With the Canadian border expected to remain closed to the United States due to COVID-19 restrictions, the NHL will likely be forced to construct an all-Canadian division for the 2020-21 regular season. This realignment would substantially shake up each of the NHL’s four current divisions, as the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets would only be able to face off against each other.
At the moment, the NHL is looking at a Central Division that would include the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Only Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis would remain in the division. The Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and Minnesota Wild are expected to move to the Western Division, while the Jets will join the six other teams north of the border in the Canadian Division.
A realignment of the Central Division would not do the Blackhawks any favors. Not only would they have to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning more often, but the Penguins, Blue Jackets, and Panthers are three competitive teams that will be in contention for a playoff spot next season. In a normal year, the Central would have been tough enough. Now, four of the past five teams to win the Stanley Cup are in the same division. Great. The only positive takeaway from the realignment is the return of the Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry, which, sadly, will not be nearly as intense as the early to mid-2010s.
Here are my projections of the final Central Division standings for the 2020-21 regular season under a realignment:
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
A couple of months removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the Lightning have all of their core players returning to the team in 2020-21, not to mention captain Steven Stamkos coming back from injury. Tampa Bay had enough depth to win the Cup last season without their superstar captain. That is scary to think about. Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy all will be back next year, along with a majority of their championship roster. Defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian are their only two (semi) significant losses this offseason. The Lightning are poised to be fighting for the Stanley Cup once again in 2020-21, and by the looks of their roster, they will have a strong shot to repeat. I expect them to cruise through the regular season and come out on top of the Central Division.
2. St. Louis Blues
St. Louis came out of the COVID-19 pause flat and fell to the young Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2020 postseason. However, prior to the pandemic, the Blues coasted through their opponents and were the top team in the Western Conference, even without stud goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko. Captain Alex Pietrangelo is no longer around after he “got the bag” this offseason from the Vegas Golden Knights, but the Blues countered by signing veteran blue-liner Torey Krug to a seven-year deal in free agency. Ryan O’Reilly, Colton Parayko, and most of their other core pieces from the 2019 Stanley Cup team are still around, and if Jordan Binnington can get hot, the Blues will be a difficult team to beat. It will be tough with Tarasenko once again expected to miss a huge portion of the season, but St. Louis has the depth to put a run together without him. The Blues are locked in as the second-best team in this realigned Central Division.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Since winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016-17, the Penguins have been a middle-of-the-pack team in the Eastern Conference. Similar to the Blackhawks, most of their superstar core remains intact, but the depth pieces have not been able to provide enough support. As a result, Pittsburgh brought in Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen, Michael Matheson, and Cody Ceci to give the team a new look this season. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still leading the charge up front, plus a healthy Jake Guentzel, scoring should not be an issue for the Pens. Kris Letang, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Brian Dumoulin — along with Matheson and Ceci — will give Pittsburgh a solid defensive group as well. The starting goaltender position has been a question mark since Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by Vegas in the Expansion Draft, and with Matt Murray now signed to Ottawa, the Penguins will turn to Tristan Jarry in net. If Jarry can rise to the occasion, the Pens will be a top team in the Central Division. If goaltending is a problem though, they will struggle to keep up with elite teams. I expect an up-and-down season for both Jarry and the Penguins in 2020-21.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
Despite losing Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovskiy, AND Matt Duchene in free agency, the Blue Jackets were tied for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20 before the COVID-19 pause. No matter what the roster looks like, Jackets head coach John Tortorella always seems to get the absolute most out of his team. Columbus did not make much noise during free agency, but they did trade Josh Anderson to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Max Domi, which should help them offensively. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are back to anchor the defense, while Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, and captain Nick Foligno will lead the offense. A contract still needs to be worked out with Pierre-Luc Dubois, but a deal is expected to be reached. The strength of Columbus down the stretch last season came from their two goaltenders, Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. There were rumors that Columbus was going to trade one of the two this offseason, but they decided to hold onto both. If Merzlikins and Korpisalo can play how they did in the second half of last season, the Blue Jackets are going to surprise a lot of teams in 2020-21. I don’t expect them to compete for the Stanley Cup, but I do think they will be a playoff contender in the Central Division.
5. Nashville Predators
After dismantling the top-seeded Blackhawks in the first round of the 2017 postseason, the Predators went on a two-year run where they were arguably the top team in the Western Conference. Nashville was on the cusp of greatness, but they now have not won a playoff series since 2018 and appear to be heading in the wrong direction. They still have plenty of talent with Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and captain Roman Josi, but the Duchene signing has been a flop so far, and goaltender Pekka Rinne is on a rapid decline. The pieces are there for the Predators to be competitive in 2020-21, but they lack enough depth to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Nashville will be in the middle of the pack next season.
6. Florida Panthers
The biggest wildcard of the group, the Panthers could slot anywhere from third to seventh in the Central Division. They have plenty of superstar talent on offense with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and while Aaron Ekblad has not quite lived up to the hype of a No. 1 overall pick, he has grown into a solid top-pairing defenseman next to veteran Keith Yandle. The addition of Bobrovsky in goal did not go as planned last season, but he is still one of the best in the business and should bounce back. What will dictate the Panthers’ success next season in my opinion is their depth scoring department. Forwards Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly, and Frank Vatrano played well last season, but Evgenii Dadonov’s departure leaves a big hole for those players to fill. Florida brought in Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, and former Blackhawk Vinnie Hinostroza to help address this issue, but I do not think it will be enough to swing the Panthers into a playoff spot. Regardless, Florida is one of those weird teams that could hit a hot stretch and catapult themselves near the top of the division. I do not expect that to happen, but I would not be surprised if it did.
7. Chicago Blackhawks
*sigh* The fact of the matter is that the Blackhawks lost Brandon Saad and Corey Crawford this offseason, and it will be very difficult to compete with the top teams in the league with those spots still empty. The Blackhawks were bad with Saad and Crawford. If you are having trouble imagining life without them, just wait until the 2020-21 regular season. It may not be pretty. All jokes aside, the Blackhawks are now openly committed to their youth, which will result in a lot of new faces getting an opportunity to play next year. Of course, the Blackhawks would love to make the postseason, but that is not their goal at the moment. The goal is now about developing the young players properly to try and become a Stanley Cup contender once again. The wins and losses in 2020-21 will not dictate success for the Chicago Blackhawks. With that mentality, you can expect the Blackhawks to be near the bottom of the standings in the Central Division.
8. Detroit Red Wings
The rebuilding process has been an absolute disaster in Detroit, but finally, the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to peak out. Filip Zadina should be a full-time NHLer next season and will help Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha tremendously on offense. Michael Rasmussen and Joe Veleno are two other young forwards that could provide a spark, and defenseman Moritz Seider is a year closer in his development and may even crack the Wings’ lineup at some point. The tough part for Detroit is the rest of their NHL roster. Darren Helm and Valterri Filppula will finally be off the payroll at the end of this season, but they will be regulars in Detroit’s lineup once again. As will Frans Nielsen, who has two years remaining on his current deal. Once Detroit is able to shed those horrendous contracts, they will have plenty of money to give Larkin, Mantha, and co. adequate help. Until that point, the Red Wings will be a bottom-feeder in the NHL. I expect Detroit to finish last in any division they play in next season.