2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.
The former Pacific division will add three new teams with the five remaining U.S. teams. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Pacific teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the eight have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?
#1 St. Louis Blues
The big three contenders will be the St. Louis Blues, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. Vegas was exposed by the Dallas Stars playing bad defense in front of the goalie. The Blues, like the Stars, are fantastic on defense and physical on offense. They can expose that problem further against the all-out offense of Peter DeBoer’s Knights. The Avalanche have injury and health issues, despite being neck-and-neck with St. Louis. Barring interruption in the season again, the Blues are the most complete team in this realignment.
Until starting goalie Jordan Binnington and coach Craig Berube crash like they did in last year’s postseason, they’re the best bet to advance to not just the final four, but the Stanley Cup Finals. The Blues couldn’t hang on to team captain Alex Pietrangelo, but they added Mike Hoffman, Torey Krug, and Zach Sanford. They’ll be dangerous to keep up with for 56 games.
#2 Vegas Golden Knights
This comes down to the health of the Avalanche v. the exposed middle front of the Vegas defense, and that favors the Golden Knights. DeBoer will have a full season of goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, and defense was boosted by signing Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.
The offense is a handful for any team (just ask Travis Green’s Canucks) with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch and much more. At least three teams are re-building or on the rise, and the Knights will expose every weakness to rack up goals and points. It’ll take perfect defense and constant offensive pressure to beat them.
#3 Colorado Avalanche
The third of the three-headed monster in this division, health will determine where Colorado goes, and that will be decisive later in the season. Star player Nathan MacKinnon looks to take the next step and become the best player in the NHL. Additions Devon Toews and Brandon Saad are boosts to both offense and defense when the first two lines can’t get going.
Coach Jared Bednar needs to find ways to get the Avalanche into the final four this year with the amount of talent on this roster. There’s more pressure given how Colorado got to the second round of the playoffs and lost in game seven for two straight years. If he can’t lead this team to the final four when Nathan MacKinnon is peaking, management could take action.
#4 Anaheim Ducks
A dark-horse pick for any of the top four spots in the four divisions, there are good reasons why the Anaheim Ducks can sneak into the four team playoffs in the West. Let’s start with what the Ducks have over the remaining four.
- The lights-out play of goaltender John Gibson. He’s faced more high-risk shots than any other starting net-minder in the past two years, and has stopped more of those shots than any other. He stays healthy too at 27, so if he’s in net, Anaheim has a shot.
- Added veteran depth with David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both have played in deep postseason runs, with Shattenkirk winning two Stanley Cups.
- Like the other two California teams, Anaheim hasn’t played in almost a year. A lot of their defensemen are young and needed to adapt to the NHL style of play during the break. Rookie Kodie Curran will be learning with Andy Welinski and Jani Hakanpaa on how to make Gibson not stress about high-risk shots.
- Teams such as San Jose and Arizona will have injury issues like they have the past few seasons with their rosters mostly intact. Anaheim can outlast both teams and stay in the middle of the pack at worst.
- Minnesota and Los Angeles are re-building most of their rosters. While Jonathan Quick could be back at full health, the Kings will struggle on offense compared with Anaheim. Minnesota’s depth isn’t as solid nor tenured on their third or fourth lines as the Ducks have focused on.
The Sharks and Wild have little to offer at goaltending. The Kings and Coyotes could present the toughest challenge, but how will they score consistently outside of a few franchise players? They won’t be a pretty choice, but they’re the best team to play 56 games without injury problems to sneak into the final four.