It was largely a quiet NHL offseason following the early-October draft and free agent frenzy, but the action has certainly picked up of late.
With the league and the players announcing their agreement on the framework for the 2020-21 NHL season, the news has been non-stop. Free agent dominos have since fallen, the league has released its schedule and injury news has made notable headlines as well.
While it’s a unique season across the board, one of the main takeaways from the 2020-21 season logistics is realignment. Indeed, we have four new-look divisions on our hands and plenty of rivalries are set to either be renewed or created thanks to a strict intradivision schedule for the regular season.
With that in mind, let’s begin part one of a four-part series previewing and digesting odds and predictions for each of the four realigned divisions, beginning here with the Central Division.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
NHL Central Division Breakdown
The Central Division saw the blender more than any other group in the league as three previous divisions are represented here with teams from the Atlantic, Metropolitan and (former) Central divisions getting together for the 2020-21 season.
It looks like this:
Tampa Bay Lightning – Carolina Hurricanes – Dallas Stars – Nashville Predators – Columbus Blue Jackets – Florida Panthers – Chicago Blackhawks – Detroit Red Wings
Again, we have three teams from the Atlantic (Lightning, Panthers, Red Wings), two from the Metro (Hurricanes, Blue Jackets) and three from the former Central (Stars, Predators, Blackhawks) forming the new-look Central this season.
Now, let’s briefly touch on each club and their division odds before we get into some predictions.
On Wednesday, the Lightning announced that superstar Nikita Kucherov would miss the 2020-21 regular season, although a postseason return is possible. It’s tough pill to swallow for the defending champs, but Tampa Bay still sports one of the deepest rosters in the league.
The defense lost pieces in Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian, but Victor Hedman remains a Norris Trophy favorite after a dominant postseason and Andrei Vasilevskiy is on the short list of the league’s elite netminders.
🔟 goals for Victor Hedman in these #StanleyCup Playoffs.
Only defensemen with more in one playoff year?
Paul Coffey: 12
Brian Leetch: 11
That’s some good company. pic.twitter.com/nEohjQuLMT
— NHL (@NHL) September 24, 2020
We’ll likely get some Steven Stamkos injury updates in short order after he briefly appeared in just one postseason game, but the Lighting absolutely remain the team to beat in what appears to be the weakest division in the league.
No doubt the Hurricanes benefited from the league’s realignment, moving out of the murderer’s row that was the Metropolitan Division and into a group with far less competition.
It was largely a quiet offseason for Rod Brind’Amour’s club, but the Hurricanes have been one of the top possession teams in hockey for the last few seasons and sport an excellent group of defenders that remains the strength of the roster.
The forward group is more than capable, led by the top-line trio of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen. The goaltending duo of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek is the team’s most glaring weakness, although the stout defense in front of them has mitigated what could be a major problem for a team certainly boasting postseason aspirations.
Dallas Stars (+500)
Fresh off a run to the Stanley Cup Final, you would usually have high expectations for this Stars team. While they’re still among the favorites to win this division, the injury front has not been kind to the reigning Western Conference champs.
Both Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop are out long-term after each undergoing surgeries this offseason. That’s your best offensive player and No. 1 goalie hitting Injured Reserve (IR). The Stars can ill afford to lose their top offensive player from an offense that ranked 26th last season while the Bishop injury removes one piece of an elite tandem alongside Anton Khudobin. It also means that rookie goaltender Jake Oettinger is in for notable work in a condensed schedule. Despite his first-round pedigree, it’s still a major step back from Bishop.
— NHL (@NHL) September 7, 2020
The Stars were one of the best defensive teams in hockey last season and their key blueline pieces remain, which will help hide a weakness in goal on some nights, as well as an anemic offense. However, after enjoying plenty of success this summer, the Stars are littered with question marks this upcoming season.
Nashville Predators (+650)
The Preds sat idly by as the likes of Craig Smith, Mikael Granlund, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and Austin Watson departed their forward group. Of course, Turris, Bonino and Watson were traded, but one had to wonder what David Poile’s plan was with an offense utterly lacking depth and secondary scoring ability behind the top-line trio of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.
We got some answers over the last 24 hours as the team re-signed Granlund and also added the top remaining free-agent center in Erik Haula to one-year deals.
The offense remains unimpressive, but there’s reason to believe their defense and goaltending should significantly improve from last season. Whether that can make up for an apparent lack of offensive firepower remains to be seen.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+750)
They upset the Maple Leafs in the qualifying round and despite a first-round exit at the hands of the future Cup-champion Lightning, it was a wildly successful season for a team many had written off from the get-go.
The team added notable depth down the middle in the trade for Max Domi and signing of two-way veteran Mikko Koivu. They remain a defense-first team, however, with sound structure in their own end to be sure.
My biggest question is whether the goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins can repeat their heroic efforts from last season, combing for a .913 Sv% that put them in a four-way tie for fourth in the league.
— Alison (@AlisonL) August 8, 2020
Florida Panthers (+800)
The Panthers made a valiant effort to get close to a postseason spot before the league shutdown in March, sitting just three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third in the Atlantic despite an .899 Sv% from their goaltending, good for a share of 26th league wide.
While it’s hard to envision Sergei Bobrovsky being worst in his second season with the team, the Panthers appeared to have lost plenty of firepower from an offense that ranked sixth in the league last season.
Evgenii Dadonov signed with the Ottawa Senators in free agency and Mike Hoffman remains the top free agent on the market. If Hoffman signs elsewhere, that’s the top two goal-scorers from last year’s club gone.
With an offense laced with inexperience and therefore question marks, it stands to reason the Panthers will need a major improvement in the goaltending department to have a chance this season.
Chicago Blackhawks (+1200)
The Blackhawks are in the middle of a self-declared re-tool, and it was announced today that 22-year-old winger Alex Nylander will miss the regular season after undergoing meniscus surgery on his left knee.
The Blackhawks allowed the most shots per game last season, and an uninspiring defense corps combined with arguably the worst goaltending tandem in the NHL in Malcolm Subban and Colin Delia could produce disastrous year-end defensive numbers.
The forward group remains talented with Patrik Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, Dylan Strome and Kirby Dach giving that group hope. That said, given the state of the back end, it’s going to be a struggle for these Blackhawks this season.
Detroit Red Wings (+2500)
In a change of pace, the Red Wings plan to use some NHL-caliber players this season. They added the likes of Bobby Ryan, Vladislav Namestnikov, Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Thomas Greiss to a roster that yielded historically poor results a season ago.
There’s actually reason to believe the Greiss/Jonathan Bernier goaltending duo will give this team a chance to win, and the offense boasts some quality young talent in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri and Filip Zadina.
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) January 19, 2020
We won’t mistake this roster for a competitor, but Red Wings games will be far more watchable than they were a season ago.
NHL Central Division Predictions
Now, let’s roll out some predictions on who should win the Central while offering up a value play in case an upset is to be had.
Tampa Bay Lightning (+125)
As a result of the Nikita Kucherov season-ending injury announcement, Tampa Bay saw a slight odds shift from +115 to +125 to win the Central. It’s not much, but I’ll take the additional value all day long.
Kucherov is out, and we don’t even know the status of Stamkos for the 2020-21 season. He was unable to play as recently as late October, so what’s changed between then and now remains to be seen.
However, I’m not sleeping on the value that is presented here. In any other division, I could see the Lightning falling out of the top spot, but not in the Central. I agree with the notion that the Hurricanes are the biggest threat to the Central Division crown, but as a group this division is the worst in the league.
The Stars’ injuries likely hit harder than that of Kucherov and the re-addition of Granlund and the Haula signing don’t make up for what that forward group has lost in Nashville. I do see improvement in their defensive numbers with goaltending likely regressing back to the mean next year, but the Preds are not the same powerhouse they were a few years back.
The Lightning will pound on the Blackhawks and Red Wings throughout the season while positive regression for Bobrovsky will not make up for what the Panthers lost on offense. Tampa remains the far superior club in the battle of Florida.
The Blue Jackets are always a tough out, and the Predators, Panthers, Stars and Hurricanes are not pushovers.
Nonetheless, we’re still getting quality odds on an elite Tampa Bay Lightning team to take down a weak Central Division this season.
Carolina Hurricanes (+375)
The picks aren’t sexy as the top two teams on the board, but if there’s a team that can take down the powerhouse Lightning, it’s the pesky Hurricanes.
Aho, Svechnikov and Teravainen are quietly one of the better lines in the NHL while the likes of Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Ryan Dzingel and Warren Foegele aren’t the worst group of secondary scorers you’ll see.
AREA OF STRENGTH
That said, the obvious stretch of this roster is on the blueline where Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner and youngster Haydn Fleury form one of the best units in the NHL. The team added Joakim Ryan as insurance while top defensive prospect Jake Bean could factor into the mix as the season moves along as well.
At 5v5 last season, the Hurricanes ranked second in corsi against/60, sixth in shots against/60 and eighth in scoring chances against/60, as per Natural Stat Trick. They didn’t fare as well in the high-danger chances against or expected goals against departments, but as a group the Hurricanes’ defense is one of the most impenetrable groups the NHL has to offer.
There’s also a good chance we’re overstating the apparent weakness in goal. Sure, Reimer and Mrazek aren’t the best duo in the league, but they also finished right in the middle of the pack with a .903 Sv% that tied the Philadelphia Flyers for 16th a season ago.
Reimer actually enjoyed a solid season that included a 2.66 GAA and .914 Sv% in 25 games, and while Mrazek’s .905 Sv% tied for 16th among 22 goalies that played at least 40 games last season, the Hurricanes have proved that they don’t need elite goaltending to succeed, but simply good enough goaltending.
— NHL (@NHL) January 12, 2020
They’re in tough to win the division over the Lightning, but if anyone is to pull off the upset, the Hurricanes are the best bet and an excellent bet to earn a postseason berth as a top-four team in the Central.