With intra-divisional play being required for the entire 56-game 2021 regular season, where do the Chicago Blackhawks rank in the new Central Division?
Out of the eight teams in the newly realigned Central, five are from the Eastern Conference: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings (from the Atlantic Division); and the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Florida Panthers (from the Metropolitan Division).
Ironically, the Blackhawks gain the best team and the worst team in the NHL last year, with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Hawks’ longtime original-six rival (before their move to the Eastern Conference in 2013), the Detroit Red Wings. Like Detroit, Columbus also returns to the Central after moving to the East in 2013. The new alignment also marks ex-Blackhawk and current Panthers coach Joel Quenneville’s return to the division.
The Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, and Nashville Predators are the only remaining teams from last year’s Central lineup — with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Minnesota Wild moving to the West Division; and the Winnipeg Jets moving to the North Division.
Losing the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche is certainly beneficial for the Hawks, but gaining the Tampa Bay Lightning — not so much. Tampa will be an early pick to repeat as Stanley Cup champions this year, especially if they have a healthy Steven Stamkos to their already impressive arsenal. Having to face them on a regular basis will be a daunting task for the Blackhawks, especially considering Tampa’s offensive firepower with players like Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and 2020 Norris Trophy Finalist Victor Hedman.
Along with Tampa, the Dallas Stars are by far the two biggest powerhouses in the new division. It will be extremely interesting to see these two Stanley Cup finalists face each other on a regular basis now that they are in the same division. Dallas is also the most physical team in the new Central, led by defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and captain Jamie Benn.
Detroit is definitely the weakest team in the new division. The Red Wings had the worst record in the league last season with 39 points; and were one of only seven teams that did not qualify for post-season play. They are purely a rebuilding team that the Hawks will need to take advantage of this season.
Nashville is a bit of an anomaly. After an up-and-down regular season, the Predators finished with a respectable 78 points last year — good for 6th place in the Western Conference — but were upset in the Qualifying Round by the Arizona Coyotes. The Florida Panthers were similar, finishing with 78 points (10th place) in the East before being eliminated in the Qualifying Round by the New York Islanders.
Like Chicago, both Carolina and Columbus were defeated in the First Round. All three lost 4-games-to-1 to higher-seeded teams in the Vegas Golden Knights, Boston Bruins, and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively. Both Carolina and Columbus have only improved the last few seasons.
Although the Blackhawks added some much needed grit with players like Nikita Zadorov and Mattias Janmark, the subtraction of Brandon Saad may hinder them offensively; not to mention the departure of longtime goalie Corey Crawford. With the just-announced injury to Alex Nylander — who will be out 4-6 months this season with a knee injury — the Hawks may be even more behind the eight-ball.
As the Hawks’ goaltending situation remains up in the air, Chicago will once again need to rely on their veterans in order for them to remain competitive this year. In addition to the big-three (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith), veterans who are coming off of serious injuries last season will need to step up and stay healthy — namely, Brent Seabrook, Calvin de Haan, and Andrew Shaw. If these players can do so, the Hawks will have a fighting chance within the division.
With the new playoff format, the top four teams in each division will qualify for the post-season. Anything can happen in the NHL, but as of now, it may be a steep hill for the Blackhawks next year. Tampa Bay and Dallas are the two best teams, followed by Carolina and arguably Columbus. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks are more on-par with being in the bottom four teams along with Florida, Nashville, and Detroit. If the Hawks can stay healthy, they may still be able to sneak into the fourth spot.