Nothing is set in stone, but we’re starting to see what a potential 2020-21 NHL season might look like.
We know the league is targeting Jan. 13 as its start date. We know that would come with 10-day training camps and a 56-game schedule, if all goes to plan.
We also know that hub cities have been suggested by the United States’ most senior infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
There’s also one topic that has been steadily in the NHL news cycle of late: realignment.
The Canada/U.S. border isn’t about to open up any time soon, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the media it was ‘likely’ there would be an all-Canadian division in 2021. We saw that coming from a mile away.
Given the likelihood of the seven Canadian teams huddling up north of the border for the season, it would force the 24 American clubs to realign as well. Of course, it would be done with limiting travel as the top priority.
Among others things, the unique season’s realignment could spark some serious rivalries and generate more interest in the league given the likelihood of the newly-formed divisions largely playing against one another, and in the all-Canadian Division, exclusively against one another.
So, we thought it might be a fun exercise to check out what the reported realigned division would look like and rank them based on the overall competitiveness of the division relative to the others.
Without any more hesitation, let’s get into it!
Ranking the NHL’s Proposed Realigned Divisions
First, let’s check out what the proposed divisions look like at this point in time.
Boston-Buffalo-New Jersey-NY Islanders-NY Rangers-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington
We’ll call this one the East. It’s largely the Metropolitan Division, except you’re swapping the Bruins and Sabres in for the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets. While rivalries should increase across the league this season, this division already has plenty of them.
This is a pretty mashed up group, and we’ll call it the Central. Here we have teams from three separate divisions. The Hurricanes and Blue Jackets come from the Metropolitan, the Blackhawks, Wild and Predators from the Central and the Red Wings and Lightning from the Atlantic. If rivalries are your jam, this division might not be your cup of tea.
Anaheim-Arizona-Colorado-Dallas-Los Angeles-Las Vegas-San Jose-St. Louis*.
Here we have the West. I’ll call it at as all eight of these clubs are a mix of the Central and Pacific Divisions with the Pacific sending five of the eight teams into this group.
And of course, the all-Canadian Division. It’s possible the U.S. clubs play games outside their division next season, but this Canadian division will not. That could create some serious havoc and hatred, or in other words, a hockey fan’s dream.
*According to Sportsnet, there is some debate around Minnesota and St. Louis, so this format is not set in stone quiet yet. We’ll move forward with this alignment for the time being.
Now, I give you my rankings.
1. East Division
As I spoke to not long ago, current Stanley Cup futures tell us that the Metropolitan Division is the best in the NHL, and all we’ve done is add the 2020 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins to the mix along with an improved Sabres team, at least on paper.
Of the eight teams in the division, seven sport serious postseason aspirations, the Devils coming in as the lone non-contender in what should be a long 56-game trek in the swamp.
The Bruins, Capitals and Penguins would fall into the ‘perennial contender’ category. The Bruins might regress early as both David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand will be out for at least the first month of the season (assuming a Jan.13 start), but one those superstars return, they’re full-bore.
The Capitals will largely return the same roster that won the Metropolitan Division last year, although with Thursday’s heartbreaking news that Henrik Lundqvist is out for the season due to a heart condition, the goaltending picture is unclear with youngster Ilya Samsonov still set to take over in goal given the anticipated free-agent departure of Braden Holtby.
I’m bullish on the Penguins as a team that could be even better next season after some savvy offseason moves on behalf of general manager Jim Rutherford. After all, they finished third in a competitive Metro last season.
After surging just two points shy of the Capitals for the division lead last season but also pacing the Metro with a +36 goal differential, the Flyers are in a category with the Bruins, Capitals and Penguins to be sure.
Of course, don’t you dare write off the Islanders as long as Barry Trotz is behind the bench. Trotz is the favorite win the Jack Adams Award at +600 over at BetOnline for a reason as his clubs are always competitive, and the Islanders have been as dangerous as anyone in this group over the last two seasons.
That leaves the Rangers and Sabres, two teams that have seemingly improved. The Rangers were a team that was hurt by the stoppage in play last season as they were surging up the Eastern Conference standings towards a Wild Card spot, only to have the league pause followed by a 3-1 qualifying-round loss to the Hurricanes. After drafting Alexis Lafreniere No.1 and handing the reigns over to elite young netminder Igor Shesterkin in goal, the Rangers are very much a team on the rise.
The Sabres added the top free agent forward on the market in Taylor Hall to pair with an elite center in Jack Eichel on the team’s top line, but they also added the likes of Eric Staal and Cody Eakin to solidify their depth down the middle while Linus Ullmark looks to take another step in goal after a fine 2019-20 campaign.
Devils aside, this division features seven competitive clubs that should make for some entertaining hockey throughout the season.
2. West Division
I view the west as the second-best division, but also view it as the most top-heavy division in the league.
The reason it’s the second-best is the presence of the Avalanche, Golden Knights, Blues and Stars. Otherwise known as the top-four teams from the Western Conference last season. The reason it’s not first is the presence of the Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Coyotes, four of the five worst teams in the west from a season ago.
If I were to guess, I’d suggest the Avalanche and Golden Knights would have been the two best teams in the west this season, in whatever order you want to place them. The Avs are +700 Stanley Cup favorites at BetOnline, and the Knights are tied with the Lightning as a close second at +800. There’s no doubting either of these teams.
I’d put the Blues next. They lost Alex Pietrangelo to the Golden Knights in free agency, but also added Torey Krug and with one of the best defensive systems in place, they’ll succeed. Their offense is a balanced attack, and they boasted one of the league’s top power plays from last season. Whether that happens again remains to be seen, but the Blues should score enough to win, even without Pietrangelo on the back end. I also expect a rebound from Jordan Binnington after regressing in year two.
The Stars are suspect heading into this season. Both Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop are both out for the first couple months of the season, and for a Stars offense that ranked 26th last season, they can ill afford to lose their best offensive player and leading scorer. With Bishop out, if anything were to happen to Anton Khudobin, you’re in serious trouble. Despite marching their way to Game 6 of the Cup Final last season, I’m bearish on Dallas this season.
The Coyotes will sport a stout defense that could play well in this division with plenty of soft offenses outside of the Avalanche and potentially the Blues. They could surprise and I wouldn’t rule them out, but they’ll also struggle to score. That said, beating the likes of the Kings, Sharks, Ducks and even Stars by 2-1 scores is very much in the cards here.
There’s not a ton to say about the Ducks, Kings and Sharks, all of whom would be run over by the big boys in this division. The Kings probably have the brightest future here and are sending the most prospect to the World Junior Championships of any NHL team, but they’re not winning now, and it’s difficult to see the Ducks or Sharks enjoying much success here.
It’s top heavy, but there’s enough at the top, plus the Coyotes/Stars, to give the west the nod at No.2
3. All-Canadian Division
As far as balance, not elite level balance, but plain ol’ balance, the all-Canadian division probably has the most of any realigned division there is.
I’d place the Maple Leafs as a clear-cut favorite in this division, and the oddsmakers agreed a while back. Of course, as deep as the prospect pool is, the Senators aren’t about to compete next season.
After that, we have six teams where I can’t decide who is better than the other. I suppose that’s why they play the games, right?
The Canadiens have enjoyed a fruitful offseason that’s included a trade for Josh Anderson, a Tyler Toffoli signing and trade for Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson. They’ll also welcome top prospect Alexander Romanov to their blueline while young stars such as Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are a year further in their development.
The Jets regressed last season, and given their woeful metrics both on offense and defense, they should have been one of the worst teams in the west last season, but a Herculean effort from Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck prevented that. Their blueline could improve with a full season of the re-signed Dylan Demelo, but overall it’s a weak group that isn’t going to help their forwards generate offense. Still, at least they’re not lining up against the Avalanche and Blues in the Central anymore.
The Oilers boasted the league’s top-two point-getters in the NHL last season. Still, they were a middle of the pack offense. They’ve added depth this offseason, but a potentially season-ending injury to Oscar Klefbom is an utter disaster for this team. After Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Klefbom is the Oiler the team could ill afford to lose the most after logging 25-plus minutes last season. I’m also skeptical about another season from the Mikko Koskinen/Mike Smith tandem in goal.
The Flames are my pick of the litter for a second-place finish in this division after robbing the Canucks of Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev in free agency. I believe in their offensive core more than most, and I think they’re top four blueliners are going to deliver quality results in tandem with Markstrom, who finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting last season.
Finally, the Canucks are a regression candidate in my opinion. Not only did they lose Markstrom and Tanev to the rival Flames, but also decided against re-signing Tyler Toffoli who was productive for the team after they acquired him from the Kings at the trade deadline. They’ll now play against all three of those players this season. I don’t like the new-look blueline and the Holtby/Thatcher Demko combination in goal leaves plenty to be desired.
It would appear everyone minus Ottawa has a chance to compete in this division, but at the least, this all-Canadian group should yield plenty of fire this season.
4. Central Divison
How could a division with the reigning Cup champions be the worst heading into next season? Because there just isn’t much else underneath.
We’ll counter the Lightning with the historically bad Red Wings from a season ago. Steve Yzerman’s club will be better after adding some actual NHL players in the offseason, but they aren’t winning any time soon.
I’d throw the Blackhawks into that category as well. In fact, they could be worse as the Malcolm Subban/Collin Delia goaltending duo is the worst I can remember, and while it’s a somewhat reasonable defensive corps in front of them if they can all stay healthy, the Blackhawks could be the worst defensive team in hockey when it’s all said and done. Poor Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews, man.
The Blue Jackets will be competitive with John Tortorella demanding nothing less, and we’ll see if they can get the same level of goaltending next season as they did last. They should also benefit from far better luck in the health department next season, and we’ll see if Max Domi and Mikko Koivu and stabilize the center ice position behind No.1 pivot Pierre-Luc Dubois. The offense should be better.
The Panthers have already lost Evgenii Dadonov in free agency, and they’ll likely lose Mike Hoffman too, although he’s still available. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are an elite tandem, but the Panthers should be without their third and fourth-best offensive players from last season if they lose Hoffman. There’s no way Sergei Bobrovsky can be worse in year two in Sunrise, but the team’s offense is loaded with inexperience at this point, and there’s a good chance the Panthers’ issues this season will be a complete 180 from a season ago.
Sign me up for the Wild as a surprise here. They posted the best defensive metrics in hockey last season, only to sport some of the worst goaltending. They switched out Devan Dubnyk for Cam Talbot coming off a big rebound season with the Flames, and while center ice remains an area of concern, I’ll stack that Wild defense up against any other in hockey.
The Predators are another regression candidate. They lost Craig Smith, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Mikael Granlund and Austin Watson from their forward group last season. The problem isn’t that they lost these players. The problem is they added… no one. It was a middle-of-the-pack offense a season ago, and it will get worst next year. That defense and goaltending is going to need to be flat-out elite to give them a chance.
Outside of the Lightning, there’s nothing to hang your hat on here. I’ll give the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Wild the benefit of the doubt, but unlike the West Division, there’s not enough at the top to make up for what is at the bottom.