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Previewing the 2021 NHL Season
Hockey is back. After the interrupted 2019/20 season, the NHL is scheduled to return in January with an entirely new look for these special times.
Tampa Bay Lightning ended up lifting the Stanley Cup last year, beating the Dallas Stars in the finals after a hockey season that adapted and changed to deal with the COVID pandemic. There has been a lot of work done behind the scenes by the league in order for the new season to become a reality – and on January 13 the first game will face off.
There have been a lot of changes to the format of the regular and post-season – and a complete realignment of the league – in order to be able to be in the position we are now.This post includes a quick NHL 20/21 season explainer and also a look at some of the teams you should watch out for when it comes to betting on the Stanley Cup this year.
What Happened Last Season?
Last season began as usual in October 2019 but was suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the year went on it became increasingly clear that the rest of the regular season would need to be scrapped. But there did seem to be a way that a revamped playoffs could be completed and a Stanley Cup winner eventually crowned.
The league elected to introduce a 24-team postseason – choosing the top 12 teams in each conference at the time of the suspension – with all playoffs taking place in two centralized hubs in Canada.
A series of qualifying games began at the start of August to determine the four teams in each conference that would join the top four seeds in the first round of the playoffs.
In what was a highly irregular year, the NHL playoffs were as gloriously unpredictable as ever, with the New York Islanders making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and top-ranking teams from the regular season – such as St Louis and Boston – falling in the first few rounds.
The biggest surprise was probably the Dallas Stars making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, beating Colorado and the Vegas Golden Knights on the way. In an absorbing finals, Dallas was finally beaten by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lifted its second Stanley Cup trophy in franchise history.
What’s Different This Year?
As 2020 went on it became clear that if there was to be a 2020/21 NHL season, it would have to look completely different to the regular format. There was talk of more centralized hubs and players living in league bubbles – much like how some of the other major sports completed their 2020 seasons. But the players were not keen on spending a huge chunk of the year away from their families.
Now a new regular season and playoff format has been agreed, with a scheduled start of January 13, 2021. The old 82-game season has been reduced to 56 games for each team, with a regular season that is set to run until May 8, 2021. Sixteen teams will then proceed to the playoffs. All All-star, outdoor and international games have been cancelled again this year.
The entire league has been realigned into four new divisions relating more to geographical location than the traditional set up. These will be Central, North, East and West. For the regular season, teams will only play other teams from the same division.
The first round of the playoffs will also be played between the top four teams from the same division. There will then be four that progress to the Stanley Cup Semifinals (known as the Conference Finals in any other year). This new format does mean that it could be possible for two teams that usually play in the same conference to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals.
One of the most eagerly awaited aspects of the upcoming season is the grouping of all Canadian teams in one division – the North. With hockey being a national sport in Canada, there is huge excitement ahead of the new season of the prospect of watching all of the country’s teams going head to head.
NHL League Realignment
At first glance there isn’t a lot of difference between the four new divisions and their traditional Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific counterparts. But the grouping of all Canadian teams in the North does mean that there have been some other interesting movements.
- Calgary Flames
- Edmonton Oilers
- Montreal Canadiens
- Ottawa Senators
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Vancouver Canucks
- Winnipeg Jets
- Anaheim Ducks
- Arizona Coyotes
- Colorado Avalanche
- Los Angeles Kings
- Minnesota Wild
- San Joes Sharks
- St Louis Blues
- Vegas Golden Knights
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Dallas Stars
- Detroit Red Wings
- Florida Panthers
- Nashville Predators
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Boston Bruins
- Buffalo Sabres
- New Jersey Devils
- New York Islanders
- New York Rangers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Washington Capitals
Although the prospect of Canadian teams playing each other is very entertaining, it is a shame that some of the rivalries that some teams have with US franchises will be put on hold this year. Boston and Montreal and Buffalo and Toronto games are always a big draw – and we won’t get any of them during this year’s regular season.
The big rivalries in the east are largely still intact, with the possibility of some long-forgotten grudges reappearing too. Boston now gets to play the Rangers, while Chicago and Detroit will face each other for the first time since 2013.
St Louis and Colorado will like the look of the new West Division, as it groups them with most of the weaker teams in the NHL. Vegas is the only other challenger there – so that makes the playoffs just about a sure-fire thing. Although the North will be keenly contested, with Ottawa the only team virtually guaranteed to miss out on the postseason, Toronto will also be happy that it won’t have to meet Boston until at least the Semifinals stage.
The all-Canada division also means that there is a much better chance of one of the teams from that country going all the way in 2021. The Vancouver Canucks was the last Canadian team to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals when it lost to Boston in 2011.
Stanley Cup 2021 Contenders
The Pittsburgh Penguins remain the only back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since 1999, so the chance of Tampa Bay repeating last year’s triumph would seem to be slim. But the bookmakers take that possibility seriously, currently having the Lightning as second favorites.
Here is the full list of Stanley Cup winner odds from BetOnline.
We will get an early chance to see which of Colorado and Vegas look more like going all the way, as they will be battling it out in the West this year. Tampa Bay has to be considered after finally winning last year – and both Boston and Toronto must fancy their chances after the realignment. Carolina might have a good season too, but the Canes do need to see off the Lightning to get through to the Semifinals.
But there are few teams further down that list that I would keep an eye on too. I think the North Division will be very strong this season, so Edmonton at +2500 and Montreal at +2800 stand out. With at least one Canadian team making it to the final four, these prices look pretty good value to me.
The top four of the East Division is going to very hard to call, with a number of teams being able to justify their credentials for a postseason slot. The New York Rangers could be the surprise package here.
As for teams to avoid, I feel that the post-suspension and playoff performances of Philadelphia and Dallas have affected the pricing of their chances of glory. I’m not sure either will do as well this year.
Hockey fans will just be happy that there is a new season coming up at all. But the realignment and format changes that have been introduced have definitely added more spice to the regular season and playoffs in my opinion.
There has been some criticism of the money deals announced in the last few weeks, including sponsorship of players’ helmets and the selling of naming rights for the divisions leaving a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. But once the pucks start flying I have a feeling that those moral standpoints will be put on the backburner.
It promises to be an exciting year for hockey and the NHL and I will be keeping you up to date with the league – and offering my thoughts on the latest hockey betting opportunities throughout the season.