Ted Kulfan’s NHL preview: Breaking down the 2021 teams and divisions

Detroit News

Ted Kulfan
 
| The Detroit News

Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News breaks down the NHL teams for the 2021 season. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish.

Central Division

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Coach: Rod Brind’Amour

2019-20 record: 38-25-5, 81 points.

2019-20 leaders: Sebastian Aho, 38 goals; Teuvo Teravainen, 48 assists; Petr Mrazek, 21 wins

Pressure is on: Mrazek. If Mrazek can take his game to another rung in the playoffs, this roster could be ready to contend for a Stanley Cup. Can Mrazek do it?

Rising star: LW Andrei Svechnikov. Rising star? Take your pick on this roster. Svechnikov could become a budding superstar this shortened season.

Skinny: They won’t have to run into Boston early on, so that’ll help. But even so, the Hurricanes look ready to be a serious contender. The test now is getting past Tampa Bay in the playoff round.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Coach: Jon Cooper

2019-20 record: 43-21-6, 92 points

2019-20 leaders: Nikita Kucherov, 33 goals; Kucherov, 52 assists; Andrei Vasilevskiy, 35 wins

Pressure is on: C Tyler Johnson. With Kucherov (hip) out the entire regular season, the Lightning need to recoup offense somewhere. Johnson has been declining the past several seasons.

Rising star: C Anthony Cirelli. A serious contender for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward), Cirelli has emerged as yet another Lightning star.

Skinny: They finally won their Stanley Cup. And with a short season, the Lightning can easily swipe another. Expect a sluggish regular season, and not having Kucherov hurts. But, if he returns in the playoffs, watch out.

DALLAS STARS

Coach: Rick Bowness

2019-20 record: 37-24-8, 82 points

2019-20 leaders: Denis Gurianov, 20 goals; Tyler Seguin, 33 assists; Ben Bishop, 21 wins

Pressure is on: G Anton Khudobin. Khudobin was excellent in the playoffs, but can he maintain that level with Bishop (unfit to play) not around until March? Khudobin has never been the unquestioned No. 1.

Rising star: RW Gurianov. The young D’s aren’t rising stars anymore; they are proven. So Gurianov, who got better as the season progressed, becomes the next young Star to watch for.

Skinny: Dallas made a great run to the finals last summer, but COVID issues along with key injuries make the start of this season rather shaky. But there’s so much depth on this roster.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Coach: John Tortorella

2019-20 record: 33-22-15, 81 points

2019-20 leaders: Oliver Bjorkstrand, 21 goals; Pierre-Luc Dubois, 31 assists; Joonas Korpisalo, 19 wins

Pressure is on:  Dubois. He signed a two-year contract, but has issued a request to be traded. You wonder how that’ll play in a locker room that appears close.

Rising star: C Liam Foudy. The Blue Jackets need a spark offensively with LW Gustav Nyquist (shoulder) out, and Foudy could lessen the blow. Foudy was impressive in the playoffs.

Skinny: Somehow the Blue Jackets always find a way, and this season is probably no different. They’re one of the top four teams in this division.

More: Ted Kulfan’s NHL preview: Top teams, top players … and, well, the Wings

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Coach: John Hynes

2019-20 record: 35-26-8, 78 points

2019-20 leaders: Filip Forsberg, 21 goals; Roman Josi, 49 assists; Pekka Rinne, 18 wins

Pressure is on: C Ryan Johansen/C Matt Duchene. Each has long-term, $8 million per season contracts, and neither has lived up to the expectations. The Predators need rebounds from both.

Rising star: C Philip Tomasino. The Predators need youth to make a difference, and Tomasino appears the most ready to make a dent in the NHL.

Skinny: GM David Poile made some key moves and the Predators have the feel of a surprise team. But for now, they just look a shade from a playoff team in this division.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Coach: Joel Quenneville

2019-20 record: 35-26-8, 78 points

2019-20 leaders: Mike Hoffman, 29 goals; Jonathan Huberdeau, 55 goals; Sergei Bobrovsky, 23 wins

Pressure is on: Bobrovsky. For the most part, Bobrovsky’s performance didn’t match his big, free-agent paycheck. He’ll have to be better for the Panthers to move up in the standings.

Rising star: C Aleksander Barkov. The next step is being in the MVP conversation, as was mentioned last year, and Barkov is getting closer.

Skinny: Quenneville, rightly or wrongly, might begin feeling heat, but this roster doesn’t look as strong as it did last year. The Panthers simply cannot find positive traction, always moving sideways.

DETROIT RED WINGS

Coach: Jeff Blashill

2019-20 record: 17-49-5, 39 points.

2019-20 leaders: Tyler Bertuzzi, 21 goals; Dylan Larkin, 34 assists; Jonathan Bernier, 15 wins

Pressure is on:  RW Filip Zadina. The Wings need more scoring, and if Zadina shows the offensive skills he displayed in junior, that would be a huge lift.

Rising star: C Moritz Seider. Whenever Seider arrives for good in Detroit, he’ll likely stay for an awful long time. He appears to be the top-pair defenseman the organization craves.

Skinny: Last year, the Wings were historically bad. This season, they’ll just be bad (and, obviously, noticeably improved). And, just good enough to squeak past Chicago out of last place.

More: Wings preview: New-look Central Division does rebuilding team no favors

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Coach: Jeremy Colliton

2019-20 record: 32-30-8, 72 points

2019-20 leaders: Patrick Kane, 33 goals; Kane 51 assists; Corey Crawford, Robin Lehner, 16 wins

Pressure is on: GM Stan Bowman. Key injuries to C Jonathon Toews, C Kirby Dach and LW Alex Nylander will not help. But this roster was looking unimpressive before the injuries. Offense, goaltending are major question marks.

Rising star: Dach still is, but he could miss the season after suffering a wrist injury in the world junior championships.

Skinny: Chicago and the Red Wings will battle for last place. Right now, the Wings’ veterans give Detroit a little bit of an edge over this depleted Blackhawks roster.

PREDICTIONS

Playoff teams: Carolina, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Columbus.

Playoff winner: Tampa Bay.

East Division

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Coach: Alain Vigneault

2019-20 record: 41-21-7, 89 points

2019-20 leaders: Travis Konecny, 24 goals; Jakub Voracek, 44 assists. Carter Hart, 24 wins

Pressure is on: GM Chuck Fletcher. In the Philadelphia market, there’s always pressure. But Fletcher didn’t stand pat after an improved season, and now you wonder if the chemistry still works?

Rising star: C Morgan Frost. The former first-round draft pick was good in the AHL, and is likely to get a fair shot in the NHL this season. Frost would deepen an already formidable forward group.

Skinny: If Hart comes through, there’s enough on this roster to make a deep run in the playoffs. But getting out of this division will be difficult enough.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Coach: Peter Laviolette

2019-20 record: 41-20-8, 90 points

2019-20 leaders: Alex Ovechkin, 48 goals; John Carlson, 60 assists; Braden Holtby, 25 goals

Pressure is on: Laviolette. This roster’s championship window is dwindling, but Laviolette has stepped into previous situations and won quickly. This remains a fine roster.

Rising star: G Ilya Samsonov. With Braden Holtby leaving via free agency, and Henrik Lundqvist (heart issue) out for the season, the show entirely belongs to this youngster who has been patiently waiting.

Skinny: Signing D Zdeno Chara recently could prove to be a low-risk, big-reward move. Chara further motivates a roster that believes it has one more Cup run in it.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Coach: Mike Sullivan

2019-20 record: 40-23-6, 86 points

2019-20 leaders: Bryan Rust, 27 goals; Evgeni Malkin, 49 assists; Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry 20 wins

Pressure is on: GM Jim Rutherford. The championship window appears to be closing for Malkin, C Sidney Crosby and D Kris Letang. Rutherford made a flurry of moves, but are the Penguins significantly better?

Rising star: Jarry. The young goaltender played well enough to force a trade of Murray. But now, the pressure is solely on Jarry to keep producing.

Skinny: This short season could be perfect for Crosby, Malkin, Letang. And the Penguins appear to have better balance, depth. Maybe if everyone stays healthy, the Penguins can turn back time in the playoffs.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Coach: Barry Trotz

2019-20 record: 35-23-10, 80 points

2019-20 leaders: Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, 26 goals; Mathew Barzal, 41 assists; Semyon Varlamov, 19 wins

Pressure is on: G Ilya Sorokin. The much-hyped goalie arrives in North America and if Sorokin is half as good as advertised, the Islanders will be serious contenders.

Rising star: Sorokin. There are several young Islanders who could be formidable, but Sorokin could be an immediate difference-maker.

Skinny: Trotz will mold his team into being a factor, he always does, and this roster is deep and playoff-tested. They’re good enough to make the playoffs.

BOSTON BRUINS

 ► Coach: Bruce Cassidy

2019-20 record: 44-14-12, 100 points

2019-20 leaders: David Pastrnak, 48 goals; Brad Marchand, 59 assists; Tuukka Rask, 26 wins

Pressure is on: GM Don Sweeney. Sweeney made several curious moves, including not re-signing D Zdeno Chara and letting D Torey Krug leave via free agency. The contending window is closing on this aging core.

Rising star: C Jack Studnicka. The Bruins could use a spark throughout their lineup, and Studnicka has the potential to be a big-time top-6 forward.

Skinny:  The pandemic might have stolen a Stanley Cup from this organization. Currently, the Bruins are still formidable, but a hunch says they’ll be just outside the top four making the playoffs in this division.

NEW YORK RANGERS

Coach: David Quinn

2019-20 record: 37-28-5, 79 points

2019-20 leaders: Mika Zibanejad, 41 goals; Artemi Panarin, 63 assists; Alexandar Georgiev, 17 wins.

Pressure is on: RW Kaapo Kakko. The No. 2 overall pick was better in the playoffs, but his 23-point regular reason left many analysts/fans wanting more.

Rising star: LW Alexis Lafreniere. The Rangers lucked into winning the draft lottery, and won the right to pick what many scouts feel is a generational talent.

Skinny: The Rangers could be a year away from serious contention, and especially in this experienced, talented realigned division.

BUFFALO SABRES

Coach: Ralph Krueger

2019-20 record: 30-31-8, 68 points

2019-20 leaders: Jack Eichel, 36 goals; Eichel, 42 assists; Linus Ullmark, 17 wins

Pressure is on: Eichel. As it always is, it seems. Eichel is frustrated with all the losing and the Sabres aren’t getting noticeably better. But signing Taylor Hall is a promising move.

Rising star: D Rasmus Dahlin. Some folks are disappointed with the pace of Dahlin’s improvement, but there’s really little doubt he’ll someday be a Norris Trophy candidate.

Skinny: Getting Hall was a shrewd acquisition, but the thing that’ll hold back the Sabres this season is being placed in this division in realignment. Buffalo is better, but not the caliber of some of these teams.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Coach: Lindy Ruff

2019-20 record: 28-29-12, 68 points.

2019-20 leaders: Kyle Palmieri, 25 goals; Nikita Gusev, 31 assists; Mackenzie Blackwood, 22 wins

Pressure is on: C Jack Hughes. Many folks were disappointed by Hughes’ 21-point rookie season. Hughes, 19, isn’t likely to be eased along in a Devils’ organization constantly reshuffling. 

Rising star: Hughes. Don’t give up on this kid. He gained muscle over the long off-season, and will become an NHL star.

Skinny: Whatever chance of surprising and climbing the standings took a massive hit by the sudden retirement of G Corey Crawford.

PREDICTIONS

Playoff teams: Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, N.Y. Islanders.

Playoff winner: Philadelphia.

North Division

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Coach: Sheldon Keefe

2019-20 record: 36-25-9, 81 points

2019-20 leaders: Auston Matthews, 47 goals; Mitch Marner, 51 assists; Frederik Andersen, 29 wins

Pressure is on: Matthews. The Leafs have yet to win a playoff round with the young star on the roster. But this roster appears to have the necessary ingredients to do just that (and more).

Rising star: LW Nick Robertson. He was impressive in the playoffs, but might not win a roster spot. Still, Robertson looks like he’ll be a keeper down the road.

Skinny: It’ll be interesting to see the impact of veterans such as C Joe Thornton, RW Wayne Simmonds and D Zach Bogosian. But in a short season, this might all work out quite nicely.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Coach: Claude Julien

2019-20 record: 31-31-9, 71 points

2019-20 leaders: Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar 22 goals; Tatar, 39 assists; Carey Price, 27 wins

Pressure is on: LW Jonathan Drouin. Montreal gave up D Mikhail Sergachev several years ago to acquire Drouin, who hasn’t reached the level of stardom Sergachev is approaching.

Rising star: C Nick Suzuki. Showed glimpses last season of being a difference-maker, a solid No. 1 center. Suzuki is one of a slew of exciting young prospects here.

Skinny: GM Marc Bergevin made a series of offseason moves that make Montreal a dangerous team in a short-season. There’s a lot of playoff-tested, competitive veterans.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Coach: Travis Green

2019-20 record: 36-27-6, 78 points

2019-20 leaders: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, 27 goals; Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, 45 assists; Jacob Markstrom, 23 wins

Pressure is on: GM Jim Benning. In this rabid market, it’s always on the GM. But Benning did put himself out there after some debatable salary cap decisions, and weaker depth.

Rising star: RW Vasili Podkolzin. He’s likely a year away, but when Podkolzin arrives, this makes an exciting, young team even more dazzling.

Skinny: There’s a few more questions than last season, but Vancouver still has the overall talent to get into the playoffs.

CALGARY FLAMES

Coach: Geoff Ward

2019-20 record: 36-27-7, 79 points.

2019-20 leaders: Elias Lindholm, 29 goals; Johnny Gaudreau 40 assists; David Rittich, 24 wins

Pressure is on: G Jacob Markstrom. For years the Flames have been searching for that elite, No. 1 goaltender. Signing Markstrom in free agency, the hope is that isn’t an issue anymore.

Rising star: D Juuso Valimaki. Injuries curtailed Valimaki’s last season, but the hope is he’s ready to step into the lineup this time around.

Skinny: Nobody knows where any of these Canadian teams will finish, but Calgary certainly seems strong enough to be somewhere in the top four.

EDMONTON OILERS

► Coach: Dave Tippett

2019-20 record: 37-25-9, 83 points.

2019-20 leaders: Leon Draisaitl, 43 goals; Draisaitl, 67 assists; Mike Smith, 19 wins

Pressure is on: GM Ken Holland. The Oilers have two of the best players on the planet (Draisaitl, Connor McDavid), but struggle to put the necessary pieces around them in a salary cap world.

Rising star: D Evan Bouchard. Bouchard has the potential to be a top-pairing piece and because of injuries, he might have a chance to show his skills early.

Skinny: McDavid and Draisaitl are superb, and Holland has added shrewd pieces. But are the Oilers good enough to get into the playoffs? It says here, they’ll miss by an eyelash.

WINNIPEG JETS

Coach: Paul Maurice

2019-20 record: 37-28-6, 80 points

2019-20 leaders: Kyle Connor, 38 goals; Mark Scheifele, 44 assists; Connor Hellebuyck, 31 wins

Pressure is on: C Paul Stastny. Re-acquired from cap-strapped Vegas, Stastny was excellent his last time in Winnipeg. The Jets hope Stastny still has chemistry with RW Patrik Laine.

Rising star: D Ville Heinola. The offensive defenseman has dominated in juniors. If Heinola is ready for the NHL, it would be a big lift in an area the Jets need help.

Skinny: Winnipeg is good, real good, and in any other division, the Jets would likely make the playoffs. Here, they likely will just barely miss out.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Coach: D.J. Smith

2019-20 record: 25-34-12, 62 points.

2019-20 leaders: Anthony Duclair, 23 goals; Thomas Chabot, 33 assists; Craig Anderson, 11 wins

Pressure is on: G Matt Murray. Acquired from Pittsburgh, Murray signed a big contract and is expected to erase any further doubts about Ottawa’s goaltending.

Rising star: C Tim Stuetzle. The No. 3 overall pick has the determination to become an NHL star, and the belief is he’ll get to that level fairly quickly.

Skinny: In this realigned division the youthful Senators don’t stand a chance. But they could be pretty dangerous in a few seasons regardless of what division they’re in.

PREDICTIONS

Playoff teams: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary

Playoff winner: Toronto

West Division

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Coach: Jared Bednar

2019-20 record: 42-20-8, 92 points

2019-20 leaders: Nathan MacKinnon, 35 goals; MacKinnon, 58 assists; Pavel Francouz, 21 wins

Pressure is on: G Philipp Grubauer. The Avalanche appear to have all the ingredients for a championship. The only question mark is the goaltending. Grubauer needs to prove otherwise.

Rising star: D Bowen Byram. There are so, so many in this organization. Byram could become a carbon copy of D Cale Makar (last season’s Rookie of the Year). An embarrassment of riches.

Skinny: Goaltending injuries derailed the Avalanche in the playoffs, but if Grubauer is healthy, this team will make a long, successful run.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Coach: Peter DeBoer

2019-20 record: 39-24-8, 86 points

2019-20 leaders: Max Pacioretty, 32 goals; Mark Stone, 42 assists; Marc-Andre Fleury, 27 wins

Pressure is on: D Alex Pietrangelo. By signing the top free agent on the market, Vegas needed to trim salary and upset its locker room chemistry. Pietrangelo is a natural leader, but there was bruised feelings.

Rising star: C Cody Glass. The Golden Knight’s first, first-round draft pick showed glimpses last year, and figures to get more opportunities this season.

Skinny: This is a talented, Cup-challenging team. But the enviable depth Vegas has had, is beginning to be chipped away at, as they keep adding big-name free agents.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Coach: Craig Berube

2019-20 record: 42-19-10, 94 points

2019-20 leaders: David Perron, Brayden Schenn, 25 goals; Ryan O’Reilly, 49 assists; Jordan Binnington, 30 wins

Pressure is on: D Torey Krug. The Livonia native is essentially replacing D Alex Pietrangelo, a beloved, respected captain. Krug was a great fit in Boston, who left in free agency. Can Krug find a comfort zone here?

Rising star: G Ville Husso. One reason the Blues traded G Jake Allen was to give Husso an opportunity. If Binnington falters, Husso is going to get playing time.

Skinny: It was surprising how St. Louis faltered in The Bubble over the summer. The Blues looked strong enough to win another Stanley Cup. They’re still awfully good, but the luster has disappeared a bit.

MINNESOTA WILD

Coach: Dean Evason

2019-20 record: 35-27-7, 77 points

2019-20 leaders: Zach Parise, 25 goals; Ryan Suter, 40 assists; Alex Stalock, 20 wins

Pressure is on: GM Bill Guerin. Give Guerin credit, the Wild have been a stale, middling organization for a long time. But Guerin tore things apart this offseason and no one knows what it’ll all look like.

Rising star: LW Kirill Kaprizov. The Russian youngster arrives in North America with a goal-scoring pedigree, and the ability to jumpstart an average Wild offensive attack.

Skinny: The Wild aren’t as good as the top three West teams, but they look a lot better than the rest.

ARIZONA COYOTES

Coach: Rick Tocchet

2019-20 record: 33-29-8, 74 points

2019-20 leaders: Conor Garland, 22 goals; Taylor Hall, 36 assists; Darcy Kuemper,16 wins.

Pressure is on: RW Phil Kessel. Acquired from Pittsburgh a year ago, Kessel scored 14 goals and showed signs of an aging player. If the Coyotes have any shot, Kessel has to turn back the clock.

Rising star: RW Clayton Keller. Keller has taken steps his first two seasons, but the Coyotes are waiting for even more.

Skinny: Whatever momentum this organization was building took a gut punch when Hall left in free agency. The Coyotes are forever in a state of mediocrity or rebuild.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

Coach: Bob Boughner

2019-20 record: 29-36-5, 63 points

2019-20 leaders: Evander Kane, 26 goals;  Erik Karlsson, 34 assists; Martin Jones, 17 wins

Pressure is on: D’s Brent Burns/Karlsson. Neither has looked like the Norris Trophy-winning defensemen they’ve been, since Karlsson was acquired in trade. And neither is getting any younger.

Rising star: C Thomas Bordeleau. Bordeleau is likely several years away, but the Sharks may have themselves a steal in this playmaker.

Skinny: Injuries were a reasonable excuse last season. And maybe a healthy, though older, roster can thrive in this short season. But the Sharks don’t have a lot of depth beyond their aging stars.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Coach: Todd McLellan

2019-20 record: 29-35-6, 64 points

2019-20 leaders: Anze Kopitar, 21 goals; Kopitar, 41 assists; Jonathan Quick, 16 wins

Pressure is on: D Drew Doughty. Doughty hasn’t looked like his former Norris Trophy-winning self lately, and in the early stages of a hefty, long-term contract, that has to change.

Rising star: C Quinton Byfield. The second overall draft pick is just one of a dazzling number of potential stars. Byfield will be eased into the NHL, but should one day be an impact player.

Skinny: The Kings aren’t playoff contenders currently, but pretty soon.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

Coach: Dallas Eakins

2019-20 record: 29-33-9, 67 points

2019-20 leaders: Adam Henrique, 26 goals; Ryan Getzlaf, 29 assists;  John Gibson, 20 wins

Pressure is on: GM Bob Murray. The quasi-rebuild has seen Anaheim miss the playoffs the last two seasons and young players expect to make an impact, have not. Jobs throughout the organization could be on the line.

Rising star: C Trevor Zegras. The Ducks have several potentially impactful forwards, but Zegras is looking like a game-changer the Ducks need.

Skinny: Bunched with the other West misfits, if Anaheim’s youngsters come through the Ducks could move up the standings. But confidence is beginning to lack in that happening.

PREDICTIONS

Playoff teams: Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis, Minnesota

Playoff winner: Colorado

Final Four: Tampa d. Colorado, Philadelphia d. Toronto

Finals: Philadelphia d. Tampa Bay

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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