Mailbag: Wild could benefit being in West Division, Avalanche eye Cup

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Which team(s) do you think will benefit the most from realignment? Which team(s) do you think is/are at the biggest disadvantage? — @Rob_Oswald

The Minnesota Wild look like they could benefit greatly. They’re in the West Division with the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. I think we could all agree that the Avalanche, Blues and Golden Knights are the top three teams in the West regardless of how you rank them right now. But there is an opening for fourth place, and the Wild appear to be in a better position to seize it in the West than if they were still in the former Central Division, where they’d be battling the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars along with the Avalanche and Blues. I do not believe the Ducks, Coyotes, Kings and Sharks are at the same level as the Jets, Predators, Blackhawks and Stars. With no realignment, I’d put the Wild sixth in the Central behind Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Winnipeg and Nashville, giving them no chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In this division, I think they have a chance to be slightly ahead of the Coyotes and Sharks, and much further along than the Kings and Ducks, putting them in position to finish fourth and make the playoffs.

I also think the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators benefit from moving away from teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins from the former Atlantic Division and into the North Division with less proven teams like the Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. If I had to face a team nine or 10 teams in a season, I’d prefer it not be the Lightning or Bruins, the past two teams to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

In the East Division, the Bruins are going to take a top-four spot away from one of the playoff contenders from the old Metropolitan Division. That puts the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders and New York Rangers in jeopardy. With Boston joining them, only three of the five I just mentioned likely will make the playoffs. 

 

Which division do you see being the hardest and why? — @whoopoi

We did a roundtable on this topic that ran Monday. Nine NHL.com writers were asked to pick the new division each believes to be the most difficult. Five voted for the East, two for the North and one each for the Central and West. One person who picked each division laid out an argument for why they made that choice. I joined Mike Zeisberger in selecting the North Division as being the hardest. 

I was close to picking the East, very close in fact, but as I took a closer look, I saw six teams in the North that in any normal season should qualify for the playoffs: the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Canucks, Flames and Jets. Only four of them can make it this season. The Senators, the one team based in Canada that isn’t ready to be a playoff team, improved on paper in the offseason to the point where they should now be a difficult opponent. 

In this division made up of the seven teams based in Canada, you’ve got the Battle of Alberta (Edmonton vs. Calgary) and the Battle of Ontario (Toronto vs. Ottawa). You’ve got Oilers center Leon Draisaitl, the reigning winner of the Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and Art Ross Trophy. You have his teammate Connor McDavid, arguably the best player in the NHL. The division features nine of the top 25 scorers from last season, the most of any of the four divisions. It features Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy voted as the top goalie in the NHL last season, and Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes, who was voted the runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie. And that’s only scratching the surface of the individual talent and rivalries in the division. 

If they play in their home arenas, the seven teams in the North Division will have the most travel in the League as the only teams that will require cross-continent flights. If they don’t, we’re talking about the potential for a hub city, which brings on a host of other challenges for players who will be taken out of their comfort zones and potentially away from families. And on top of it all, an entire hockey-loving country will be living and dying with every game because for the first time we’ll really get to figure out who is Canada’s best team. 

 

Where do you think Elias Pettersson ranks or will rank in the list of top forwards in the North Division? @ekf2749

In our Super 16 that ran last week, we ranked the top NHL forwards regardless of position. I had Pettersson, the Canucks center, at No. 8, third among players from the North Division behind McDavid and Draisaitl. Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews was No. 11, the fourth and final player I had ranked from the North Division. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the season Pettersson moves up into my top five and to No. 2 among forwards in the North Division because of his complete game. For now, he must be behind McDavid and Draisaitl because of their elite point production. Draisaitl led the NHL with 110 points (43 goals, 67 assists) in 71 games last season, and McDavid was second with 97 points (34 goals, 63 assists) in 64 games. Pettersson was tied for 20th with 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) in 68 games. I should note that Draisaitl averaged 22:37 of ice time per game, McDavid 21:52, and Pettersson 18:32. I can’t ignore the drastic difference in production, but perhaps at least a small portion of it is a result of ice time. A better read might be points per 60 minutes. Draisaitl averaged 2.99 points per 60 minutes last season, McDavid 2.89, and Pettersson 2.58. That’s still a big discrepancy. Pettersson, though, should be able to improve his points per 60 this season, his third in the NHL, and his two-way game should continue to be among the best in the League.

Video: Top 10 Elias Pettersson plays from 2019-20

 

What is the ceiling for the Colorado Avalanche this season? What are your honest thoughts on how they’ll do? – @jlwillert15

Stanley Cup or bust. That’s not a rash or bold prediction. I think the Avalanche are the best team in the West Division and I’m close to making the case for them as the best team in the NHL. The reason I still give it to the Lightning is the trust I have in goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Victor Hedman. The Avalanche do not have a goalie like Vasilevskiy or a defenseman like Hedman. But they are so deep and balanced that they don’t need to have those players to win the Stanley Cup. They absolutely need center Nathan MacKinnon to be the best player in the NHL, as he was last season and particularly in the playoffs, in my opinion. They need defenseman Cale Makar to build on his rookie season, when he won the Calder Trophy voted as rookie of the year, and become a real candidate for the Norris Trophy. And they need goalie Philipp Grubauer to stay healthy, an issue for him last season. If those things happen, the Avalanche are good enough to win the Stanley Cup. 

 

Will there be an AHL season? — @BryanLotto

That is the plan. The American Hockey League is currently planning to open its regular season Feb. 5. The AHL Board of Governors should be meeting within the next two weeks to determine the logistics of the season, including when training camps will open, the number of games, schedule, division alignment and playoff format.

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