NHL Preview: Winners, Losers Of Shortened Season, Division Realignment

The season begins Jan. 13

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The NHL season finally is upon us.

It will look a tad different this year, though, as teams will play 56 games beginning Jan. 13 with newly aligned divisions.

This certainly will favor some teams, while it makes it a bit challenging for others. Couple that with a shortened season and you have some winners and losers.

Here are our early predictions:

WINNERS

Carolina Hurricanes
The Metropolitan Division long has been a tough one, and the Hurricanes certainly will benefit with the realignment and shorter season.

Carolina was a Cinderella story during the 2018-19 season when it reached the Eastern Conference Final only for the ending to be spoiled by the Boston Bruins. The Canes didn?t have the best luck with the 2020 playoffs and once again were eliminated by Boston.

But the new alignment has the Hurricanes in a division with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sure, they?re now up against the two teams who went to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but let?s face it: the Red Wings are bad and it?s probably fair to assume the Blackhawks won?t be all that great this season, either.

The top-four teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs under this year?s rules. With the alignment, the playoff experience and the team continuing to up its game, Carolina should be dubbed a winner.

St. Louis Blues
The Blues bolstered their defense by signing Torey Krug to a seven-year deal in the offseason.

They already were a strong team and won the Stanley Cup in 2019. Plus, the new alignment works in St. Louis? favor, and the team won?t need to face any of the clubs that ended its playoff hopes last summer.

It won?t be a cakewalk, but the Blues? toughest opponents in the division will be the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.

St. Louis also didn?t suffer from the Stanley Cup “hangover” in 2019-20, even without Vladimir Tarasenko for much of the season. The Blues showed their depth was a force to be reckoned with, and there?s no reason to think it will take a step back come Jan. 13.

It?s also worth noting that while St. Louis didn?t boast the most potent offense, it was a team that played physical and gritty hockey and always won games on a full-team effort.

Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning and Bruins won?t be in the same division this year. Plus, the only team in the Stanley Cup champions’ new division that came close to their points total is the Dallas Stars, who came within 10.

The Bolts will be without Nikita Kucherov for the regular season, and that that certainly will be a blow to the offense. But the forward’s hip injury saves Tampa Bay $9.5 million in cap space.

Kucherov also could be back for the NHL Playoffs.

Unless they suffer that dreaded “hangover,” it’s probably a safe bet to lock Tampa in as one of the teams moving on to the playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche
Colorado was defeated by the Dallas Stars in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal last year but still are atop the favorites to win it all this season.

The Avs offense ranked fourth in the NHL scoring 3.37 goals per game, which is noteworthy due to three of their top-four forwards missing time. Once you get Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog back in the mix with Nathan MacKinnon, and if they can stay healthy for the full season, the team only will become more dangerous.

The tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz between the pipes certainly doesn?t bode well for opponents. We have no reason to think the duo will regress when the puck drops.

California Teams
The Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars essentially swapped divisions, which should, in theory, open up a playoff spot for a California team to lock up.

It’s fair to have the St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche as locks, and Minnesota isn’t a team to sleep on. But by taking the Stars out of the division, the path to the playoffs just got a tad easier for the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.

You certainly can’t count out the Arizona Coyotes, either. But anything can happen in the NHL, and this makes the road to the playoffs a tad easier for the California clubs.

LOSERS

New Jersey Devils

The alignment did the Devils zero favors, and now they?re faced with an uphill battle in an absolutely stacked division that includes the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, to name a few.

Due to the playoff rules, we?re bound to see at least two playoff-caliber teams not even make it, so it?s basically a safe bet to count New Jersey out before the season even begins.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Could Sidney Crosby and Co. miss the playoffs for the first time since Crosby?s 2005-06 rookie season?

It?s possible considering the Penguins won?t have it easy in a division that includes the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins.

Pittsburgh was kicked out of the first round of the playoffs last year by the Montreal Canadiens, just one season after being swept by New York Islanders.

If they can stay healthy, there’s a chance the Pens can lock up that fourth spot. But nothing is guaranteed in the NHL.

Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings were horrendous last season, to say the least. They made some offseason additions to their roster but they now sit in a division with the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning.

Detroit probably won’t be as bad as last season, but the realignment certainly did it no favors.

New York Rangers
Much like the Red Wings, the realignment didn’t do a whole lot of good for New York.

The Rangers did draft Alexis Lafrenière with the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. He certainly will provide a boost to their offense, but their new division is stacked, and it will be tough for New York to stay afloat.

This will be a build year for New York.

The North Division
This one was tough. Because while it’s a win that we’ll see a Canadian team in the semifinals this year, the travel may end up being tougher than one thinks.

The good news, though, is that the seven clubs will be able to play in their home arenas, something that seemed unlikely just a short time ago. However road trips might be tough on some teams, as they’ll need to travel across the country and back over the course of their schedule, whereas a team like the Boston Bruins only need to travel as far as Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

It’s also worth mentioning the trade deadline. Will teams be more willing to trade within their division to avoid the strict quarantine protocols Canada has in place?

Arizona Coyotes
You could consider the Coyotes a team that’s on the brink of being playoff-caliber, but the realignment hurts their chances.

Arizona’s schedule becomes tougher, despite playing against three of the worst teams in the Pacific Division, with games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues.

Thumbnail photo via Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports Images

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