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  • Ben Tupker

Ranking the New 2021 NHL Divisions

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

With the NHL season starting just around the corner it is clear that this one will be very unique. From big offseason moves, to ads on helmets, and sponsored division names there is a lot to look at when analyzing the upcoming season. However, what makes this season so unique is the new division alignments which is a result of COVID-19 in order to reduce travel. One of the major questions is, which division will be the toughest? Although this isn’t an easy choice it appears that the toughest division will be the MassMutual NHL East Division which includes: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. What makes this division the toughest is not because it has the best teams, but rather it is extremely deep. The weakest team in the division is likely the New Jersey Devils, however, the Devils have a great young core which is expected to take the next step this upcoming season. Former first round pick Nico Hischier will be expected to have a big year after signing a new contract last season, while last year’s #1 overall pick Jack Hughes will be looked at to improve on his rookie season. Young goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood also showed lots of promise last season as well. The Buffalo Sabres also didn’t have a great season last year but that is expected to change. They made the largest offseason splash when they signed former MVP Taylor Hall to a one-year deal. This addition, to their already solid core, will make Buffalo very dangerous this year. Jack Eichel is a potential MVP candidate going into the season, while defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is one of the most exciting young defensemen in today's game. Not to mention the likes of Jeff Skinner, and one of last year’s rookie sensations Victor Olofsson. The New York Rangers are also expected to take a big step this season. Solid rookie seasons by Adam Fox and Kaappo Kakko, as well as the addition of this year’s first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere are a reason to believe the Rangers will have a strong season. This, in addition to the likes of superstar Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Tony DeAngelo, and exciting new goalie Igor Shesterkin show that the Rangers mean business this year. Also, look for Cornell’s Morgan Barron to make an impact on this year’s team. The remainder of the team’s in this division were already strong playoff teams. Boston will, once again, be a legitimate Cup contender, while Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, and the New York Islanders will most likely make the playoffs if their teams play to their capabilities.

Next, the Scotia NHL North division will be the second strongest of the four divisions. This division includes: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Although there is a lot of debate around the strength of this division, I believe that this division will surprise many. The depth of this division is what will make it so strong. The Ottawa Senators were a terrible hockey team last season. Yet, this season they will be one of the most young and exciting teams in the league. Prospects Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, Alex Formenton, and Josh Norris will be expected to stay with the Senators this year. Recent third overall pick Tim Steutzle is coming off a dynamic World Juniors performance while young superstars Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot will carry most of the load for the Sens this season. Additions such as goal scorer Evgenii Dadanov will help to bolster the Sens offense as well. The addition of goalie Matt Murray will give the Sens stability in between the pipes. This team will make mistakes, but this young core is unlike any other around the league. The Montreal Canadians are another team who will take the next step this season. This team surprised many with its play in the NHL bubble last season. With one of the best goalies in the game, in Carey Price, they will always be in the game. Young players Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be relied on more heavily and returning core players Brendan Gallagher and captain Shea Weber will be aided this season by new players Tyler Toffoli from Vancouver and Josh Anderson from Columbus. Both of these were great signings that will pay dividends for Montreal. The Edmonton Oilers have the potential to be a team capable of seriously improving on their recent seasons simply because they have two of the best players in the game in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. This is arguably the best duo in the NHL. This, with the fact the Oilers added dynamic defenseman Tyson Barrie will give the Oilers a scary powerplay. The Oilers powerful offence and their special teams should make them a difficult opponent every night this season. The Vancouver Canucks will look to build off last season’s playoffs with another strong campaign. Dynamic duo Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson will be expected to play big minutes once again while the addition of Nate Schmidt will replace the loss of Chris Tanev. Quinn Hughes on the blue line will make for a dynamic offensive threat once again this season. Holtby will be a solid addition in net for the Canucks as well. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets will be expected to be strong teams once again. Both have been playoffs teams in recent years and that is not expected to change going into this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be expected to be the top team in this division. Their high-end talent up front, coupled with a strong blueline and solid goaltending is why they have such high expectations this season. Forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander lead the charge up front while Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin are two returning key pieces on the back end. Anderson will be expected to have a big season in goal as well. What makes the Leafs so good coming into this year is their off-season additions. Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Jimmy Vesey give the Leafs depth up front and it appears early on that coach Sheldon Keefe will be forming a more balanced attack this year by spreading out his scoring threats across the top three lines. This will give the Leafs scoring options up and down their lineup. Their additions on the back end are also a cause for optimism. Zach Bogosian is exactly what the Leafs need from their defenseman; more physicality. Bogosian, alongside Muzzin will give the Leafs a new, more intimidating identity than in years past. TJ Brodie alongside star Morgan Reilly gives the Leafs an excellent top pairing. New dman Miko Lehtonen from the KHL is a very underrated addition that not enough people are talking about. The former KHL star will give the Leafs yet another solid defensemen to rely on. The Leafs will be a legitimate contender this year.

Third will be the Discover NHL Central Division. This division includes: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, and Tampa Bay. This is a solid division although there are some question marks within this division. This division features both members of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in Dallas and Tampa Bay. Both teams are going to be strong once again, with Tampa Bay coming back as one of the Cup favorites. Former Cornellian Alex Green, who played for the Big Red last season, is at training camp right now with Tampa Bay and will have a great opportunity to stick with the Lightning. Nashville can be expected to be a strong team once again as well, just as they have been in years past. Their blue line will once again be led by Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi who leads a deep lineup of defensemen. Their forward group is deep as well and they have two great options in net. Carolina is an up and coming team who is expected to continue to take the next step this season. Their defense is solid, led by Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Slavin. Up front they have some electrifying young offensive weapons in Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. This team has surprised people in recent teams, but I no longer think people will be surprised by the Hurricanes success. Their season will depend on the strength of their goaltending. The Columbus Blue Jackets will be a question mark coming into the season. After being defeated by Tampa Bay early in the playoffs last year it will be interesting to see what type of record they put together. They have one of the best defensive pairings in the league in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Their forward core is led by young star Pierre Luc Dubois, however, there are trade rumors surrounding the centerman. It’s speculated that he and Head Coach John Tortorella are not on good terms. The Blue Jackets must find a way to hold on to him; if they want success this season. Newly acquired Max Domi is also a question mark heading into the season. He hasn’t had the consistency so far in his career to lead me to believe he is an effective top six producer in this league. Young goaltender Elvis Merzlikins showed great promise at times last season so the Blue Jackets will need him to play well right away. The Florida Panthers are a tough team to predict this season. Their core of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Yandle are returning and are all exceptional players. Yet, the team has lost key players in Mike Hoffman and Vincent Trochek. That offense will not be easy to replace. Also, star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky did not play up to his monster contract last year. He will need to bounce back if the Panthers have a shot at the playoffs. The Panthers are coached by John Quenneville which is a reason to believe that they may surprise people and play above what is expected from this lineup. The Chicago Blackhawks have already been given two tough blows and the season hasn’t even started. Young star Kirby Dach will miss significant time after a wrist injury suffered at this year's World Juniors. Captain Jonathan Toews will also miss time due to an unknown illness. Players such as Dylan Strome and Alex Debrincat will need to pick up the slack. Debrincat will have to return to his 40 goal form after only scoring 18 times last season. Their defensive core is not what it once was. Duncan Keith is still effective yet aging, Adam Boqvist will be relied on more this season, and off-season addition Nikita Zadorov from Colorado will be looked at to provide physicality on the backend. The goaltending position for Chicago is a huge unknown going into the season. With all this being said, it’s without a doubt that Patrick Kane will be electrifying once again. Rounding out this division is the Detroit Red Wings. This is a bad team, there's no other way to put it. I expect this team to finish dead last in the league this season. They made a number of off-season transactions; however, none were very impactful. Dylan Larkin may be the lone bright spot on this squad. The team possesses no true offensive weapons, no dynamic defensemen, and no solid goaltending. Red Wings fans have reasons to be optimistic with General Manager Steve Yzerman overseeing their rebuild but they will still have to wait until the Red Wings return to championship form.

Coming in last will be the Honda NHL West Division. This division has three extremely good teams in Colorado, St. Louis, and Vegas, however, after these three teams the rest of the conference is very weak. Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and San Jose are not expected to be playoff teams. Anaheim is an aging team that had the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft. They have a couple young and exciting prospects in Jamie Drysdale and Trevor Zegras, however, there just isn’t enough existing talent on the roster to really believe they’ll improve on last season. Los Angeles picked #2 in the last draft and I can’t see them improving very much on their performance last season. Their core is aging, and they don’t have a ton of depth in the lineup at the moment. Arizona has the potential to be a decent team, however, they’ll have to overcome the loss of superstar forward Taylor Hall. Their success will depend on if goaltender Darcy Kuemper can repeat his success from last season. Minnesota is another team that simply doesn’t have the offensive weapons to be taken seriously as a playoff team this season. Newly named captain Jared Spurgeon will have a tough task getting the Wild to the playoffs. Even if this is the case it will be interesting watching new player, Kirill Kaprizov and see if he can perform as well in the NHL as he had in the KHL. As mentioned, Colorado, St. Louis, and Las Vegas are all legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders. St. Louis added defenseman Torey Krug from Boston and consistent goal scorer Mike Hoffman from Florida to bolster their lineup. Las Vegas made a huge splash this offseason adding former St. Louis captain and one of the league's top defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo. Colorado may be the Cup favorite this year with one of the best forward lines in the league which consists of MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen. Although, the cluster of mediocre and below average teams in this conference overshadows the top end talent this division possesses. The five bottom teams in this division are nothing to be excited about going into the season and this is why this division is the weakest. With the amount of times division rivals will meet with this new alignment, this NHL season will be an exciting one!



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