The National Hockey League is back for January 2021, even though the fans are not.
Most NHL rinks will be missing their most ardent supporters for a COVID-19 pandemic shortened 56-game season, which will take place entirely within reconfigured divisions. The result should reduce some travel concerns and give us plenty of rivalry games, especially in a North Division comprised entirely of the seven Canadian teams.
Tampa Bay will defend its second Stanley Cup title in 2020-21, having become hockey’s first bubble champion. The Lightning will be battling defending Cup finalist Dallas for the Central Division crown, as well as fellow contender Carolina. The East Division looks to be the most contentious, as arguments can be made for seven of the eight teams as playoff contenders.
Even the mighty East can’t contend with the West Division as far title threats. In that division, Vegas and Colorado will likely battle all year for the league’s best record, are both are poised to dethrone the Lightning.
What remains to be seen is how the pandemic will affect players, teams, and even the border. Those are all questions that will be answered as the 2020-21 NHL season rolls along.
Without further ado, here are my 2020-21 NHL season preview, featuring predictions for all 31 teams in 31 words or less.
- Vegas Golden Knights (2019-20 Record: 39-24-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 1st West Division)
Few teams can match the offense led by Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, or the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. Signing Alex Pietrangelo puts Vegas all in.
- Colorado Avalanche (2019-20 Record: 42-20-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 2nd West Division)
Goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s injury derailed Colorado’s title chances in the bubble last season. The explosive Avalanche are only getting better, led by superstar Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar.
- Tampa Bay Lightning (2019-20 Record: 39-24-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 1st Central Division) With some departures, plus an injury to star Nikita Kucherov, the defending champion Lightning could slip. Defenseman Victor Hedman, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and forward Brayden Point are all game-breakers.
- New York Islanders (2019-20 Record: 35-23-10; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 1st East Division)
In a crowded East Division, the Islanders look poised for greatness with a loaded blue line. Forwards Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson can score, and Semyon Varlamov is solid in goal.
- Boston Bruins (2019-20 Record: 44-14-12; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 2nd East Division)
With no Tampa Bay in the way, the “Perfection Line”-led Bruins could roll in the East. Goalie Tuukka Rask is formidable, but can Boston replace legendary defenseman Zdeno Chara?
- Washington Capitals (2019-20 Record: 41-20-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 3rd East Division)
A new coach and a new attitude should rejuvenate Washington. This is still Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson’s team. Can Ilya Samsonov carry the mail in goal?
- Toronto Maple Leafs (2019-20 Record: 35-26-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 1st North Division)
The Leafs should dominate the all-Canadian division as Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner may score at will. Can Frederick Andersen make the saves and T.J. Brodie help the defense?
- Carolina Hurricanes (2019-20 Record: 38-25-5; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 2nd Central Division) Loaded offensively and defensively, dark horse Carolina is a legit Cup contender. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are budding stars, and defenseman Dougie Hamilton should be healthy. Goaltending issues are concerning.
- Dallas Stars (2019-20 Record: 37-24-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 3rd Central Division) Dallas made it to the Stanley Cup finals, but paid the price with injuries. Led by Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg, the Stars might have the best defense in the NHL.
- St. Louis Blues (2019-20 Record: 42-19-10; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 3rd West Division)
Two years removed from their title, the Blues are transitioning. Losing captain Alex Pietrangelo will hurt; adding defenseman Torey Krug softens the blow. Ryan O’Reilly is the new franchise face.
- Philadelphia Flyers (2019-20 Record: 41-21-7; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 4th East Division)
Before the pandemic pause, Philadelphia was rolling out East. This is goaltender Carter Hart’s team, and his play will dictate their season. The Flyers’ defense in front of him is underrated.
- Edmonton Oilers (2019-20 Record: 37-25-9; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 2nd North Division)
Top-two forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are electric for the Oilers, and defenseman Tyson Barrie is an underrated addition. Edmonton has high-end talent, bottom-tier goaltending, and no depth.
- Vancouver Canucks (2019-20 Record: 36-27-6; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 3rd North Division)
Vancouver is young and electric. Talented forwards Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Elias Petterson, defenseman Quinn Hughes, and goaltender Thatcher Demko are the Canucks’ leaders. Will Vancouver miss goaltender Jacob Markstrom?
- Pittsburgh Penguins (2019-20 Record: 40-23-6; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 5th East Division)
Are the Penguins finally slipping? A disappointing bubble appearance might signal the end of a lengthy run of title contention for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s Tristan Jarry’s net now.
- Winnipeg Jets (2019-20 Record: 37-28-6; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 4th North Division)
Forward Patrik Laine’s situation hangs over Winnipeg, but the Jets have plenty of offense without him. Defenseman Neal Pionk is emerging and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck might be the NHL’s best netminder.
- Calgary Flames (2019-20 Record: 36-27-70; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 5th North Division)
This is a make-or-break year for Calgary. Jacob Markstrom should be a huge addition in goal, but the Flames will go as far as Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk take them.
- New York Rangers (2019-20 Record: 37-28-9; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 6th East Division)
The emerging Rangers might be a playoff team in any division but the East. With Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, New York can score, but is goaltender Igor Shesterkin spotlight ready?
- Nashville Predators (2019-20 Record: 35-26-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 4th Central Division)
Nashville is a team in transition. Juuse Saros is the clear breadwinner in goal. The Predators’ defense, led by Roman Josi, is elite, but can Nashville’s offense score enough goals?
- Minnesota Wild (2019-20 Record: 35-27-7; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 4th West Division)
Minnesota will be hard to predict in 2020-21, but are adding the most electric player of any team— Kirill Kaprizov. Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen should improve the goaltending as well.
- Columbus Blue Jackets (2019-20 Record: 33-22-15; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 5th Central Division) Columbus could go either direction in 2020-21. Forward Pierre-Luc Dubois wants a trade and could be a distraction. The Blue Jackets feature defensive studs, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
- Los Angeles Kings (2019-20 Record: 29-35-6; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 5th West Division)
Veteran defenseman Drew Doughty leads the Kings, who might surprise out West. The question is whether the talent behind Anze Kopitar is ready to contend, or is a year away.
- Florida Panthers (2019-20 Record: 35-26-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 6th Central Division)
Florida is overdue for success, with talented core featuring Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky must be better, or the Panthers will miss the postseason.
- Montreal Canadiens (2019-20 Record: 31-31-9; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 6th North Division)
Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson are great additions to the Canadiens. Nick Suzuki is set to become a star, but Montreal’s success depends on defenseman Shea Weber and goaltender Carey Price.
- Arizona Coyotes (2019-20 Record: 33-29-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 6th West Division)
Arizona is hard to read for 2020-21. With goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, the Coyotes rarely allow goals. But other than Phil Kessel, Arizona features few elite scoring options.
- Buffalo Sabres (2019-20 Record: 30-31-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 7th East Division)
Taylor Hall made the surprising choice to join young Buffalo. Will it pay off playing alongside Jack Eichel? Buffalo might have a tough time getting traction in the loaded East Division.
- San Jose Sharks (2019-20 Record: 29-36-5; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 7th West Division)
Things are starting to get messy in pandemic-plagued San Jose. After missing the playoffs in 2019-20, the Sharks aren’t likely to return in 2020-21. Goaltending and defensive depth remain glaring issues.
- Chicago Blackhawks (2019-20 Record: 32-30-8; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 7th Central Division) With captain Jonathan Toews out all season, Chicago raised the white flag on trying to contend. The Blackhawks’ youth will be fun to watch, as will the always stellar Patrick Kane.
- Ottawa Senators (2019-20 Record: 25-34-12; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 7th North Division)
Young Ottawa will struggle again in 2020-21 while accumulating talented players like goaltender Matt Murray. Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown are nice forwards. Defenseman Thomas Chabot is elite.
- New Jersey Devils (2019-20 Record: 28-29-12; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 8th East Division)
Young New Jersey will need to be patient in the loaded East Division. Mackenzie Blackwood earned the starting job in goal, while Jack Hughes and Pavel Zacha are exciting young talents.
- Anaheim Ducks (2019-20 Record: 29-33-9; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 8th West Division)
Unlikely to contend, the Ducks might be one of the league’s better teams defensively. Scoring goals is the problem, as Anaheim lacks dependable options beyond captain Ryan Getzlaf.
- Detroit Red Wings (2019-20 Record: 37-25-9; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 8th Central Division)
Detroit is a long way from contending, but the Red Wings remain patient. Forwards Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are solid building blocks, while Vladislav Namestnikov was an interesting off-season addition.