The NHL is back!

The NHL regular season makes its return to our screens on Wednesday night, and thanks to Covid, we’ve been served up a feast of hockey. A realignment of divisions and a 56 game season will take us through to early May, and then it’s four teams from each division into the playoffs, which should be done by mid-July.

A flat salary cap this year has meant free agency was a bit of a no-show, with Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall both signing deals lower than would have been expected had it not been for Coronavirus.

Calgary and Vancouver have essentially swapped rosters, and Zdeno Chara has left the Bruins and headed to Washington, leaving many Leafs fans unsure who to blame for crosschecking Zach Hyman in the face.

That leads me on then to the part where I predict who will emerge from each division for the playoffs, and who will win the cup.

*Disclaimer* My hockey sports predictions are never even close to correct. (Although I did predict all six of the winners from NFL’s super Wild Card Weekend for my bracket challenge -despite knowing little to nothing about Football – so there is some glimmer of hope)

So here goes, this is how I predict the NHL will pan out this year.

West Division

Starting in the West, we have the three California teams, St Louis, Vegas, Arizona, Minnesota, and Colorado. Straight off the bat I can confidently say I think Anaheim and LA will miss. Despite the addition of Quinton Byfield for the Kings, I think they and the Ducks are on a downward trend.

At the other end of the spectrum, I expect the top three in the West will come down to Colorado, Vegas, and St Louis, in that order. Nathan MacKinnon is the second-best player in the league, no debate, and despite losing key defenceman and their captain to Vegas in Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues are also still good enough for top three.

Vegas themselves are still pretty stacked, and Mark Stone will continue to be one of the most underrated defensive forwards in the league.

That leaves San Jose, Arizona, and Minnesota. The Wild for me haven’t done nearly enough to replace Zucker, Staal, Koivu, and Galchenyuk, and lack punch, so they’ll miss but it won’t be by much. I think Arizona will miss too, for many of the same reasons. That means we’ll all be crossing our fingers for a San Jose-Vegas rematch in the first round.

So, my top four in the West Divsion will be: Colorado, Vegas, St Louis, and San Jose. With Colorado and Vegas going head-to-head in the second round, and I’ll bet on the Avs to make the conference finals from that.

Central Division

A division with both teams who made the Stanley cup final just a few months ago lining up against each other? Yes please! Also, the “Central Division” this year contains two teams from Florida who play bascially next to the Atlantic Ocean, so good on the NHL for having the guts to call it Central.

As I said, Tampa and Dallas who played in the Stanley Cup final just one lockdown ago are a lock for the postseason again. They’ll be closely followed by Carolina who should be raising a David Ayres jersey to the rafters any day now. I really hope Carolina make the step this year and win a playoff round or two, they’re too fun of a team to watch to not have them going further than the first round.

After those three, again it’s a bit of a jumble. Three teams in Nashville, Florida, and Columbus all have the tools to make it, depending on how good their star players are.

I would have put the Blackhawks in there too, but no Toews or Dach, and the lack of anything remotely close to goaltending in net puts them out of it by a stretch. Detroit will bring up the rear in this division, but enjoy it, because in a decade it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re back to being the best team in the NHL.

If I had to choose one more team then, it would probably have to be Florida. Amongst the remaining teams they’re the strongest, and I think Ekblad and Huberdeau are too good to miss again.

With that, my top four from the central division are: Tampa Bay, Carolina, Dallas, and Florida, in that order. Tampa will sweep past Florida and Carolina will beat Dallas in the first round, and Tampa will edge the Hurricanes to head to the Conference finals.

East Division

Without doubt this is the hardest divsion to predict. Every team brings some pretty good pieces and look like they could be a threat, so I expect it to be the most competitive. That being said, New Jersey and Buffalo will miss the post-season for sure (queue Jack Eichel trade rumours once again).

After that, it’s tough to choose four, but I think the Division winners will be Philadelphia backstopped by future Vezina winner Carter Hart. They’ll be closely followed by Boston who, despite losing Chara and Tory Krug, still have the ridonkulously good first line of Pasternak-Bergeron-Marchand.

After that it’s between Washington, Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Islanders to fight it out. Like the Central I think it’ll be stupidly close, but I’m going with the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both New York teams will be good in different ways but miss. I actually thought the Islanders were awful from December until the pause last year, and got lucky that the playoffs – which suits their style – came when it did. The Rangers are still one year away from it, but like the Red Wings will be scary in half a decade.

Washington despite being unbelievably old now, are still a great team, and John Carlson for me should be a Norris candidate before the season even starts. They’ll make the playoffs, but I don’t think they’re getting far.

Pittsburgh will make the playoffs too, but I think it’s another first round exit for them as well. Despite having Crosby and Malkin, they’re just not quite there for me. Then again, people wrote them off in 2015, then they won back-to-back cups, so who knows?

My top 4 from the East Division then are: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and Pittsburgh, with the top two playing in the second round, and Philadelphia heading to the conference finals.

North (Canadian) Division

This seems to be the division that people are most excited about, and to be fair, quite justifyably. Similarly to all the other divisions, there are two certs for tailenders, in Ottawa (who will a good team in a few years) and Winnipeg. For me, not even Connor Hellebuyck can save the Jets from a season of mediocrity, Laine is looking like he wants out ASAP, and they have very little in terms of defensive standouts.

Vancouver will also miss out because their bottom six isn’t strong enough, and they can’t trade them away as they’re all tied into no-trade clauses, but will be significantly closer than the other two.

At the other end, despite how funny it has been watching them stuck in a division with two of the top five teams in the NHL for the past few years, Toronto will win the division, although not as comfortably as many are predicting.

Frederik Andersen will have an insane year, earning him a huge paycheck from every team but the Leafs next off-season, and Auston Matthews will once again be in contention for the Rocket Richard. Mitch Marner will have a bounce back year from the hot pile of nothing he served up last year, and Morgan Reilly will prove once and for all he’s a top 10 defencemen in the NHL.

Joining the Leafs in the post-season will be both the Alberta teams and Montreal. Edmonton will see McDraistl put up a tonne of points between them, and they’ll have anyone the Oilers can find to skate with them. Heck, I could probably score some points if I played with either of them, just stand across the crease and wait for the tap-in.

Calgary aren’t as good as many think, but are still a playoff team, just. Johnny Gaudreau needs to have a kick-ass year, otherwise it’s bye-bye to him, but bringing in Jacob Markstrom will finally give the Flames some decent goaltending. They have some nice young defensive pieces in Andersson and Oliver Kylington, and I think will be quite entertaining to watch.

Montreal will make the playoffs, and Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are a great one-two centre option for them, and I really like the Weber-Edmundson top pair in defence.

In summary then, the North Division will finish: Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal. Both first round match ups will be an absolute war which I can see taking seven games to settle, but it’ll be Toronto vs Edmonton in the second round, with the Oilers taking the step to the conference finals, thanks to McDavid putting Morgan Reilly in a blender once again.

Conference Finals and Stanley Cup

So, that leaves us with the Colorado Avalanche, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Philadelphia Flyers. In the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay will beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games to head to the Finals, and in the West the Avs will beat the Oilers in an absolute goal-fest possibly going needing seven games.

That takes us to the Stanley Cup Final, where I predict the Tampa Bay Lightning (who by this point will have a fully fit Nikita Kucherov in their squad) will go back-to-back and win the 2021 Cup. They’ll party on the water, in the sunshine of Florida again. The Conn Smythe trophy will go to Kucherov, because of course it will. Hedman will once again be the best defenceman in the playoffs, and Andrei Vasilevskiy will be making saves crazier than the way his name is spelt.

Enjoy this season, hockey fans, it’ll be done in a flash, and before we know it it’ll be the off-season again. So get buckled up, it’s going to be a fun one.

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