as it is paused. If and hopefully when the league resumes, this is where everyone will stand.

Metropolitan Division Standings as of the morning of March 12, 2020
Metropolitan Division Standings as of the morning of March 12, 2020
Standings via NHL.com; Playoff Odds and Lottery Odds from Moneypuck

We enter this paused situation with two main battles within the division. The Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers are fighting for first place. As the Capitals lost to Buffalo in a shootout and the Flyers were blanked by Boston, the Capitals have first place for now. Washington has the inside track. However, a one point lead this late in the season is far from a safe position. Pittsburgh rebounded from a bad loss to Carolina on Sunday by beating down New Jersey to secure third place for the time being. They are not out of the race for first place entirely. They are in a distant third for the moment.

The other main battle is in the wild card spots. Carolina had the benefit of having two games played prior to the pause, More importantly, they won both of them: smacking down Pittsburgh 6-2 and beating Detroit as expected. Not only did that propel them into the first wild card spot, but they gained two important regulation wins. The first tie breaker in the standings - assuming everyone has played 82 games - is regulation wins. Combined with having played fewer games than almost everyone in the division and Carolina went from being on the outside to being a more favorable spot on the inside in a matter of days. Be careful, Canes fans. If it was easy to move up, then it could be as easy to fall down.

Columbus ended their Western Canada road trip with a 2-1 win last Sunday. the win was enough to hold onto the second wild card spot. There has been plenty of talk online about how the pause will help some players recover from injury and be ready to play if/when the league resumes. Columbus would benefit the most from that as they still have a lot of significant players on the IR. It is impressive that they are holding on this late instead of falling back as the injuries mounted. That win was bad news for the New York Islanders in the short-term. They fell out of the wild card spots and remain just behind them with a shootout loss in Vancouver. Their benefit is games in hand. They have two over Columbus and one over everyone not named Carolina. As ever with games in hand, it only matters if they win them. But they have the chance and so one cannot rule out the Isles. As for the New York Rangers, they did rebound from a big loss to New Jersey last Saturday to pick up a 4-2 win in Dallas and a point out of a 3-2 overtime loss in Colorado. The three points keeps them in the mix for the wild card and ahead of Florida, who was starting to cause worry among Toronto fans. They do have edges in the tie breakers. But they have seventy games played and that means they need more help even if they jump a few teams when the league resumes.

The wild card picture remains dominated by the Metropolitan Division as seventh-place Rangers are even ahead of fourth-in-the-Atlantic Florida. It remains tight with every night of games mattering. This second main battle in the division is still massive. The only team outside of either battle is the New Jersey Devils. They came into Tuesday’s game with reason to feel confident with back-to-back regulation wins over St. Louis and the Rangers. They were hosting a then-slumping Penguins team. The Devils got decisively beaten 5-2. So much for that. The loss was enough to knock the Devils down to 26th overall in the league standings. Buffalo has as many points and four more in the ROW column than New Jersey. If and when the league resumes this season, the Devils will still serve a spoiler role.

Conditional Pick Watch for New Jersey

Rather than ending the snapshot at this point, I want to spend some time to go over the state of the Devils’ draft picks. In their trades in 2020, they picked up a number of conditional picks. Some conditions will upgrade the pick if they occur. One will remove a pick if a condition of not playing is met. With the season paused, some Devils fans are wondering about the state of these picks. To quote one of the People Who Matter, weffie:

I would appreciate a post about the upcoming draft and speculation about what happens to our conditional draft picks should the season not resume. Like, if the cancel the season tomorrow what picks would we get and how this will impact who we pick.

Both are very good topics. Let us discuss the latter one (the draft deserves its own post - or posts, really) Thank you to weffie for the suggestion. My understanding that as the NHL and the NHLPA will want to finish out this season, the conditions will remain unchanged. If the decision is made to truncate or cancel the league, then the conditions may need to be reviewed to adjust for the change or make a judgment in case of a cancellation. The easy thing to do would be to just state that the condition was not met. That would be the case under normal circumstances. As we are in a world where the NHL shut down the league on a temporary basis due a global pandemic, this is not a normal set of circumstances. However, as of right now, the conditions are still whatever they are.

This is a good point as any to evaluate each of the Devils’ conditional picks. They involve teams in the other conference, specifically those who are amid a very tight wild card battle of their own. Here are the standings for the third-place teams in each of the Central and Pacific Divisions, the teams currently holding wild card spots, and the teams within six points of the second wild card spot.

Western Conference Wild Card Picture as of morning of March 12, 2020
Western Conference Wild Card Picture as of morning of March 12, 2020
Standings via NHL.com; Playoff Odds and Lottery Odds from Moneypuck

Your eyes are not deceiving you. Chicago, who is currently last place in the Central, has a shot. A long shot. An unlikely shot. But a shot should they go on a winning streak if and when the NHL starts back up. They have a lot of teams to go through. Dallas has the inside track and have two games in hand over Winnipeg. However, Winnipeg is just two points behind them and have four more regulation wins. Should Dallas not take advantage of the games in hand, then the wild card hopefuls will have to contend with Dallas as well as Winnipeg out in the Central. Calgary is definitely not in a safe place in the Pacific either. Vancouver is one point behind them and has a game in hand on them. It is quite possible that the Flames could fall down into the wild card spots. Nashville and Minnesota are absolutely in the mix for the second wild card spot similar to the small group of Carolina, Columbus, the Islanders, and Rangers battling for two spots in the East. It is a very tight situation.

The fates of Vancouver and Arizona are also relevant to the Devils’ interests. Let us go over the superior team, Vancouver, first.

In the Blake Coleman trade, the Devils acquired a conditional first round pick from Vancouver that Tampa owned from the JT Miller trade last June. The condition is that if Vancouver makes the playoffs, then the Devils will get Vancouver’s first round pick in 2020. If they do not make the playoffs, then the Devils will get Vancouver’s first round pick in 2021. The 2021 pick would be unprotected, so if Vancouver crashes and burns that season and wins a lottery, then the Devils would get that pick. If Vancouver gets better, then that may end up being a later pick in 2021. If they are about the same, it is likely to be a mid-round pick. The Devils may find the 2020 pick to be more useful to them in a shorter-term. If you want the Devils to get that pick, then you should be hoping that A) the season resumes and B) Vancouver jumps past Nashville for a wild card spot and/or jumps past Calgary for a guaranteed playoff spot for being third in the Pacific.

If the NHL decides to cancel the season outright but keeps the playoffs, then they will have to make a call as to the state of this wild card race. By the standings, Vancouver is out. They have the same number of games played and points as Nashville. Nashville is in by virtue of the regulation win tiebreaker. This would mean that New Jersey will get Vancouver’s first rounder in 2021. The best case scenario in my opinion is that the NHL resumes the season, Vancouver barely, makes the playoffs and gets bounced out early. This would give the Devils an additional pick in the top 20 of a draft class where things start becoming muddled after 20th overall.

As for Arizona, there are two conditional picks from the Taylor Hall trade last December. The first pick is their first rounder. The condition is lottery protection. If Arizona wins one of the three lotteries to move up to any of the top three picks in the draft, then they keep their pick in 2020. New Jersey would get their first round pick in 2021, which has no protection at all. If Arizona does not win the draw for either of the three lotteries, then the Devils get their first round pick. Devils fans should be hoping that Arizona did not acquire Hall’s lottery luck whenever the draw happens.

Arizona has fallen backwards since the Hall trade - losing a goaltender who was playing great hurt them a lot. So much so that while Arizona is just four points behind Nashville, they are 22nd in the NHL. This means that if the current standings hold as they are and Arizona does not win a lottery, the Devils could have the tenth overall pick in addition to their own first rounder, which could be sixth. (This presumes no one ahead of them in the standings wins a lottery.) Having two firsts in the top ten for this year’s draft would be huge as the draft class is led by 10-12 top tier prospects. Even if Arizona improves a bit or someone higher than them in the standings wins the lottery, having an extra first rounder is always a plus and the Devils will certainly be happy about that.

There is a case to be made that we may want Arizona to make the postseason, though. The second conditional pick in the trade is around a third rounder in the 2021 draft. This pick can be upgraded to a first round pick if the following two events happen: Arizona wins a playoff round and Hall re-signs with Arizona. If only either of those two things happen, then the pick becomes a second rounder. If neither of those things happen, then it remains as a third rounder. As of now, I would not hold my breath for Arizona to rise up and take a wild card spot. Close as they are, they have been floundering for months. They would almost need to get hot and fast if/when the season resumes. Even if they do make it, winning a round will be a challenge. The thing is that for Arizona to have a real chance of retaining Hall, I would think they would need to do that as he has made it clear that he wants postseason success. Of course, should Arizona accomplish those things, the 2020 first rounder will be in a lower spot (no lottery to worry about) and the 2021 pick is still contingent on whether Hall wants to stay. Is it worth a first round pick in 2020 to become somewhere in the mid-20s to see a 2021 third rounder become at least a second rounder? Your mileage may vary. Given what I know about this draft class, I doubt it.

Those are the two big ones that the Devils own. There are two others that are tied more into whether the player appears for the team. When the Devils traded Wayne Simmonds to Buffalo, they acquired a conditional fifth rounder in 2021. The condition is that if Simmonds plays in at least ten games in the regular season and if Buffalo makes the playoffs, then it becomes a fourth rounder. Simmonds has played in seven games so far. He should be able to get to ten if/when the season resumes. The issue is with Buffalo. Buffalo is right there with the Devils in the standings. They are not making the playoffs. Fourth and fifth round picks are not worth much anyway, so the Devils are not losing much by not having this condition met.

The final condition is in the hands of Carolina. And in the feet of Sami Vatanen. As part of the Vatanen trade, the Devils received a conditional fourth round pick in 2020. If Vatanen plays in twelve regular season games or 75% of their playoff games, then it becomes a third round pick. If Vatanen does not play in five or more regular season games for Carolina, then the Devils do not get any pick from Carolina at all. Vatanen was injured at the beginning of February. He was traded while hurt. Vatanen has not been cleared to play again, nevermind play for Carolina. Carolina has fourteen games remaining. Assuming Vatanen is healthy enough to play if/when the league resumes, it is a not a guarantee he will have a spot on the active roster. Especially if Dougie Hamilton and/or Brett Pesce are also healthy enough to play. Vatanen would need to play in almost every one of the remaining games for Carolina to upgrade the pick. If he is still injured or gets injured after resuming, then it is possible that he does not meet the five-game requirement and so the Devils would get no pick from Carolina. Let us also not forget that Carolina is not a lock for the playoffs. They are in a better spot than they were in the previous division snapshot. But they have not secured a thing. This is all involving whether the Devils would get another top-100 pick that would likely be in the 90-100 range. I am not holding my breath about Vatanen playing enough games to meet a condition at this moment. Provided Janne Kuokkanen becomes a player, then it may be a moot point for a Devils team loaded with prospects in their pipeline.

Provided that the NHL does not make any separate decisions on conditional picks, this is the current situation, explained in full. I would not expect the picks for Simmonds and Vatanen to meet their conditions at this point. I am pleased with the real possibility that the Devils could draft 6th and 10th overall and obtain two very, very good prospects. I think you should cheer on Vancouver to make the playoffs.

Your Take

This was technically the twenty-fourth weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot of the 2019-20 season. It was not for a full week of games. It will not return until the NHL resumes their season, which I really do hope happens. Even though the Devils do not have much to play for, their opponents do and there have skin in other games due to the conditional picks they own.

In the meantime, there will be other posts on Sunday. What they will be, I have yet to decide. But as ever, we will keep marching on even as pro hockey in North America is on pause. Please leave your reactions to this post, thoughts about the division, the Western Conference wild card race, and the Devils’ conditional picks in the comments. Thank you for reading.