Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
After Sunday’s announcement that the NHL will temporarily realign the divisions for the 2020-21 season due to the border closure, there are many teams whose Stanley Cup Playoff aspirations were boosted while others’ got worse. NoVa Caps looks at the winners and losers of the format for the upcoming season.
Metropolitan Division Teams
While the East Division may very well be the toughest of them all, the six teams from the Metropolitan that are in the East could benefit from having experience with their opponents. The only changes from the Metropolitan Division are moving the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets out and adding the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. In addition, they will be the only teams that do not have to play in different time zones, which could ultimately help as the season progresses.
While the Bruins are coming off a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season, they got worse in the offseason with the departure of defenseman Torey Krug and the possible retirement of Zdeno Chara. The addition of forward Craig Smith was a positive development, but the Bruins’ core is getting older and they showed signs of stepping back in the postseason last summer after going 0-3-0 in the round-robin tournament and losing in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Though much improved, the Sabres are unproven and have fallen off after leading the league in points at some point in each of the past two seasons. The Sabres do not have a proven goalie tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton and are missing the depth necessary to make a significant run.
For the six teams in the Metropolitan Division, the familiarity of the opponents and the competitiveness of the games could ultimately benefit the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils. They will also have a lot less travel than the teams in the other three divisions, which could also be an advantage.
The Wild have a fine team with some good talent as highly-touted forward Kirill Kaprizov and goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen are expected to make the jump to the NHL this season. In addition, they showed promise after Dean Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau as the head coach as they went 8-4-0 following the coaching change.
While the Wild will have to travel a lot more than the others as every opponent in their division except the St. Louis Blues are on the different side of the country, their chances at sneaking into a postseason spot improve by being in the same division as the three California teams and an Arizona Coyotes team that has had a lot of turmoil in the offseason in the division.
The Coyotes got worse this offseason after losing forward Taylor Hall, but they still have a solid defense corps and one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.
While the Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights will no doubt be tough competition for the Coyotes, Arizona should be able to best the California teams, and if they manage to earn a better record than the Wild, they should be able to sneak into the final Stanley Cup Playoff spot in their division. Their strong defense and goaltending in addition to some offensive firepower with Phil Kessel in the mix could give them an edge over the Wild.
Like the Coyotes, the Panthers had a bit of a tumultuous offseason with forward Evgenii Dadonov signing with the Ottawa Senators in free agency and forward Mike Hoffman, an unrestricted free agent, not expected to return. The Panthers have always put talented teams on the ice but have never gotten them to click. While they lost Hoffman and Dadonov, the additions of forwards Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair should help make up for some of the lost production.
If goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can bounce back after struggling with a .900 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average in his first season in Florida, the Panthers’ chances of sneaking into the fourth-seed in the Central Division could be high. They still have some scoring talent with forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in the mix and a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Joel Quenneville behind the bench. The key for the Panthers will be to clean up their defensive play as their average of 3.29 goals-against per game over the past two seasons are the fourth-worst in the NHL. The good news is that they will not have to sustain strong defensive play in a 56-game season.
The Predators are another team that got significantly worse over the offseason with the losses of Smith, center Mikael Granlund, and center Nick Bonino but they get a break with the realignment as the No. 4 seed in the Central Division is up for grabs. Their strong defensive group should give them a chance but goaltender Pekka Rinne is coming off of a down season where he posted an .895 save percentage and a 3.17 goals-against average and is not getting younger at age 38.
In a normal season, the Predators’ Stanley Cup Playoff chances would be slim but if Rinne could bounce back and some young forwards step in seamlessly, they could have a shot at the fourth seed in the Central.
Stanley Cup Finalists
In one of the more interesting quirks of this year’s realignment, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists ended up in the same division. The Stanley Cup hangover may not be as hard to overcome this season for the Lightning and Dallas Stars as they will have had more than 15 weeks between games on top of the time they had off during the NHL Pause.
In addition, they will be playing teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, the last team to get into the Stanley Cup Qualifiers from the West last season (who got worse over the offseason), and the Detroit Red Wings, who finished last in the NHL by 23 points last season. The Hurricanes should give them some competition but the rest of the teams in their division are mediocre at most.
The Jets have a solid team with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goaltender Connor Hellebuyck but they might find themselves on the outside looking in as the North Division competition is strong. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and Montreal Canadiens all improved over the offseason, and while the Vancouver Canucks lost a lot, their offensive firepower and young talent with center Elias Pettersson, forward Brock Boeser, center Bo Horvat, defenseman Quinn Hughes, goaltender Thatcher Demko should be good enough to get them in even if they have a hole on defense.
The Jets would likely be good enough to qualify for a wild card spot in a normal season but a tight seven-team race where almost everyone around them improved (even the Ottawa Senators) could mean that they will be on the outside looking in when May comes around.
The Canucks lost a lot with goaltender Jacob Markstrom, forward Tyler Toffoli, and defenseman Christopher Tanev gone from last year’s team. They would likely be a lock to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a normal season as the Coyotes and the California teams would be in their division but it is going to be a lot harder this season in a tough seven-team North Division where a lot of teams improved while they got worse.
In addition, Vancouver may not be able to play at their home rink due to British Columbia’s COVID-19 restrictions which would be another disadvantage. The San Jose Sharks have to do the same, but they are not expected to be as competitive as the Canucks will be this season.
The Canucks should be able to be in the hunt for the fourth divisional seed with the Jets and Edmonton Oilers but those two teams arguably improved and can also match their offensive firepower with their own star power.
The Oilers would likely be projected to be in the thick of the Western Conference wild-card race in a normal season, but are they good enough to qualify in the top-four of the North Division?
McDavid and Draisaitl, the leading two scorers in the NHL last season, should give them a chance but the two, along with center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, combined for 99 (over 44%) of the Oilers’ 223 goals last season. The lack of scoring depth could give the Oilers a disadvantage. In addition, top defenseman Oscar Klefbom, who averaged a team-high 25:25 worth of ice-time per game last season, will miss the entire 2020-21 campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery.
It is also questionable whether their goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, who combined for a .9123 five-on-five team save percentage last season (seventh-worst in NHL) and a league-worst .8554 during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will be able to give them enough of a chance against some very talented teams.
The Bruins seem like they are on the decline and the fact that they got moved to a division with the elite clubs from the Metropolitan Division does not help.
While they added Smith, this is a team that heavily relies on their top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron as they scored 107 (over 47.1%) of the team’s 227 goals. In addition, they got worse defensively with Krug and perhaps Chara out the door. There are also questions about goaltender Tuukka Rask’s future with the team as he can become an unrestricted free agent after this season and he left the Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto last summer.
The Bruins may also very well be in the most competitive division in the NHL with the Flyers and Rangers on the rise and the Capitals and Penguins expected to be powerhouses again this season as opposed to being in the same division as the Senators and Red Wings. Boston has some impressive top-line talent that will make them a challenge to play against, but after some turmoil over the past few months and with an aging core, the Bruins could fall this season.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues should be in a good spot to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs barring a massive collapse but they have arguably one of if not the worst travel schedules in the NHL this season. All of their opponents except the Wild are on the West Coast of the United States and they will have to play in three different time zones.
They should be able to compete with the Avalanche and Golden Knights for the top spot in the division and will get to play the California teams and Coyotes eight times, but the travel could take a toll on them as the season goes on. The Wild have to deal with a similar issue, but expectations are not as high for them and they face the same teams that the Blues do.
It could be tough for the Blues to get off to a decent start after captain Alex Pietrangelo signed with the Golden Knights in free agency and while they signed an admirable replacement in Torey Krug, the two play different styles of hockey and it is emotional to see the captain that led them to the Stanley Cup just two seasons ago leave. If they do not start well, it could put them in a hole that will be even more difficult to dig out of.
The Sabres made plenty of moves to try to compete this season and it got even harder for them to end their nine-season Stanley Cup Playoff drought after they got placed in the Eastern Division. It would have actually had made sense if they were put in the Central Division in terms of geography, which could have given them a chance at the fourth playoff spot.
They are no longer in the same division as the Red Wings and Senators. The only team that may be around their tier in the East Division is the Devils, who made plenty of improvements themselves over the offseason. Ending their drought arguably just got even harder.
The fact that their goaltenders combined for a .900 save percentage last season puts the Sabres at an even worse spot as there are plenty of talented goalies in the divisions around them.
By Harrison Brown