When the NHL sounded the trumpets and rolled out a new alignment scheme in the summertime, the most off-key note came when one of its Eastern Conference divisions was branded with the name “Metropolitan.”
Still, while experts held their noses at the announcement, few probably expected the stench to linger so noticeably through the regular season’s initial four weeks.
Though the eight-team consortium includes perennial conference playoff participants from Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Washington, the collective start that the group has gotten off to—or at least the part of the group not located in Pittsburgh—is far more reminiscent of the league’s traditional dregs.
The Penguins reached the four-week pole atop the Metropolitan with eight wins in 12 games and firm positions among the league’s best in goals-against average (2.42, sixth) five-on-five goal differential (1.32, eighth), shots per game (32.7, fourth) and fewest shots allowed (25.5, third).
Assuming Sidney Crosby stays healthy and Marc-Andre Fleury stays sharp for most of the final 70 games, Pittsburgh seems poised to approach the Eastern Conference Final for the fourth time since 2008.
The division’s other seven aren’t nearly as certain a proposition.
Had the season ended and playoff positions been doled out prior to Tuesday's games, the Penguins would have earned a No. 2 seed behind Atlantic Division leader Tampa Bay, while slots three and four would be owned by Atlantic representatives Toronto (16 points) and Boston (14 points).
The New York Islanders are the 2nd ranked team in the Metropolitan Division. They are 4-4-3...— spooky skeleton guy (@kylemcilmurray) October 29, 2013
Were the first-round playoff structure based solely on point totals, positions five and six would also be the domain of the Atlantic in the form of Montreal (14 points) and Detroit (14 points)—but their standing as mere wild cards instead demotes them to seventh and eighth behind the Metropolitan charity case New York Islanders (11 points) and Carolina Hurricanes (11 points).
Premature playoff chatter aside, there’s not a lot else for a Metropolitan to love so far.
Outside of Pittsburgh, the only team in the division that scored more goals than it allowed through Monday night was Columbus, which had a plus-two differential in spite of winning just five of 11 games. On the extreme flip side are the Hurricanes, Devils and Rangers, each in the red by double digits at minus-10, 12 and 20, respectively.
In terms of leadership, it’s not been a whole lot better. The Rangers have had a hard time adjusting to the less draconian style of new head coach Alain Vigneault while spending the majority of the early season on the road. The latest incarnation of the “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia has made more headlines with media scrapes while not winning enough to save the job of coach Peter Laviolette.
Meanwhile, when it comes to star-gazing, presumed Flyers MVP candidate Claude Giroux had precisely zero goals and five assists through his initial 10 games.
And while perennial sniper Alex Ovechkin is his usual prolific self with an NHL-best 10 goals, his Capitals have won just three times in non-shootouts while posting a five-on-five differential worse than 23 of the league’s other 29 teams—including Western bottom-feeders Edmonton, Dallas, Winnipeg and Calgary.
Going forward, the Penguins’ position among the elites is unlikely to change, and it’s only slightly more likely that they’ll be joined among the respectable by their divisional brethren.
What other Metropolitan team can challenge Pittsburgh?
The Islanders’ trade for Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek gives them a leg up on flirtations with .500 or better for the balance of 2013-14, while Ovechkin’s place among the league’s best point-producers will make the Capitals as dangerous some nights as they are porous on others.
Ultimately, the Rangers should crawl their way back to break-even as they get further away from John Tortorella and closer to Vigneault, provided they get any consistent health from stars Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan, each of whom is on the long-term shelf.
Elsewhere, little was expected out of Carolina and Columbus after each missed the playoffs last season, so their existing perches at the postseason cusp are hardly a lock beyond the next month’s games.
In fact, they should be replaced by the Devils and Flyers, who, while bereft of stars in one case and of productivity in other, are probably still the superior entities once the quick snapshot of a season becomes a longer-range portrait.
Though the division’s only true powerhouse resides in Pittsburgh, the level of acumen shown by the rest of its teams by April should guarantee the name is still the collection’s worst feature.