NHL: Previewing the 2020-21 Central Division

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Carolina Hurricanes' Andrei Svechnikov, of Russia, skates with the puck while Haydn Fleury defends during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

After an interesting Stanley Cup Final showdown just three to four months ago, the NHL returns this week, the first games starting on Wednesday, Jan. 13. In this period of uncertainty, there are a lot of new changes in play for this exclusive season. There are only 56 games and teams will only play everyone in their division eight, nine or ten times. Only the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs this year. 

This specific preview focuses on the Central division, which covers the teams in the Mid-Atlantic/Great Lakes/Southeastern part of the U.S. Those teams are the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning. They will play each other eight times each this season.

This division has both elite teams and teams that are fighting for the first overall pick. The biggest matchup will be between the Lightning and Stars, the two teams that met in the Stanley Cup Final last season. Especially with the Stars’ season delayed, no one is guaranteed anything from last season or this season day-by-day. Let us dive right into the division and see who comes out on top.

Tampa Bay Lightning (First):

The defending Stanley Cup champions should have no problem defending their coveted title. Despite the loss of Nikita Kucherov for the regular season, the Lightning have talent that can cover the hole left by the former MVP. Captain Steven Stamkos should return from injury after playing just one game in the Stanley Cup Finals, and in his absence, Brayden Point was dominant. The Lightning, despite losing players such as Carter Verhaeghe, also return Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli and Blake Coleman amongst others. The Lightning are loaded up front, but that does not mean their back end is not barricaded as well. Victor Hedman leads the defense once again and has Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak to boost him and help defend the ice. Just from the players listed above, the Lightning have two strong lines and one of the best top six forwards in the league, which can only make opponents tremble. Andrei Vasilevskiy returns to handle the crease once again and has Curtis McElhinney to back him up as well. The Lightning were dominant last year, and their redemption in the playoffs sets them up for future success down in South Florida. In a city that saw the Rays go to the World Series and Tom Brady lead the Buccaneers, the Lightning have the floodgates in front of them to go to the Cup Final once again.

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) works the puck in front go the goal against teammates Ryan Shea (46) and Jason Dickinson (18) during NHL hockey training camp scrimmage Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Frisco, Texas. Photo by LM Otero/AP

Dallas Stars (Second):

The only team currently on a COVID-19 pause at the time of release, the Stars gave themselves more credibility by losing the Stanley Cup Final in six games last year. It was a great run for the Stars, and they have enough young players to be poised to return for another deep run. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are the top two forwards on the team and create a deadly first line with the help of Alexander Radulov. The Stars also have help beyond the first line as Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Joel Kiviranta, Denis Gurianov and Radek Faska, flank the other lines and provide crucial depth for the Stars. Each of these forwards also shoots the puck differently, baffling goalies left and right. The stars also come out to play on defense Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak are the top four defenders on this team, which gives the Stars an impressive blue line corps. Each of these studs were impressive last year and will only look to improve with experience and age, in addition to some help from Andrej Sekara. As for the goalie position, Anton Khudobin returns after his memorable playoff performance in absence of Ben Bishop. Bishop is still around, but Khudobin will be the motivator on this team as he looks to prove himself as a late bloomer after a journeyman backup career. He also trains Jake Oettinger in the process to take over should Bishop and Khudobin both leave the team via retirement, trade or free agency. The Stars’ slogan last year was that they were not going home, and after the regular season, the Stars will not be going home for a while.

Carolina Hurricanes (Third):

The Storm Surge era of the Hurricanes is surging forward to hopefully another deep playoff run, possibly to the dismay of Whalers fans everywhere. After a brief appearance last season, Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and either Teuvo Teravainen or Jordan Martinook take control of one of the top 15 first lines in the entire league. The scoring threats continue after those young stars, as Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal, Ryan Dzingel and acquisitions Jesper Fast and Seth Jarvis provide major depth for the Hurricanes to have someone step up should their top line go down, a weakness last season despite having Justin Williams. On defense, Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton will take over as the defense continues to get over trading away Justin Faulk. Nonetheless, those two and others such as Brady Skjei and Jake Gardiner will look to start defining themselves as second or third-line defensemen. The Hurricanes are really one defensive piece away from being serious contenders year in and year out, but they are fine with what they have for right now. At goalie, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer return to protect the crease at all costs, and although there is no David Ayres to boot, the Hurricanes will be fine with what they have. The Hurricanes are ready to make a statement once again in the NHL that they are one of the league’s better teams. All they have to do is take it.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov, of Russia, skates with the puck while Haydn Fleury defends during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Photo by Gerry Broome/AP

Columbus Blue Jackets (Fourth):

The Blue Jackets were impressive last season, when they defied a good portion of all odds to make the playoffs. Despite losing Alexander Wennberg, which has shades of losing Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Artermi Panarin a season before, the Blue Jackets are young and prepared. Trading for Max Domi only provided depth in a forward position that has a first line of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and either Nick Foligno or Alexander Texier. That first line also gets support from Boone Jenner, Gustav Nyquist, Liam Foudy, Emil Bemstrom and veterans Mikko Koivu and Nick Foligno. The mix of young stars and veteran is there, which has led to a wonderful blend of talent and success, something expected under John Tortorella. On defense, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are the first line and they both do a nice job of keeping the opposition away from the net as much as possible. After them, the defense is questionable. It is hard to choose from a list of many who will be on the second or third lines, but then again, time will tell. Then there is the goalie position, which is going to be hailed as one of the best tandems in the league. The two main guys are Joonas Korpisalo, who owns the single-game saves record in the postseason, and Elvis Merzlikins, who is bringing back Elvis in a fantastic way. Both goalies should split the season if neither of them gets hurt and have been outstanding replacements following the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets are outstanding on many fronts, but like the Hurricanes, are one defensive piece away from serious contention, despite likely making the playoffs this year.

Florida Panthers (Fifth):

I had hoped the Panthers were a playoff contending team. Without the expanded playoff field, I would have been wrong. However, there are positive takeaways from Florida’s playoff loss to the Islanders, which is that the young nucleus gets experience. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau will lead the first line along with veteran Patric Hornqvist as the team looks to rebound and improve from last season. Joining them on the forward lines will be the talents of Carter Verhaeghe, Alexander Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Noel Acciari and others. This might be an underrated forward corps, everyone knows Barkov, Huberdeau and Hornqvist, but what about everyone else? Perhaps people forget that these small acquisitions could lead to something big in Sunrise. Meanwhile, the defense has their work cut out for them. Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle will have control of the first line, while everyone else on the team is either a veteran like Radko Gudas or a developing young player like MacKenzie Weegar and Riley Stillman. Perhaps with a season like this, the defense will develop and hopefully sync up and create something special, but anything can change. Sergei Bobrovsky will be behind the crease for most games again as he looks to rebound from a lackluster 2019-20 campaign. He is the main man with Chris Driedger as the likely backup. Florida has a young core that will just get better from age, but the reason they miss the playoffs comes down to the lack of development after the first line. They could be back in a year or two though.

Nashville Predators (Sixth): 

Smashville’s toughest pill to swallow is not that the contention window is starting to close, it’s that they will not be raising any milestone banners for years to come. They do still have talent, but was losing to Arizona in the qualifying round the dagger to their momentum and team morale? Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene are their best forwards now while Viktor Arvidsson, Erik Haula and Colton Sissons are depth players at this point doing everything they can to keep the Preds in contention. The top three on this team are fine, but the Predators do not have many options at right wing right now, which might lead to their downfall. As for the defense, trading away PK Subban was interesting, but Roman Josi did well in his absence, winning the Norris Trophy in the process. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are also both around to help the defense and make sure that nothing gets by them. The Predators have a decent defensive tandem, but everyone else is going to need time to develop, which leaves openings on the third line, which could belong to Mark Borowiecki, Jarred Tinordi and others. As long as Josi defends like he did last year, the Predators should be fine, if not, they should be concerned. Pekka Rinne is still around, but Juuse Saros needs opportunities, which is why I think Rinne will be more of a backup this season. If Saros is not the answer, backup is on the way in a few years by the name of Yaroslav Askarov, their first-round pick in 2020. The Predators have talent to compete, but unfortunately, they do not have enough talent to keep up with other contenders in their division, which will have them looking from the outside in.

Nashville Predators Ryan Ellis (4), Nick Cousins (21) and Alexandre Carrier (45) battle for the puck during NHL hockey training camp Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Chicago Blackhawks (Seventh):

After about 13 years and three Stanley Cups, the Chicago Blackhawks are rebuilding. It was a good run, but there were signs that was going to happen this season as the team has not been the same since getting swept by the Predators in 2017. Gone are Brandon Saad (again) and Corey Crawford among others, but there are still significant pieces that will play major roles for the franchise now. The big one is straightforward; Patrick Kane will continue to dominate in Chicago and will provide veteran leadership in the indefinite absence of captain Jonathan Toews. As for the future, I like their next first line, which features Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach and Dominik Kubalik, who was brought back from free agency. I believe that these three, alongside Alexander Nylander and Dylan Strome will provide the next young core to spark the offense and lead the Blackhawks to more success. I am confident this young core will develop and return to the playoffs properly over time. As for the defense, this is where things get interesting, as Duncan Keith will lead the way with Brent Seabrook. But that is an aging core, and the Blackhawks need successors. Calvin de Haan could be an answer, or it could be Adam Boqvist, or it could be Alec Regula, but the answers need to be found before Keith and Seabrook leave, leading to questions. Without Crawford, the Blackhawks will rely on Malcolm Subban to take over behind the crease, with either Colin Delia or Matt Tomkins as the backups. Subban should be fine at goalie, and a good season should take him to the next level as a possible five-year goalie that potentially bridges two eras of Blackhawks hockey. The Blackhawks might have no expectations this year near the bottom of the division, but look out, the Blackhawks could be contenders in a few years with the right combination of players.

Detroit Red Wings (Eighth):

News flash: The Red Wings were bad last year. At the time of the pause, they had earned just 39 points (yes, you are reading that correctly) after 71 games, dead last in the entire league. As a result, they went full Knicks and got the third overall pick via a draft lottery (the Rangers won the lottery as the mystery pick) leading to the acquisition of Lucas Raymond. Until Raymond is promoted to the main roster, the Red Wings will have to handle their mix of talents at the forward position. Their best player is Dylan Larkin, and he will work alongside Anthony Mantha and likely Darren Helm to create a first line that is likely forgettable. Meanwhile, Bobby Ryan joins the team as a veteran player and the likes of Valtteri Filppula, Sam Gagner and Luke Glendening will just provide depth for the young core. General Manager Steve Yzerman is going to have his hands full trying to make this team like the Red Wings of old. On defense, Marc Staal was added as a veteran pick, and there is not really a definitive top defenseman. This can lead to concern over who is going to lead the first line, though it will probably be Danny DeKeyser and someone else. Again, anything can change, so finding a top tandem is going to take some time. At goalie, Jimmy Howard is gone, leaving new acquisition Thomas Griess and Jonathan Bernier to share the crease, of which is likely going to lead to mediocre results. The Red Wings have holes to fill everywhere and the state of the Red Wings right now is disgusting compared to their extensive history as an Original Six franchise. Things are so bad in Detroit the Red Wings might not even put up 30 points this year. I expect nothing from them this year, which is concerning because I am not sure how long that will last.

Due to the nature of this season’s playoffs, the divisional/first round only will be listed for the playoff predictions.

Playoff Predictions:

Lightning beat Blue Jackets in four

Hurricanes beat Stars in seven

So, this is how I think the Central Division is going to end up. This could change over time as nothing is certain, but only time itself will tell. There is that mix of strong teams and weak teams that leads to a potential first, a Division with a Stanley Cup champion and first overall pick. Let hockey commence.

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