The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2020-21 season, which will start Jan. 13, 2021, and have each team playing a condensed 56-game intradivisional schedule.
The new-look Central Division features the two Stanley Cup finalists and six teams hoping to replicate their success.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup last season and are considered favorites again with a foundation that includes at least one elite player at each position, headlined by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Steven Stamkos. The Dallas Stars, the surprise finalist from the Western Conference, have the best goalie tandem in the division, if not the NHL, with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, as well as a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Miro Heiskanen.
The Columbus Blue Jackets also have an excellent goalie tandem in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and a Norris Trophy candidate of their own in Seth Jones. The Carolina Hurricanes are two seasons removed from making the Eastern Conference Final and have a raft of highly skilled players, led by defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin and forwards Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho. The Florida Panthers will try to continue their improvement under coach Joel Quenneville, who is entering his second season.
The Nashville Predators are trying to atone for a disappointing season and have Roman Josi, the 2020 Norris Trophy winner, as they attempt to return to contention. The Chicago Blackhawks still have their championship core — forward Patrick Kane, center Jonathan Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith — but will start a new era in goal as Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen battle to become the starting goalie after Corey Crawford signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils. The Detroit Red Wings continue their youth movement and rebuilding process, spurred by forwards Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi.
So which team in the Central Division is the favorite?
Three NHL.com writers offered opinions. Here are their answers:
Columbus Blue Jackets
Doubt the Blue Jackets at your own peril. I certainly won’t. Remember the tales of their demise from last season, after they lost goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Florida Panthers) and forward Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers) in free agency? The bottom did not fall out. Despite playing with two untested goalies and a severely weakened roster of skaters, the Blue Jackets were competitive all season and gave the Lightning a bit of a scare in the first round of the playoffs, especially in an epic five-overtime loss in Game 1. They’re now more experienced and hold a deeper belief in what they can accomplish. That confidence will be huge, especially in the chaotic first few weeks of the season. Nobody gets a team ready to start on time quite like coach John Tortorella. Oh yeah, two all-world defenseman — Jones (he’ll be in the Norris Trophy debate) and Zach Werenski — aren’t a bad luxury to have. Expect forwards Max Domi, obtained in an offseason trade with the Montreal Canadiens, and Cam Atkinson to have bounce-back seasons offensively. Most important is that the Blue Jackets have the deepest goaltending in the division. Merzlikins and Korpisalo were important to the success for the Blue Jackets last season. This time, with a condensed schedule, they will be integral and put the Blue Jackets ahead of the pack chasing them. — Shawn P. Roarke, Senior Director of Editorial
In case anyone has forgotten, the Stars went to the Cup Final last season. Yes, they lost to the Lightning, who are their new divisional rival and one of the best teams in the League, but the Stars are right up there. They not only have the talent to hang with the Lightning in the Central, they’re battle-tested and confident after their long playoff run. The Stars, led by forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, have had the talent to win the Cup but could never get it together. Though they didn’t win it all last season, they showed what they’re capable of by rallying around coach Rick Bowness and journeyman goalie Khudobin. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, two teams that lost after they were favored against the Stars in the playoffs. Though I don’t think the Stars are going to take anyone lightly, they enter this season not having to play former division rivals in the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, who are each playing in the West Division, and the Winnipeg Jets, who are in the North Division. Sure, the Blue Jackets are a tough team, but not having to play St. Louis, Colorado and Winnipeg nine times a year is a big boost for the Stars. They will start the season without Seguin and Bishop, and that will be not be easy to overcome, but they have a rising star in Heiskanen, an absolute force in forward Alexander Radulov and the confidence and experience from their Cup Final run. Their physical, grinding game is going to take its toll on everyone in the division, including the Lightning. — Bill Price, Editor-in-Chief
Tampa Bay Lightning
I’m a bit shocked, maybe even a little perturbed, that neither Shawn nor Bill took the Lightning. Maybe it’s because they want to be different. Maybe the news that forward Nikita Kucherov will miss the regular season because of hip surgery swayed them. Either way, in this case, I’m right on the Lightning. I mean, come on, the Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions and while they might look a bit different and the Kucherov news is a massive blow, they still have arguably the best goalie (Vasilevskiy) and defenseman (Hedman) in the NHL. They still have two of the best forwards in the League in Stamkos and Brayden Point. In Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning have two of the best complementary defensemen, if you can call them that, in the NHL. Their coaching is excellent. They’re managed well, which is important because Lightning still have work to do — they need to re-sign forward Anthony Cirelli. But in the bigger picture, and with who we already know they have, especially on the back end and in net, they are easily the best team in the division. The Kucherov news — that he had hip surgery and is out for the entire regular season — is tough to swallow. But let’s not forget this one simple fact: The Lightning won the Stanley Cup basically without Stamkos. He played five shifts in Game 3 of the Cup Final and scored a memorable goal, but that was it. If they can adjust without one of the best centers in the game, they can certainly adjust to not having one of the best forwards. Like any defending champion, they’ll need to re-ignite that hunger, but like the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17, the Lightning know their window to win is still wide open and that should be enough motivation to go for it again. — Dan Rosen, senior writer