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2021 Division Previews: Central Division

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

After our previews of the North Division and the East Division this week, we are back with our projections of the mix-matched Central Division...er...the Discover NHL Central Division that is, as the corporate sponsors have put a firm hold on the division naming rights.


This division features an array of teams from the usual Western and Eastern Conferences, so it's an interesting one to compare. Unlike the previously highlighted divisions, there are five really strong teams in the mix for the four open playoff spots. These teams are assumed to beat up a bit on the bottom three, so it could come down to who wins the games they're supposed to win the most.


We'll count down from the rebuilders to the defending champs, and you may notice we've added the regular season point total lines and Stanley Cup odds courtesy of BetOnline.ag to compare with our standings point projections.


8. DETROIT RED WINGS LINE: 41.5 cup odds: +20000


New Faces: Vladislav Namestnikov, Bobby Ryan, Marc Staal, Jon Merrill, Troy Stecher, Thomas Greiss

Key Departures: Madison Bowey, Mike Green, Trevor Daley, Brendan Perlini, Jimmy Howard

Last year's bottom feeders are strictly in rebuilding mode, but they made some interesting adds to the roster up front. Veterans Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov join a dismal group of forwards as likely stopgaps while the young talent on the farm continues to develop.


How dismal are they? Well, first line aside, every forward in the projected lineup is predicted to have a negative impact on the standings for the team. The first line, however, is quite good as should continue to produce for the Red Wings.


There's really only one wildcard here, and that's Filip Zadina. The top prospect has not been good at even-strength so far in his young NHL career, but he has the offensive talent and shot to at least have strong shooting impacts to help the team this season.


While they weren't necessarily big signings, the addition of Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher gives Detroit exactly what they needed on the backend - a steady pair to solidify their top four. Both players are extremely underrated, and balance the depth chart that was desperately lacking some steady hands.


Marc Staal was the biggest name added, but the less he plays, the better the team is for it. Maybe his presence brings some value to the locker room, but his measurables are not nearly NHL defensman-worthy anymore.


In goal, Thomas Greiss was brought in to do what he has done practically his entire career - be a solid number two in a near 50/50 split. Jonathan Bernier played well last season, but the modern NHL trend is to have two reliable options in net.


7. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS LINE: 51.5 cup odds: +6600


New Faces: Mattias Janmark, Carl Soderberg, Lucas Wallmark, Nikita Zadorov

Key Departures: Brandon Saad, Drake Caggiula, Slater Koekkoek, Corey Crawford

The Blackhawks are already decimated up front by injury, and the season hasn't even begun. Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, and Alex Nylander are all on injured reserve to start the season, leaving a huge void in the top six.


It seems like the plan, as mirrored so far in training camp, is to stack the first line with Alex Debrincat, Dylan Strome, and Patrick Kane - arguably the club's three best offensive forwards remaining. Dominik Kubalik is coming off a strong year, and he will likely join newcomer Carl Soderberg and the returning Andrew Shaw to attempt to salvage the offense.


The rest of the forwards leave little to be desired, but Pius Suter is a name that keeps popping up in camp to keep an eye on. If he can make an impact and a couple of the injured guys comeback soon enough, maybe this group won't be so bad after all.


GM Stan Bowman prefaced this season by asking fans for patience as they rebuild, and the clear and obvious points of rebuilding are shown in the above graphic. Chicago will be leaning on youngsters Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell this season, as Duncan Keith's Hall-of-Fame career nears its end. Nikita Zadorov was acquired to aid in the transition of the team, but he is really better suited in a limited role.


Since Corey Crawford was another casualty of the rebuild, Collin Delia appears to be getting his shot to take on starting duty. Malcom Subban was the backup last season after coming over via trade, but his goals saved above expected numbers are among the worst of all goalies appearing in the NHL recently.


6. FLORIDA PANTHERS LINE: 63.5 cup odds: +5000


New Faces: Patric Hornqvist, Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas

Key Departures: Mike Hoffman, Evgeny Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Mark Pysyk, Colton Sceviour, Brian Boyle, Dominic Toninato, Josh Brown, Dryden Hunt, Lucas Wallmark, Erik Haula

I found myself this offseason nodding in agreement with a lot of the moves that new GM Bill Zito made during the offseason, but, as you can tell by the list above, I don't see how that much turnover can result in immediate success for the Panthers this season. I'm sure that is not the goal of the front office, anyway, as it's hard to replace losing both Mike Hoffman and Evgeny Dadonov in free agency.


Anthony Duclair is coming off of a career year, and is getting the first chance to play with Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov, so mark that one down for fantasy purposes. Overall, this group is lacking a conceivable second line, although any of their other three could suffice in other team's bottom six.


Not much change here from last season, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mackenzie Weeger was promoted to the top pair with Aaron Ekblad last season and handled it beautifully, while Riley Stillman struggled taking over heavy defensive minutes for the squad.


Markus Nutivaara and Radko Gudas will compete for the sixth and final defense spot available, which is a win-win for the team as both are more than capable.


Sergei Bobrovsky is the $10 million dollar goalie, so expect him to rake in over 70% of starts. Keep an eye on Chris Driedger, however, as he played unbelievable in spot duty when filling in for Bobrovsky.


5. DALLAS STARS LINE: 66.5 cup odds: +2000


New Faces: Mark Pysyk

Key Departures: Mattias Janmark, Corey Perry

Mattias Janmark and Corey Perry departed from the team this offseason, and the Stars decided to replace them internally. This means that Justin Dowling and playoff hero Joel Kiviranta will have full-time roles with the team. Nick Caamano is likely the 13th forward, as well.


Denis Gurianov flashed in the later half of last season and into the postseason, so expect a bigger role for him five on five this season. Tyler Seguin also is coming off of offseason surgery, so his status for opening night is up in the air.


If it weren't for Mark Pysyk, Dallas would've been saying "no new friends" to the league this year. Instead, Mark Pysyk is the favorite for the final defenseman slot, if he can hold off the likes of Taylor Fedun, Stephen Johns, and Joel Hanley. It's a deep group loaded with talent.


The goaltending situation in Dallas is an interesting one, due to Anton Khudobin's postseason heroics during their 2020 Cup run. Ben Bishop has been among the league's best in the regular season, however, so he still gets the nod as the favorite to start more games. If he falters at any point, look for "Dobby" to reclaim the starting role.


Although our projections don't have the Stars too far off from their betting line, The competition for the playoff spots in the Central Division have us placing them ever so slightly on the outside looking in.


4. CAROLINA HURRICANES LINE: 68.5 cup odds: +1600


New Faces: Jesper Fast, Drew Shore, Joakim Ryan

Key Departures: Joel Edmundson, Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk

Jesper Fast was such a Carolina signing that we all should've seen it coming. He has great underlying metrics as a complimentary player in the top six, solidifying what should be a very good play-driving forward corps.


The loss of Justin Williams may prove substantial on and off the ice, but he only played 20 regular season games last season, so it was to be expected.


Dougie Hamilton was our top rating defenseman in our fantasy rankings, and he doesn't get enough love as one of the best defensemen in the entire league. He and Jaccob Slavin form an elite top pair, and the rest of the defense is solid in their own right.


Petr Mrazek saw slightly more starts than James Reimer last season, but the two were practically interchangeable. We expect that to continue, as Carolina will look to hold off the Stars to reach the 2021 postseason.


3. NASHVILLE PREDATORS LINE: 65.5 cup odds: +3300


New Faces: Luke Kunin, Erik Haula, Nick Cousins, Mark Borowiecki, Matt Benning

Key Departures: Nick Bonino, Craig Smith, Kyle Turris, Austin Watson, Colin Blackwell, Dan Hamhuis, Daniel Carr

When comparing to last year's forward group, it might not seem much different heading into this season. Losing both Nick Bonino and Craig Smith however, means that the Predators aren't returning two-thirds of their best line. Only Rocco Grimaldi remains, and he'll likely pair with Erik Haula and either Calle Jarnkrok or Luke Kunin to try to regain the success he found last season.


As for what should've been Nashville's top two lines, the Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene centered units project to rebound in a big way from down years. This is the key to the Preds locking down one of the top four spots in the division, or else they could easily find themselves on the outside looking in.


The blueline has been the driving force behind Nashville's success for years now, and with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm still in the fold, that shouldn't change any time soon.


Mark Borowiecki comes in to provide key penalty killing minutes, and Matt Benning has put up great metrics as a third pair defenseman for his entire career.


Juuse Saros unseated incumbent starter Pekka Rinne last season, and he will continue in that role for the Preds this year. Despite the brutal numbers from last season, Rinne should be able to rebound and regain the club's trust in a backup role.


2. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS LINE: 64.5 cup odds: +4000


New Faces: Max Domi, Mikko Koivu, Mikhail Grigorenko, Michael Del Zotto (tryout)

Key Departures: Josh Anderson, Alex Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara

Some new faces in the middle of the ice for the Blue Jackets adds some intrigue to the forward group this season. Max Domi, who has great offensive impacts, joins a defensive-orientated system to see if he can add the production necessary to compliment the top six. Mikko Koivu would seem to fit in perfectly in a third or fourth line role with the team, and Mikhail Grigorenko returns to the NHL after a successful KHL stint to add upside in the scoring department.


The big question mark looms around the team's top center, Pierre-Luc Dubois. Even though he just re-signed with Columbus, reports have circulated about a trade request due to his desire to go to a bigger market. Dubois has been very strong in all situations for the club, so if he is traded, his role with the team will be tough to replace.


Zach Werenski and Seth Jones remain one of the league's most productive top pairs, but quietly it has been the rest of the defense that has stepped up to carry the team. Vladislav Gavrikov's rookie season was incredibly overlooked, as he and David Savard were as steady as it gets.


At times last year, it seemed like whomever Columbus put in net was playing out of his mind. This was true for Elvis Merzlikins, who's incredible winning streak earned him a nice new hefty contract, and for Joonas Korpisalo, who was remarkable in the postseason. Korpisalo went into last season as the starter and is expected to do so this season, but this situation has 50/50 split all over it until somebody gets hot again.


At 40/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup and a regular season point projection of 7.5 above their Vegas line, Columbus may just be the best longshot bet in the NHL this season. The combination of two very capable goalies, incredible defense, and some added offensive upside seems like a recipe for success in the playoffs. That is, of course, assuming Dubois remains with the team.


1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LINE: 73.5 cup odds: +850


New Faces: None

Key Departures: Kevin Shattenkirk, Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn, Zach Bogosian

It truly is unbelievable what the Tampa Bay Lightning front office pulled off this offseason. They were in cap jail, already over the limit with Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak to re-sign, and were able to return all three players. The only casualties were two bottom pair defensemen and a fourth line forward. Well, sort of.


The team will be missing it's best offensive player in Nikita Kucherov this season due to injury, but they won the Stanley Cup without their captain and perennial leading goal scorer, Steven Stamkos, who returns to assume Kucherov's spot. So, in the grand scheme of things, they are basically returning the same Cup winning squad.


If there's one clear hole in Tampa's roster, it lays with the defensive depth. Luke Schenn has been abysmal even in spot duty in recent years, and there's not much behind him to push for a job. The other five starting d-men, however, are really good, so if they stay healthy it should be a non-factor.


Goalie optimization is a funny thing, because most would consider Andrei Vasilevskiy on of the league's elite. In actuality, he has struggled a bit more than you'd think in the expected saves department, and Curtis McElhinney has put together some strong years when called upon. Vasilevskiy is expected to still garner a heavy dose of the starts, but just know that if the backup is in net for Tampa there won't likely be a drop-off at all.


The defending champions have the second-best odds to win the Stanley Cup again this season, and their division sets up pretty nicely to give them a good shot to do so. They really don't have much of a challenge for the top seed, and the most difficult hurdle will likely be when they reach the semi-finals as the division champions faceoff. All of this while missing one the league's best players, who else could withstand that?


 

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