2020-21 Central Division Preview

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the realigned divisions are set and with the 2020-21 season just days away, NoVa Caps continues with their division previews. Today, we look at the Central Division, which features both Stanley Cup finalists:

Detroit Red Wings

2019-20 Result: 17-49-5 (last in the NHL)

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Tyler Bertuzzi (21 goals)
  • C Dylan Larkin (34 assists, 53 points)
  • G Thomas Greiss (.913 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • Greiss
  • F Vladislav Namestnikov
  • D Marc Staal
  • D Troy Stetcher
  • D Jon Merrill
  • F Bobby Ryan
  • F Lucas Raymond

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Madison Bowey
  • D Trevor Daley
  • F Brenden Perlini
  • G Jimmy Howard

2020-21 Outlook: After an abysmal 2019-20 season where they finished 23 points behind the 30th-place Ottawa Senators and were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs nearly two weeks before the regular season ended, the Red Wings made a lot of changes.

They added Namestnikov, who recorded 17 goals and 31 points in 65 regular-season games with the Senators, New York Rangers, and Colorado Avalanche last season, and Ryan, who posted five goals and eight points in 24 games with the Senators, in an effort to improve an offense that averaged just 2.00 goals-per-game in 2019-20, 35 goals less than the Los Angeles Kings (who were second-worst in goals). The Red Wings selected Raymond, who has recorded five goals and 12 points in 22 games with the SHL’s Frölunda HC this season, fourth overall at the NHL Draft and he should also help.

On defense, they acquired Staal, Merill, and Stetcher in free agency after allowing an average of 3.73 goals-per-game last season, a league-high by 27 goals, but none will make the impact needed for the Red Wings to make a 180-degree turn on the defensive side and the team is still relatively thin on the backend. Though, Greiss, who went 16-9-4 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average, should also help.

The Red Wings are expected to infuse some youth into their lineup with Raymond and forward Filip Zadina among the biggest players expected to make an impact.

The Red Wings made a lot of improvements throughout their lineup over the offseason but they are very much still in a rebuild and will likely be near the bottom of the Central Division. The good news is that there is nowhere to go but up in Motown this season.

Chicago Blackhawks

2019-20 Result: 32-30-8 (last in Central Division, 12th in Western Conference), lost in five games to Vegas Golden Knights in first round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Patrick Kane (33 goals, 51 assists, 84 points)
  • C Jonathan Toews (42 assists, 60 points)
  • F Dominik Kubalik (30 goals)
  • G Collin Delia (.922 save percentage – AHL)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • D Nikita Zadorov
  • F Mattias Janmark
  • C Lucas Wallmark
  • D Anton Lindholm
  • F Brad Morrisson
  • C Carl Soderberg

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • G Corey Crawford
  • D Olli Maatta
  • F Brandon Saad
  • F Drake Caggiula
  • D Dennis Gilbert

2020-21 Outlook: Just when it appeared the Blackhawks were ready to take some steps forward after beating the No. 5 seeded Edmonton Oilers, they went the opposite direction as they lost long-time starter Crawford, a top-four defenseman in Maatta, and a middle-six forward in Saad while not adequately replacing any of them. The team announced they were going to enter a rebuild on October 20.

This could be a rough season in Chicago as captain Jonathan Toews (medical issue) is out indefinitely and center Kirby Dach (right wrist fracture) will miss 4-5 months, which decimated the Blackhawks’ forward depth after the team averaged just 2.97 goals-per-game (18th in the NHL). Though the free-agent signings of forwards Mattias Janmark, Carl Soderberg, and Lucas Wallmark will not hurt, the three combined for only 35 goals last season and are expected to slide in the bottom-six forward group.

After trading Robin Lehner to the Golden Knights at last season’s trade deadline and Crawford signed with the New Jersey Devils in free agency, the Blackhawks enter this season with arguably the NHL’s weakest goalie tandem of Malcolm Subban (who went 9-7-3 with an .890 save percentage and a 3.18 goals-against average with the Golden Knights last season) and Delia (who was 16-12-3 with a .912 save percentage, a 2.66 goals-against average, and three shutouts with the AHL’s Rockford Icehogs). Kevin Lankinen, who went 8-10-3 with a .909 save percentage and a 3.03 goals-against average with the Icehogs last season, could also get a shot at the back-up job.

The Blackhawks did not make many changes on defense after allowing an average of 35.1 shots-per-game (a league-high) and 3.06 goals-against per game (16th) but replaced Maatta with Zadorov.

With the league’s worst goalie tandem, a defense that allowed the most shots in the NHL, and an offense full of question marks, the Blackhawks could be at the basement of the league this season.

Nashville Predators

2019-20 Result: 35-26-8 (fourth in Central Division, sixth in Western Conference), lost in four games to Arizona Coyotes in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Filip Forsberg (21 goals)
  • D Roman Josi (49 assists, 65 points)
  • G Juusse Saros (.914 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • C Erik Haula
  • C Luke Kunin
  • C Nick Cousins
  • C Brad Richardson
  • D Matt Benning
  • D Mark Borowiecki

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • C Nick Bonino
  • F Craig Smith
  • C Kyle Turris
  • F Colin Blackwell
  • F Austin Watson
  • D Matt Irwin
  • D Yannick Weber
  • D Dan Hamhuis

2020-21 Outlook: The Predators tinkered with their offense over the offseason after losing Smith and Bonino and averaging 3.07 goals-per-game (16th) last season as they signed Haula, who recorded 12 goals and 24 points in 48 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers last season, and re-signed Granlund, who posted 17 goals and 30 points in 63 games in 2019-20. After buying out Turris’ contract, the Predators also made changes to their fourth-line as they brought Cousins, who posted 10 goals and 25 points in 65 games with the Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens last season, and Richardson, who recorded six goals and 11 points in 59 games with the Coyotes, in and saw Watson and Blackwell move on.

The Predators also changed their third defensive pairing as they brought in Borowiecki, who recorded a 43.92% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.48% expected goals-for percentage in 53 regular-season games with the Ottawa Senators in 2019-20, and Benning, who posted a 48.23% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.62% expected goals-for percentage in 43 season games with the Edmonton Oilers. The Predators’ 3.10 goals-against per game was tied for the 11th-most, uncharacteristic for a usually stout defensive team. Captain Roman Josi is coming off of his first career Norris Trophy win as the NHL’s top defenseman.

The team saw the keys to the goal crease handed over to Saros, who went 17-12-4 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.70 goals-against average, and four shutouts, last season as 38-year-old Pekka Rinne went 18-14-4 with a career-low .895 save percentage, a career-high 3.17 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season.

The Predators could see forward prospects Eeli Tolvanen, who recorded 21 goals and 36 points in 63 games with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals last season, and Philipp Tomasino, who posted 22 goals and 57 points in 36 games with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs last season, make the jump to the NHL.

The Predators have made a couple of nice adds this offseason and have one of the NHL’s deepest defenses. They will likely be in the race for the final Stanley Cup Playoff spot in the division.

Florida Panthers

2019-20 Result: 35-26-8 (10th in Eastern Conference, fourth in Atlantic Division), lost in four games to New York Islanders in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Jonathan Huberdeau (23 goals, 55 assists, 78 points)
  • C Aleksander Barkov (42 assists, 62 points)
  • G Chris Driedger (.938 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • F Patric Hornqvist
  • F Vinnie Hinostroza
  • C Carter Verhaeghe
  • C Alex Wennberg
  • D Radko Gudas
  • D Markus Nutivaara
  • F Scott Wilson
  • GM Bill Zito

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • Haula
  • Wallmark
  • D Mark Pysyk
  • F Evgenii Dadonov
  • D Josh Brown
  • F Mike Hoffman
  • F Colton Sceviour
  • D Mike Matheson
  • C Dominic Toninato
  • C Brian Boyle
  • C Dryden Hunt
  • GM Dale Tallon

2020-21 Outlook: The Panthers underwent a lot of changes after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. They lost Hoffman and Dadonov from an offense that averaged 3.30 goals-per-game (sixth) last season but acquired Hornqvist, who scored 17 goals and 32 points in 52 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season but has seen his point production decline in each of the past two seasons, and Duclair, who posted 23 goals and 40 points in 66 games with the Senators this season.

They also made some changes on defense as they let Pysyk walk; traded Matheson to the Penguins as part of the deal for Hornqvist; signed Gudas, who recorded a 51.43% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.44% expected goals-for percentage in 63 regular-season games with the Washington Capitals last season; and acquired Nutivaara, who posted a 49.57% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.53% expected goals-for percentage in 37 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. The Panthers’ average of 3.25 goals-against per game last season was tied with the New Jersey Devils for the third-most in the NHL.

The Panthers need a bounce-back season from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who went 23-19-6 with a .900 save percentage, a 3.23 goals-against average, and one shutout after signing a seven-year contract that carries a $10 million cap hit. The team has been in the bottom-four in goals-against in back-to-back seasons and they brought in Bobrovsky to help but he did not last season.

The Panthers should have a chance at the final spot in a weak Central Division with Huberdeau and Barkov but they will need better defensive play and goaltending if they want to have success this season. It could happen under head coach Joel Quenneville but there is a lot of work to do with a team that only got worse this offseason.

Columbus Blue Jackets

2019-20 Result: 33-22-15 (ninth in Eastern Conference, fifth in Metropolitan Division), lost in five games to Tampa Bay Lightning in First Round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Oliver Bjorkstrand (21 goals)
  • C Pierre-Luc Dubois (31 assists, 49 points)
  • D Zach Werenski (20 goals)
  • G Elvis Merzlikins (.923 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • C Max Domi
  • C Mikko Koivu
  • C Mikhail Grigorenko

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Ryan Murray
  • D Markus Nutivaara
  • F Josh Anderson
  • C Alexander Wennberg

2020-21 Outlook: The Blue Jackets appeared to sacrifice their biggest strength (defense) to help their biggest need (offense) over the offseason after finishing the 2019-20 season with an average of 2.61 goals-against per game (tied for third in the NHL) and an average of 2.57 goals-per-game (tied for fourth). They traded Nutivaara and Murray to make room for Domi, who recorded 17 goals and 44 points in 71 games with the Montreal Canadiens last season.

The Blue Jackets traded Anderson for Domi’s restricted free agent rights. They also signed Koivu, who posted four goals and 21 points in 55 games with the Minnesota Wild last season, and Grigorenko, who tallied 19 goals and 41 points in 47 games with the KHL’s CSKA Moskva last season, in unrestricted free agency.

After rumors that the team might have looked into trading one of their two young goaltenders in exchange for forward help, the Blue Jackets kept their goalie tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins intact. The two helped the Blue Jackets finish fifth in the NHL with a .9281 five-on-five save percentage.

The hope is that left-handed defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who recorded five goals, 18 points, a +1 rating, a 49.05% Corsi-for percentage, and a 52.49% expected goals-for percentage, can step into their opening in their top-four defensive corps after the Blue Jackets traded Murray. The Blue Jackets have one of the best defensive pairings in the game of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who combined for a 49.2% expected goals-for percentage in 765.9 minutes together.

Led by head coach John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets appear to be huge beneficiaries of the new realignment as they are out of a competitive Metropolitan Division and in perhaps the weakest division in the NHL this season. They should be able to contend for the fourth seed in the Central this season.

Dallas Stars

2019-20 Result: 37-24-8 (fourth in Western Conference, third in Central Division), lost in six games to Lightning in Stanley Cup Final

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Denis Gurianov (20 goals)
  • C Tyler Seguin (33 assists, 50 goals)
  • G Anton Khudobin (.930 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • D Mark Pysyk

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • F Mattias Janmark
  • F Corey Perry
  • D Roman Polak

2020-21 Outlook: The Stars had a quiet offseason as they saw a couple of bottom-six forwards walk out the door but they made an upgrade at defense as they brought in Pysyk, who recorded nine goals, 18 points, a +4 rating, a 44.86% Corsi-for percentage, and a 44.96% expected goals-for percentage in 58 games with the Panthers last season. The Stars’ average of 2.52 goals-against per game was second in the NHL in 2019-20, behind only the Boston Bruins (2.39). 21-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen broke out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs where he led the team with 20 assists (also second in the NHL) and 26 points (third) and finished second with a +8 rating in 27 games. The Stars also removed the interim tag off of head coach Rick Bowness and signed him to a two-year contract.

The Stars re-signed goaltender Anton Khudobin, who finished third in the NHL with a .930 save percentage last season, to a three-year contract extension to keep one of the league’s best goalie tandems of the 34-year-old and Ben Bishop, who went 21-16-4 with a .920 save percentage, a 2.54 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season, intact. Khudobin also recorded a 16-8-4 record and a 2.22 goals-against average before leading the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final as he went 14-10 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and a shutout in the postseason.

The Stars’ offense ticked up slightly in the postseason after finishing the regular season with an average of 2.58 goals-per-game, 26th in the NHL, as they recorded an average of 2.85 goals-per-game (seventh) in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. More production out of  Seguin and captain Jamie Benn, whose 19 goals and 39 points in 69 regular-season games last season were both second on the team, would go a long way.

The extra rest from the long offseason and being put in a weak division should benefit the Stars, who should be near the top of the league standings this season. After falling in Game 7 of the second-round to the St. Louis Blues in 2019 and coming two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup last season, the Stars will be looking to take the next step this year.

Carolina Hurricanes

2019-20 Result: 38-25-5 (sixth in Eastern Conference, fourth in Metropolitan Division), lost in five games to Boston Bruins in first round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • C Sebastian Aho (38 goals, 66 points)
  • F Teuvo Teravainen (48 assists, 63 points)
  • F Andrei Svechnikov (24 goals, 61 points)
  • D Dougie Hamilton (0.85 points-per-game)
  • G James Reimer (.914 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • F Jesper Fast
  • D Joakim Ryan
  • C Drew Shore

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Sami Vatanen
  • D Trevor Van Riemsdyk
  • D Joel Edmundson
  • F Justin Williams

2020-21 Outlook: The Hurricanes had a quiet offseason and they saw three defensemen walk away from arguably the NHL’s deepest defense last season when they allowed an average of 2.84 goals-per-game (tied for 11th). The hope is that 22-year-old Jake Bean, who recorded 10 goals, 48 points, and a -6 rating with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers last season, and 24-year-old Hadyn Fleury, who posted four goals, 14 points, a -2 rating, a 53.57% Corsi-for percentage, and a 51.01% expected goals-for percentage in 45 NHL games last season, cement their spots in the Hurricanes’ lineup.

The Hurricanes have a deep forward group led by Aho, who was among the league leaders in goals last season, and Teravainen that averaged 3.19 goals-per-game last season. They added Fast, who recorded 12 goals and 29 points in 69 games with the New York Rangers last season. After losing Williams due to retirement, Necas, who recorded 16 goals and 36 points in 64 games last season, could see some time in the top-six forward group this season.

The biggest question facing the Hurricanes is in goal after their .9122 five-on-five team save percentage was the sixth-worst in the NHL. Mrazek, 28, went 21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season but got outplayed by Reimer, who went 14-6-2 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.66 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season, and has had an inconsistent NHL career to date.

The Hurricanes should compete with the Stars for the second seed in the division but could be at a disadvantage until their goaltending can be more consistent.

Tampa Bay Lightning

2019-20 Result: 43-21-6 (second in Eastern Conference, second in Atlantic Division), Stanley Cup Champions

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Nikita Kucherov (33 goals, 52 assists, 85 goals)
  • C Steven Stamkos (29 goals, 66 points)
  • D Victor Hedman (44 assists)
  • G Andrei Vasilevskiy (.917 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • N/A

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Kevin Shattenkirk
  • C Carter Verhaeghe
  • D Zach Bogosian
  • D Braydon Coburn
  • C Cedric Paquette

2020-21 Outlook: After winning the Stanley Cup, the Lightning have had to let some key contributors go due to the NHL salary cap and could not look to free agency to replace them as they had to re-sign restricted free-agent center Anthony Cirelli, who recorded 16 goals, 44 points, and a +28 rating in 68 games last season; defenseman Erik Cernak, who posted five goals, 12 points, a +11 rating, a 51.13% Corsi-for percentage, and a 51.83% expected goals-for percentage in 67 games; and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who tallied 10 goals, 34 points, a +15 rating, a 52.91% Corsi-for percentage, and a 54.35%  expected goals-for percentage in 70 games.

The loss of Kucherov, who will miss the regular season due to a hip injury, will be big but the Lightning should be able to overcome it as Stamkos is healthy and the Lightning are in a weak division. They have a hole in their third-line but the Lightning should be fine with Mathieu Joseph, who recorded six goals and 21 points in 29 games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch last season, and Anton Volkov, who sc0red nine goals and 30 points in 46 AHL games, in their system. The team averaged a league-high 3.47 goals-per-game last season.

The Lightning are expected to replace Shattenkirk with Callan Foote, who recorded six goals, 28 points, and a -5 rating in 62 games with Crunch last season. The team has a solid top-four unit of Hedman, Cernak, Sergachev, and Ryan McDonagh, who all helped the Lightning finish last season with an average of 2.77 goals-against per game, tied for seventh in the NHL.

The Lightning have one of the best goalies in the NHL in Vasilevskiy, who has been a Vezina Trophy finalist as the league’s top goalie in each of the past three seasons and went 35-14-3 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.56 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season.

The Lightning got worse in the offseason thanks to a flat salary cap but are still loaded with Stamkos, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Point. The extra rest and the fact that they should easily be the top dog in the division should help this team avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.

Breakout Candidates

D MacKenzie Weeger – Panthers

The 27-year-old set career-highs in goals (seven), points (18), and plus-minus last season (+6). He also had one of the best Corsi-for percentages (53.25%) and goals-for percentages (53.25%) in the NHL. Weegar could get more time in the Panthers’ top-four defensive group as Anton Stralman has been on the decline in each of the past two seasons. With more ice-time and a better partner, Weegar could build off of his strong 2019-20 season.

Saros – Predators

Saros will go into this season as the Predators’ undisputed No. 1 goalie after Rinne’s play went down last year. The Predators’ defense is even deeper with the additions of Benning and Borowiecki. Saros thrived after head coach John Hynes came in as he went 12-5-0 with a .935 save percentage (second in the NHL) over that span, a 2.13 goals-against average (sixth), and four shutouts (second). He could build off of his strong performance at the end of the 2019-20 season.

F Warren Foegele – Hurricanes

After the loss of Williams, Foegele could get some time in the Hurricanes’ top-six, which features a group of young and rising forwards. The 24-year-old has previously shown that he has a scoring touch after scoring five goals in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2019 and 15 in 68 games last season. Foegele could hit the 20-goal plateau if deployed more often as he averaged only 13:43 per game in 2019-20, 10th on the team.

Gurianov – Stars

The 23-year-old led the Stars in goals last season and is coming off of an impressive performance in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he posted nine goals and 17 points in 27 games. However, his 12:59 average time-on-ice per game last season was only 11th among the team’s forwards. The Stars’ offensive production ticked in the postseason and if they keep those adjustments intact, Gurianov could build on a strong first season in the NHL.

Standings Predictions

  1. x – Lightning
  2. x – Stars
  3. x – Hurricanes
  4. x – Predators
  5. Blue Jackets
  6. Panthers
  7. Red Wings
  8. Blackhawks

** x – denotes postseason teams

Previous Division Previews

West Division

North Division

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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