A lot has both happened and not happened in the last week. Postponements are piling up, COVID-19 cases are unfortunately surging -- it's easy to feel frustrated or discouraged with the direction things are going in, both within and outside of the NHL. I'll have some more fantasy advice at the end of the article. For now, it's time to look at the bigger picture and analyze the Metropolitan Division on a team-by-team basis. All stats are through Monday, Dec. 20.
With a deep offense, a veteran goalie and a ton of momentum, the Hurricanes have established themselves in the upper echelon of the NHL's most top-heavy division. They've been a goldmine for fantasy managers, boasting three scoring lines and a well-rounded defense corps.
MVP: Sebastian Aho (15 goals, 17 assists in 26 games). It's no surprise to see Aho leading the way for the Hurricanes -- he's averaged a point per game over the last three seasons, and he's been even better this season. The Finn arguably doesn't get all the credit he deserves, playing in a southern market. Currently in COVID-19 protocols, fantasy managers will have to hope he bounces back fast after the holiday break.
Breakout player: Tony DeAngelo (five goals, 16 assists in 22 games). It would have been fair for anyone to question DeAngelo's capabilities after he spent nearly all of last season out of the NHL. Credit to him -- he's blocked out the noise, played well and admirably replaced the absence of Dougie Hamilton's signing with the Devils. You don't have to like DeAngelo the person to enjoy what he brings on the ice. He'll probably fade from a point-per-game pace, but he had 53 points in 68 contests in 2019-20, so there's a high floor.
Letdown: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (seven goals, six assists in 29 games). So far, the Hurricanes haven't gotten much value out of the offer sheet Kotkaniemi signed. The 21-year-old hasn't been bad -- few Hurricanes have this year -- but he didn't stick in a top-six role on the wing to start the year. The third overall pick from 2018 has a goal and four assists in his last three games while the Hurricanes played through a COVID-19 outbreak, but when they're healthy, he'll probably be back in a bottom-six role if he stays at center. It's not the worst thing for the team, but it's a tough situation for the player.
On paper, the Capitals have an old core and their competitive window isn't likely to stay open much longer. On the ice, they've seen a plethora of NHL debuts as injuries depleted the lineup. Despite that disparity, they're right where they usually are -- fighting for the top spot in the Metro.
MVP: Alex Ovechkin (22 goals, 25 assists in 31 games). Did you think it could really be anyone else? Ovechkin seemingly makes a mark on the record books on a weekly basis now. Ovechkin and Carl Hagelin are the only Capitals forwards to play in every game so far this season. To top it off: Ovechkin's 47 points are already five more than he had in 45 outings last year. He's enjoying the hottest start of his career at 36 years old with a rotating cast of linemates while also averaging 22:03 of ice time per game -- his highest mark since 2008-09. I'll have what he's having.
Breakout player: Evgeny Kuznetsov (nine goals, 21 assists in 28 games). Kuznetsov simply didn't play very well in the previous two seasons. We've seen him be inconsistent year-to-year, but he's over a point-per-game pace in 2021-22. A lot of that has been a result of playing alongside Ovechkin while Nicklas Backstrom missed over two months with a hip injury. Obviously, the Capitals will want their whole top six available for flexibility, but fantasy managers have to hope Kuznetsov can continue his pace once he clears the COVID-19 protocols.
Letdown: Justin Schultz (two goals, four assists in 28 games). A lot has gone right for the Capitals this season, so it's tough to really be disappointed in anyone. Schultz fits the bill though, as he had 27 points in 46 contests last season. This year, his offense has cratered, he's lost some power-play time and he's averaging just 16:51 of ice time per game overall. He needs power-play time to be effective in fantasy -- he doesn't stand out anywhere else, and it doesn't seem like he's going to be an impact player in 2021-22.
The first year of the Gerard Gallant era is going just fine. It was fair to question the Rangers' desire to get tougher in the offseason, which saw Pavel Buchnevich shipped to the Blues (he's doing great, thanks for asking!) and Ryan Reaves brought in from the Golden Knights. Scoring depth is questionable, but the Rangers have taken their step forward.
MVP: Adam Fox (five goals, 26 assists in 30 games). All due respect to Artemi Panarin, but Fox looks arguably better than he did last year, and he's the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Fox is a huge part of what makes things work for the Rangers -- he quarterbacks the power play, he's steady in his own zone and he's got the vision to make the right pass at the right moment. The 23-year-old also leads all NHL defensemen in scoring.
Breakout player: Igor Shesterkin (13-3-2, 2.05 GAA, .937 save percentage in 18 games). Shesterkin took over the No. 1 job last season, but now it feels like it belongs to him. He makes big saves, he's poised in net and the Rangers' step forward as a team likely doesn't happen without the 25-year-old emerging as a Vezina candidate. Workload could be a concern down the stretch, but Shesterkin is the real deal.
Letdown: Alexis Lafreniere (six goals, two assists in 30 games). Lafreniere didn't have a standout rookie season with 21 points in 56 games, but he's still suffered a bit of sophomore slump. The first overall pick from 2020 is stuck in a third-line role, and there's been some friction with new head coach Gallant. It's too early to worry about his long-term potential, but without a move to a scoring line, Lafreniere looks like a bust in 2021-22.
Next man up is once again the theme for the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (knee) hasn't taken a shift this season, Sidney Crosby missed time with a wrist injury. The injury bug hasn't bitten as hard as usual, but it's still lingering. Even so, the Penguins are comfortably in a playoff spot in mid-December -- who would expect anything less?
MVP: Jake Guentzel (15 goals, 12 assists in 24 games). With big names out of the lineup early on, Guentzel helped the Penguins tread water. He ignited after Crosby returned, with Guentzel rattling off a 13-game, 19-point streak that's now on pause as he recovers from an upper-body injury. The Penguins have proven time and again they can go without star players for extended stretches, but they'll be even better when the 27-year-old winger gets back in the lineup.
Breakout player: Evan Rodrigues (10 goals, 13 assists in 30 games). Who cares if he's a late bloomer -- the flower's open and it smells good. Rodrigues, 28, has taken on a top-line role in Guentzel's absence, and he's looked solid all around the lineup this season. He can play center or wing, mixing modest physicality with a newfound scoring touch. The best news for Rodrigues' outlook: his 10.1 shooting percentage isn't wildly unsustainable, as he shot 10.8 percent while picking up seven goals and 14 points in 35 outings last year. He's been fueled by an increase in shot volume, not luck.
Letdown: Jason Zucker (four goals, seven assists in 30 games). Part of me wants to believe Zucker will rediscover the form that saw him net 33 goals and 64 points in 2017-18 with the Wild. My more realistic side acknowledges that Zucker has simply been okay in his Penguins tenure, picking up 41 points in 83 games over parts of three seasons. He's had awful luck in 2021-22, shooting just 4.9 percent, but he's not going to be the first option for a first-role when one opens up. He's useful in some deeper fantasy formats, but he's a supporting player, not the star of the show.
There's been flashes of potential for a very young Blue Jackets team, but they're prone to the ups and downs of relying on youth. They've long flown under the radar. There's some diamonds in the rough in Columbus, but not enough to make a contender of a team.
MVP: Zach Werenski (five goals, 14 assists in 28 games). The offseason trade of Seth Jones to the Blackhawks opened up even more playing time for Werenski. He's averaging 26:29 per game, including 3:02 on the power play, both of which are career highs. He's flirting with a 50-point pace, which would also be the best of his career. He's one of the biggest stars on the team, though he's not quite in that elite tier of defensemen league-wide.
Breakout player: Max Domi (seven goals, eight assists in 18 games). Domi's season so far has seen him miss time with a broken rib and a stint in the COVID-19 protocols. He had a shoulder injury in training camp. All said, he's looked great when he's on the ice -- almost reminiscent of his 28-goal, 72-point effort with the Canadiens in 2018-19. The Blue Jackets balance playing time around the lineup well, so Domi will get his chances to make an impact whether he's on the first line or the fourth.
Letdown: Gustav Nyquist (five goals, six assists in 28 games). Nyquist started the year with a goal on Opening Night versus the Coyotes. He went pointless in his next seven contests, and it's been on and off since then for the Swede. One thing's clear: he's not the same player he was in 2019-20, when he put up 42 games in 70 games. He missed all of last year with a shoulder injury, but he hasn't caught back up to the NHL pace yet.
A long skid cost Alain Vigneault the head coaching job, leading to Mike Yeo behind the bench for the Flyers. At times, they've looked like a solid team, but they're not really competitive in the Metro just yet. Absences for Kevin Hayes and Ryan Ellis (lower body) have dimmed the expectations for this season.
MVP: Claude Giroux (11 goals, 14 assists in 29 games). This is not a recording from the last decade -- Giroux leads the Flyers in points and it's not really close. He's often played on the wing in recent years, but he's back at center. The 33-year-old has spurned fantasy managers before, but he's been a savvy pickup this year outside of one slump in mid-November.
Breakout player: Cam Atkinson (12 goals, eight assists in 29 games). Atkinson's first season with the Flyers has gone well, albeit in streaky fashion. He started with six goals and a helper in the first five games, then added just four points in the next 15. He's looked more consistent and effective in December. Don't expect another 40-goal campaign from the 32-year-old, but he could finish with 30 goals and 55 points by the end of the season.
Letdown: Ivan Provorov (two goals, nine assists in 29 games). Provorov has typically had a more subtle appeal in fantasy -- he's not one for gaudy scoring numbers, but he supplements the offense with hits and blocked shots. He was serviceable with 26 points in 56 contests last year, but his scoring pace has dropped for the second straight year. Still just 24 years old, he's got plenty of time to turn into a strong all-around defenseman, but it's looking less likely that happens this season.
The youth movement is on in New Jersey. A casual hockey fan would probably spend most of the time asking "who?" in regards to many of the names on the Devils' roster. Outside of Dougie Hamilton and Jack Hughes, it's fair to say there aren't any other established stars on the roster. They're a little less rebuild and a more building at this point, which has led the innovative fantasy manager to some under-appreciated players.
MVP: Jesper Bratt (eight goals, 16 assists in 29 games). Barring injury, Bratt will have a career year, as he's likely to surpass the 35 points he produced in 2017-18. The Swede has fit in well to a second-line role, and his 9.9 shooting percentage is reasonable. He gets power-play time, where he's picked up three assists this year. Bratt won't lead the team in offense forever, but he should be a strong contributor, and he's still just 23 years old.
Breakout player: Dawson Mercer (eight goals, eight assists in 30 games). Mercer helped the Devils not miss Jack Hughes when he had a shoulder injury, and more recently, he's offset the loss of Nico Hischier to COVID-19 protocols. The 20-year-old Mercer has proven capable of playing as the second-line center. He's on track for a 40-point campaign as a rookie. The Red Wings' duo of Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider will probably prevent Mercer from winning a Calder Trophy, but the 18th pick in the 2020 draft unquestionably belongs in the NHL.
Letdown: Janne Kuokkanen (four goals, two assists in 28 games). Kuokkanen popped up out of nowhere last year with 25 points in 50 games in his first real look at the NHL level. The Finn has not rediscovered that form yet. He has two points in each month this season, and he's been an occasional healthy scratch. Most fantasy managers probably moved on from him early in the season, and there's been little reason to look back.
The cellar is an unfamiliar place for the Islanders, who have been dealt a tough hand this year. A 13-game road trip to open their season was followed by a long losing skid and a COVID-19 outbreak just as they opened the doors to UBS Arena. They've got games in hand now, but a condensed schedule, albeit more at home than on the road, presents its own challenge for getting back into the playoff race.
MVP: Ilya Sorokin (7-7-5 record, 2.49 GAA, .926 save percentage in 19 games). Sorokin has not been as good as he was last year, but the Islanders would be far worse without him. He played most of the road trip with Semyon Varlamov hurt, and Sorokin has proven worthy of more than a 50-50 split, which head coach Barry Trotz typically prefers for his goalies. Sorokin's faced a lot of rubber -- the Islanders are giving up 32.8 shots per game, ninth most in the NHL -- but he's looked solid in goal.
Breakout player: Oliver Wahlstrom (eight goals, seven assists in 26 games). Wahlstrom has defied his regular usage as a third-line winger by making noise with seven power-play points this year. There's still questions to his defensive acumen, but he's showing more scoring talent month by month. He belongs in the top six at this point -- it might be a coaching nightmare to put him with star center Mathew Barzal, but Wahlstrom's got a great shot that would complement the playmaker if they have any chemistry.
Letdown: Zach Parise (one goal, five assists in 26 games). It would have been completely fair to simply point at the team sheet and say offense was the letdown for the Islanders, but to narrow the focus, it's Parise. At 37 years old, he's very much in decline -- he had just 18 points in 45 games for a much more talented Wild team last year. He's lined up at center sometimes in 2021-22, which makes no sense whatsoever. It's safe to assume his NHL days are numbered after he signed a league-minimum contract this offseason.
That's my take on the Metropolitan Division at this point in the year. When it comes to the day-to-day of fantasy, this coming week is going to be tough. There's a fraction of the schedule left due to postponements, and the holiday break will likely be a welcome reprieve. In lieu of recommending players -- today's rising star could be tomorrow's next protocols addition -- here's three pieces of general advice to make things a little better in the short term.
- Get aggressive. If you're trying to manage through the COVID-19 outbreak, now's a great time to make some tough decisions. I cut Miro Heiskanen and picked up Braden Holtby in a league last week to meet my goalie minimums. I didn't like doing that, but Heiskanen's been cold lately and he missed last Friday's game with an illness. It's going to take a little bit of ruthlessness to get through this stretch. Find the guy who's hot and playing and make room for him to get an edge.
- Use your injury slots. They're there for a reason. If you've got guys in COVID-19 protocols, you have to assume they're going to be out for 10 days, minimum. Dig deep on the waiver wire and ride the hot hand to fill the gaps. If you're like me and you like positional balance in your rosters, you may have to forgo that. If you're really in a pinch, consider asking your league commissioner to increase the number of IR positions available -- remember, everyone's dealing with this problem right now.
- Keep in mind that this too shall pass. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and I read a lot of news. In all honesty, it's been a very sobering week, what with the presence of the Omicron variant and the chaos and uncertainty that's caused. I am not always the most optimistic person, but I try to see as much good as I can in this tough situation. Someday, we won't be so overwhelmed by this virus and its impacts on all the people and things we love. The NHL schedule won't be peppered with PPD forever. Things will get better, and we will know how much to appreciate that when it happens.
That's all for this week. Divisional December concludes next week with the Pacific, which has been a pleasant surprise for fantasy this season. Have a safe and happy holiday weekend for all who celebrate, and I'll have more for you before the new year begins.