2021 NHL Central Division Predictions
The NHL’s newly minted Central Division is a collection of teams that have either tasted success recently or been on the wrong end of a hard-fought playoff series. For starters, you have the Lightning, who are the defending Cup Champions at the expense of the Dallas Stars, who also find themselves in the Central Division. The Hurricanes are two seasons removed from competing in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins, only to be swept 4-0. The Nashville Predators made a trip to the Cup Finals as recently as four seasons ago, only to be beaten by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Heck, even the Columbus Blue Jackets won a playoff round as recently as two seasons ago, which gives you five of the eight teams that know how to have success in the postseason. However, in a shortened regular season, cracking the playoffs will be tough as I believe the teams that will have success are going to be the teams that can avoid losing 3+ games in a row, as points are extremely valuable in this sprint to April.
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Tampa Bay Lightning +145
It was a few years in the making, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally tasted success last year after hoisting the Stanley Cup in the Edmonton Bubble. Bittersweet with no fans, yes, but the players won’t mind, and now they turn their attention to a 2021 season that’s been shortened to 56 regular season games. If I look at this year’s roster compared to last year’s championship team, you will see very little change. However, the Lightning learned that playoff point leader Nikita Kucherov will be out the entire regular season due to a hip injury. On any other team, that would be a big blow. However, the Lightning have a roster that has elite goal-scoring threats and as such will likely be able to win this below-average division. The only thing we should be wary about is the threat of a Stanley Cup hangover. However, with good coaching, good leadership and a roster that is the best in the division, I believe this is great value on the Lightning to win the Central Division.
Carolina Hurricanes +400, Dallas Stars +400, Nashville Predators +600, Columbus Blue Jackets +800, Florida Panthers +900
For the Lightning to win the division, they are going to have to navigate a division that features the team they just beat in the Finals (Dallas) and the team they beat in round one (Columbus). They should have little trouble doing so as Dallas returns the same lineup as last season. And outside of a stellar defensive record (second overall with 2.58 goals-against average), they offer very little offensively. Jamie Benn is their captain and best player, and the onus will be on him offensively as Tyler Seguin will be out until April with a hip injury. The defensive unit is solid, with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen leading the way, but the absence of Ben Bishop (knee injury) could very well be their undoing.
As for the Hurricanes – a team everyone seems to enjoy – they are the likeliest of candidates to throw Tampa Bay off the trail of a division title. They have a great roster on offense and on defense with the likes of Aho, Svechnikov and Trocheck doing the damage offensively and Slavin, Hamilton and Pesce leading the line on defense. The only issue I see is the goaltending as they will be relying on Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to hold down the fort. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen these two guys play, but they don’t exactly instill confidence in anyone, especially bettors, as they always look like they are just flailing around in the net and hoping for the best. If you can stomach the roller-coaster ride that is the Hurricanes, this team offers plenty of value to grab the Central Division title.
Chicago Blackhawks +1500, Detroit Red Wings +4500
The Blackhawks were dealt a blow this offseason with the news that they are going to be without their captain, Jonathan Toews, to start the season as he deals with an unknown medical ailment that has caused him to feel lethargic and weak more often than not. Aside from that, as a hockey team, they are extremely young. And even if they beat out the Oilers in last year’s playoffs, I believe they have a roster good enough to win this division. The same can be said for the Red Wings, who were among the worst teams in the league last year and have done nothing to get better for this season despite drafting fourth overall in the last NHL entry draft. It’s going to be another long season in Mo-Town with another lottery pick selection coming in 2021.
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