The NHL and NHLPA are still in talks about the exact logistics of the new 2020-21 season. Last week, it was reported that a season start was decided for Jan. 13, 2021, and will include a 56-game schedule before the playoffs. A great start, but issues still remain. Most notably, what to do about the divisional realignment.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the United States-Canada border remains closed to non-essential travel, meaning that Canadian hockey teams will be unable to travel between the two countries. To help remedy this, the NHL has proposed a divisional realignment plan that would include an all-Canadian team division and divide the rest of the league into three others.
The most recent proposal, reported by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, would place the Carolina Hurricanes as one of two Metropolitan representatives in a division that includes teams from the Atlantic and Central Divisions.
The plan is subject to change, and any realignment plan would have to be approved by the NHL Board of Governors, but if the idea holds, Carolina will be looking at almost an entirely new division with its own set of obstacles to overcome.
Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6 in 2019-20)
Obviously, facing the defending Stanley Cup Champions is never ideal, but the Lightning are not the same team that dominated the playoff bubble just a few months ago.
For the upcoming season, Tampa Bay will need to deal with the losses of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and forward Tyler Johnson. Shattenkirk is a solid offensive d-man who was dangerous pinching up from the blue line during the playoffs, but Johnson is the bigger loss. An eight-year veteran for the team, Johnson tallied 339 career points in 534 games for the Lightning. During his time in Tampa, Johnson dominated the Hurricanes with 22 points in 14 games, tied for the most against any other team he’s played (Buffalo).
The Lightning also has two-way forward Anthony Cirelli and depth defenseman Erik Cernak left to sign with little cap room left, meaning more moves may be on the horizon for Carolina’s new divisional opponent.
Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15 in 2019-20)
The Blue Jackets are the only other Metropolitan representative in the new proposed division along with Carolina. Still, the Lightning may be more worried about this move than anyone else.
After a surprising sweep of Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets lost stud players Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, as well as starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. But the team, led by head coach John Tortorella, still held strong and made another playoff run. Though the Lightning eventually got retribution in the bubble, Columbus still presents a sizeable issue for anyone in its division, as Carolina well knows.
The Blue Jackets also added solid playmakers in forwards Max Domi and Mikko Koivu, who have both given Carolina trouble in the past.
Minnesota Wild (35-27-7 in 2019-20)
Koivu’s former team is also a suspect to join the reworked division and will pose a problem for the Hurricanes if approved. In 2019-20, the Wild made the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight years, falling short against the Canucks in the Qualifying Round but still displaying the talent on their roster for next season.
Kevin Fiala will be the man to key on for Carolina’s defense after leading the Wild in points (54 in 64 games) in his first full season with the team. Star defenseman Ryan Suter will also present a challenge for Carolina’s young offense. The 15-year vet remains a black hole in the penalty kill and was ninth in all defensemen with 48 points (eight goals, 40 assists) last season.
Minnesota lost Eric Staal, brother of Canes captain Jordan, in a trade for forward Marcus Johansson in September, and added Nick Bjugstad and goaltender Cam Talbot.
Detroit Red Wings (17-49-5 in 2019-20)
On the surface, Detroit is a floundering team that is stuck in the purgatory of mediocrity. But a closer examination would reveal that, with the right moves, the Red Wings could be a team on the rise. After an impressive couple of drafts, thanks to former Lightning GM and Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman, the team flaunts a talented young offensive roster that could provide issues for teams on the bubble of contention like the Hurricanes.
Detroit also added solid defensive depth with Marc Staal — the third brother to Jordan and Eric — and Troy Stecher, as well as reliable goaltending with Thomas Greiss. Carolina swept all three games against the Red Wings in 2019-20, but they may no longer be the doormat they were last season.
Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8 in 2019-20)
Once the team to beat in the NHL, the Blackhawks have been on a downslide the last few seasons, indicated by the Hurricanes having won the previous five matchups between the two. The Blackhawks are always a threat to make a run, but the departure of longtime goalie Corey Crawford may give the Hurricanes even more confidence in future head-to-head matchups.
Nevertheless, Chicago has reloaded with some impressive young and upcoming players like Dominik Kubalík, who was nominated for the Calder Trophy after an impressive rookie and was third on the team with 46 points. The Blackhawks held the youngest roster in the league last season, and young players like Kubalík and defenseman Adam Boqvist will need to step up their play as the core from past years of success begins to age out.
Always unpredictable, the Hurricanes-Blackhawks duel will be a battle of youth this season.
Nashville Predators (35-26-8 in 2019-20)
The Nashville Predators add to the list of impressive teams this division may add for the COVID-adjusted season. The Preds disappointed in the Qualifying Round against the Arizona Coyotes to end their 2019-20 season, but they are by no means thought to be in a rebuild, adding veterans Brad Richardson and Mark Borowiecki this offseason for another playoff push.
The Hurricanes have had the upper hand as of late against Nashville. Of the last eight matchups between the two, Carolina has won seven of them by a total score of 30-18. However, Nashville’s defensive corps that pitched a shutout against Carolina early last year largely remains. The Canes’ offense will need to make another big leap this year in order to outduel good defensive teams like the Predators.
Florida Panthers (35-26-8 in 2019-20)
The Florida Panthers round out the supposed realigned division for the new season. Head coach Joel Quenneville enters his second season with Florida showing good improvement from his predecessors, making a good run last season that was cut short with the pandemic hitting.
The Panthers’ front office was aggressive this offseason, adding good young players like Carter Verhaeghe, Vinnie Hinostroza and Alexander Wennberg, along with defenseman Radko Gudas. The Hurricanes have won five of its last six games against Florida, but they face almost a completely different team than the one they met over a year ago.
Every team in the new division adds its own set of obstacles. For the most part, the Hurricanes will need to see similar production from top d-men like Dougie Williams and Brett Pesce to anchor the blue line while the top-line of forwards Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen continue to develop. Carolina will also need better depth scoring this year if it truly wants to contend with the big boys. Frequent matchups against talented teams like Tampa Bay and Nashville will provide good tests for how Carolina can make a run to the Stanley Cup.