As the NHL and NHLPA hammer away at all the details for their hopeful return on Jan. 13, 2021, many questions remain. Safety protocols and scheduling remain vital questions that need to be answered before the puck is dropped.
Because of COVID-19, teams will be playing their games against just the opponents in their divisions. A couple of new divisions look to be set in stone, including a division with all the northeastern American teams and an all Canadian division.
However, there are still some decisions to be made with a couple of teams on which division they will be put into. The Minnesota Wild are one of those teams who don’t exactly know if they will be playing in a division with the midwest teams or those on the west coast.
The Dallas Stars are right there with them, unsure which division they will be playing in for the upcoming season, and it looks like the Wild may end up in one and the Stars in the other.
With that in mind, the two divisions differ in terms of location and strength of schedule. Which one the Wild end up playing in will change their likelihood of making the playoffs. So, let’s take a look at how the Wild would fit into each division.
The Central Division makes the most sense from a geographical standpoint for the Wild, as they wouldn’t need as much travel for away games as they would in the West Division.
The other teams expected to be in the Central are the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The playoffs’ expected format this season is that you will have to be in the top four in your respective division to qualify.
Right off the bat, it’s a safe assumption to say the Lightning will be in the top four. In all truthfulness, if they stay healthy, they more likely than not will win the division. They are easily a top-three team in the NHL, and the Wild will have to have just about everything go right for them this season to finish higher in the standings than the Lightning.
After that, you start to look at which teams the Wild are better than, and you immediately look to the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings. The rebuilding Red Wings were historically bad last season, and even though they did improve this offseason, they are still a long way away from competing for a playoff spot.
The Blackhawks do have talent but are openly admitting that they are embarking on a rebuild. They lost Brandon Saad, and goaltender Corey Crawford this offseason. They look to be a team on the outside looking in next season.
That leaves the Wild in a group with the Hurricanes, Predators, Blue Jackets, and Panthers. Five teams with three playoff spots up for grabs. The Hurricanes will be favored to grab one of those spots, but each of the remaining teams has its strengths and weaknesses. If the Wild play well, they have a shot at finishing higher than two of those teams and grabbing a playoff spot.
This division looks to be a bit more of a nightmare when it comes to travel. In the Central, the only teams you could consider an extremely far journey for the Wild were the Lightning and the Panthers.
Here in the West, you have the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and the Vegas Golden Knights, all a substantial distance away. The other two teams, the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, are also both still at least a few states away. The toll travel would take on the Wild would be no small factor in such a tightly condescend season.
As for the level of competition, the Golden Knights and Avalanche are virtual locks to make the playoffs. Both teams are top five, maybe even top three, in the NHL. The Wild will have their hands full each time they play Colorado and Vegas.
On the other hand, the three California based teams were all lottery teams last season. The Ducks, Sharks, and Kings are all organizations looking towards the future in terms of their player development and don’t project to be significant forces in their Division.
If there were one team there that could surprise people, it would be the Sharks. Their fall from one of the Western Conferences elite to lottery team was quick, and injuries did not help. They still have a lot of talent on their team and could rebound nicely next season, but there will be points on the table for the Wild to take advantage of in California.
The 2019 Stanley Cup champion Blues also look to be dangerous once again, even with the departure of Alex Pietrangelo. It would be a bit of a shock if the Wild overtook them in the standings, but it’s very least possible.
This division might come down to the Wild and the Coyotes battling it out for the fourth and final playoff spot. Both teams look to be better than the three California teams, but not good enough to overtake the big three in the West.
Where the Wild Should Want to Be
This season will be far from perfect, and the Wild have said they don’t have an issue being placed in either division. The question will likely come down to what the Wild would prefer. A five-team race for three spots in the Central, or a two-team race for one spot in the West.
The Wild will have significant travel in whichever division they end up in, so if that indeed doesn’t bother them, the West looks to be where their chances to make the playoffs are greater.
The Central has too many teams that match up more rigid against the Wild. The West might have three outstanding teams, but also have three that were lottery teams last year. That presents more nights where the Wild will be projected to pick up points. If it does come down to just the Wild and Coyotes battling it out for the final spot, Bill Guerin should feel confident about his team’s chances.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.