2021 NHL Central Division preview

The closer you look, the more interesting this division gets.

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The wait is nearly over. NHL hockey is finally just around the corner.

In the next few days, we can get back to watching the world’s greatest hockey players battle it out…in empty buildings for now, but still. As we await a return to normalcy, the thought of getting to watch live NHL action is such a treat after the successful bubble experiment we saw over the summer.

The Central Division may not be getting the most attention right now, but it could become a major focal point pretty quickly. We’ve got both teams from the 2020 Stanley Cup final (Dallas and Tampa Bay), two bubbling groups on the verge of greatness in Columbus and Carolina, two teams looking to silence doubters in Nashville and Florida, and two former dynasties in the midst of a full rebuild in Chicago and Detroit. The closer you look, the more interesting this division gets.

With that in mind, let’s break down the eight teams looking to take home the Central Division crown and, more importantly, the Stanley Cup.

Carolina Hurricanes 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2500
  • Odds to Win Division: +350
  • Notable Arrivals: Jesper Fast (F), Joakim Ryan (D), Sheldon Rempal (F), Drew Shore (F) 
  • Notable Departures: Joel Edmundson (D), Justin Williams (F), Trevor van Riemsdyk (D)

If I had to describe the Hurricanes’ goal this season in one word, I’d say “maturity.”

Carolina has one of the most exciting groups in the NHL. From the near-elite status of Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, to the dynamic scoring abilities of Teuvo Teravainen and Martin Necas, to the team’s rock-solid defensive unit, the Hurricanes are loaded for the future.

A Stanley Cup this season, though, would come as a surprise. Don’t get me wrong, the talent is there. But many of the team’s top players are still quite young, with Jordan Staal (32) as the only forward over the age of 30. Aside from a run to the conference final a year ago, the Hurricanes don’t have much to show for the past decade. 2021 will therefore be about continuing to build toward a successful future, and the core listed above should have no problems leading the Hurricanes to another Cup run quite soon.

While the lost bodies outweigh the impact of the players brought in this offseason, the Hurricanes shouldn’t be in any real danger. Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk were pushed down and out of the lineup, while Jake Bean will finally have a chance to show his worth after two seasons as one of the best defensemen in the AHL. Jesper Fast isn’t quite a worthy replacement for the Justin Williams of old, but he’s definitely an upgrade over the Justin Williams of last season and will add some nice scoring depth in the middle six. 

The area where this team could struggle is in the crease. Both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek showed signs of brilliance last season, but neither had a particularly great year overall. As a tandem, they’re fine when splitting the net, but at some point, you want one of them to outshine the other. Reimer’s stats were definitely superior while Mrazek took on the more challenging starts. Hopefully for the Hurricanes, one of them will catch on and dispel the obvious concerns in net, but I’m simply not too confident in either goalie right now.

Carolina will be one of the top teams in the Central Division and should spice things up come playoff time. This probably isn’t their year, but it’s coming soon.

Columbus Blue Jackets 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +5000
  • Odds to Win Division: +750
  • Notable Arrivals: Max Domi (F), Mikko Koivu (F), Mikhail Grigorenko (F) 
  • Notable Departures: Josh Anderson (F), Alex Wennberg (F), Markus Nutivaara (D), Ryan Murray (D)

The Blue Jackets are quite an enigma. In consecutive years, they’ve knocked off the league-topping Tampa Bay Lightning and a Toronto Maple Leafs team that had a real skill advantage up front.

Yet, nothing seems to scare John Tortorella’s group and nothing really should. The Blue Jackets had the worst injury luck in the league last season and still found themselves teetering around a playoff spot before the shutdown. And to think they might be better this year. One has to wonder: are the Blue Jackets a legitimate underdog Stanley Cup candidate? They didn’t get a chance to show what they could do at full power last year. If that changes this season, watch out.

Championship aspirations may be a stretch, but another playoff series victory is definitely attainable. The biggest question last year was whether goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins could minimize the damage caused by the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky. Not only were they better than Bobrovsky in Florida but, at points, they were among the best goaltenders in the league. Korpisalo dazzled with a record 85-save performance in the playoffs in August. Look for this pair to be a responsible 1A/1B again in 2021.

The Blue Jackets shouldn’t be concerned about the blueline either. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both fantastic defensemen who can carry heavy workloads. David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov just need to stay consistent on a nightly basis and continue shutting down their opponents’ top lines. Dean Kukan and Andrew Peeke should even make a nice third pairing as the real stars of the show in Werenski and Jones will continue to be relied upon.

The signing of Pierre-Luc Dubois just days ago will help keep the scoring on track, assuming the rumors of a trade don’t come to fruition. In that case, Dubois will continue to lead the Jackets’ offensive punch, with Oliver Bjorkstrand – the team’s leading goal-scorer a year ago with 21 goals – close behind him. The absence of Gustav Nyquist (shoulder surgery) for another several months is a bummer, but Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and Alexandre Texier will relieve some of the load. And you can’t forget the additions of Max Domi, Mikko Koivu and Mikhail Grigorenko, who will add some extra scoring legitimacy to the lineup. 

If the Jackets stay off the injured reserve this year, that could spell trouble for the rest of the division. Seriously, don’t ignore Columbus.

Chicago Blackhawks 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +8000
  • Odds to Win Division: +1000
  • Notable Arrivals: Pius Suter (F), Brandon Pirri (F), Nikita Zadorov (D), Mattias Janmark (F), Lucas Wallmark (F), Carl Soderberg (F)
  • Notable Departures: Corey Crawford (G), Brandon Saad (F), Dennis Gilbert (D), Dylan Sikura (F), Olli Maatta (D), Drake Caggiula (F), Slater Koekkoek (D), TJ Brennan (D)

Blackhawks fans, take solace in the fact that you got your three Stanley Cups.

The core – or what’s left of it – that brought the city of Chicago so much glory has slowed down, with just forward Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith still playing pivotal roles. The team’s top two centermen – Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach – aren’t expected to return during the regular season, weakening an already frail lineup.

And then there’s the team’s goaltending situation. Who’s going to take charge with Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner out of the fray? That combo made for one of the more impressive tandems in the Western Conference, but the scoring in front of them just wasn’t there. With Lehner traded to Vegas at the deadline and Crawford leaving the only team he ever knew to finish his career out in New Jersey, the Chicago crease is left to 27-year-old Malcolm Subban (a career backup with an overall save percentage of .899 in 66 games) and 26-year-old Collin Delia (a three-year pro with only 18 NHL games to his credit). By all accounts, this should be the worst goaltending duo in the league, so you have to think the team will target a third option at some point. It’s possible one of the current netminders has a revelation and the Hawks hold on to them, which I wouldn’t bet on, but goaltenders are weird sometimes and it’s better to stay positive.

The defense is going to be slow, though Keith still has some good hockey left in him and Adam Boqvist appears to be the future of this defensive group. Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin and Chad Krys could see some ice time this year as the team will eventually begin transitioning to the future. But up front…ouch. The losses of Toews and Dach equal a less-than-ideal top two center situation of Dylan Strome and Pius Suter (an NHL rookie). The scoring options behind the top six are also pretty limited, especially if Andrew Shaw doesn’t return to the level of play we saw prior to his concussion problems.

In short, the Hawks will have trouble scoring, defending and stopping pucks. This season is going to be a rocky one, but you always need a rough patch before you can taste glory again.

Dallas Stars 

Tyler Seguin
Nov 21, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin (91) skates up ice with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at PPG PAINTS Arena. Pittsburgh won 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2000
  • Odds to Win Division: +450
  • Notable Arrivals: Mark Pysyk (D) 
  • Notable Departures: Roman Polak (D), Martin Hazal (F), Mattias Janmark (F), Corey Perry (F)

The Stars exceeded all expectations last season en route to a Stanley Cup final appearance, where they were ultimately ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. But Dallas hung on the best they could and outperformed what most people thought of them. Can they make a repeat appearance in the final? They’ll have to beat the Lightning once more in the same division, but the Stars have a roster similar to the one they used to nearly win a championship. 

Dallas’ grind-them-until-they-die style is definitely best suited for the playoffs, which the Stars shouldn’t be too worried about. Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov are still around, Roope Hintz should have an evolved role, and Denis Gurianov is ready to build on a successful rookie season. Tyler Seguin is still a few months away from hitting the ice again, but he’ll be a welcome addition in time for another postseason run. 

Dallas’ strongest point is the team’s defensive core. Very few other squads possess the skill of Esa Lindell, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, while Jamie Oleksiak and Andrej Sekera are no slouches either. They’ll have to be tight because, while Anton Khudobin had a strong playoff outing with Ben Bishop on the sidelines, he’ll have to hold the fort for another two months or so while Bishop sits out for a knee injury. If playoff Khudobin comes back, great. If not, this defensive group is likely to be a little worn out come playoff time, and the Stars will have to hope Bishop can return to form after requiring surgery for something that’s pretty important to a goaltender. 

Kyper & Mac preview the Central division

Detroit Red Wings

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +20000
  • Odds to Win Division: +2500
  • Notable Arrivals: Marc Staal (D), Jon Merrill (D), Bobby Ryan (F), Thomas Greiss (G), Troy Stecher (D) and Vladislav Namestnikov (F)
  • Notable Departures: Justin Abdelkader (F), Brendan Perlini (F), Madison Bowey (D), Trevor Daley (D), Dmytro Timashov (F), Christoffer Ehn (F)

Well, it can’t get any worse. Right?

The 2019-20 season saw the Red Wings finish with a 17–49–5 record and a .275 points percentage – the worst result for a team since the Atlanta Thrashers’ abysmal debut season. Long-time starting goaltender Jimmy Howard had a horrific 2-23-2 record as the NHL’s worst goaltender and only Tyler Bertuzzi reached 20 goals all season long, in a year where only he and Dylan Larkin played all 71 games.

The Wings aren’t going to be any good this season, but they’ll be better, maybe even much better. Jonathan Bernier is a serviceable starter and the addition of Thomas Greiss – one of the best backup goaltenders in the league over the past few years – will help shore up the crease issue. The defensive core is still a bit of a mess, but there’s hope that 23-year-old Filip Hronek will step up in a big way as one of the team’s top young studs. Larkin, Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha will be key contributors once again, while Filip Zadina should have an elevated role with Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan offering some extra scoring support.

The good news is that prospects Lucas Raymond, Elmer Soderblom, Moritz Sieder and Theodor Niederbach have given the team some hope down the line, and that’s the only thing Detroit should be focused on during this tough rebuild. Avoiding last place will be seen as a victory, but there’s obvious value in remaining bad enough over the next two years to load up on top draft prospects.

Florida Panthers 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +5000
  • Odds to Win Division: +800
  • Notable Arrivals: Patric Hornqvist (F), Grigori Denisenko (F), Markus Nutivaara (D), Vinnie Hinostroza (F), Alexander Wennberg (F), Carter Verhaeghe (F), Radko Gudas (D), Anthony Duclair (F)
  • Notable Departures: Henrik Borgstrom (F), Vincent Trochek (F), Mike Matheson (D), Colton Sceviour (F), Josh Brown (D), Mark Pysyk (F/D), Lucas Wallmark (F), Evgeni Dadonov (F), Erik Haula (F), Mike Hoffman (F)

Last year was supposed to be the time for the Panthers to show true improvements.

They had a legitimate top six, an improved defense core, a championship-caliber coach and one of the best goaltenders in franchise history. Instead, the Panthers moved up just one spot in the Atlantic Division and didn’t make it out of the qualifying round, marking the fourth season in a row where they missed out on the (proper) post-season.

Will it get better this year? Let’s go with a cautious “maybe”. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are still the two stars up front and Aaron Ekblad remains very reliable on the blueline. The team added some muscle and depth scoring in the bottom-six, but lost two of its better wings in Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. Anthony Duclair, while a step down from those two, is a good fill-in that could hit the 30-goal mark this season with some quality linemates. 

The biggest wild card is the play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. After signing a massive seven-year contract worth $10 million a season, Bobrovsky had one of the worst seasons by an NHL goaltender last year and never found the form that made him a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. Florida doesn’t have a backup capable of taking a heavy load away from Bobrovsky, so he needs to be at the top of his game if the Panthers are going to make an effective pounce on the standings.

If Bobrovsky’s game improves and he returns to his days as the savior in Columbus, the Panthers could be serious contenders for a playoff spot. They still have some solid scoring potential but they need their highest-paid player to step his game up.

Nashville Predators 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +3000
  • Odds to Win Division: +600
  • Notable Arrivals: Luke Kunin (F), Matt Benning (D), Mark Borowiecki (D), Nick Cousins (F), Brad Richardson (F), Erik Haula (F)
  • Notable Departures: Dan Hamhuis (D), Nick Bonino (F), Kyle Turris (F), Colin Blackwell (F), Craig Smith (F), Austin Watson (F), Korbinian Holzer (D)

It seems like an eternity since Nashville advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup final – the team’s best result in its 22-season history. 

Since then, the Predators have made it past the first round just once, even losing in the qualifying round to Arizona this past summer. Still, the Predators – when healthy and at full steam – are a team to be feared, but they need the group’s top players to play up to their potential. This includes forwards Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg, reigning Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi, fellow top defender Ryan Ellis, and either Juuse Saros or Pekka Rinne in net. Not too bad at a surface level.

But it’s not that simple. The goaltending was shaky at best, Ellis missed much of last season after a strong start, and no forwards recorded 50 points (Josi led the way with 65). On the bright side, 12 players recorded at least 30 points and the team added some extra scoring depth in Erika Haula, Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson, so scoring should remain varied. As always, Nashville’s defense should holds its own with a top-four of Josi, Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro, most likely making that a non-issue.

If one of the Preds’ veteran netminders can get hot, Nashville could be in good shape. At points, Saros has been excellent. At other points, Rinne has been on his game, though neither could perform at an exceptional level for any notable length of time. Saros should get a shot to prove himself after a better season than Rinne, but don’t expect either to receive a long leash. The situation in net could obviously be the make-or-break aspect of Nashville’s season. If all goes to plan, the Preds should be one of the better teams in the Central Division, but that could be asking a lot.

Tampa Bay Lightning

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +700
  • Odds to Win Division: +150
  • Notable Arrivals: None
  • Notable Departures: Kevin Shattenkirk (D), Carter Verhaeghe (F), Zach Bogosian (D), Braydon Coburn (D), Cedric Paquette (F)

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup again, but good luck doing so without Nikita Kucherov.

Stanley Cup hangovers are a real thing. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016/2017) have won consecutive titles in the salary cap era, and that’s often because a championship team has to shed major salary just to make things work. That was a real issue in Tampa this off-season, and the reason why players like Kevin Shattenkirk and Cedric Paquette were forced to relocate.

Kucherov’s long-term injury, which should take him out for the entire regular season, put a wrinkle in the Bolts’ plans. Sure, Steven Stamkos is healthy and ready to go, but few teams can move on effectively without their top player, especially if that player happens to be one of the best in the sport. Kucherov’s loss is a major bummer, but the Lightning didn’t win the Cup only thanks to their superstar forward. Tampa Bay’s depth is a true strength.

It starts with Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat on the top trio and trickles down to Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn on the second line. At the deadline, the Lightning made moves to address middle-six scoring depth by adding Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman – two players who had bigger roles elsewhere. A fourth line of Mitchell Stephens, Alexander Volkov and Patrick Maroon – about as energetic and skilled as you can get from a bottom trio – should be feared.

On defense, the Lightning are led by all-star blueliner Victor Hedman, who will again be one of the league’s most feared defensemen. Mikhail Sergachev has a new contract and should cement himself as an even bigger leader in the top four alongside veteran Jan Rutta, one of the team’s most underrated bodies. Ryan McDonagh, a player capable of being a top-pairing defenseman on a lot of teams in the NHL, was used just about everywhere last year and will be again this season. He’s just that reliable. Throw in a world-class goaltender and three-time consecutive Vezina Trophy finalist Vasilevskiy, and you have elite talent at each position – something very few teams can claim. 

They’ve got the lineup, so can they repeat? That’s a pretty safe bet.

Check out our other division previews from Steven Ellis

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