Michael Arace commentary: Mediocrity of Metro is opportunity for Jackets
It’s early yet, and things might change, but right now, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in the NHL. It has the Pittsburgh Penguins on top and a mass of mediocrity beneath, with the Blue Jackets amid the muddle.
Jackets wing R.J. Umberger looks at the standings and says, “It’s weird.”
The Jackets face the Penguins in a home-and-home series this weekend. The Penguins are the only Metro team with a winning record. It is weird.
“I am surprised because there are a lot of good teams in the division,” Jackets coach Todd Richards said. “I don’t think, based on personnel, that we are a weak division.”
Defenseman Jack Johnson makes another, not dissimilar, argument.
“There’s a lot more parity in the NHL than there used to be, and that’s the way the league wants it — like the NFL, where any team can win on any night,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays this close to the end, unless someone runs away with it. And no one is going to run away with it, not yet.”
The Penguins might. They are making a move, and nobody is going with them. They are separating themselves by taking care of their interconference opponents where their Metro brothers have not. That is not parity.
“The West has come through and cleaned house a little bit,” Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky said.
Western Conference teams are 28-7-3 against Metro teams. The Edmonton Oilers are the only Western team that does not have a winning record against the Metro.
The Jackets’ former division, the Central, is 11-0-0 against the Metro.
Is the Metro the new Southeast?
This should have set up well for the Jackets. They made the playoffs only once in the West, but last season they proved that they could be competitive in the stronger conference. They were moved East and wound up in the land of opportunity. Their new division is riddled with large-market teams that are traditionally overrated.
There is no part of the Rangers’ game, besides goaltending, that is particularly sterling. The Devils are old and slow. The Capitals are talented but flawed; they prove it every spring. The Flyers are a banana republic.
Do the Jackets take a back seat to the Islanders, or the Hurricanes? I don’t think so.
In fact, the Jackets might be the best team in the division from the red line back. They do not have the Penguins’ offensive firepower — right now, they’re not even close — but second place in the Metro should be eminently doable.
The Jackets should be better. The coach admits as much. He conjures three one-goal losses. He thinks of two or three points that slipped away in the final minute. These games were of a type that the Jackets nailed down in March and April.
“To me, there has been some missed opportunity,” Richards said. “The Montreal game, that was a huge point lost. Anaheim, we had the puck on our stick in the last two minutes and lost. You have to come out of those games with points.”
The Jackets defense, their strength, has been good but not consistently so. Their goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, has not held the form that won him the Vezina Trophy last season. Their offense has been challenged.
“The way I look at it is, it’s good that we’re in tight — especially since we haven’t played our best hockey yet,” Richards said. “There is opportunity there, for anyone.”
The Jackets are eight points out of first place, and one point out of second in their division. Their next nine games are against Eastern Conference opponents. Five are against teams from the Metro.
“Pittsburgh is one of the best teams in the league,” Umberger said. “They’re definitely the best team in the division. Back-to-back games is the ultimate test. It’s a pivotal weekend.”
It starts tonight.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.