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An Increasingly Messy Metro Could Represent an Opportunity for the Devils

As the Capitals and Penguins theoretically enter their twilight years atop the Metropolitan Division and some of the other division opponents seemingly stagnate, the Devils have a growing opportunity in the next few years to be one of the teams to step into the void.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils have made big moves this summer and, at least on paper, feel like they could be finally closing in on exiting their perpetual rebuild. With Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, and Jonathan Bernier added to the mix in New Jersey and a young roster progressing another year, hoping for a competitive Devils team in 2021-22 doesn’t feel quite as crazy as it did just a couple of months ago. A team that was as deep down in the standings as the Devils were last year has to make up a lot of ground to even start considering the possibility of the playoffs. Exacerbating that issue for New Jersey is their presence in what has been a deep and difficult division to compete in recently.

The Metropolitan Division has been five to six teams deep with competitive teams over the past half-decade, with seven of the eight available Eastern Conference wild card spots going to Metro teams from 2016 to 2019, seven of the eight Metro teams making the expanded 2020 playoffs, and four of the top 12 teams in the temporarily reconfigured NHL last season being part of the normal Metro. In short, the division has consistently been one of the toughest ones in hockey recently. However, there are signs of cracks for many of the division’s traditional powers and most of the other teams have either not improved or even gotten potentially worse since last season.

With the current state of affairs in the Metro, it’s far from a weak division but it also feels like the door is open for a shakeup, and one that the Devils can potentially be the beneficiaries of. A quick roundup of the state of affairs for each of the division’s teams shows that while almost everyone can compete, few are without significant weaknesses at this point. A quick rundown of where everyone is at:

Islanders: After years of Pittsburgh/Washington hegemony at the top of the Metro, it seems like the Isles could legitimately be the favorite heading into 2021-22. Trotz is still there and much of last year's squad that came within a win of the final again will return. Eberle is a loss of scoring punch for a team that didn't have a ton to begin with, but it's getting hard to bet against the Isles being able to drag teams into the mud and beat them there.

Penguins: Reports of the Penguins’ demise have been overstated before but how long can this iteration of the team keep it up? The goaltending situation remains a mess and one of their two pillars of the last 15 years, Evgeni Malkin, seems like father time could be catching up to him. My gut says they will limp on as a decent team by way of Sidney Crosby and inertia but it seems like the clock is ticking here.

Hurricanes: It’s been a weird off-season for Carolina, but the most significant news for them was the departure of Hamilton, obviously with the Devils being the beneficiary. They were really good last season and much of that core is still around but it seems like they took a step back. They are likely to be solid enough in 2021-22, but they seem less likely to be the powerhouse they were last year.

Capitals: Things seem less precarious for Washington but they definitely occupy a similar realm as the Penguins. They will probably be fine in the short term but age has to catch up to this crew at some point as well. Almost every skater of consequence on this roster is in their 30s and the few others with significant roles are in the back half of their 20s.

Flyers: The Flyers had an extremely Flyers-y offseason as they made moves that were equal parts savvy (Ellis), understandable (Atkinson), and dumbfounding (Ristolainen, Jones). This is a team that has been a perfect model of inconsistency and since they missed the playoffs this past season, that means they are scheduled to make it in this one. Even if they do ooze into the playoffs, as is their recent even-year tradition, they seem like a fairly mediocre outfit, both now and into the near- and medium-term future.

Rangers: The Rangers have enough things trending in the right direction that they figure to be competitive in the coming years but one reckless Tom Wilson sequence really broke the organization’s brain this summer. The Rangers tossed the entire front office overboard and went all-in on grit seemingly in response to a single altercation. The Rangers could still eventually end up with Eichel before the season starts, making them a bit of wild card for the coming season, but they were a middle-of-the-pack team last season and it’s pretty hard to say they got better to this point. Some signs point to Panarin starting to enter his decline, which could spell bad news for the Rangers going forward.

Blue Jackets: Columbus ambles back into the division looking like the one real also-ran as they appear headed for a rebuild of their own. They re-upped Werenski for big dollars and term but this seems like a roster that isn’t close to contention at the moment. They’ll likely need big resurgences from Jake Voracek and Patrick Laine plus a few other surprises to figure into the playoff picture.

Reviewing that list, there are a bunch of perhaps solid but also flawed teams making up the division. If things don’t break right for a few Metro squads, the door could swing wide open for the Devils to be a factor in the playoff hunt if they can make good on the promise that this offseason offers. This division projects to have a bunch of teams, possibly as many as seven, bunched up between 90 and 105 points, so a few factors like injuries or hot goaltenders could easily shake up any expected ordering. In the 2021-22 season, the Devils look to be in the projected bottom half of the division, but they seem like they could be close enough to cause trouble.

Projecting out a bit further, the real opportunity for the Devils, though, is the one to step into the vacuum that the Penguins and Capitals seem destined to leave behind at some point. Carolina’s and the Isles’ windows might have a bit more longevity depending on how they maneuver in the coming seasons but they are unlikely to have the insane staying power of the Capitals/Penguins before them. The Flyers seem okay but also almost completely rudderless and the Rangers are theoretically on the upswing but with some definite management-related red flags. The middle of the 2020s really do seem to be there for the taking if the Devils can just keep moving in the right direction. As we have seen over the past decade, that is a massive “if” for sure but the division is setting up to at least give them a solid opportunity to make it happen.