What do you get when you combine the Stanley Cup champs and their runners-up, then add in a bunch of jerks and a couple of rebuilds? You get the new-look Central Division for the 2020-21 NHL season.
The lone division to keep its original name, this year’s edition of the Central looks a lot different from the heavyweight Central we know know and fear. It’s a bit of a melting pot featuring three Atlantic clubs, a pair of Metropolitan teams and just three holdovers from the original Central.
Already, this one’s ripe for strong rivalries: We’ll have Stanley Cup Final rematches on the regular, and Carolina will test its grit against a few heavyweights. Two very different rebuilds — one well underway in Detroit and one just starting in Chicago — will see plenty of head-to-head comparisons and we’ll see how many of Columbus’s secrets Bill Zito brought over to Florida when he took the GM job with the Panthers.
Here’s a look at each team in this COVID-era Central Division, complete with best- and worst-case scenarios for the 56-game season ahead.
2019-20 record: 38-25-5, fourth in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: emerged from play-in round, eliminated in first round by Boston
2019-20 top scorer: Sebastian Aho (38G, 28A, 66 PTS)
Major off-season additions: F Jesper Fast
Major off-season losses: F Justin Williams (retired), D Trevor Van Riemsdyk, D Joel Edmundson, D Sami Vatanen
Best-case scenario: Andrei Svechnikov builds on last season’s brilliance and jumps from young star to full-on superstar status and one half of one of the league’s most dynamic duos alongside scoring leader Sebastian Aho. The addition of Jesper Fast spurs the development of youngster Martin Necas while Vincent Trochek, feeling more at home in Carolina, looks a little more like the Vincent Trocheck we saw in 2017-2018. Though the flashy forwards hit all the highlight notes, it’s the defence that continues to drive this team. Clean bills of health for Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce, alongside elite rearguard Jaccob Slavin, propel Carolina deep into the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: While minimal off-season moves suits this strong group of skaters just fine, not addressing the crease could come back to haunt them. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer put up decent numbers in 2019-20, but neither was known for stealing games. This season more than ever, goalie depth will be key. Without it, Carolina could wind up once again in the messy middle of the standings.
2019-20 record: 32-30-8, last in Central
2019-20 finish: Stunned Edmonton in the qualifiers, eliminated by Vegas in Round 1
2019-20 top scorer: Patrick Kane (33G, 51A, 84 PTS)
Major off-season additions: D Nikita Zadorov, F Lucas Wallmark, F Mattias Janmark
Major off-season losses: G Corey Crawford, F Brandon Saad, D Olli Maatta
Best-case scenario: You know, the last time we had a shortened season starting in January…
OK, fine. Realistically, the Blackhawks made it clear that this is a rebuild — complete with a letter to their fans — which basically guarantees it won’t be an easy season. However, with a core of veterans already in place, GM Stan Bowman isn’t totally starting from scratch in terms of building this roster, but a long list of injuries is a big setback. The emergence of Kirby Dach will have to wait after Team Canada’s world juniors captain was injured on the eve of the tournament, and captain Jonathan Toews’ undisclosed illness means embarking on a rebuild without both your top young player and franchise cornerstone. This will be a season of assessing what’s there, and any victories will likely be moral.
Worst-case scenario: With the exception of the New York Rangers, who lured in the top UFA last off-season and followed it up with the first-overall draft pick, rebuilds don’t often go smoothly. Patrick Kane can work his magic upfront, but an unstable situation in net with the inexperienced tandem of Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban sees even the best offensive efforts frittered away too often. All those losses prove to be a strain, and the veterans start questioning if they’re in this for the long haul.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2019-20 record: 33-22-15, fifth in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Ousted Toronto in qualifiers, fell to eventual Cup champs in Round 1
2019-20 top scorer: Pierre-Luc Dubois (18G, 31A, 49 PTS)
Major off-season additions: F Max Domi, F Mikko Koivu, F Mikhail Grigorenko
Major off-season losses: F Josh Anderson, F Alexander Wennberg (buyout)
Best-case scenario: The addition of Max Domi is just the ticket to jumpstart one of the lowest-scoring offences in the league. Armed with a new deal, RFA Pierre-Luc Dubois leads the club in scoring again and continues to grow into his role as one of the top power forwards in the game (auditioning for another market, maybe?). Seth Jones is finally recognized as one of the finest d-men in the league, earning Norris consideration. Turns out, GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s smartest move is the one he didn’t do — after speculation that one of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins would be on the move, Columbus kept both and has one of the most underrated tandems in the league in a year when tandems are particularly crucial. A long playoff campaign convinces Dubois to do what others before him didn’t: Stay.
Worst-case scenario: The situation with Dubois continues throughout the season, and the same question they faced with the impending departure of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky two year ago returns with the young power forward: Keep him and try to contend? Or hope his value hikes and deal him away? In a year short on time, the club cannot afford to have its biggest offensive star start slow. Strange as this season will likely feel, there will be much to be learned about Columbus.
2019-20 record: 37-24-8, third in Central
2019-20 finish: Two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup
2019-20 top scorer: Tyler Seguin (17G, 33A, 50 PTS)
Major off-season additions: D Mark Pysyk
Major off-season losses: F Corey Perry, F Mattias Janmark
Best-case scenario: After heartbreak in the bubble, Dallas knows what it takes to win. Captain Jamie Benn returns to his 2017-2018 self, Miro Heiskanen picks up where he left off in the playoffs to claim the Norris and Dallas’ secondary scorers show up on a nightly basis to fill the gap left by Tyler Seguin as he recovers from surgery. The Stars’ first full year under no-longer-interim head coach Rick Bowness yields a return to the Cup Final — and a victorious outcome, this time.
Worst-case scenario: Losing leading scorer Tyler Seguin and goaltender Ben Bishop for at least the first two months of the season would be tough any year but in a shortened campaign like this one, it spells trouble. Backup-turned-starter (and fan favourite) Anton Khudobin shone in the playoffs, but Bishop’s absence leaves no room for error while Seguin’s absence all but guarantees Dallas’s scoring woes won’t be solved. Even thoughHeiskanen works his magic and the defence remains elite, the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover rears its ugly head, and repeated matchups against division addition Tampa Bay just rubs salt in the wound.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2019-20 record: 17-49-5, last in NHL
2019-20 finish: Missed playoffs, got robbed of No. 1 overall pick
2019-20 top scorer: Dylan Larkin (19G, 34A, 53 PTS)
Major off-season additions: F Bobby Ryan, F Vladislav Namestnikov, D Marc Staal, D Troy Stecher, D Jon Merrill, G Thomas Greiss
Major off-season losses: F Justin Abdelkader (buyout), F Brendan Perlini, D Trevor Daley (retired), G Jimmy Howard
Best-case scenario: This one’s tough, as a rebuilding team’s idea of success isn’t always the best-case scenario, but with much of GM Steve Yzerman’s tear-down complete, we start seeing the young guns get their chances. Guided by veterans like Bobby Ryan and Marc Staal and pushed offensively by professional rebuilder Vladislav Namestnikov, we start to see the foundation of what Detroit can be. Moral victories aren’t the only wins here.
Worst-case scenario: The team limps through the season with few victories — moral or otherwise — ready to claim their rightful place atop the draft board only to have a bunch of ping pong balls declare otherwise and send the game’s top prospect to New York. Wait a sec…
2019-20 record: 35-26-8, fourth in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Eliminated by Islanders in play-in round
2019-20 top scorer: Jonathan Huberdeau (23G, 55A, 78 PTS)
Major off-season additions: F Anthony Duclair, F Patric Hornqvist, F Alexander Wennberg, F Carter Verhaeghe, D Radko Gudas
Major off-season losses: F Evgenii Dadonov, F Mike Hoffman, F Erik Haula, F Lucas Wallmark, D Mike Matheson
Best-case scenario: The Bill Zito era begins, and it turns out to be the change-up needed to get this team out of the messy middle and into contention. The Sergei Bobrvosky Florida thought they signed last off-season shows up and his confidence sparks a hot streak. Anthony Duclair’s bet on himself pays off (for both his own wallet and Florida’s fate), and helps fill the void left by Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman.
Worst-case scenario: Letting productive goal-scorers Hoffman and Dadonov walk in free agency opened the door for someone new to step into that role, only the influx of new faces up front makes this group slow to gel. Bobrovsky’s struggles continue, and his massive deal weighs heavy on the books. Zito’s first season on the job creates even more questions about the direction of this team.
2019-20 record: 35-26-8, fifth in Central
2019-20 finish: Eliminated by Arizona in play-in round
2019-20 top scorer: Roman Josi (16G, 49A, 65 PTS)
Major off-season additions: F Nick Cousins, F Brad Richardson, D Mark Borowiecki, D Matt Benning, F Luke Kunin, Erik Haula
Major off-season losses: F Nick Bonino, F Kyle Turris (buyout), F Craig Smith
Best-case scenario: GM David Poile’s busy off-season lacked the kind of big swings on big-name free agents we’re used to seeing — and that’s a good thing. Instead, he reframed his core of Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis with complementary depth pieces like Erik Haula and Mark Borowiecki and up-and-comer Luke Kunin, which could allow his stars to shine without attempting to completely overhaul the roster.
Worst-case scenario: He may not have made the big signings or trades we often see, but Poile’s roster moves still created a sizeable shift in the locker room. Particularly, letting Craig Smith, an underrated secondary scorer and longtime contributor, walk away for nothing could hurt. Scoring woes continue, and Poile preaches — and acts upon — more change to come as this club continues to head in the wrong direction.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2019-20 record: 43-21-6, second in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Won the Stanley Cup!
2019-20 top scorer: Nikita Kucherov (33G, 52A, 85 PTS)
Major off-season additions: None
Major off-season losses: D Kevin Shattenkirk, D Zach Bogosian, F Carter Verhaeghe
Best-case scenario: The new kids in the division jump straight up to the top of the food chain without regular-season champs like Boston to best them. A healthy, well-rested Steven Stamkos is ready to dominate a new division, while Brayden Point steps into the leading scorer’s role and newly signed Anthony Cirelli shows us all why the hype around him was real. Victor Hedman re-activates Conn Smythe mode every time they play their new divisional foes in Dallas. Tyler Johnson rebounds with an expanded role after a long off-season of speculation. Once healthy, Nikita Kucherov returns and runs it back for championship No. 2.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 21, 2020
Worst-case scenario: Kucherov’s season-opening stint on LTIR, while a temporary cap space blessing, leaves Tampa Bay without its leading scorer as the team contends with a Stanley Cup hangover. A heavy rotation of opponents on the regular begins to take its toll, and while Tampa is still a top contender by season’s end, they’re ousted early by a Dallas club who knows them all too well.