On December 18, the NHL and NHLPA officially agreed to start the 2021 NHL season on January 13. It will not be the normal 82 games that are played throughout the season which usually starts in October. The NHL will instead play only 56 games in the season, hoping to hand out the Stanley Cup sometime in mid-July. Training camps will be opening up for teams that did not play in the bubble playoffs on December 31st, while the other 24 teams will open training camps on January 3rd.
The biggest change for this upcoming season has to do with the four divisions. The four divisions that the NHL has used since the 2013-2014 season included the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central and Pacific divisions. Here is a breakdown of which teams were in each division last season:
Metropolitan: Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Atlantic: Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Buffalo Sabres.
Central: St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars.
Pacific: San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, and Edmonton Oilers.
With the border between USA and Canada closed for all non-essential travel, no American team can cross the border to play a Canadian team. Due to this closure, the NHL has had to change the four divisions for the 2021 season. The four divisions will instead be called the North, West, Central, and East, with all the Canadian teams in the North division. Here is what the four divisions will look like this season:
This means that every team will only play the teams in their division, with the West, Central, and East playing each other eight times, while in the North, they will play each other nine or ten times. The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs, keeping the 16-team playoff the NHL has used intact. However, the NHL will still remain in these divisions throughout the playoffs until the semifinals. That means that the first two rounds of the playoffs will be played against teams in their own divisions, and that the third round of the playoffs will be the first time there will be non-divisional games.
So as the season is set to begin in a couple of weeks, let us look at the top teams in each division that should be able to secure one of those four spots to make the playoffs at the end of the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto should be the favorite to win the North division entering the season. They have a lot of talent up front with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. They also have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Frederik Andersen. The biggest weakness for the Leafs is their defense. Too many times last year did the Leafs rely on Anderson to bail them out when the offense was not producing. The Maple Leafs finished third in their division last year and lost in the qualifying round in the bubble to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Even though the Leafs still struggle to win a round in the playoffs, as they have not won a playoff series since 2004, they are built to succeed in the regular season. The Leafs young stars can no longer use age and experience as an excuse. They have everything they need to win a playoff round and compete for a Stanley Cup. The Leafs should have no problem qualifying for the playoffs and will have their best chance at winning a playoff series if they can lock up that first or second seed in the North division.
The Calgary Flames finished fourth in their division last season. The Flames played in the qualifying round, in which they beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 in the series, before losing to the Stanley Cup runner-up Dallas Stars in the first round. Calgary does have great players like Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano, but are not a good enough team to compete for a Stanley Cup. I believe the only lock to make the playoffs in the Canadian division is the Maple Leafs and would not be completely surprised if Calgary were one of the three teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. I do think that Calgary will make the playoffs though, as I believe they are a better team than both the Montreal Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets and will be able to hold on to the third or fourth seed in the division.
The Vancouver Canucks have not gotten the respect they deserve after a good regular season, finishing third in their division, and defeating the defending champions St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs. The Canucks ended up falling to the Golden Knights in the second round in seven games but showed that they have what it takes to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Elias Pettersson is the future star of the Canucks, and at only 22 years old, is already one of the best players on a playoff team. Another young star on the Canucks in 21-year-old defenseman Quin Hughes, who had 55 points in his first full season in the NHL. Vancouver is already one of the best Canadian teams in the league and also has the brightest future ahead. I believe that the Vancouver Canucks will be battling for the top seed with the Leafs and will finish the regular season as the one or two seed in the division and be ready to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The Edmonton Oilers is the best example for proving that hockey is a team sport and that one or two players cannot carry a team deep in the playoffs. The Oilers arguably have two of the best four players in the game currently in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, yet the team has underperformed expectations in the last few years.
The Oilers did finish second in their division last season but were beat by the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round. It was an embarrassing ending to the season, as Chicago was the 23rd best team in the league and only made it in because the NHL expanded the playoffs to 24 teams. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are going to produce like they always do, and they are going to be a great team in the regular season. However, I do not believe this team can do much in the playoffs, as McDavid and Draisaitl can only do so much. I expect Edmonton to finish as the third or fourth seed in the North and fall short of expectations once again come playoff time.
New York Islanders
The East division is the most competitive division out of the four. I believe the Islanders are the fourth best team in the division but can easily finish sixth in the group if other teams get on a run during the shortened season. The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are two other teams in the East division that are good enough to make the playoffs and even make a playoff run. However, I believe that the Islanders are just a bit better than these two teams and will be able to get one of the four playoff spots. The Islanders have one of the best coaches in the sport in Barry Trotz, who helped the Capitals capture their first Stanley Cup in 2018. Even after losing John Tavares in free agency, this team continues to outperform expectations.
The Islanders did not have the best regular season, finishing fifth in the division, but made it all the way to the conference finals before losing in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning. They have a balanced lineup, from the first line to the fourth line. They also have great players like Matthew Barzal who had 60 points last season, and Brock Nelson who had 54 points. Although not one of the most talented teams on paper, the combination of a balanced team and great coaching makes them tough to beat in the playoffs. I believe the Islanders finish as the third or fourth seed in the East division and should be a team to watch come playoff time if they do make it in.
Pittsburgh had a shocking ending to their season in the bubble, losing to the 24th best team in the league in the qualifying round, the Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins no longer look like the team that won three Stanley Cups and were dominant for about an 8-10-year span.
The Penguins are still a good team though, just as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are playing. Pittsburgh did finish third in the division last year, but the upset in the qualifying round is the bigger story. Can the Penguins make one or two more runs at it with Sidney Crosby? I think that it is possible, but with this current team, I do see them in the bottom group of playoff teams. I do still expect the Penguins to make the playoffs, but probably will finish the regular season as a three or four seed in the East division.
The Washington Capitals could be in the same boat as the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals won the Stanley Cup recently, winning in 2018, but have not done much since. They finished first in their division this past year, allowing them to avoid the qualifying round. However, once they played their first game in the playoffs, they looked like the team that had to go through the qualifying round. The New York Islanders consistently took control of each game throughout the series, taking out the Capitals in five games.
The Capitals are not the favorites to win the division this year but have proven the last two seasons that they are still one of the best regular season teams in the league. I believe that the Capitals could finish the regular season anywhere between the one and four seed but will most likely finish at either two or three.
The Bruins are the favorites to the win the division. Boston had the best regular season of all the teams in the league last season. Pasternak, Marchand, and Bergeron had amazing seasons last year, with Pasternak having the best among the three, finishing with 95 points in just 70 games. At just 23 years old, Pasternak is only just getting started. Although Marchand, Bergeron, and Krejci are in their 30’s, Boston does have some other young stars that make this team a contender now, and in the future.
Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie Coyle have proven that they are good players in this league and can be the leaders of this team once the veterans are gone. They do have some issues with the depth of their team, but so does almost every other team in the league. In the end, Boston is still one of the best teams in the league and should be the favorite to hold the one seed in the division after the regular season.
St. Louis Blues
The West division looks like the weakest division out of the four. San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim are not good enough to push for a top four seed. St. Louis should be considered the second or third best team in the West division. The Blues had no Stanley Cup hangover this past season, as they won their division and finished with the second most points in the league behind only Boston. The Blues were then beat in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks. So, although they did not have the playoff run they hoped for, they did have a great season before the coronavirus put a stop to it. I believe that the Blues will be just as competitive as they were last year before the hiatus, and that Ryan O’Reilly will lead them to the two seed in the West division.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the best teams in the league every year since they entered the league back in the 2017-2018 season. The biggest issue with this team is that they signed so many top free agents that they cannot keep all of them now. They are dealing with serious salary cap restrictions, and there have already been rumors about trading Max Pacioretty, who has three years left on his $7 million per year deal. To squeeze within the cap, the Golden Knights will have to carry a smaller roster, which could have some major risks especially with the coronavirus issues that have plagued teams in other leagues.
Although this issue cannot be ignored, Vegas will still have a talented team that includes Alex Pietrangelo, Robin Lehner, Shea Theodore, William Karlsson, and others, and should have no problem in the weak West division. Meeting expectations for the Golden Knights would be finishing inside the top two seeds in the West.
The slight favorite to win the division would be the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is a top five player in this league, and Cale Makar is proving to be one of the best young defensemen in the league. This team is built to win a Stanley Cup this upcoming season. They might not have a number one goaltender, but they have a really deep team throughout the lineup. The Avalanche had nine players with 30 or more points last season, and many of them missed time due to injuries. Colorado finished second in the division behind the Blues last season, but I expect the Avalanche to be the one seed if the team stays healthy in the shortened season.
The fourth spot in this division is a toss up between the Coyotes and the Minnesota Wild. I think Arizona has a slight edge over the Wild to be that number four seed because they are coming off an overall better season last year. Arizona won their qualifying round as an underdog against the Nashville Predators, and then fell to the Avalanche in the first round, while the Wild lost in the qualifying round to the Vancouver Canucks.
The Arizona Coyotes do not have any stars that can easily get 60+ points a year and be the leader of the team. Instead, the Coyotes have a balanced team of goal scorers, with 10 players having between 10-22 goals last season. Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller are the two most well-known players, but Nick Schmaltz is another name to watch, as he led the team with 45 points last season. I believe that Arizona can beat the bad teams of Los Angeles, San Jose, and Anaheim, and will have to play well against the Wild if they want that final playoff spot in the West division.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are the big favorites to win the Central division. They are coming off a Stanley Cup and have the best team in the league that includes stars Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Kucherov. Unfortunately, it was announced that last years leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov, would miss the entire regular season due to a hip injury in which he requires surgery. I believe that this injury will prevent the Lightning of winning the division, but they will still easily secure a playoff berth.
The Lightning do not just have one star, and will be able to stay near the top of the division as long as everyone else stays healthy. Do not forget that the Lightning also have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy. So, although the injury to Kucherov might hurt their chances of the top seed, they should have no problem grabbing the second seed and hoping that Kucherov returns for a deep playoff run.
I do not see Carolina as the team that can grab one of the top two spots in the group, even though they are favorites to finish second in the group. If you watch Carolina play against some of the best teams in the league like the Boston Bruins, you can tell that the Hurricanes are not at that level. The Boston Bruins handled the Hurricanes quite easily in the playoffs, defeating them in five games in the first round.
The Hurricanes are still a young team, as their top three points leaders from last season are 27, 23, and 20 years old. The Hurricanes may become one of the top three teams in the league in a couple years, but they are still behind teams like the Avalanche, Bruins, Lightning, Golden Knights, and Blues for now. I think that the Hurricanes’ ceiling is the second seed in the Central division, with a three or four seed being the most likely outcome.
If the Lightning are not the ones to win the division, it will be because of the Dallas Stars. Dallas will be seeking revenge as they lost to the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals this past year in six games. I believe the Stars should be the favorite to win this division. The Dallas Stars will be playing with a chip on their shoulder, remembering what it takes to make it to the finals, and getting within two games of winning the cup. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are in their prime years currently and both played great in the playoffs.
The greatest player on the Stars next year may not even be Seguin or Benn. If you watched the playoffs, you could see that Dallas has a future star defenseman in Miro Heiskanen, who led the team in points throughout the playoffs. At just 21 years old, he will be the key piece for the Dallas Stars this season and beyond. I believe that we will get a rematch of last years final, although it will have to be earlier in the playoffs. I believe we will get that rematch in the second round as Dallas and Tampa will lock up the top two seeds in the Central division.
Nashville seems to always find a way to get into the postseason. If you count the qualifying round as the playoffs, then the last time the Predators did not make the playoffs was in 2013-2014 season. They did not have a great year in 2020, finishing fourth in their division before losing to the Arizona Coyotes in the qualifying round. If you look at Nashville’s roster, they are set up similarly to Dallas. They have top players in Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, and Roman Josi, and made a similar run to the Stanley Cup final in 2017.
I do believe Nashville will be better this season than last season and push for the third seed in this division. Although Columbus is a good team in the division who could make the playoffs if one of these four teams struggle, I do believe Nashville is better than them and will earn a playoff spot. If Columbus does get into the playoffs, I think it is more likely that Carolina will be on the outside looking in rather than the Nashville Predators.