One of the biggest changes in the upcoming NHL season is the divisional realignment, looking at one of these changes, here is my 2021 NHL Central Division Preview. This is the new division in which we find the Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning will be joined in the new Central by two Atlantic Division teams; the Detroit Red Wings and the Florida Panthers. There will be two former Metropolitan Division teams in the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The new Central has three teams from the old Central. The Chicago Blackhawks, the Dallas Stars and the Nashville Predators round out the eight teams in the Central Division.
For the playoffs, there will not be any Wild Card teams. The top four teams in each division are in the postseason. In a normal 82 game season, fans don’t usually see important divisional games until the last couple months of a season. The 2021 will be different, All 56 regular season games are played only within the division, so games take on a higher level of importance.
As the NHL has adopted a quasi-MLB schedule setup of two games in three days with the same teams, think mini-playoff sets. Consider the fact that every opponent in every one of the 56 games is a division team. The very teams you are fighting for one of the top four spots. One game is a potential two point swing and the two game series could swing four points.
With the two game sets and playing the same seven other teams throughout the regular season, divisional rivalry will emerge fast and hard. That said, let’s look at my 2021 Central Division Preview.
Cream of the Crop
Looking at which teams might be in the top four of the Central Division, you must consider that seven of the eight teams participated in the 2020 Bubble playoffs. At the top were the Lighting and the Stars who played in the round robin in their conferences. Additionally, the Hurricanes, Panthers, and the Blue Jackets played in the qualifying round from the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, the Blackhawks and the Predators also played in last season’s postseason.
It’s fair to say that the two teams that played in the 2020 Stanley Cup are the odds on favorites to be atop the Central this season. The Lightning have the bullseye on their backs as all reigning Cup champs do. The Stars would never have the opportunity to play the team they just lost the Cup to in eight regular season games. To think they won’t seek some sort of retribution is naive.
Both Dallas and Tampa have many returning players from the last Cup Final. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov, and Joe Pavelski are the big four offensively and should lead the Stars throughout the season. In Tampa, the good news of Steven Stamkos being deemed ready to play was offset by the news that Nikita Kucherov will miss the regular season. Hip surgery will sideline Kucherov for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, the question for the Lightning will come down to how productive they will be offensively without former Hart Trophy winner, Kucherov. Stamkos and Brayden Point should remain potent on offense but some new blood like Alexander Volkov and Alex Barre-Boulet will get the chance to make up some points in Kucherov’s absence.
After Dallas and Tampa, a case can be made for five of the six remaining teams to be one of the top four. The only team that shouldn’t be considered as a playoff contender is the Red Wings. Of the middle five teams, Carolina, Columbus and Nashville are a step or three ahead of Chicago and Florida.
To nail down the 3rd and 4th spot in the division, will most likely be determined in the head to head battles. Those matchups seem to favor Carolina. They have a young top line that seems to improve with every game. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov are just beginning to scrape the surface of what kind of NHL scorers they will become. With veterans in net like Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, Carolina should lock up the third spot in the division.
For the last playoff seed in the Central, it will come down to Columbus and Nashville. The Predators have a slight edge offensively but the Blue Jackets are much better defensively. For that reason, Columbus should earn the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central.
Florida may challenge for one of these top four positions in the division but seem to be a struggling team defensively to keep up with some of the potent offenses in the division.
Bringing Up the Rear
Nashville, Florida, Chicago and Detroit will most likely play the spoiler role this season. Sure, the Predators and Panthers may compete for a top four spot but it is unlikely that Chicago and Detroit are legitimate playoff contenders. Both the Blackhawks and Red Wings are in rebuild mode.
In Nashville, John Hynes took over as Head Coach in the last 28 games of last season. While not in a complete rebuild, the Predators need to find their defensive game in order to contend. At goalie, the legend, Pekke Rinne is making way to Juuse Saros.
For the Panthers, 3 time Stanley Cup winning Coach, Joel Quenville is behind the bench. Unfortunately, for Coach Q, he doesn’t have the horses he did in Chicago a decade ago. Florida may compete for the postseason but will probably fall short.
Neither Chicago nor Detroit will compete for a playoff spot. Both teams are rebuilding and need a lot more on their rosters than they have. We should see both teams go with younger players than in the recent past. These are the two teams that the top of the division needs to play well against and stack up the points in the regular season.
Now that we took a deeper dive, here are my predictions for the regular season:
NHL CENTRAL DIVISION PREVIEW
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Dallas Stars
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Nashville Predators
- Florida Panthers
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Detroit Red Wings
- McElhinney, Gourde propel Lightning past Hurricanes February 25, 2021
- Lightning Smack Down Upstart Hurricanes February 24, 2021
- Drought ends as Lightning outlast Canes in Raleigh February 23, 2021
- Lethargic Lightning shutout again by Hurricanes February 20, 2021
- Second period burst pushes Panthers past Bolts at Amalie February 15, 2021
- Tremendous effort and explosive second period propels Bolts past Florida February 13, 2021
- Point’s two goals not enough as Bolts’ winning streak halted in Sunrise February 11, 2021
- Bolts dominate Predators for 6th straight win February 9, 2021
- Nashville push not enough as Bolts top Preds in Music City February 8, 2021
- Make it two, as Tampa Bay wins Super Bowl LV February 7, 2021