RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – There’s a lot of uncertainty in sports — and in general, really — because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing we do know is that hockey comes back on Jan. 13 and the 2021 NHL season is going to be a different one.
Each team will play in a division with six or seven other clubs. They’ll play exclusively in their division with the top-four finishers in each qualifying for the playoffs at the end of the 56-game season.
The Carolina Hurricanes were drawn into a realigned Central Division that will have them playing a few teams much more than they’re used to. They’re well acquainted with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who also move from last year’s Metropolitan Division. They’ve also played former Atlantic Division opponents in Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Florida thrice each.
The other three teams in the Central — Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville — have been playing in the Western Conference, so they’re used to only meeting twice a year.
So, how have the ‘Canes been doing against their opponents they’ll face eight times each in this new division? Let’s take a look at each ahead of Thursday’s puck drop in Detroit.
Carolina and Chicago met twice last season. Petr Mrazek picked up a shutout in a 4-0 win in Raleigh on Oct. 26, 2019, before the ‘Canes went on to win 4-2 in Chicago on Nov. 19, 2019. Nino Niederreiter, who has largely struggled to produce consistently since arriving in Carolina, had a goal and an assist in each of those meetings.
The Blackhawks go into this season with a group of centers depleted by injuries. Veteran Jonathan Toews will be out indefinitely due to an undisclosed illness. Kirby Dach, Chicago’s third-overall pick in 2019, will miss at least four months following surgery on a broken wrist. That may mean former Hurricane Lucas Wallmark will be asked to fill a greater role than the fourth-line center job he often had in Carolina.
Chicago goes into this season with a largely unproven goaltender corps after parting ways with longtime netminder Corey Crawford in the offseason. Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia are tabbed to compete for the starter job. Subban has never started more than 20 games in a season while Delia made 16 starts for the Blackhawks last season in his sophomore campaign.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus will be Carolina’s most familiar foe in this division. The two met three times last season and seven times in the past two years. Columbus won the last four regular-season contests in the series and five of the last seven.
It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. All three of those losses to the Blue Jackets last year were by one goal, including one in overtime.
Columbus boasts one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. Backstopping the defense, the Blue Jackets have an effective goalie tandem in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. The former dazzled in the early stages of the playoffs when he made 85 saves in a 5OT loss to eventual champion Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs. Merzlikins, meanwhile, made 31 starts in his first season, posting a 13-9-8 record with a .923 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average. One of those wins was a 32-save performance against the ‘Canes.
Up front, Columbus has a talented group of youngsters surrounded by reliable veterans. Pierre-Luc Dubois, a 22-year-old center, broke onto the scene with 61 points in 2018-19. He about matched that pace with 49 points in 70 games last year and was a point-per-game in the playoffs last season. Winger Oliver Bjorkstrand, 25, goes into this season with back-to-back 20-goal campaigns under his belt.
Columbus also made two significant additions in the form of veteran center Mikko Koivu and Max Domi. The latter, obtained in a trade with Montreal, eclipsed the 70-point mark with the Canadiens just two years ago.
Carolina squared off with the Western Conference Champions twice last season and lost by a 4-1 mark each time. The Stars’ guns were on full display in their win in Dallas on Feb. 11, 2020. Jamie Benn had a hat trick, although he technically only put two pucks in the net. He was awarded the third goal after being hauled down while on a breakaway against an empty net. Denis Gurianov scored the fourth as part of a breakout season that saw him finish with 20 goals.
Roope Hintz, another young forward, scored a goal and assisted on two others in Dallas’ win in Carolina on Feb. 25, 2020. One-time Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin made 40 stops in that win.
Khudobin went into the playoffs last season as the Stars’ backup, but ended up backstopping them to a Stanley Cup Final appearance after an injury to Ben Bishop. He’s likely to begin the season as the starter for the same reason.
On defense, Dallas has 28-year-old John Klingberg in his prime while Miro Heiskanen emerged as a player who could contend for a Norris Trophy one year. Offensively, the Stars will be without Tyler Seguin to start the season, but still have the one-two punch of Hintz and Joe Pavelski down the middle.
Detroit Red Wings
If there is any team Carolina is thankful to be playing more this season, it has to be the Red Wings. Sebastian Aho scored a pair of goals as the Hurricanes pounded Detroit 5-2 on March 10, 2020 — the team’s final game before the COVID-19 pause.
Before that, James Reimer recorded a shutout on Nov. 24, 2020, and Sebastian Aho scored twice in a 7-3 beatdown.
The Red Wings were objectively terrible last season as they won just 17 games. They aren’t expected to be much better this season but did make some offseason moves that should translate to some improvement. Bobby Ryan is someone who could add much-needed scoring past their first line. Vladislav Namestnikov is someone who is lauded for being a two-way workhorse.
Defensively, the Red Wings will hope 23-year-old Filip Hronek will take another step in his development. And while he may or may not play in Detroit this season, 19-year-old Moritz Seider is excelling while on loan in the Swedish Hockey League.
The Hurricanes have had some good fortune against Florida in recent years. They’re 7-2 against the Panthers over the past three seasons.
Carolina, with one of the deeper defensive units in the NHL, looks like a good bet to continue that run of dominance against the Panthers. They lost Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov in the offseason. They were Florida’s leading goal scorers and combined for 54 tallies. Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexsander Barkov have their work cut out to offset the impact of those departures.
Defensively, Florida finished 26th in the NHL last season in goals against. They added some toughness on the backend in the form of Radko Gudas but will need better team play in their own end and a resurgence from veteran goalie Sergei Bobrovsky if they hope to stave off all of Carolina’s offensive weapons.
Carolina and Nashville split their two meetings last season with the Predators winning 3-0 in Raleigh and the ‘Canes picking up a 4-1 win in Nashville.
But the series hadn’t been kind to the Predators before that. Before their shutout win at PNC Arena on Nov. 29, 2019, the last time Nashville beat the ‘Canes in the regular season was Jan. 2, 2016. Carolina had a six-game winning streak over a Predators team that, in that span, made a Stanley Cup Final.
Nashville is traditionally strong on defense. The Predators finished in the middle of the pack last season in goals-against but were top three in the two seasons prior. Roman Josi won the Norris Trophy for best defenseman in the league last season. Juuse Saros finished the season with a .914 save percentage and 2.70 goals-against average. He’s been progressively taking over as the starter, but the duo of him and 38-year-old Pekka Rinne couldn’t be formidable if the latter can regain his form a bit after his save percentage dipped below .900 last year.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nothing like saving the best for last, huh? This realignment means the ‘Canes will face off against the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Lightning eight times this season.
Attitude goes a long way. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour will surely be looking at Tampa Bay on his schedule as eight chances for his team to measure up against the best of the best. The Lightning can almost score at will. They finished the regular season first in the league in scoring. Defensively, there’s still room for improvement — which can be a bit scary — as they finished 10th in goals against and had the 14th-ranked penalty kill.
However, the offensive juggernaut in Tampa Bay will be without leading scorer Nikita Kucherov. He will miss the regular season after undergoing hip surgery. Even so, Steven Stamkos is healthy after missing all but a few shifts during the playoffs. Tampa also has Brayden Point upfront and Victor Hedman on the blue line. Backstopping all of it is a Vezina Trophy winner in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Carolina vs. Tampa Bay is going to be appointment viewing this season for ‘Canes fans. Not only will the Lightning be the stiffest competition in the Central Divsion, but the meetings between the two have made for exciting games in recent seasons. Jaccob Slavin scored the overtime winner after the ‘Canes gave up three goals in the first period on Oct. 6, 2019. Carolina went on to ride a three-goal first period to a 3-2 win on Nov. 20, 2019 before dropping the final meeting of the campaign.
The ‘Canes, still largely a young group, have grown into a team that can compete regularly with contenders like the Lightning. Last season’s two wins are a vast improvement from having lost 5-of-6 against Tampa over the previous two seasons.