NHL Central Preview: This division makes no geographical sense

NHL Central Preview: This division makes no geographical sense

Illustration for article titled NHL Central Preview: This division makes no geographical sense
Illustration: Getty Images

For the sake of this season, Florida is apparently central, and Dallas is central even though it’s west of St. Paul and St. Louis, which are both in the west this year. This is truly the season of people throwing ducks at balloons and nothing is the way it seems. Whatever the odd alignments, this division is setting up to be utter batting practice for the defending champs, even if their former MVP is going to miss the whole year. Perhaps Carolina or Dallas could give them a run, but there’s no hiding in this intra-division schedule only. If you want to be near the Lightning, you’re going to have to beat the Lightning pretty often to do it. And that’s not really something anyone’s managed much the past two regular seasons.

Let’s get to it.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.

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2 / 10

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina Hurricanes

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COVID Response: Nothing much to speak of, though the Hurricanes were one of the teams to look into playing multiple outdoor games to boost the amount of fans they can have, if any at all. So far that has gone nowhere, and the Canes have lost out on the Stadium Series game they were due to play at N.C. State’s football stadium.

Staying Away: No one

Oh, He’s Here Now? Once again, the Canes eschewed the splash signing of a true No. 1 line scorer and/or goalie that would really put this team over the top. They prefer to get the under-the-radar, mid-roster speedster that will flourish in their up-tempo style but come thisclose before losing at the critical moment, which Jesper Fast specializes in (signed from the Rangers). Mostly the Canes will get “full” seasons out of their deadline acquisitions last year like Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck.
Where’d He Go? Nothing major here either. Justin Williams officially retired after a brief search for his shadow last year. Worker-bee Lucas Wallmark left in free agency, but the Canes have a habit of producing like four different Lucas Wallmarks every season.

What To Expect: Second or third in this division seems to be the floor for this team. If they get a spasm of great goaltending, which any team can get for 40 games, they could run with the Lightning. This team is deep, without having the truly sharp end at the top of the roster. They’ll score a ton, boosted by perhaps the most mobile defense in the league. But they could also scrape to just get into the playoffs if both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer turn out to be Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. As fun as the Canes have been to watch for years now, it still feels like they remain one key player up front or in net from being true Cup contenders.

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3 / 10

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks

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COVID Response: The Hawks had their confrontation with COVID-19 before the playoffs last year, when former goalie Corey Crawford contracted it and didn’t rejoin the team until a couple days before they started playing. So far they’ve avoided further positive tests, but Jonathan Toews has something that will keep him out indefinitely. There will be no fans allowed at the United Center this season.

Staying Away: Toews hasn’t opted out but has said he will be out indefinitely while he deals with a condition that he says has left him depleted. Ditto for Alex Nylander, who didn’t catch anything other than an exploding knee that will keep him out all season. And the same goes for Kirby Dach, who didn’t catch COVID but caught “My team stupidly let me go play a children’s tournament and I broke my arm so I’ll miss all season, too.”

Oh He’s Here Now? The Hawks claimed they were rebuilding, but didn’t really exhibit that they knew what that meant. They signed a legion of bottom-six forwards, like Lucas Wallmark and Mattias Janmark. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico Mark’s wouldn’t fit under the cap. There’s also an intriguing European import, which the team has specialized in the past few years, in Pius Suter. Nikita Zadorov was acquired from Colorado to stupidly chase big hits in the neutral zone and leave gaping spaces behind him.

Where’d He Go? The Hawks let Corey Crawford walk, but he ended up retiring anyway on Saturday. Robin Lehner was traded at last year’s deadline. Brandon Saad was moved to Colorado for Zadorov. Olli Maatta was traded to Los Angeles to be the on-ice version of getting stuck in traffic.

What To Expect: A ton of goals against. The Hawks might have had a point in saying that Crawford wasn’t going to be around long enough to be their backstop when they’re good again. But their solution to fixing the crease is to throw a smoke bomb and escape in the cloud without providing that solution. Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban, and Kevin Lankinen are the Triumvirate of Huh that will try and solve that problem, but none of them have successful experience in the league, or experience at all. While the Hawks are pivoting to a younger defense that has some promise, and are now full of defensive forwards thanks to Toews’s and Dach’s injuries, they’re not going to get any stop when they need it. Without Toews and Dach they’re going to struggle to score as teams will simply have to focus on Patrick Kane and the constantly flattering to deceive Dylan Strome. They might even give the Red Wings a run in the draft lottery.

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4 / 10

Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus Blue Jackets

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COVID Response: The Jackets are one of the teams that have already had this season disrupted, with 17 players being held out of practice last Friday due to protocols. No positive tests have been reported though, and the Jackets resumed training camp over the weekend. No word on whether or not their season will start as scheduled Thursday.

Staying Away: No one.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The big move of the Jackets’ offseason was to acquire spoiled MAGA pudwhack Max Domi from Montreal for Josh Anderson. Mikko Koivu has also joined up after playing for the last half-century in Minnesota.

Where’d He Go? Anderson was moved to Montreal for Domi, in perhaps the most shining example of a trade that makes you pause when you hear it, and then a second later say, “Whatever.” Other than that, the Blue Jackets return the same team that’s been just on the right side of the playoff cut-line the past two years.

What To Expect: Coach John Tortorella seems to thrive with a team that is star-less, and he’ll have that again in Ohio. The Jackets got excellent goaltending from the syllable-rich tandem of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, but no one’s sure if that’s what they can consistently provide or just a brief visit to competency. If the Jackets don’t get plus-goaltending, this is a team still short on scoring. They were 28th in goals-per-game last year, and while Domi has the last name and draft pedigree, this is his third team and the first two weren’t exactly thrilled with the scoring punch he provided. They’ll play hard, be even harder to play against, as all Tortorella teams are. The power play should be a serious weapon with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, but this team is the very definition of “the middle.” The goalies will decide what side of the playoff line they’re on, as always.

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5 / 10

Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars

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COVID Response: The Stars, as Texas is wont to do, have led the charge in proving how stupid this all is by seeing their first two games against the Panthers to kick off the season postponed thanks to a raft of positive tests among their players. It’s unclear when exactly they’ll start, as they’re supposed to be in Tampa just two days later.

Oh, and this is one of the few teams that will have fans in the building, about 5,000, which is a real good look when your team is dealing with players who have contracted the virus. TEXAS.

Staying Away: The players that have tested positive are being held out, but no one has opted out.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Stars are basically going to run it back with the team that went to the Final last year, with some bottom-of-the-roster additions but not much more. Mark Pysyk is about the only name addition, which tells you just how boring of an offseason the Stars had. Much like their actual play.

Where’d He Go? Mattias Janmark left via free agency, and Corey Perry left via Nazgul. But again, no major departures, though Tyler Seguin will miss at least the start of the season thanks to offseason hip surgery.

What To Expect: To be bored to shit. The Stars took the eventual champion St. Louis Blues to a double-OT Game 7 two years ago and to the Final last year by making life as easy as they can on their goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. That means a lot of trapping, a lot of blocked shots, a lot of clogged neutral zones, and a lot of years coming off your life trying to get through watching a game. But it works, and that’s the idea after all. They’ll struggle to score even more without Seguin and Jamie Benn in his descent (not that Benn likes descending in any scenario). But with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, the Stars have two of the best young d-men in the league and can swallow up just about any team. With the overall “meh” outlook of this newfangled Central, they could easily find themselves nestling comfortably behind the Lightning.

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6 / 10

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings

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COVID Response: Nothing much to speak of. GM Steve Yzerman was in isolation during the draft due to possible exposure, but nothing much beyond that. The Wings will not have fans in Little Caesar’s Arena.

Staying Away: No one.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Whoever is here, other than Dylan Larkin and maybe one or two others, won’t be here whenever it is the Red Wings matter again. Bobby Ryan washed up here after winning the Masterton Trophy while being a racist, which is truly the height of hockey and the NHL. Christian Djoos, after being a promising defenseman for the Capitals for like seven years until he wasn’t, is also here. Troy Stecher, and actual useful pieces for the Canucks the past few seasons, also signed here and could be a sneaky improvement. Marc Staal also signed up to continue his curdling.

Perhaps the biggest improvement will be in net where Thomas Greiss has come over from the Islanders, though it’s an awfully big change to go from playing behind a Barry Trotz fortress to the kindergarten recess that is the Wings roster.

Where’d He Go? Longtime guy Jimmy Howard finally left, but hasn’t landed anywhere yet. Trevor Daley retired, so he’s no longer in the running for dumbest player in the NHL, nor best or worst player to play while having chew in his mouth.

What To Expect: Badness. The Wings are looking at the seasons in the future, and some of their recent draft picks just starred in the recently concluded World Juniors. On the current roster, only Larkin, Filip Hronek, and maybe Filip Zdina are poised to be part of the next good Wings team. This year is about eating it, getting yet another high draft pick. It’s a mediocre division, so they might not take a run at a record at futility as they did last year, and they can trade inconsequential wins with the Hawks for eight games while jumping up and biting the Jackets or Predators or Panthers here and there. But it’s mostly going to be ugly, fitting in perfectly with the current status of the rest of Detroit’s sports scene.

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7 / 10

Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers

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COVID Response: Not great, Bob. The Panthers are one of the few teams that are going to attempt to have fans, some 5,000 per game. If you want to make a joke about how that’s not really all that much less than a normal Panthers game, we can’t stop you. It just won’t have a smattering of French-Canadians shitting on everything they see before beating it back to Hallandale. It’s also pretty damn awkward to have fans when the Panthers first two games have already been postponed against the Stars because the Stars are a petri dish at the moment, but that’s how things go in Florida.

Staying Away: No one.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Some additions around the edges. Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas up the asshole level in front of both nets. Markus Nutivaara bolsters their blue line depth, which needed boosting at the top instead of the middle. There’s a couple of rookies who could contribute in Owen Tippett and Aleksi Heponiemi.

Where’d He Go? Weirdo Mike Hoffman and his weirdo wife are off to St. Louis, even after pouring in 29 goals last year. Evgeni Dadonov and his 25 goals fled to Ottawa for some reason. Brian Boyle, and his no evidence of being useful in any way other than being tall, went back to the Jotunheim.

What To Expect: This team is hard to peg down. They’re actually very exciting with perhaps the most underrated player in the league in Sasha Barkov anchoring the top line next to Jonthan Huberdeau. Losing Dadonov and Hoffman erodes their scoring depth a noticeable amount, which they’ll hope the kids and Hornqvist can make up for. But the main problem is that this team threw a ton of cash at goalie Sergei Bobrovsky past his sell-by date, and he was terrible. If he’s still terrible, they’re not going anywhere as well as carrying this $10 million anchor on their cap. The Panthers aren’t all that great defensively either, as Aaron Ekblad hasn’t ever really taken the leap, and he’s surrounded by a bunch of scenery. Considering what they’ve lost, it’s going to be even harder for them to outscore their problems, and there’s little evidence that the defense will be any better. Stil, they’re beyond the Hawks and Wings, and can easily scrap with the Predators and Jackets for the last playoff spot.

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8 / 10

Nashville Predators

Nashville Predators

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COVID Response: Nothing much to speak of. They will start without fans but are already making noise about allowing them into Bridgestone later in the season.

Staying Away: No one.

Oh, He’s Here Now? No major additions. Nick Cousins was signed because the Predators can never have enough sex criminals on their roster. It’s a long-standing tradition. Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki were imported from various disorderly Candian teams, and it’s an easy landing to go from Canada to Nashville because they’re both the same level of Diet Shitkicker.

Where’d He Go? Nick Bonino left for Minnesota. Kyle Turris was bought out and moved on to Edmonton, which is hockey’s farm upstate. Dan Hamhuis retired three years after everyone assumed he did.

What To Expect: If you want a great example of a team that watched its window pass it by, here you go. The Preds got a Final appearance out of it, but that’s all it’s going to be. Their policy of trying to depth their way to glory instead of trying to find genuine stars up front has left them short. They have one genuine top-liner in Filip Forsberg and the four days a year Ryan Johansen feels like being one and they’ve also locked the postgame spread away in another room. Both Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are on the wrong side of 30, and Pekka Rinne is on the wrong side of 72. Juuse Saros is probably going to inherit the starting role, but goalies under 6-feet tall are truly up against it in today’s league. This team was built to get up and go, which is exactly what coach John Hynes doesn’t want to do. Matt Duchene is a second-liner paid like a first-liner and getting worse. They can be a playoff team in this division, but there’s nothing they do that you can’t find at least five other teams that do it better.

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9 / 10

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning

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COVID Response: Unlike their state compadres in the Panthers, the Lightning will not be allowing fans at Amelie Arena, at least to start the season. Their games against the Stars, the third and fourth of the season, are still up in the air. The Bolts also laid off about 30 employees due to lack of revenue from the pandemic.

Staying Away: No one due to COVID, but Nikita Kucherov will miss most if not all of the regular season after hip surgery. Which provided the Lightning just enough long-term injury cap space to avoid cap problems. Funny how that works.

Oh, He’s Here Now? When you do the damn thing, you don’t really need to add a lot. And the Lightning didn’t, essentially bringing the band back.

Where’d He Go? Kevin Shattenkirk moved along to Anaheim after a revitalization in Tampa last year. Zach Bogosian took his overrated and slow act to Toronto.

What To Expect: Even without Kucherov, this team should waltz to the top of this division. There’s simply no one else in their class. They still have five or six forwards who can fill the net, and will get back Steven Stamkos, whom they didn’t have for their playoff run. So subtracting Kucherov and adding Stamkos from the team that lifted the Cup is almost equal. And then they’ll just add in Kucherov when it really counts. Because that’s fair.

There’s still Victor Hedman, Eric Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev to push the pace past where most teams can handle, and there’s still a raft of bottom-six forwards who are faster and more skilled than everyone else’s bottom-six forwards. The class of this division, and still very well may be the class of the league, their season starts when they mosey out of the first two rounds of the playoffs and deal with someone else. The only path for them to not be amongst it again is if goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy simply shits it, and there’s no reason to think that will happen other than sometimes hockey just hockeys.

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10 / 10

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.