NHL Central Division Preview for 2021
Finally hockey is back as we are heading into the New Year and we will have the NHL season underway by mid-January in this unusually scheduled 2021 hockey season that has been impacted by the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic has also resulted in some divisional shuffling for this season. Below I give a quick hitter report on each of the eight teams in the Central Division:
Carolina – Losing some veteran leadership could hurt this team a little this season. But hard-nosed coach Rod Brind’Amour continues to get a lot out of this team and seems capable of pushing the right buttons at the right time. Having Jacob Slavin on your blue line is a big plus and the top line with guys like Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teraveinen make this a tough team for opponents with some high-end talent. Look for another playoff run from the Hurricanes this season as they are excellent on special teams too.
Chicago – The Blackhawks will be one of the worst teams in the league this season. Goaltending questions, key veteran and leadership departures, and a young group of players still adjusting to a young coach in Jeremy Colliton. It will likely be rough season in Chicago and there is no modified playoff system this year that will allow the Blackhawks to get into the playoffs like they miraculously did last season.
Columbus – It is still hard to forecast this team too high but they always are gritty under coach John Tortorella and, therefore, often end up surprising. The fact they lost more man-games to injury than any other team in the NHL last season certainly bodes well for a potential improvement this season. However, their power play was one of the worst in the league last season and overall the team generally struggles to score goals. That said, goaltending play will again be a key for the gritty Blue Jackets.
Dallas – Amazing run to the Stanley Cup finals for the Stars last season but they were certainly helped by facing an Avalanche team dealing with a number of key injuries when they met Colorado in the post-season. It will be a tough climb back and the Stars did see some veteran leadership depart heading into this season. This is a playoff team but I don’t see them going as deep this season. Too many other teams are a couple notches above this team. Jamie Oleksiak makes too many mistakes to be on the 2nd defensive pairing for this team in my opinion and that says a lot about the fact this team is just a notch or two below the top teams heading into this season.
Detroit – The Red Wings join the Blackhawks as a team likely to challenge for the bottom spot in the league this season. It has been an ongoing rebuild for Detroit that is catching up with them here as they went too long with hanging on to veterans in prior seasons as they wanted to maintain their playoffs streak at a cost of not building for the future. Now the Red Wings are paying for that. All is not totally lost for this season as a healthy Danny DeKeyser will certainly help the blue line plus the Red Wings did add a couple of lower priced veterans to make sure they are at least a little more competitive this season and have some veteran leadership. However, this is still a team with an eye more toward the future than this season.
Florida – Joel Quenneville is an excellent coach and the Panthers are talented up front. But the problem has been inconsistent goaltending and problems with the blue line. Florida did make some defensive acquisitions and also made sure to acquire some toughness too. But how long until those guys acclimate to Quenneville’s system? I look for this to be a bit of a transitional season for the Panthers as it takes some time for their defense to jell.
Nashville – John Hynes is a quality coach but too many subtractions from this roster for my liking. Gone are Nick Bonino and Kyle Turris and Craig Smith and Austin Watson among others. I know some changes were needed but did the Predators do a little too much maneuvering? Also, Saros is making a bid to replace Rinne as the #1 netminder and he started the entire playoff series against the Coyotes. However, is the sign of Saros’ ascent or Rinnes’s deciine? The fact is the Predators are likely to fall just short of a post-season invite this year in my opinion.
Tampa Bay – It is so difficult to repeat in a normal season and this one is not normal and neither was last season’s Stanley Cup winning season for Tampa Bay. That said, I am expecting a bit of a slump for the Lightning this season. Of course they are still one of the elite teams in the NHL and very well coached but you know they will also have targets on their back this season. Keep in mind too that normally Columbus and Dallas would not be in their division but this season they are. That means plenty of games against a pair of revenge-minded teams in the Blue Jackets and Stars. It goes without saying that the Bolts will still be one of the best teams in the league but I do expect a bit of a dropdown this season based on all of the above factors.