West Division favorite debated by NHL.com

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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 West Division features three of the eight teams that finished last season with a points percentage better than .600. The St. Louis Blues (.662) led the Western Conference and were second in the NHL behind the Boston Bruins (.714). The Colorado Avalanche (.657) were tied for third in the League, and the Vegas Golden Knights (.606) were eighth.

The Blues are two seasons removed from winning the 2019 Stanley Cup. They’ve lost top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo through free agency and forward Alexander Steen to retirement but remain a legitimate threat.

The Avalanche are powered by center Nathan MacKinnon, a perennial contender for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, and defenseman Cale Makar, who won the Calder Trophy last season.

The Golden Knights have been in the championship mix since reaching the 2018 Cup Final in their first NHL season. They lost to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final last season but figure to be improved with the addition of Pietrangelo.

The Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes are the other teams in this division to reach the 2020 postseason. The Coyotes, who lost forward Taylor Hall to the Buffalo Sabres in free agency, defeated the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before losing to the Avalanche. The Wild lost to the Canucks in their qualifier.

All three California-based teams are trying to find a way back to the success they’ve had in the past decade. The San Jose Sharks are hoping defenseman Erik Karlsson, finally healthy, is the linchpin for them this season. The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks each believe that their investment in younger players during the past few seasons is ready to pay big dividends.

So which team in the West Division is the favorite?

Three NHL.com staff writers offered opinions. Here are their answers:

 

Vegas Golden Knights

This was a difficult choice with the Avalanche, a power on the rise, and the Blues in the West. I went with the Golden Knights because they’ve finished first in the Pacific Division twice in their first three seasons, including last season, and appear primed for another strong season after signing Pietrangelo, one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Vegas also has the top goalie tandem in the division with Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury; that should give the Golden Knights an advantage because the compact schedule figures to make having two good goalies essential. Let’s face it, if not for the hot goaltending of Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final, the Golden Knights likely would’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. — Tom Gulitti, staff writer

Video: 31 in 31: Vegas Golden Knights 2020-21 season preview

 

St. Louis Blues

Did the Blues play like defending champions in the playoffs? No. They struggled to find their identity in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, then were upset by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, losing in six games. But let’s not forget that this team was in first place in the Western Conference and had won eight of its past 10 games when the season was paused on March 12 because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Yes, they lost Pietrangelo, but they replaced him with Torey Krug, a free agent from the Boston Bruins, and holdover Colton Parayko appears primed to take the next step in his development. There are questions about scoring, especially with forward Vladimir Tarasenko out until at least March. The Blues did not have any player score more than 25 goals last season, but they remain a big, fast, experienced team built to play a grinding game that will be a test for opponents throughout the season. While Tom is right in pointing out that Vegas has the best goalie combination in the division, I’m willing to make the argument that Jordan Binnington is the best goalie in the division and coach Craig Berube isn’t afraid to use him extensively. — Shawn P. Roarke, senior director of editorial

 

Colorado Avalanche

Though they were plagued by injuries, the Avalanche posted a .657 points percentage last season, tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for third in the NHL. Why? The biggest reason was MacKinnon, who scored 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists), 43 more than any of his teammates. MacKinnon, who was runner-up for the Hart Trophy for the second time in three seasons, is the best player in this division. Imagine how good the Avalanche can be if goalie Philipp Grubauer, defenseman Makar and forwards Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen stay healthy. Imagine how much better they will be with the additions via trade of defenseman Devon Toews and forward Brandon Saad. Imagine what will happen if the Avalanche get rolling in a short season. They have been on the rise for a few years but haven’t finished higher than second in their division or advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Yet. It’s going to be a battle with the Golden Knights and the Blues, but the Avalanche are ready to take the next step with a division title and a berth in the Semifinal Round, at minimum. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

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