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Previewing the NHL Central Division for 2021 – Can the Lightning Repeat?
With the realignment in the NHL this season, we suddenly have some very interesting matchups in all the divisions, with some old rivalries being reignited. The new
Central Division – or the Discover NHL Central Division as it will be known for commercial reasons – only has three of the ‘traditional’ Central teams, alongside three Atlantic teams and two from the Metropolitan.
The new-look Central certainly makes life easier for reigning champions Tampa Bay, but there will be a real battle for the remaining three playoff spots. I’m going to take a look at the latest odds for an outright winner of the Central – and the chances of each of the teams.
NHL Central Division Odds for 2021
With the Lightning lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of last season, it is not surprising that the bookmakers have made Tampa Bay the favorite to win the division and charge into the postseason.
But judging by BetOnline’s prices, the rest of the playoff picture could be a little harder to predict.
Teams With No Chance in the Central Division
It is hardly controversial to suggest that Chicago and Detroit can be immediately ruled out of any playoff activity this season, let alone making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Detroit is the only team in this new Central Division that failed to make the expanded playoffs last year – and there is a real chance that the Red Wings will win fewer than the paltry 17 games it managed last season. The shortened 56-game regular season in 2021 probably just about makes that a certainty. There is still a long and punishing period of rebuilding going on in Detroit, so don’t expect too much again this year.
Chicago should fare a little better than Detroit but don’t get your hopes up about a Blackhawks revival either. Inspirational captain Jonathan Toews will be missing because of an undisclosed illness, and the organization has made it very clear to the fans that it will be a year of rebuilding and regrouping. Seventh place will be considered a success.
Central Division Teams With a Chance of the Playoffs
Looking at those BetOnline odds, it does seem as though the bookmaker is pretty certain who the four top teams will be progressing to the playoffs. I’m not sure it is quite as clear cut as those prices suggest, but there are four teams that have a chance of making the postseason but are not good enough to claim the Central title, in my opinion.
It is the beginning of the Bill Zito era in Florida, as the Panthers welcome in a new GM. He will be hoping that Sergei Bobrvosky actually starts playing this season after being a huge disappointment in his first season last year. I think it is a very big ‘if’ for that to happen, and I do not see Florida making the cut.
The other three in this group look to have more of a chance and should fight over the third and fourth playoff places. Nashville has not really moved on since the run to the Stanley Cup final in 2017, and even though there have been a number of new faces arriving, it is not the big star names we are used to with the Preds.
Dallas’ odds might look attractive to some people, considering the Stars made it all the way to the finals last season. But I think that was more of a one-off than a new era of success in Texas. The playoffs were magical for Dallas last year, but it will be without both leading scorer Tyler Seguin and goaltender Ben Bishop until at least March. Losing your best two players at the start of a campaign is always going to be tough – but in a shortened season like this, it could spell real trouble. I do think the Stars will make the playoffs, but it will not be another fairytale season.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are one of those teams that you can almost guarantee will make the playoffs – but then do hardly anything of note once they get there. Bringing in Max Domi should help one of the league’s lowest-scoring offenses, but the news that Pierre-Luc Dubois wants out could affect the entire organization.
Favorites to Win the Central Division
It is very difficult to see past Tampa Bay as the 2020/21 Central Division champion – but let’s consider the chances of the Carolina Hurricanes for a moment. Taking a break from the Metropolitan could work in Carolina’s favor, and it does seem as though a playoff spot is nailed on. If Martin Necas can step up once again – and Andrei Svechnikov proves to be a real star – then the Canes might be able to surprise even the Lightning.
The organization obviously has a lot of faith in the players, as there have been hardly any new additions, with only Jesper Fast has been brought in. A lot of pressure will be on the goaltenders, though, a somewhat problematic position at Carolina. The form of the regular season will be a huge indicator of how the Hurricanes get on later in the year.
The real favorite is Tampa Bay, of course. Nikita Kucherov being placed on the long-term injured reserve list really helped the Lightning come in under the salary cap – and also means that it can keep with a roster absolutely stacked with talent. The only real worry will be if there is some kind of Stanley Cup hangover after winning the trophy last year.
My Central Division Prediction – Tampa Bay Lightning
After winning the Stanley Cup last year, Tampa Bay obviously thought there was no need to make any major changes. The league realignment then worked in its favor, as it won’t have to battle against Boston or a resurgent Toronto. It would also seem that only Carolina can stop the Lightning from making it to this year’s Stanley Cup Semifinals, thanks to the new playoff system.
With no inter-division play until the semifinal stage, Tampa Bay may even get the chance to prove how much better than Dallas it is in the eight games it will play against the Stars. The race for the playoff spots may be exciting in the Central Division this year – but Tampa Bay should really be looking down on that battle from the safety of first place.
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