It’s almost time hockey fans! Every day we’re getting closer to puck drop on the 2021 NHL season. With the start of the season on the horizon, here’s everything you need to know about the new 2021 NHL Central Division. Excuse me, the “Discover” Central Division.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Let’s begin with the defending Stanley Cup champions and division frontrunners, the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2021, Tampa Bay has its eyes firmly set on keeping the Cup in Florida for another year. With much of last year’s roster returning, that goal isn’t far from the realm of possibility. Veteran captain Steven Stamkos returns along with familiar faces such as Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point. 2019 Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy also returns in net.
This doesn’t mean the Lightning aren’t already facing some speed-bumps on their road to a repeat. 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov has already been ruled out for the entire regular season after undergoing hip surgery. Tampa also lost this offseason a couple of important pieces in center Cedric Paquette and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Despite these losses, expect Tampa Bay to still be firmly among the Stanley Cup favorites throughout the season.
Moving on to the team the Lightning defeated in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals, let’s discuss the Dallas Stars. Dallas surprised plenty of people with their run to a Western Conference title last season. However, the Stars may have a bit tougher time replicating last year’s triumphs after a somewhat rocky offseason.
The Stars will start the season without veteran forward Tyler Seguin and goalie Ben Bishop due to injuries. Backup net-minder Anton Khudobin had some very solid performances in last season’s playoffs and should look to build on those to keep Dallas going until Bishop can return. The Stars do have a budding star (pun intended) with 21-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who racked up 26 points in 27 postseason games. If Heiskanen can continue his growth into an elite blue-line player and Dallas can overcome some key injuries, then the Stars should be a lock for the playoffs.
Over the past couple of seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes have grown into an exciting team with an attitude. Young stars Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov should remain the focal points of the Canes’ offense in 2021. The offseason addition of Jesper Fast could play a big role too by adding an experienced forward presence to the offense powered by mostly young talent.
Jacob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton anchor Carolina’s blue line as a very solid defensive pair. Those two must continue to click together to help overcome the team’s biggest weakness which is probably goaltending. The tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer isn’t terrible, but neither goalie could be considered a star in net which might be needed if the Canes want to content with Tampa for the top spot in the Central. Regardless, Carolina looks to be firmly in the playoff conversation.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets might be one of the most interesting teams in the Central. The past few seasons, Columbus has managed to fight its way into the playoffs and make things interesting once getting there. Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and Pierre-Luc Dubois were some important core players that could continue building on solid performances last year and form the heart of a feisty Columbus team.
The Jackets did see a decent amount of their secondary offensive scoring part ways this offseason. However, they did bring in Max Domi, who can become the focal point of the second or third offensive line. The goaltending duo of Joonas Korpisalo and youngster Elvis Merzlikins could be a useful tandem to have during a schedule that presents plenty of back-to-backs. The Blue Jackets could see themselves fighting for one of the Central’s last playoff spots down the final stretch, and they’ve been able to succeed in that area recently.
2021 will be the second season for the Florida Panthers under legendary head coach Joel Quenneville. After being eliminated in the qualifying round in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs bubble, Coach Q and the Panthers could find themselves on the outside of the Central’s playoff race looking in.
Florida’s biggest strength should once again be goaltending, with two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky returning as the main man in net. The Panthers’ biggest offseason addition was acquiring Patric Hornqvist in a trade with Pittsburgh. Hornqvist will need to help bolster Florida’s offensive production if they want any hope of being in the conversation for a Central Division playoff spot.
It’s not much of a secret anymore that Nashville’s days as one of the top teams in the West are over. In 2021, Nashville’s stars can still shine, but it probably won’t be enough to help them in the Central Division.
Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are back and look to remain as some of the league’s premiere defensemen. Predators fans should be hoping for more out of Matt Duchene in 2021. Nashville’s big free-agent signing from the 2019 offseason tallied 42 points for the Preds last year, which isn’t bad but left some to be desired considering the size of his contract. If their top players can carry them far, then Nashville could make a little noise in the Central. However, 2021 could likely be another disappointing year for the Preds.
Speaking of team’s that used to be the best in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks continued their descent from the peak of the hockey world in 2020. The Hawks were the last team in the West to qualify for the bubble last season, and ended up pulling off an upset of Edmonton in the qualifying round. However, Chicago’s swift exit from the tournament in the first round served as more proof of their slow fall from grace.
Captain Jonathan Toews recently missed the start of training camp with illness and has no timetable for return. Superstar Patrick Kane remains as one of the only other pieces of the 2010s dynasty era left. Other figures from that era gone in 2021 are goalie Corey Crawford and winger Brandon Saad. Looking at all this, it appears Chicago is hunkering down for a rebuild. Speaking of rebuilds, let’s finally talk about Chicago’s rivals and the Central’s other rebuilding team…
Detroit Red Wings
For a more in-depth analysis, you can read my full Detroit Red Wings season preview. Here’s the short version. The Red Wings have not been very good in the past few years. They will continue not being very good in 2021.
The young forward core of Larkin, Mantha, and Bertuzzi are the beacons of hope that can keep lighting the way for Hockeytown’s deep rebuild. Recent draft picks such as Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond are receiving high praise as prospects, but it’s unlikely Wings fans will see them in the NHL this season. With longtime net-minder Jimmy Howard gone, FA signing Thomas Greiss serves as a reliable goaltending option. Detroit finished 2020 in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Don’t be surprised if they wind up at the bottom of the Central Division in 2021.
Well, hockey fans, there it is. Everything you need to know about the new “Discover” Central Division. Follow me on Twitter @Mikeadzima and make sure to check out other great NHL content on Belly Up Sports.