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While it may be hard to believe, the truncated 2020-21 NHL season is nearing the finish line. As a result of no interdivisional play, it is difficult to assess which division actually has the strongest teams and there seems to be no clear cut winner in the race for the President’s Trophy, as the frontrunners in each division all have nearly the same number of standings points.
The divisions, as a rule, have generally featured two or three strong teams battling it out for the top position for the season, with no team able to establish themselves as a decisive front runner.
In this piece, NoVa Caps examines each division race in each of the four divisions, with about 10-12 games left to play for most teams. Overall, the top teams in each division are close in points to one another, but none have a clear cut advantage in their own division. Two of the divisions are even featuring a three=team “dogfight”, in which the division winner has a chance at the Presidents’ Trophy.
Honda Central Division
Expectation Before Season: The general expectation for the Honda Central Division was that the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup Champions from 2020 and Presidents’ Trophy winner from 2018-19, would win the division.
Current Division Race Status: The Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida Panthers are battling for first place, with the three teams being within a point of one another.
Playoff Spots in Doubt: The only playoff spot potentially in doubt is fourth place. The Nashville Predators suffered a poor start to the season and had a long injury list which included Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Brad Richardson and others. General Manager David Poile was seriously considering trading away several of their stars, including Forsberg and Granlund, and committing to a rebuild; however a sudden winning streak nixed the notion of tearing down the team. The Preds are currently four points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Dallas Stars. Despite numerous injuries prior to the season, Chicago got off to a stronger-than-expected start, during a season in which they are still in rebuilding mode. Nashville is the likely fourth seed unless either the Blackhawks or Stars catch fire in the remaining games or the Predators collapse.
Could Fourth Place Team Pull Off Playoff Upset?: Assuming Nashville makes the playoffs, the question is … will they be able to pull off upsets of any of the top teams. Their history suggests that very possibility given that they were the lowest-seeded playoff team for the 2017 postseason and upset the top-seeded Blackhawks and then beat the St. Louis Blues, and the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals, only to fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final at a time when the team was missing numerous players due to injury. In addition, the Predators won the President’s Trophy in 2017-18 but fell to the Winnipeg Jets in the second round of the playoffs. In other words, the Predators’ history suggests a stronger team than they’ve shown during the early part of this season. The Predators’ advanced statistics, as seen in Natural Stat Trick, range from league average to above average, but these advanced percentages are worse than Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Florida.
Division Conclusion: The Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida Panthers will likely finish in the top three, with the order to determined. It would take a major collapse for any of them to fall out of the top three positions. The Nashville Predators will likely finish in fourth place for the final playoff position.
Mass Mutual Eastern Division
Expectation Before Season: Prior to the season, many thought the Boston Bruins, the Presidents’ Trophy winner of 2019-20, would finish first in the Mass Mutual East Division or, at the very least, be battling for first place with the other strong teams.
Current Division Race Status: The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders have been clustered at the top of the division for most of the year. The Bruins, in fourth place and recovering from a slump after acquiring Taylor Hall, are just two points behind the third place Islanders, but have games in hand compared to the teams in front of them.
Playoff Spots in Doubt: The Bruins are currently four points ahead of the fifth place New York Rangers but have two games in hand. The Philadelphia Flyers’ late season slump put them 10 points behind fourth place Boston, which has likely put an end to their playoff hopes. While the New York Rangers have played very well in recent weeks, their poor start to their season likely doomed their postseason aspirations. The order of finish among the top three teams is still in doubt and Boston could conceivably rise higher in the division if any of the top three teams falter. But the four teams currently in the upper half of the division standings are all likely making the playoffs.
Could Fourth Place Team Pull Off Playoff Upset?: Assuming Boston hangs on to fourth place and does not move ahead of any of the top three team in the division, whether or not they could make any upsets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is uncertain, as the team recently had several defensemen and both goaltenders out due to injury or illness. Starter Tuukka Rask is back and the sidelined defensemen are slowly returning to the lineup. In Advanced Statistics, they have outstanding Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentages but middling values for Scoring Chances For, Goals For, and Expected Goals For Percentages. The return of key players in time for the playoffs enhance the chance of Boston pulling off a playoff upset. If Boston wins all their games in hand, it would make the division race even closer.
Division Conclusion: The Capitals, Penguins, Islanders, and Bruins will all likely make the playoffs. It would be tough for Boston to gain first place due to the difficulty of trying to pass three teams in the standings in a short period of time. While Boston is unlikely to finish in first place, they will likely make the playoffs and could possibly move higher than fourth place if one of the teams higher in the standings slumps at the end of the season.
Remaining games and strength of schedules:
Discover Central Division
Expectation Before Season: Prior to the season, the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues were expected to battle for the division lead.
Current Division Race Status: The Avalanche and Golden Knights are currently jostling for the top spot in the division. The Minnesota Wild vaulted up to third place thanks to an impressive performance in March, but they are unlikely to overtake either of the two frontrunners in the standings. One potential problem awaiting the Avalanche is the fact that number one netminder Philipp Grubauer, and two other players are currently in COVID-19 protocol.
Playoff Spots in Doubt: The Blues and Arizona Coyotes are currently dueling for the fourth and last playoff spot in the division. The Blues had an extended slump during March and found themselves behind the Coyotes, who had a rough offseason that saw them get stripped of being able to draft in the first three rounds of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. This slump caused the Blues to consider becoming a seller at the trade deadline and trade impending free agents Mike Hoffman and Jaden Schwartz. The Blues started winning again before the trade deadline but another slump, which included a head-to-head loss to the Coyotes, caused them to fall behind once again.
Could Fourth Place Team Pull Off Playoff Upset?: If the Coyotes hold on to fourth place, they are likely to be a first round proverbial “sacrificial lamb” to the Avalanche. The Coyotes are near the bottom in most of the advanced statistics. If the Blues can overtake the Coyotes and regain their pre-pandemic form, they may have a chance at pulling off an upset. Prior to the pandemic, they had the best record in the Western Conference and were the Stanley Cup winner in 2019.
Division Conclusion: The Golden Knights and the Avalanche will likely finish in the top two positions, with the order still to be determined. The Wild, meanwhile, will likely finish in third place. The only suspense for this division is whether the Blues will beat out the Arizona Coyotes or the reverse.
Scotia North Division
Expectation Before Season: With the Toronto Maple Leafs having had a better regular season record than the other current denizens of the Scotia Division in 2019-20, they were expected to finish first in the division.
Current Division Race Status: The Maple Leafs currently lead the second place Winnipeg Jets who, in turn, lead the third place Edmonton Oilers by three points. The Montreal Canadiens, in fourth place, trail the Oilers by seven points.
Playoff Spots in Doubt: Given that the Canadiens lead the Calgary Flames by six points, it is likely that the four playoff teams for the Scotia North Division have already been decided and that Montreal will finish in fourth place. The order of finish among the top three teams could still change before the end of the season.
Could Fourth Place Team Pull Off Playoff Upset?: On paper, Montreal should be a first round sacrificial lamb. But Toronto fans are understandably paranoid about a potential upset, given the fact their team has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs during the past decade. Montreal notably upset both the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a single postseason run back in 2010, albeit over a decade ago.
Conclusion: The Maple Leafs, Jets, and Oilers will likely finish in the first three positions. The Habs will likely maintain their hold on fourth place, as there is a large gap between Montreal and the teams trailing them.
It appears to be a season in which most of the playoff teams have been decided, with the exception of the fourth place team in the Honda West Division. This being said, it has also been a season during which no divisional race has been definitely decided in a regular season unlike any other.
By Diane Doyle