Panthers Face New Division with New Challenges

On Dec. 20, the NHL and NHL Players Association announced that they have officially agreed to start the 2020-21 season on Jan. 13. The season, which will include 56 intradivisional games, will conclude on May 8 and be followed by a 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The teams will be divided into four divisions: Central, East, North, and West. The North division will be made up of the league’s seven Canadian teams, who will play each other a total of nine or 10 times. The remaining divisions will have eight teams and each team will play their divisional opponents a total of eight times. There will not be any preseason games and all training camps will begin by Jan 3. The NHL implemented the division realignment and intradivisional games in order to limit travel, reduce costs, and help limit the spread of COVID-19. 

At the end of the season, the top four teams in each division will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the first two rounds of the playoffs will remain intradivisional. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be the only series played outside of divisions this season. The NHL plans to have all games played in each team’s home arena. But, teams will play in a central location for each division, if necessary.

Central Division Preview

The Central Division will include the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Stars, Predators, and Blackhawks are returning to the Central Division, which has traditionally been a part of the Western Conference. The Panthers, Lightning, and Red Wings are holdovers from the Atlantic Division. The Blue Jackets and the Hurricanes are joining from the Metropolitan Division. Let’s take a look at how these teams stack up entering the 2020-21 season. 

Florida Panthers

The Panthers, led by newly appointed General Manager Bill Zito, have been busy during this transitional offseason for the organization. Nearly a third of Florida’s roster will be made up of new faces. Zito’s notable additions on offense include Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, and most recently, Anthony Duclair. Furthermore, the Panthers have added Radko Gudas and Marcus Nutivaara to their blue line. Zito also re-signed defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to a three-year deal. These signings give the Panthers the physical presence they have lacked for several seasons.

Mackenzie Weegar Florida Panthers
Mackenzie Weegar, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With more defensive-minded blueliners in front of him, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will have to improve in net this season. He’ll be looking to bounce back from last season’s poor showing when he had a save percentage of just .900.

Florida finished with 35 wins during the 2019-20 regular season and ultimately lost in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Islanders. Although they are not the favorite to win the division, the Joel Quenneville-led Panthers have the tools to succeed this season. They will look to clinch a playoff spot and maybe even win their first playoff series since 1996.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Panthers will be in the same division as the Hurricanes for the first time since 2013. The teams were members of the Southeast Division from 1998 to 2013. The Hurricanes won 38 games last season and ultimately bowed out of the playoffs in the second round, losing the series four games to one against the Boston Bruins. 

Carolina has had a quiet offseason but did add Jesper Fast on a three-year deal. The Hurricanes opted to sit out of the goaltender free agency carousel, too. They will stick with their duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, who will both be unrestricted free agents after this season. If this young Carolina team has a strong start, they will look to ride their momentum into a playoff spot.

Chicago Blackhawks

The newly formed Central Division created several interesting storylines for the Blackhawks. The rivalry between the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks will be renewed this year, playing in the same division for the first time since 2013. Furthermore, it’ll be interesting to see how Panthers’ coach Joel Quenneville does against his former team. Quenneville was the head coach of the Blackhawks from 2008 to 2018 and won three Stanley Cup Championships with the organization.

Florida Panthers Joel Quenneville
Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago appears to be one of the weaker teams in the Central Division after losing several key players this offseason. Most notably, the Blackhawks lost Corey Crawford in free agency and traded away Brandon Saad. Without any notable additions in free agency, the Blackhawks will be depending on their depth players to step up. Chicago finished last in the Central Division last season but was able to upset the Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round of the playoffs. The Blackhawks will be competing against several top tier teams in the Central Division, so it is unlikely they will make the playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets will face off against a number of familiar faces when they play the Panthers. There is no doubt that Florida’s Bobrovsky, Nutivaara, and Wennberg are looking forward to competing against their former team. During the 2019-20 season, Columbus had 33 regular-season wins and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Lightning. The Blue Jackets have bolstered their squad this offseason, too. 

Columbus landed Max Domi and Mikko Koivu who will have a big impact this season. Adding these players to a more experienced young core, the Blue Jackets are ready to make another playoff run this summer. Columbus will benefit greatly from their move out of the Metropolitan Division and will have a much easier road to the postseason. It would be no surprise if John Tortorella leads his men to a top-four finish in the Central Division.

Dallas Stars

The Panthers typically play the Stars just twice a year, so playing eight games this season will be unfamiliar territory for both teams. One thing that is certain is that the Panthers will have their hands full with the Stanley Cup runner-ups. The Stars won 37 games last season and ultimately lost to the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. 

Rick Bowness, who was the interim head coach for the majority of last season, will take the helm as head coach again this season. Dallas’ biggest offseason signing was that they retained the services of goaltender Anton Khudobin, who was a key member of last season’s playoff run. If the Stars can find a way to score more goals this season, expect them to be one of the top teams in the Central Division.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings finished worst in the league last season, losing a whopping 49 games. Three of those losses came at the hands of the Panthers, who swept the season series. However, Detroit improved this offseason and it seems that general manager Steve Yzerman has the Red Wings organization headed in the right direction.

Tyler Wright Steve Yzerman Kris Draper Detroit Red Wings
Tyler Wright, Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings, 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Yzerman improved Detroit’s offense by signing veterans Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan. The Red Wings are also welcoming Marc Staal, Jon Merrill, and Troy Stecher to their blue line. They added goaltender Thomas Greiss, too. Although Detroit has improved, they are still in rebuild mode and are not expected to make a playoff appearance in the near future.

Nashville Predators

The Predators are another unfamiliar face to the Panthers, who normally play each other only twice per season. The Panthers swept the 2019-20 season series, winning both games. Nashville won 35 games last season and lost in the Qualifying Round of the playoffs against the Arizona Coyotes. 

Nashville’s offseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. The additions of Mark Borowiecki, Matt Benning, Brad Richardson, and Nick Cousins highlight improvements on the defensive side of play for the Predators. On offense, the Predators lost several key goal scorers including Craig Smith, Nick Bonino, and Kyle Turris. Although Nashville could land a fringe playoff spot, it would not be surprising to see them miss the cut either.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning, defending Stanley Cup Champions, are the clear favorites to win the Central Division. The prospect of eight in-state rivalry games between the Lightning and the Panthers is very exciting. The Panthers lost three of their four games against Tampa last season. The Lightning won 43 games during their 2019-20 campaign and defeated the Stars to win the Stanley Cup.

Tampa Bay Lightning 2020 Stanley Cup
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Tampa Bay Lightning with the Stanley Cup following their series-winning victory over the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Place on September 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Despite facing significant salary cap problems, Tampa’s roster will look similar this season. The Lightning retained the services of Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Patrick Maroon. Meanwhile, Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian have moved on from the team. They also lost Verhaeghe, who signed with the Panthers. The Lightning has their work cut out for them, as they still need to sign Anthony Cirelli. Regardless of how their salary cap crunch plays out, the Lightning is poised to make another run at the Stanley Cup this year.

Panthers’ New Challenge

In their new division, Florida will be up against several formidable opponents. One cause for concern is that the Panthers had a significant amount of roster movement this offseason. While they added the physicality they desperately needed, it could take time for the team to mesh. However, Zito has put together a squad that has the ability to compete with the best.

Quenneville will have to get his men going early in the season for the Panthers to make a push for the playoffs. The Lightning, Stars, and Blue Jackets are the clear favorites to round out the top three in the division, so Florida will likely be fighting the fourth playoff spot. In a shortened season, any slip-ups could find the Panthers on the outside looking in.

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