In the end, while the Jackets improve, the playoffs might still be just a dream…
This season, it feels like the Canes are the class of the Metro, and I have them on their own tier as one of a handful of elite teams (Colorado and Tampa Bay being on this level). They have quiet superstars who can score and play in all three zones (Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov); and the game’s best defender in Jaccob Slavin. Dominant goaltending and a coach that will not allow passengers makes this team incredibly hard to play against. If they stay healthy, I think they’ll easily win this division and maybe the President’s Trophy as the best regular season team in the NHL.
Their closest contender may be the Rangers; with some very good, young, former high draft picks, they’re led by Artemi Panarin and have elite goaltending. They could be even better this year than they were last year, and this team went to the Eastern Conference Finals. They lost quite a bit this summer, but they’re still on the next tier for me, and could finish anywhere from second to … third, in the division.
Some amateur gambling advice here: never bet against a Sidney Crosby-led team. You don’t have to bet for them, but if you don’t, maybe just don’t bet at all. The Penguins are on this second tier as well. Even though they’re getting older and will slow down at some point, they haven’t yet, and with a lineup featuring at least three future HOF players, it’s hard to see this team finishing below third in this division until they prove otherwise. I think we’re in for another Pittsburgh-NY Rangers first round series next spring; the only real question I have here is, which team will win home ice?
The third tier of teams in the Metro, in no particular order: Washington, NY Islanders, New Jersey, and your Columbus Blue Jackets. Read: Predicting the Opening Night Roster
These four teams will all be battling for a wild card slot this season, and it should be a dog fight from the start. All four of these teams can lay claim to improvements this summer; but when you have teams that are this close, I think it typically comes down to goaltending. In that instance, the Islanders have a marked, clear advantage – Sorokin is really good. And that makes them the likely fourth Metro team in the playoffs, in my opinion. But if he doesn’t meet expectations, or the Devils, Capitals, or even Blue Jackets can get that kind of puck stopping, it’s anyone’s game. These three teams all have something the Isles don’t; and that’s higher scoring offenses. Even slightly above average goaltending for these teams, means they could outscore their problems and thus out-race the Isles to the finish line.
I have Philadelphia on its own tier here, easily the worst in the division. They’ll be tougher to play against under Torts, but that team isn’t assembled to win at the moment, and they have a big transition to go through. We’ve seen it before (see years 2014-2016).
Don’t forget about the teams in the Atlantic division also. Clearly, Florida, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston are the class of that group until proven otherwise. Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo all look to be much improved as well, which may cause concern for these Metro teams vying to squeak in. Remember, there are only two wild card spots, and you have to worry about the teams over here also.
While the Blue Jackets should almost surely see improvement over last season, seeing them contend for a playoff spot this year is tough, but not impossible. They’ll probably have to be better than at least four of the five teams that I have on a similar tier (BOS, WAS, NJ, NYI, OTT) for that to happen. Most importantly, they need improvement across the board defensively, and will need to find an answer to their top line center question.
It’s an exciting time in Columbus, but we would be wise to keep our expectations for the 2022-23 season reasonable. Read: Five Bold Predictions for the 2022-23 Season