2021 NHL season preview: Divisional breakdown, predictions

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at New York Islanders
Nathan MacKinnon (left) and the Avalanche are favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

With no bubbles but plenty of safety protocols in place, the NHL returns to action on Wednesday night, dropping the puck on a 56-game season that’s 26 games fewer than a normal campaign and starting 10 weeks later. 

A necessary sacrifice to make to get some semblance of a season back, but it will look plenty different, and it’s not just the length of schedule.

To cut down on travel amid another dramatic spike of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams in each of the four divisions will only play each other. So for example, in the East Division, the Islanders will play each of the Rangers, Capitals, Flyers, Bruins, Penguins, Devils, and Sabres eight times. 

The top four teams in each group will make the postseason where, once again, they only play each other to decipher a winner to represent the division. Each of the division winners, the NHL’s final four, will be seeded by their point total in the regular season to figure out the semifinal matchups.

These alignments allow some extra games for classic rivalries to duke it out, most notably the Islanders and Rangers in the East along with the Maple Leafs and Canadiens up north. But there is also an eight-game Stanley Cup Final rematch in the Central between the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the runner-up Dallas Stars. 

Will either of those two teams be back in the final playing for Lord Stanley’s prize? AMNewYork Metro predicted how the 2021 NHL season will play out:

East Division Predictions

1) Washington Capitals

With a new coach in Peter Laviolette and a star goalie in the making in Ilya Samsonov, the Capitals bolstered their defense by bringing on Zdeno Chara and Justin Schultz to support a high-powered offense headlined by Alex Ovechkin.

2) Boston Bruins

The Bruins won the President’s Trophy last year but they didn’t do much to get better. They lost Chara and Torey Krug and star sniper David Pastrnak is out for at least a month while he recovers from hip surgery.

3) Philadelphia Flyers

Carter Hart is one of the favorites to win the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL and should carry a team with loads of promise. Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick are ready to support the veteran trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier while Ivan Provarov is one of the best young defensemen in the game.

4) New York Islanders

The Islanders’ patented defense took a hit when they traded Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche but the Barry Trotz system continues to work, even if salary cap issues prevented them from getting that much-needed top-line scorer.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel will have the Penguins in the mix, but their defense is suspect, to say the least.

6) New York Rangers

The rebuild is in overdrive and No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere is only going to make it go quicker as he joins Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on Broadway. Igor Shesterkin is the next Henrik Lundqvist, but the main question mark is how organized their blue line can be.

7) Buffalo Sabres

Taylor Hall joins Jack Eichel as the newest dynamic duo in the NHL, but not much else is going for Buffalo.

8) New Jersey Devils

Jack Hughes needs to take the next step in Year 2 while PK Subban has to rediscover his All-Star self on defense. They would be more competitive in any other division, just not this one.

North Division

1) Toronto Maple Leafs

John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander now with the calming veteran presence of Joe Thornton? The Leafs have had major hype surrounding them for the last two seasons. Now is the time to live up to it.

2) Calgary Flames

This might be one of the more enigmatic picks of these predictions. A lot is up in the air in Calgary but there are a lot of good pieces on that roster. The signing of Jacob Markstrom as a true No. 1 goalie will be the key to any Flames success.

3) Vancouver Canucks

One of the more exciting, up-and-coming teams in all of hockey, the Canucks boast a healthy Elias Pettersson, who could make a serious run at MVP honors this season.

4) Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the most explosive players on the planet, but they can only carry Edmonton so far every year. Kailler Yamamoto could be key as his emergence could cover up a shaky Oilers backend even further.

5) Montreal Canadiens

As long as Carey Price is in net, the Canadiens will have a chance every night. Young promising pieces in Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi could take those first valuable steps toward returning Montreal to former glory, but it won’t be enough yet.

6) Winnipeg Jets

The Patrik Laine drama isn’t helping, but the Jets have a loaded top six that also features Blake Wheeler and the returning Paul Stastny. But this is a team that lacks depth on both ends of the ice, which will put plenty of pressure on Connor Hellebuyck every night.

7) Ottawa Senators

The rebuild continues in Ottawa, but at least there’s some direction now. Matt Murray was acquired as the franchise goalie of the future while winger Tim Stuetzle and defensemen Erik Brannstrom and Josh Norris will develop into a promising foundation.

Central Division

1) Tampa Bay Lightning

The defending champs are going to roll in this weaker division even with the loss of Nikita Kucherov for the year due to injury. This is one of the deeper teams in all of hockey with plenty of playmakers, a sturdy defense, and one of the top goalies in the game in Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

2) Dallas Stars

The defense-first stars were able to retain goalie Anton Khudobin to keep a strong duo with Ben Bishop. Their strong defense will keep them in games, but their goal-scoring could sputter with Tyler Seguin out until April.

3) Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina is one of the most fun teams in the NHL with two bright young stars in Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. A strong defense will have them in the hunt, but their goaltending could continue holding them back.

4) Florida Panthers

The Panthers added Anthony Duclair and Patric Hornqvist to an aready-imposing offense. If Sergei Bobrovsky can play like we all expect him to, then the Panthers are a dangerous team.

5) Nashville Predators

Things were messy in Nashville last year during a disappointing season. Talented two-way defensemen add more to a dangerous attack, but there are a ton of questions in net with Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne. 

6) Columbus Blue Jackets

Max Domi is the perfect player to bring into a John Tortorella system but there’s drama surrounding another top player in Pierre-Luc Dubois, who wants out of Columbus. 

7) Chicago Blackhawks

The absence of Jonathan Toews, who is battling an illness, won’t help the Blackhawks’ only redeemable aspect, which is a decent top six.

8) Detroit Red Wings

Detroit nabbed Thomas Greiss to take over in net but it’s all about the development of a young roster.

West Division

1) Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche have one of the deepest, most dangerous rosters in hockey and it’s a reason why they’re one of the favorites to win the Cup. Nathan MacKinnon is securing his place as one of the best players in the league alongside McDavid while the defense is as immovable as it is flashy with Cale Makar getting a new partner in former Islander Devon Toews.

2) Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas got their back end in order, re-signing goalie Robin Lehner while bringing on defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. They will be right there in the running for the division and the Cup this year.

3) St. Louis Blues

The Blues are still one of the stronger teams in the West and they got more reinforcements by bringing on Mike Hoffman. The hope is he’ll be joined by the injured Vladimir Tarasenko after a month or so.

4) Arizona Coyotes

They lost Taylor Hall and didn’t do much to improve, but the Coyotes were a playoff team last year and this is the weakest division in the NHL this year.

5) San Jose Sharks

The talent is there, but the depth isn’t. When it comes to the goalie situation, it’s been a wreck. The hope is that Devan Dubnyk can at least provide some stability in goal while San Jose attempts to regain its footing.

6) Minnesota Wild

The Wild have been stuck in neutral for years, but they have something brewing in the young forward, Kirill Kaprizov. If he’s as good as advertised, they’ll be moving up the standings in the next few years.

7) Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are smack dab in the middle of a rebuild but the kids are finally starting to arrive, most notably Trevor Zegras, who put on a show at the 2021 World Junior Championships.

8) Los Angeles Kings

Too old and too slow, but this year is about Quinton Byfield and whether or not he’s the future of the Kings franchise.

Semifinal predictions

Avalanche def. Flyers

Lightning def. Maple Leafs

Stanley Cup prediction

Avalanche def. Lightning