On Sunday, the NHL released preliminary information on its upcoming campaign. The league will kick off a 56-game regular season on January 13, start its playoffs on May 11, and award the Stanley Cup – if all goes according to plan – in July. Of course, in the COVID-19 era, everything is subject to change.
What’s new and exciting? The 2020-2021 campaign calls for a temporary realignment due to border closures. The seven Canadian NHL teams are expected to form a single Northern Division, while the 24 American clubs will be divided into three other divisions – East, Center and West.
Here are some initial thoughts on the four new groups.
Teams: Canadiens, Canucks, Flames, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Senators
You can safely say that the Canadian teams have been lucky, given that the top four clubs from each division advance to the playoffs and the North division has only seven teams. At the same time, you can safely say that they were unlucky, because at the moment the North is the most difficult division to handicap.
Forget the All-Canadian label; it should be known as the All-Chaos Division.
It is true that none of Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal are leading the contenders for the Cup. Still, in a normal season with 82 games and traditional divisions, all six franchises will absolutely fight for a playoff berth. And the difference in top-end talent and depth between the six teams is essentially negligible. Something will have to give, every night.
The Flames, Canadiens and Jets all have top-notch goaltenders. The Maple Leafs, Canucks and Oilers all have offensive dynamos in Auston Matthews, Elias Pettersson and Connor McDavid. And every team is flawed in one way or another. Take Toronto, for example. Based on how all Canadian clubs now look on paper, the Leafs Probably deserves the slight advantage. But their recent playoff history inspires the opposite of confidence, so, again, there’s little to no difference to be found …
Ottawa is another story. Senators are still rebuilding, but they should not be taken lightly. They proved tough in 2019-20 under the guidance of new head coach DJ Smith, and in the future, the Sens will be breaking out at the seams with hungry youngsters. After a productive offseason, it’s not outrageous to think that Ottawa could make their way to sixth place in the North. A string of bad luck and / or a string of injuries could dampen the momentum of any of the playoff-worthy teams during the truncated season.
The division’s main rivalry is clearly the Battle of Alberta, or super devastating Matthew Tkachuk against inter-provincial buddies from Calgary to Edmonton. The Flames and Oilers generally meet four times a year; in 2020-2021, it will be more than double. The schedule has yet to be released, but the Canadian teams will face each other nine or ten times over a four-month period. For that reason, keep your eyes peeled for the Toronto-Vancouver season series as well. There is no way the fans and the media in both cities could behave.
The main takeaway: The realignment ensures that a Canadian team will only advance to the final for the fourth time in 10 years. It’s fair to say that Canada – who last saw one of their teams win the Cup in 1993 – will take those chances.
Équipes: Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Penguins, Rangers, Sabres
While the North is made up of six good but not great teams plus Ottawa, the East is projecting similarly, but with New Jersey replacing the Senators as the division’s only non-threat and Buffalo playing the role of the disruptive wild card. .
The Normal Metropolitan Division was scheduled to be a dogfight in 2020-2021, and now Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington and both New York teams face Boston, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winner. On the flip side, maybe we should temper our expectations for the Bruins, given the departure of Torey Krug (and possibly Zdeno Chara), long-term layoffs for offensive spark plugs Brad Marchand. and David Pastrnak, and general wear and tear. a consistently elite team that has played a ton of hockey over the past decade. It’s hard to know how good (or bad) Boston will be when the club is faced with 56 hard-contested regular-season games.
The Sabers, meanwhile, will come out of a 10-month hiatus and be featured by the explosive acquisition of former MVP Taylor Hall. And while the overall strength of the roster is questionable, at best Buffalo’s top six forwards – Hall, Jack Eichel, Eric Staal, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and Victor Olofsson / Dylan Cozens – could do some serious damage. In the end, it might not be enough to tip the boat in this revamped subway, even in a small sample, but the Sabers’ appeal is real. Oh, and don’t forget Rasmus Dahlin.
From a league perspective, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins meeting Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals eight times – or, on average, twice a month – to start 2021, will be awesome. Crosby’s 33, Ovechkin’s 35; generational talent will not share the ice forever. Cherish this must-see action rush.
Équipes: Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers, Predators, Red Wings, Stars
Currently, “predictable” is the best descriptor for the plant.
The Lightning will probably finish first in the standings; Carolina and Dallas will likely end up in second and third place, respectively, with both clubs fitting the “scary to full potential” mold quite well; and Columbus and Nashville will surely be jockey for last place in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets, led by Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and two young goalkeepers, are more reliable than the spitting Predators at this point, so even the drama surrounding fourth place should be toned down.
This leaves Chicago, Detroit, and Florida out of the chase. It’s possible the Panthers will pull themselves together and find themselves competing in meaningful games for once, but that should coincide with the underperformance of Nashville and Columbus. In other words, there’s a clear rift between Central’s top five and bottom three, and the end-of-season gap between the Lightning and modest Red Wings is set to be gigantic.
The realignment robbed us of the potential for a 2020 Cup Finals rematch. The fact that the Lightning and Stars compete in eight regular-season competitions is great consolation, however, and you wonder if any tension in the six-game bubble streak will spill over into the new campaign.
Équipes: Avalanche, Blues, Coyotes, Canards, Golden Knights, Kings, Sharks, Wild
The first thing that comes to mind after scanning the West Division is the solid chance that the Cup will be presented to one of those clubs if the NHL can make it to July. Vegas and Colorado are arguably two of the top three teams in the league, and St. Louis is also in the top 10.
It will be very interesting to watch the West standings and see who among those three teams claim the seed ahead of what should be the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Golden Knights are firmly in a win-now mode; the Avalanche is on a seemingly unstoppable trajectory; and the Blues are only two years away from a Cup victory. At the individual player level, there’s no reason Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon shouldn’t continue to defend Best Player on the Planet honors, while Alex Pietrangelo is set to make his Vegas debut after a 12 year race. with Saint Louis. It is possible that the Art Ross, Hart, Lindsay and Norris trophies will be awarded to players in the West.
Minnesota and Arizona are set to fight for fourth place in the playoffs, with the three California teams appearing tied for sixth, seventh and eighth in that heaviest division. Two side plots related to Cali out of the gate: 1) Are the Sharks playing in San Jose or a safer community? And 2) Is the Evander Kane-Ryan Reaves rivalry alive and well in 2021?
John Matisz is the National Hockey Editor for theScore. Contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) ou via Twitter (@MatiszJohn).