With the 2020-21 NHL season starting Wednesday, NHL.com is taking a look at the top five storylines in each of the four realigned divisions. Today, the Discover Central Division, which includes the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning headline the Central. They’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, and this division includes two teams with which they have history in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the Stars and Blue Jackets.
“Pretty excited to see if we can defend our title,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “The only way you can defend your title is you have to get to the playoffs, so we’re pretty focused on these 56 games coming up.”
1. Stanley Cup Final rematch
The Lightning defeated the Stars in six games in the Stanley Cup Final last season. Now they will play each other eight times, beginning Jan. 17 at Tampa Bay. The teams that played for the Cup haven’t been in the same division the following season since 1980-81, when the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers were in the Patrick Division after the Islanders defeated the Flyers in six games in the 1980 Cup Final. But even then, when the NHL had 21 teams, not 31, and the regular season was 80 games, not a pandemic-shortened 56, they played each other four times, not eight. If you’re forward Joe Pavelski, you’re particularly motivated. You chose Dallas over Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2019.
2. These guys again?
The Lightning had one of the best regular seasons in NHL history in 2018-19. They won 62 games, tied for the NHL record with the 1995-96 Red Wings, and won the Presidents’ Trophy with 128 points, four shy of the NHL record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. And then? They were swept in the Eastern Conference First Round by the Blue Jackets. They had to play the Blue Jackets in the first round again last season, and though they got their revenge by defeating them in five games, it was more epic than easy. Four games were decided by one goal. Game 5 went to overtime. Game 1 went five overtimes.
3. High Q rating
When Joel Quenneville returned to Chicago on Jan. 21, 2020, he received a thunderous standing ovation at United Center. There was lots of love, because he had coached the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and no hate, because his new team was in the Eastern Conference (Chicago was in the West). Well, now the Panthers are a division rival, and he’s trying to build them in the Blackhawks’ image. After Quenneville took over in Florida, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said, “There’s a lot of potential there. You’ve got a young, excited group like that that wants to get to the playoffs, play playoff hockey. Joel knows what to do from there.”
4. Return of the Red Wings
When the NHL realigned in 2013-14, the Red Wings moved from the Central Division in the Western Conference to the Atlantic Division in the East. As a result, they left the Blackhawks, their longtime rivals dating to days of the Norris Division and even the Original Six, as well as the Blue Jackets and Predators. Now all these rivalries can be reignited, at least for a season, and throw in the Hurricanes and Stars too. The Red Wings defeated the Hurricanes in five games in the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. In 1998 and 2008, Detroit had to go through Dallas on its way to the Cup, defeating the Stars in six games in the Western Conference Final each time.
5. Hurricanes coming
The Hurricanes are one of two teams to come from the Metropolitan Division, along with the Blue Jackets, and they haven’t played any of these teams in the playoffs recently, so they don’t necessarily have a natural rival here. But this one-time format could create rivalries that didn’t exist before. Carolina is a team looking to take the next step and earn respect. What better way than to play the 2020 Stanley Cup finalists eight times each?