The latest NHL realignment proposal came out just a couple of days ago, the same day the NHL announced its plans for a 56-game season to start in mid-January. The temporary alignment will have an all-Canadian division to go along with the other three US-based divisions based on nearest proximity to each other.
Per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, the latest model will probably resemble something like this:
The big question is, how does this all affect the Tampa Bay Lightning? As of the date of this article, the NHL has not confirmed that this is the divisional format the NHL season will begin with. For argument’s sake though, let’s take LeBrun’s word for it and run with it for now.
No Boston Bruins to Contend With Within the Division
The first thing you may have noticed is no Boston Bruins amongst divisional foes this season for the Bolts. For those saying, “Who cares, the Lightning handled the Bruins with ease last season!” Yes, the Lightning did win three of four games versus Boston in the regular season, beat them in the preliminary round and dispatched them in five games in the second round.
Let’s not forget about a couple of things here though. The Bruins did win the President’s Trophy with the league’s best record. Head coach Bruce Cassidy also won the Jack Adams Trophy for being the NHL’s best head coach last season.
The Bruins were also without starting goalie Tuukka Rask after he decided to opt-out of the bubble. Admittedly, Rask has not performed well against the Lightning in recent years. He’s just 2-9-1 with a pedestrian 3.09 goals-against average (GAA) and .887 save percentage (SV%) in the past 12 tilts that matter against the Bolts. Nonetheless, ask yourself this; with just 56 games in the regular season and points at such a premium, does not having to face the Bruins as often, help or hinder the Lightning from winning the division? We all know the answer to that one.
Who the Lightning Don’t Have to Worry About
Last year’s bottom feeders, the Detroit Red Wings, top the list of teams the Lightning do not need to pay too much mind to. That could change next season with all the moves general manager Steve Yzerman has made so far. The Red Wings currently have only eight players under contract with more than two years left on the deal.
The Wings did add proven veteran Marc Staal and should be an improved team over last year. This year, however, is about next season where Yzerman will look to spend the mounds of cap space left after all the expiring deals from this season. Look for Detroit to net their first big-fish free agent in a long time just before the 2021-22 season gets underway.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been on a steady decline since locking up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to long term deals a few seasons ago. Now with Brandon Saad and Corey Crawford gone, the Hawks are in full-on rebuild mode.
Going into the bubble, Chicago was the youngest team in the expanded playoffs, making the play-in upset over the Edmonton Oilers all the more surprising. Even with the victory over the Oilers, the Hawks had a trying season. Chicago finished dead last in the division with a similar fate expected for this season.
Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin is on almost the same exact path as Yzerman is on in Detroit. From last year’s roster, Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu, Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato, Alex Galchenyuk, Devan Dubnyk, and Nick Seeler have all been moved.
Take a look at that list and it’s pretty much a no-brainer to figure out the Wild will be no threat whatsoever to the Lightning this season. Much like the Red Wings, the Wild are looking to make big moves next offseason leaving this season as just a bridge year.
Who Might Give the Bolts a Little Trouble
The Nashville Predators have been one of the most active teams in the NHL this offseason which obviously means a lot of turnover. How the new additions of Kunin, Mark Borowieki, Brad Richardson Matt Benning and Nick Cousins mesh into the system is anybody’s guess.
One big departure is the tenacious long-time Pred Craig Smith could be really tough to replace. Also losing Kyle Turris, Austin Watson and Colin Blackwell will certainly hurt the Nashville depth, especially up front. With the Preds missing out on Taylor Hall and Tyler Toffoli, the consensus around the league is Nashville will definitely look different. Not necessarily better, just different.
The “in-state rival” Florida Panthers were sitting at nine games above .500 and well within striking distance for one of the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference. That all being said, it was quite a surprise to see the Panthers go out so unceremoniously to the New York Islanders. A New York team that was just two points ahead of Florida entering the bubble.
Enter in new general manager Bill Zito who wasted no time turning over the roster. Gone are Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Colton Sceviour and Mike Hoffman. In their places are Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas, and Markus Nutivaara. These look like decent moves but with this much turnover, how it all comes together is the key. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau still spearhead the scoring punch which probably won’t be quite enough to challenge Tampa.
Who Could Thwart the Lightning from Winning the Division
The Columbus Blue Jackets’ ability to challenge the Lightning for the division hinges greatly on whether or not a deal can get done with prized young restricted free agent (RFA) center, Pierre-Luc Dubois. Negotiations have been slowed due to the market for RFA centers still not set. Other RFA centers like Mathew Barzal of the Islanders and Anthony Cirelli here in Tampa have yet to sign as well. That being said, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen remains confident in attaining Dubois’ signature before training camp begins.
The Blue Jackets were able to jettison disgruntled forward Josh Anderson to the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi and a third-round pick (No. 78) in the 2020 NHL Draft. With Dubois in the mix, Columbus can be their usual pesky selves pushing the Lightning all season. Without him, the Blue Jackets likely won’t have enough scoring punch to truly compete with Tampa for the entirety of this year’s truncated campaign.
That leaves us with the Carolina Hurricanes. So far the Hurricanes have only brought in Jesper Fast from the New York Rangers. There’s a need to keep some money under the cap to get new deals done with soon to be free agents Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov. The difference being that Hamilton would be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) versus Svechnikov who is still on his rookie deal and therefore would be an RFA after this season. For obvious reasons, the Canes will look to lock both up to long term deals.
With recent short term deals done with both Haydn Fleury (two years) and Warren Foegele (one year), Carolina is poised to be a sound team yet again. Questions in goal still abound, however. Can the solid, yet unspectacular, goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer take the Canes to the next level? When compared to Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, neither of the two quite measure up.
Carolina will be lurking around all season and could possibly take the division. Nonetheless, this can only take place if the Lightning sustains big injuries or suffer from the Stanley Cup hangover that plagues so many teams after winning it.
To sum it all up, the Lightning has more than an excellent chance of winning this new temporary division with games to spare. Top to bottom from goal on outward, none of the other teams can match the speed, skill and overall depth they currently have. At the very least, expect a very high seed going into the playoffs for the Lightning with home ice for the first two rounds. If they play the way they’re capable of and get a few breaks here and there, this team will repeat as Stanley Cup Champions.