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Predicting the 2021 NHL standings

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A weird season may deliver some weird results.

Chicago Blackhawks v Tampa Bay Lightning
Dylan Strome of the Chicago Blackhawks against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019-20 NHL action
Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks may not be very good this season but they should have company near the bottom of the newly created Central Division thanks to the Red Wings.

But there will be multiple teams competing for the playoffs and for the Stanley Cup. To be precise, four teams from each division — the East, Central and West and the Canadian North — will make the playoffs this season.

Here are some predictions on who those 16 will be:

Central

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Carolina Hurricanes
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Dallas Stars

The defending Stanley Cup champions winning this division is not a bold take, even with Nikita Kucherov out for the season after hip surgery. They’re that good and didn’t lose that many players in the offseason. Carolina is well built in front of their netminders, who don’t often have a ton of work behind one of the league’s best (and deepest) defenses.

Nashville may be a hotter take but they do have the reigning Norris winner in Roman Josi and excellent defenseman besides him in Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Their offense is also more than capable of scoring. Dallas was the Western Conference Champion. While they’ll be without Tyler Seguin I just don’t see a team below them in this division being better.

Columbus will likely move on from Pierre-Luc Dubois if they’re out of playoff range by the deadline and Florida, while talented, just isn’t there yet to compete with the other four teams. Detroit and Chicago are competing for lottery odds, unless Malcolm Subban turns out to be a miracle worker.

West

  1. Vegas Golden Knights
  2. Colorado Avalanche
  3. St. Louis Blues
  4. Minnesota Wild

Three Central division teams and Vegas. The Golden Knights were likely the best team in the West last season but ran into a bad string of offense and a hot goaltender in the Western Conference Final. Colorado is the other contender for best team in the West, but Vegas is a better team overall (especially in net).

St. Louis added Torey Krug in Alex Pietrangelo’s place and Mike Hoffman in Vladimir Tarasenko’s. While Krug isn’t as good a five-on-five player as Pietrangelo (who left via free agency) and Hoffman not as good as Tarasenko (who’s out for the season), they’re competent replacements who will help the Blues’ power play.

Minnesota is competent. I don’t know if they need to be anything else to beat the other four teams in that division in Arizona, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose this season. San Jose may be a lot better than they were but they continue to age and goaltending remains a problem. Fifth place may be the most they can hope for.

North

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs
  2. Calgary Flames
  3. Vancouver Canucks
  4. Montreal Canadiens

A surprising lack of the Edmonton Oilers but they demonstrated against the Blackhawks that they are not yet a playoff team. Especially with Oscar Klefbom out for the year, there are too many holes on that roster to put them in this top four.

Perhaps no team was helped as much by the division switch as the Montreal Canadiens. They go from being maybe the sixth-best team in the Atlantic this season (Buffalo improved, even if it’s not enough to compete in a stacked East, and the Panthers remain better) to the fourth-best in the North.

Toronto is the consensus pick at the top and the Flames would have been the second-best team in the Pacific this season. Their defense got better (adding Chris Tanev), their goaltending got better (adding Jacob Markstrom), their offense, well, it’s deep. It’s perhaps the second deepest in this division.

East

  1. Philadelphia Flyers
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. New York Islanders
  4. Boston Bruins

It is not good to discount the Islanders. Every year they find a way to get into the playoffs and their elite coaching hasn’t changed, nor has their goaltending system, despite the departure of Tomas Greiss. Ilya Sorokin is a member of the elite Russian goaltending wave and will be good enough in the Islanders’ system to get them in.

Philadelphia is the most complete team in the East. Their goaltending is great. Their offense works. Their defense, despite Matt Niskanen’s retirement, is still anchored by talented youngsters. Travises Sanheim and Konecny are a great young duo and Sean Couturier is still just 28. Pittsburgh has the ability to overcome injuries and has the best winger talent around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in a long time.

Boston lost two of their top four defensemen in the offseason. I don’t know if they have the depth to replace them. Both Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are starting the season on injured reserve. Patrice Bergeron isn’t getting younger. But Tuukka Rask may be the best goaltender in this division and is likely out to shut up critics. That will get Boston in.

Who wins the Cup?

The final four teams will be some combination of Toronto, Tampa Bay, Colorado or Vegas and Philadelphia. Colorado’s success depends on their health and who figures out the other side better during the regular season. The team that emerges from that division with Colorado and Vegas in it likely wins the Stanley Cup.