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 Central division is a mix of teams in three previous divisions. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Central teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning 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 Tampa Bay Lightning
The reigning Stanley Cup Champions received a major tradeoff this offseason. Former Hart trophy winner (the NHL’s version of league MVP) Nikita Kucherov was placed on injured reserve and will miss most if not all of the regular season. However, captain Steven Stamkos is back at full health and should make up most of Kucherov’s impact.
Former Vezina trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy is currently the best goaltender in all the NHL, and even with losses of Brayden Coburn, Cedric Paquette and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Lightning retained most of their core, especially the gritty and physical third line. With a divisional realignment, the Lightning are the favorite to take first.
#2 Carolina Hurricanes
The recent Stanley Cup Champions and Carolina Hurricanes are by far the best two teams in the Central. The latter couldn’t get past the Boston Bruins the last two years. Fortunately Carolina doesn’t have to play them unless it’s the final four. The goalie combination of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer can take Carolina far in the playoffs.
The Hurricanes retain the same depth at both center and forward they had last year. The defensive pairs of Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce make them an easy team to pencil in for the Central’s four best.
#3 Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella’s physically and mentally tough unit should make the final four this year. Columbus can’t have a slow start heading into Valentine’s Day. The Dallas Stars have yet to take the ice and the Jackets lost a pair of games against the Nashville Predators . They’re known to play better the longer a season goes on, but must stay alive before going on a run.
The Pierre-Luc Dubois situation will either result in a great amount of depth brought in the next few years or make Dubois consider staying with the team. The Blue Jackets’ depth on defense isn’t an issue, but the amount of offense they can string together remains a concern. Center Max Domi was their big free agent acquisition, and will be a big part of the offensive scoring chances in every game.
The Jackets get the nod for either the third or fourth spot available for a few reasons: Dallas may not make the playoffs because of the injuries to assistant captain Tyler Seguin and starting goalie Ben Bishop. That will hurt on special teams. If they play Columbus, they’ll have a hard time scoring against their defense on the power-play. The Red Wings and Blackhawks aren’t good enough to compete against most of this division. The Predators and the Panthers are Columbus’ real threats. Speaking of the Panthers and Predators…
#4 Nashville Predators
The Predators have what the Florida Panthers still lack: consistent defense. Florida’s offense is among the best in the league, but unless Sergei Bobrovsky is pulled, the Panthers will be on the outside looking in. Juuse Saros looks better as a starter over time and at worst, Pekka Rinne can close out games or play a few for Saros to get rest.
On offense, players like Matt Duchene have to adjust to coach John Hynes’ system. Can Rocco Grimaldi, Yakov Trenin, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mikael Grandlund increase their production this year? Given the better defensive play and how the first three lines can create chances, they’re definitely a bet to make the third or fourth spot.