So the NHL will be playing 56 games this upcoming season. The NHL Board of Governors signed off on it and it appears that games will start as soon as January 13. The Columbus Blue Jackets will be playing in a revamped division called the Central. The top four teams will be making the playoffs in each division with no play-in games and no wild cards.
Each team in the Central division will play an opponent in their division eight times in total. While the Blue Jackets are already acutely aware of a couple of these teams, they are definitely going to reignite some previously dormant rivalries.
Here is how I (key statement since I have not consulted with the rest of the staff) believe the central division is going to shake out.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
It is what it is. The Lightning is an absolute powerhouse. They got over the hump and now they have a Stanley Cup in tow with them. They have to dump some people to become cap compliant but they still have enough talent all throughout the lineup that you don't want to face them often.
The compelling storyline as we rapidly approach the beginning of the season will be who exactly the Lightning will be trading to ensure that they are under the salary cap. They will likely pay someone to take Tyler Johnson yet it might be smart to monitor if they can pry a younger player out of there.
2. Carolina Hurricanes
This may be my Metro Division bias coming out. While there may be some bias here, it can't be denied that the makeup of the Hurricanes is sensational. They skate circles around you, they can possess the puck with anyone on the ice. It is going to be a tough team to beat and they are going to take down the bottom feeders in the division.
Big weakness? The goaltending could be their downfall, James Reimer played well down the stretch last year, it just doesn't seem like a contending team in the year of our lord 2020 (soon to be 2021), should have him as your franchise backstop.
3. Dallas Stars
The top of their lineup is stacked. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Joe Pavelski is a tough lineup. They can score any damn way they want to. Add that to the fact that John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen can skate with the best, it is going to be tough to outscore this team and it is going to be tough to get the puck from them.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
If the Blue Jackets would have had the Minnesota Wild in the division instead of the Dallas Stars (fresh off their Stanley Cup Finals appearance) I could see them as high as third in the division and maybe second if everything broke the way it needed to.
There are plenty of reasons to be bullish about the Blue Jackets. At the top of that list is a young forward core that is only going to develop with time on the ice. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand are going to take another step. It will also be a huge help to have Max Domi manning the second line and giving them much needed depth down the middle.
If you want to find weaknesses on this team, you can point to the lack of game-breaker on offense and also the depth on both offense and defense. While name players are occupying those slots, are they good enough to propel them into a playoff spot?
5. Nashville Predators
The Predators are obviously still in win-now mode with their aging core. What doesn't make sense is what exactly they are building around them? Outside of the top players, they are filling in the gaps with journeymen players that have some pop but aren't great.
They could very well be as high as third in the division if the top players perform at a level that they are capable of but with a coaching change and head-scratching depth, this feels right for them.
6. Florida Panthers
The Blue Jackets South, am I right? Former players Markus Nutivaara, Alexander Wennberg, and Sergei Bobrovsky are all on the team. Nutivaara and Wennberg arguably needed a change of scenery meanwhile Bobrovsky famously left for South Beach due to a Brinks Truck of cash that was given to him.
The Panthers are also led now by former Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito who has made a couple of smart moves in bringing in Radko Gudas and Anthony Duclair on short-term deals. They could climb the rankings but it feels like an incomplete team still.
7. Chicago Blackhawks
Similar to the Red Wings, it appears that they are trying to adjust and let their fans know that they aren't going for a playoff spot. They have Alex Debrincat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, in this division though with a shaky defense and ever shakier goaltending, they are going to have trouble winning games.
8. Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are in full-on tank mode. They are going to have a mix of veterans on prove-it deals and players who are looking to establish themselves in the league. Add already established players like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, they could be a fun team. They aren't going to be a dark horse by any stretch, it just feels like they aren't going to be THAT easy of an out on a night in and night out basis.