Ted Kulfan’s 2021-22 NHL preview: Atlantic, Central divisions pack punch

Detroit News

Detroit — The NHL is back to normal.

At least in terms of the divisional alignment, as last season’s realignment and playing only within your division has been erased (although some Canadian fans would love to have that North, all-Canadian division back).

The NHL returns to its previous alignment, with one adjustment: Arizona moves into the Central Division, with expansion Seattle arriving on the scene and living in the Pacific.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning were hit hard due to salary-cap restrictions and lost some key pieces. But with the core largely intact, the Lightning remain capable of a three-peat.

The Atlantic and Central divisions look particularly deep, and could see several quality teams miss the playoffs as a result.

The playoff races in each conference are sure to entertain.

Here’s a look at the 32 teams:

Eastern Conference

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Carolina Hurricanes

►Coach: Rod Brind’Amour

►2020-21 record: 36-12-8, (80 points, 1st Central Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Sebastian Aho, 24; A — Sebastian Aho, 33. W — Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer 15.

►Pressure is on: GM Don Waddell — The veteran made some eye-raising moves to make over a roster that looked capable of taking another step toward a championship.

►Rising star: RW Martin Necas — On a deep, talented team, Necas is evolving into another big-time offensive talent.

►The skinny: They swapped out their goaltenders for two new ones (Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta), and signed a D (Tony DeAngelo) with temper issues, but overall, this is a great, deep team.

New York Islanders

►Coach: Barry Trotz

►2020-21 record: 32-17-7, 71 points (4th, East Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Brock Nelson, 18; A — Nick Leddy, 29; W— Semyon Varlamov, 19.

►Pressure is on: Varlamov — The goalie needs to make the key stops to help the Islanders over the top.

►Rising star: RW Oliver Wahlstrom — The former USNDTP player appears ready to take a bigger role.

►The skinny: GM Lou Lamoriello and Trotz have done a wonderful job. After two consecutive Final Four losses, they appear ready to take the final step.

Washington Capitals

►Coach: Peter Laviolette

►2020-21 record: 36-15-5 (77 points, 2nd East Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Alex Ovechkin, 24; A — Nicklas Backstrom, 38; W — Vitek Vanecek, 21.

►Pressure is on: LW Anthony Mantha — The former Red Wing is being counted on to supply goals on the second line.

►Rising star: C Hendrix Lapierre — The 2020 first-round pick dazzled during the exhibition season.

►The skinny: They definitely may have one more Cup run in them, but the Capitals have the look of a team whose window is slowly closing.

Philadelphia Flyers

►Coach: Alain Vigneault

►2020-21 record: 25-23-8, 58 points (6th, East)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Joel Farabee, 20; A — Jakub Voracek, 34. W — Brian Elliott, 15.

►Pressure is on: Hart — Especially after a terrible season, derailed by injuries and confidence issues. Hart has to regain his No. 1 status.

►Rising star: LW Joel Farabee — The former US National Team program player showed he’s going to be a force.

►The skinny: This roster isn’t perfect, and if Hart struggles it could spell doom. But they should squeeze into the playoffs.

New York Rangers

►Coach: Gerard Gallant

►2020-21 record: 27-23-6, 60 points (5th, East)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Mika Zibanejad, 24; A — Adam Fox, 42; W — Igor Shesterkin, 16.

►Pressure is on: LW Alexis Lafreniere — Only because it’s New York, expectations are huge, and Lafreniere didn’t produce like a No. 1 overall pick.

►Rising star: Lafreniere — Just give him time. There were enough flashes of stardom for the 19-year-old.

►The skinny: Gallant is an excellent coach, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Rangers surge upward.

Pittsburgh Penguins

►Coach: Mike Sullivan

►2020-21 record: 37-16-3, 77 points (1st East Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Sidney Crosby, 24; A — Sidney Crosby, 38; W — Tristan Jarry, 25.

►Pressure is on: GM Ron Hextall — The Penguins have lost three consecutive first-round playoff series, and Crosby, C Evgeni Malkin and D Kris Letang are getting old. It’s a tough situation for Hextall.

►Rising star: D John Marino — On an aging roster, Marino is a nice piece for the future.

►The skinny: Crosby (wrist) and Malkin (knee) won’t be there to start the season. The Penguins could dig themselves a hole they aren’t able to climb out of later on.

New Jersey Devils

►Coach: Lindy Ruff

►2020-21 record: 19-30-7, 45 points (7th, East)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood 17; A — Jesper Bratt, 23; W  — Mackenzie Blackwood, 14.

►Pressure is on: C Jack Hughes — The former No. 1 overall pick has a roster around him to begin taking the Devils to bigger things.

►Rising star: RW Alexander Holtz — Holtz showed in the preseason he could become a huge star playing with Hughes.

►The skinny: The Devils got better in the offseason, but in this deep division, they may not be able to climb too high.

Columbus Blue Jackets

►Coach: Brad Larsen

►2020-21 record: 18-26-12, 48 points (8th, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G —Oliver Bjorkstrand, 18;  A — Oliver Bjorkstrand 26; W — Joonas Korpisalo, 9.

►Pressure is on: LW Patrik Laine — Laine only scored 10 goals in Columbus and didn’t look enthused about being there. The Jackets desperately need his offense.

►Rising star: C Cole Sillinger — The 2021 first-round pick didn’t look out of place in camp. He doesn’t back down in any way.

►The skinny: Columbus is definitely rebuilding, but there is talent here, and the Jackets are always scrappy.

PLAYOFF TEAMS:  Carolina, N.Y. Islanders, Washington, Philadelphia (wild card).

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Florida Panthers

►Coach: Joel Quenneville

►2020-21 record: 37-14-5, 79 points (2nd, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Aleksander Barkov, 26; A — Jonathan Huberdeau, 41; W — Sergei Bobrovsky, 19.

►Pressure is on: G Sergei Bobrovsky — The huge free-agent acquisition from two years ago may not even be the No. 1 on this roster.

►Rising star: G Spencer Knight — That would be Knight, who appears to have the talent and moxie to take other the starting job.

►The skinny: The Panthers have rarely looked as deep and skilled as they now do. This looks like a championship roster.

Toronto Maple Leafs

►Coach: Sheldon Keefe

►2020-21 record: 35-14-7, 77 points (1st, North Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G —Auston Matthews, 41; A — Mitch Marner, 47; W —Jack Campbell, 17.

►Pressure is on: C Auston Matthews — Matthews, RW Mitch Marner, C John Tavares, RW William Nylander, just pick one. If the Leafs don’t go far in the playoffs, the band will be broken up.

►Rising star: LW Michael Bunting — The free-agent acquisition could be a great fit playing with Matthews, Marner, supplying grit.

►The skinny: It’s put up or shut up in Toronto.

Tampa Bay Lightning

►Coach: Jon Cooper.

►2020-21 record: 36-17-3, 75 points (3rd, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Brayden Point, 23; A — Victor Hedman, 36; W — Andrei Vasilevskiy, 31.

►Pressure is on: C Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — From the perspective the Lightning need to develop a third-line they lost completely to free agency. Bellemare has to supply that grit, skill.

►Rising star: LW Ross Colton — Considering how Colton performed in the playoffs, he could supply a big role on that third line.

►The skinny: Losing C Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow (RW) and Blake Coleman (LW) hurts. And this group has played a lot of hockey in winning two consecutive Stanley Cups. But so much talent remains on this roster, it’s tough to bet against them.

Boston Bruins

►Coach: Bruce Cassidy

►2020-21 record: 33-16-7, 73 points (3rd, East)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Brad Marchand, 29; A — Brad Marchand, 40; W —Tuukka Rask, 15.

►Pressure is on: C Charlie Coyle — Losing C David Krejci (playing in Czech Republic) created a huge hole on second line that Coyle may not be able to totally fill.

►Rising star: G Jeremy Swayman — During a stint last spring, and this exhibition season, Swayman looked like a true No. 1 goaltender.

►The skinny:  The core is getting older but that’s been said for a while now. If Krejci returns for the playoffs and this group is healthy, watch out.

Montreal Canadiens

►Coach: Dominique Ducharme

►2020-21 record: 24-21-11, 59 points (4th, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Tyler Toffoli, 28; A — Jeff Petry, 30; W — Carey Price, 12.

►Pressure is on: G Jake Allen — Especially with news Price will not be available for an indefinite time with health issues. Allen has never faced the scrutiny of the Montreal market.

►Rising star: C Nick Suzuki — Suzuki looked outstanding in the playoffs last spring, a key part of the surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals.

►The skinny: Losing Price was a blow, but he didn’t overwhelm during last regular season. This remains a good team, but this division is so stacked, Montreal may get squeezed out.

Ottawa Senators

►Coach: D.J. Smith

►2020-21 record: 23-28-5, 51 points (6th, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Connor Brown, 21; A — Thomas Chabot, 25; W — Matt Murray, 10.

►Pressure is on: LW Tim Stutzle — After a promising 12-goal rookie season, and plenty of highlights, the expectations are bigger for this dazzling young star

►Rising star: C Shane Pinto — Ottawa has many potential young stars, but Pinto looked very able in a 12-game (seven points) audition at the end of last season.

►The skinny: So much potential, so many intriguing young draft picks on the way, Ottawa is built for future success but not right now.

Detroit Red Wings

►Coach: Jeff Blashill

►2020-21 record: 19-27-10 (48 points, 7th, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Jakub Vrana, 19; A — Filip Hronek, 24; W —Jonathan Bernier, 9.

►Pressure is on: D Moritz Seider — From the perspective Wings’ fans have anticipated Seider’s debut for two years and he’s been a star in every league he’s played in. How good of an NHL rookie can Seider be?

►Rising star: LW Lucas Raymond — If not Seider, then Raymond, who looked unstoppable at times during the exhibition season.

►The skinny: The Wings will be better, with the acquisitions of C Pius Suter, D Nick Leddy, G Alex Nedeljkovic leading the way. But this roster still isn’t good enough to contend for the playoffs.

Buffalo Sabres

►Coach: Don Granato

►2020-21 record: 15-34-7, 37 points (8th ,East)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Sam Reinhart, 25; A —Victor Olofsson, 19; W —Linus Ullmark, 9.

►Pressure is on:  GM Kevyn Adams — His task is to get all he can in a trade for C Jack Eichel (neck), who has deep issues with the organization and won’t return.

►Rising star: D Rasmus Dahlin — The former No. 1 overall pick is developing slowly, but playing in this drama-filled organization can’t help.

►The skinny: On paper, this is the weakest team in the NHL. Some building blocks are forming, but the Sabres are a long way away.

PLAYOFF TEAMS: Florida, Toronto, Tampa, Boston (wild card).

PLAYOFF DIVISION WINNERS: N.Y. Islanders and Florida.

EAST CHAMPION: N.Y. Islanders.

Western Conference

CENTRAL DIVISION

Colorado Avalanche

►Coach: Jared Bednar

►2020-21 record: 39-13-4, 82 points (1st, West Division)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Mikko Rantanen, 30; A — Nathan MacKinnon, 45; W — Philipp Grubauer, 30.

►Pressure is on: C MacKinnon — All eyes will be on MacKinnon to carry the Avalanche toward that final step and the Stanley Cup.

►Rising star: C Alex Newhook — Looked outstanding at Boston College and the AHL, Newhook could be dangled at the trade deadline for that final missing piece.

►The skinny: With a salary cap crunch coming, the Avalanche don’t  have many more opportunities with this younger, talented bunch.

Winnipeg Jets

►Coach: Paul Maurice

►2020-21 record: 30-23-3, 63 points (3rd, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Kyle Connor, 26; A — Mark Scheifele, 42; W — Connor Hellebuyck, 24.

►Pressure is on: C Pierre-Luc Dubois — After being acquired for LW Patrik Laine, Dubois only had 20 points for Winnipeg and fell far short of expectations.

►Rising star: C Cole Perfetti — When Perfetti arrives in the NHL, many scouts predict a lengthy, productive career for this creative player.

►The skinny: Injuries and Scheifele’s suspension knocked the Jets out of the playoffs last spring. The roster is good enough to go real far.

Dallas Stars

►Coach: Rick Bowness

►2020-21 record: 23-19-14, 60 points (5th, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Joe Pavelski, 25; A — John Klingberg, 29; W — Anton Khudobin, 12.

►Pressure is on: C Tyler Seguin — Injuries knocked Seguin out of last season. The Stars badly need his offense to return to previous levels.

►Rising star: LW Jason Robertson — The Stars have a lot of promising youngsters, but Robertson (17 goals, 45 points) showed terrific offensive potential last season.

►The skinny: Dallas almost reached the playoffs despite having to overcome COVID-19 issues, a historic winter storm, and a brutal schedule. This roster isn’t going to go down easily.

Minnesota Wild

►Coach: Dean Evason

►2020-21 record: 35-16-5, 75 points (3rd, West)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Kirill Kaprizov, 27; A — Jordan Greenway, 26; W — Cam Talbot, 19.

►Pressure is on: LW Kirill Kaprizov — The NHL rookie of the year earned a five-year, $45 million contract so he’ll be counted on to surpass last season’s 27 goals.

►Rising star: C  Marco Rossi — The coronavirus knocked Rossi out last season, but he appears ready to rebound this season.

►The skinny: GM Bill Guerin has been creative and bold in reshaping this roster. The Wild are going to be competitive

St. Louis Blues

►Coach: Craig Berube

►2020-21 record: 27-20-9, 63 points (4th, West)

►2020-21 leaders: G – Ryan O’Reilly, 24; A- David Perron, 39; W – Jordan Binnington, 18.

►Pressure is on: Binnington — The goaltender hasn’t looked completely right since coming out of nowhere to help the Blues win a Stanley Cup in 2019.

►Rising star: D Scott Perunovich — The 2020 Hobey Baker winner was outstanding at the prospects tournament last month and could be an early call-up.

►The skinny: The window is closing, but you get the feeling the Blues could surprise after two consecutive playoff disappointments. GM Doug Armstrong made them better in the offseason.

Chicago Blackhawks

►Coach: Jeremy Colliton

►2020-21 record: 24-25-7 (55 points, 6th, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Alex DeBrincat, 32; A — Patrick Kane 51; W — Kevin Lankinen, 17.

►Pressure is on: D Seth Jones — Acquired and signed to a long-term contract, Jones needs to play up to big expectations after a down season in Columbus.

►Rising star: C Kirby Dach — Injuries cut short Dach’s season, but this is a big-time offensive talent. Dach’s development could be huge this season.

►The skinny: GM Stan Bowman accelerated the rebuild by acquiring Jones and G Marc-Andre Fleury. But now some of those youngsters need to quickly get better.

Nashville Predators

►Coach: John Hynes

►2020-21 record: 31-23-2, 64 points (4th, Central)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Calle Jarnkrok, Mikael Granlund 13; A — Roman Josi, 25; W — Juuse Saros, 21.

►Pressure is on: GM David Poile — The Predators seem stuck between a rebuild and Stanley Cup chase, and in this talented division, Nashville is somewhere stuck in the middle.

►Rising star: G Juuse Saros — Basically took over for G Pekka Rinne last season, and with Rinne retired, Saros has the net for himself to shine.

►The skinny: The Predators made an unexpected run into the playoffs last spring, and played Carolina tough. This isn’t a bad roster, but in this division, it doesn’t match the top ones.

Arizona Coyotes

►Coach: Andre Tourigny

►2020-21 record: 24-26-6, 54 points (5th ,West)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Phil Kessel, 20; A — Conor Garland, 27; W — Darcy Kuemper, 10.

►Pressure is on: GM Bill Armstrong — Since taking over in September 2020, Armstrong has begun another rebuild for an organization that has had a lot of them (to not much success).

►Rising star: D Jakob Chychrun — The Red Wings passed on Chychrun in 2016 and he has developed into an Olympic team, Norris-caliber defenseman.

The skinny: With Seattle’s arrival, Arizona has been moved to the Central Division. It doesn’t matter — the Coyotes may well be picked last in any of them.

PLAYOFF TEAMS: Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, Minnesota (wild card), St. Louis (wild card).

PACIFIC DIVISION

Vegas Golden Knights

►Coach: Pete DeBoer

►2020-21 record: 40-14-2, 82 points (2nd, West).

►2020-21 leaders: G — Max Pacioretty, 24; A — Mark Stone, 40; W — Marc-Andre Fleury, 26.

►Pressure is on: RW Mark Stone — A disappointing playoffs after an outstanding regular season puts the pressure on the passionate hard-charging Stone.

►Rising star: D Shea Theodore — At 26, Theodore still appears to be scratching the surface of what he could become.

►The skinny: Vegas has acquired some big stars since reaching the Finals as expansion nobodies. The chemistry just hasn’t been quite the same since. And this core is getting older.

Edmonton Oilers

►Coach:  Dave Tippett

►2020-21 record: 35-19-2, 72 points (2nd, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Connor McDavid, 33; A — Connor McDavid, 72; W — Mike Smith, 21.

►Pressure is on: GM Ken Holland — McDavid and C Leon Draisaitl are in their primes, but Holland hasn’t yet put together a championship-caliber roster around them.

►Rising star: RW Kailer Yamamoto — He’s been a needed and able addition to a formidable top-six forward group.

►The skinny: Holland added quality depth to the forward group, and D Duncan Keith adds experience, leadership. Will this be the year Edmonton moves forward?

Calgary Flames

►Coach: Darryl Sutter

►2020-21 record: 26-27-3, 55 points (5th, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm 19; A — Johnny Gaudreau, 30; W — Jacob Markstrom, 22.

►Pressure is on: C Sean Monahan — Only 10 goals scored, and Monahan may not be a Sutter type of player. The pressure to rebound will be great.

►Rising star: D Rasmus Andersson — With Mark Giordano gone to Seattle, Andersson is capable of taking up some of the slack.

►The skinny: Sutter is tasked with motivating this team to bigger things.

Vancouver Canucks

►Coach: Travis Green

►2020-21 record: 23-29-4, 50 points (7th, North)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Brock Boeser, 23; A — Quinn Hughes, 38; W — Thatcher Demko 16.

►Pressure is on: D Oliver Ekman-Larsson — His acquisition wasn’t universally loved in Vancouver, and he’s coming some bad seasons. Vancouver is counting on Ekman-Larsson to rebound.

►Rising star: D Jack Rathbone — The Canucks badly need help on defense but Rathbone might be a year away.

►The skinny: The Canucks took a step back last season but COVID-19 and injuries were major reasons. Vancouver could quickly surge up the standings in this division.

Los Angeles Kings

►Coach: Todd McLellan.

►2020-21 record: 21-28-7, 49 points (6th, West)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Dustin Brown 17; A — Anze Kopitar, 37; W — Jonathan Quick, 11.

►Pressure is on: C Anze Kopitar — On a young team that’s looking for leadership, Kopitar will have to be a force on and off the ice.

►Rising star: C Quinton Byfield — Although a fractured ankle last week will keep Byfield out of the lineup indefinitely.

►The skinny: The Kings have a terrific prospect pool and the key veterans are defying age. This team could surprise.

Seattle Kraken

►Coach: Dave Hakstol

►2020-21 record: Expansion team.

►2020-21 leaders: G — Alex Wennberg, 17 (Florida); A — Yanni Gourde, 19 (Tampa); W — Philipp Grubauer, 30 (Colorado).

►Pressure is on: GM Ron Francis — After Vegas’ quick, unreal success, the Kraken will be judged against the Golden Knights — probably unfairly.

►Rising star: C Yanni Gourde —  He’ll get a bigger role and chance to play in Seattle, and could flourish.

►The skinny: The goaltending and defense is good — the forwards not as much, on paper.

San Jose Sharks

►Coach: Bob Boughner

►2020-21 record: 21-28-7, 49 points (7th, West)

►2020-21 leaders: G— Evander Kane, 22;  A — Evander Kane, 27; W — Martin Jones, 15.

►Pressure is on: D Erik Karlsson — Since arriving in San Jose Karlsson has simply not looked like the player who dominated in Ottawa. Karlsson has to rebound for the Sharks to have any hope.

►Rising star: LW William Eklund — The 2021 first-round pick was sensational during the exhibition season.

►The skinny: The Sharks look like a contender — if this was 2018-19. Too many older stars on bad contracts.

Anaheim Ducks

►Coach: Dallas Eakins

►2020-21 record: 17-30-9, 43 points (8th, West)

►2020-21 leaders: G — Max Comtois, 16; A — Rickard Rakell, 19; W — John Gibson, 9.

►Pressure is on: Gibson — The goaltender will again face a lot of shots and doesn’t have a ton of experienced help in front of  him.

►Rising star: C Trevor Zegras —  The former USNDTP star has the characteristics to be a huge offensive star.

►The skinny: The Ducks are in a rebuild and have a long way to go to contend.

PLAYOFF TEAMS: Vegas, Edmonton, Calgary.

PLAYOFF DIVISION WINNERS: Winnipeg, Vegas.

WEST CHAMPION: Winnipeg.

STANLEY CUP WINNER: New York Islanders.

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