The 2020-21 NHL season is just around the corner after several months on hiatus with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final being in September. There are new changes to the league, especially with divisions, that they have never done before. The four divisions will feature wild changes to the alignment because of the United States/Canada border being shut down. The Central Division has new teams because of this temporary realignment. Five eastern teams will be joining the three original Central Division teams for just this season.
These are interesting circumstances because of how many times these teams play each other. Teams usually play a single team anywhere from two to five games per season, except it’s eight for this year. Only four teams in each division can make the playoffs, yet seven teams in the Central made the 2019-20 Playoffs, so there are a bunch of teams vying for few spots. The total number of games will put a premium on old/new rivalries forming or rekindling during the season. The Central will be an interesting division and here is a preview and predictions of where each team finishes during the season.
Instead of an 82-game season with both eastern and western conferences, there will be only 56 games with no conferences and a mixture of teams in divisions they’ve never seen before. The Central Division consists of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.
With eight games against eight opponents, that means that great rivalries will form far beyond this season when every team goes back to their original division. Looking past the regular season, four teams make the playoffs, two make the Division Final (Round 2), and one has a 25% chance of winning the Stanley Cup after making the Stanley Cup Semifinal (Round 3). Get ready for a wild division with which the last two Stanley Cup Finalists compete in.
Detroit Red Wings: 8th
The Red Wings are coming off one of their worst if not the worst season in their storied franchise history. After going 17-49-5, they only recorded 39 points in 71 games, a .275 point percentage. To add salt to the wound, they did the triple drop in the draft lottery, going from the best odds to drafting Lucas Raymond fourth in the NHL Entry Draft. In the roundtable of player movements, a whopping 30 players had a negative plus/minus on the Red Wings roster.
The future looks dismal at the Little Caesars Arena, but Dylan Larkin will need to be the leader if they have any playoff aspirations this season. At 29.5 years, they are the oldest average team in the division, so their veterans will need to provide leadership. After having a dynasty through the ’90s and ’00s, the Red Wings are looking to rebuild for a long time.
Chicago Blackhawks: 7th
The Blackhawks had a great year last season for where they finished. They won a play-in series against the Edmonton Oilers after finishing 23rd out of 31 because of the extra teams in the bubble playoff format. Kirby Dach fractured his right wrist during the World Juniors and will be out 4-5 months after surgery.
Patrick Kane must tote the mantle once again as the leading scorer or the Blackhawks are in real trouble. Their main problem is goaltending after only spending less than $2 million on their top two. This team will have a tough time making the playoffs, but matchups against their old Original Six rivals in the Red Wings should be a welcome bit of fun.
Columbus Blue Jackets: 6th
The Blue Jackets have one of the most balanced teams in the division in terms of player salary. No player makes more than 8% of the total team cap space. They are also one of those teams that made the bubble playoffs but would not have made the normal playoffs. Pierre-Luc Dubois led the team in scoring last season and will have to do the same this season.
Their depth forwards also need more production because all players recorded less than 50 points last season. In a difficult division with only four playoff spots available, the Blue Jackets could make the playoffs but will have their hands full.
Nashville Predators: 5th
The Predators were mediocre in the goal-scoring department last season, something that led to a play-in round loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Several Predators players underperformed in terms of their “contract dollar value.” Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen each make $8 million per season, which combined is 19.6% of the team’s overall cap hit. These players combined to score 27 out of the 215 goals for the 2019-20 season — 12.56% of the team’s goal production.
They need more goals than last season to help out the good defensive core in Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. One cause for concern is that Pekka Rinne is 38 years old and the finish line on his career is just ahead. If they want to make the playoffs, they need more goals and better goaltending to take them there.
Carolina Hurricanes: 4th
The Hurricanes are the youngest average team in the division. At 26.7 years, the club’s young players have a lot to prove. Leading scorer Sebastian Aho is one of the hottest young stars in the league. After recording 66 points in 68 games during the 2019-20 season, he is looking to have even more of a breakout year.
One goal for the Hurricanes this season would be to eliminate either the Dallas Stars and/or the Tampa Bay Lightning from the playoffs. The lone team that makes it out of the Division Final will either be the Stars or Lightning or a team that goes through either of them. The Hurricanes have what it takes to play party poopers to some teams.
Florida Panthers: 3rd
The Panthers are due for a breakout season and this could be the year. They were a team that also made the playoffs but would not have made the regular playoffs. Since becoming a franchise during the 1993-94 season, they have only made the playoffs six times, including last year’s play-in round loss to the New York Islanders. They have a veteran defensive core led by Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Anton Strålman.
Sergei Bobrovsky will need to backstop them into the playoffs as their elite goaltender.
They have the scoring touch with Jonathan Huberdeau averaging over one point-per-game last season. This team has the talent to not only qualify for the playoffs, but win their first playoff series in 23 seasons, which is an NHL record drought.
Tampa Bay Lightning: 2nd
Title defenses never come easy and the Lightning will have a target on their backs all season. The main rivalry in this division will be the cage matches between them and the Stars. These teams will be battling for the division title and it could go to either one. The Lightning will look to complete a successful title defense after winning the Stanley Cup last season against the Stars.
Bad news hit when the team announced that Nikita Kucherov will miss the entire regular season after having hip surgery. The Lightning are still stacked with talent, but missing Kucherov is a real blow and it’s a shame because he would have been a great rivalry piece in the matchups against the Stars after recording eight points in the Stanley Cup Final. One of several great things for the Lightning is that captain Steven Stamkos is back. If he can stay healthy then everyone else needs to look out. The Lightning are still a great team and should set their eyes on winning the Stanley Cup again.
Dallas Stars: 1st
Coming off a crazy 2019-20 season that saw the Stars in the Stanley Cup Final, they are looking for redemption. They have eight Stanley Cup Final rematches against their new division rivals in the Lightning. They have the potential to play the Lightning 21 times in less than a year with 14 guaranteed barring any COVID-19 cancellations. Only one team can come out of the Division Final and they have all the talent and experience to not only upend the Lightning, but win the Stanley Cup.
Bad news recently rocked the Stars when the league announced that six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. This diagnosis adds to the list of their problems with player injuries — important pieces in forward Tyler Seguin and goaltender Ben Bishop will be out until April due to surgery recovery. Three games are also postponed because of the news. Captain Jamie Benn is looking to lead his franchise to a Stanley Cup after being drafted by the Stars in 2007.
The Stars will have to rely on great goaltending from Anton Khudobin and depth scoring. They know what it’s like to get so far into the playoffs and lose, which is the fuel that will stoke their internal drive this season.
Hockey Is Finally Back
Nothing ever goes according to plan, especially in hockey. Anything can happen, especially with such revolving circumstances in a volatile disease. The Central Division action will be fast and furious and these rivalries will last whenever everyone goes back to their original division. The season starts on Jan. 13 with the Stars waiting until at least Jan. 19.
Only one team can come out of the division and will represent them from there on out in the playoffs. Predicting the unpredictable is difficult, especially now. Hockey fans rejoice as hockey season is finally here and hopefully all will be right with the world.