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2021 NHL predictions: Central Division divided into clear tiers, with Blackhawks near the bottom

Six of the eight teams in the newly aligned division have legitimate playoffs aspirations, but that group probably won’t include the Hawks. Plus, see our projected standings in every division and Stanley Cup Final prediction.

The Blackhawks’ slim playoff chances will rely on them surprisingly jumping teams like the Predators in the new Central Division.
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The 2021 NHL season will be different from anything the sport has seen before.

With realigned and self-contained divisions, a shorter but denser schedule, mostly empty arenas and seemingly inevitable postponements and logistical puzzles, the eventual Stanley Cup winner will have taken an unprecedented path to the title.

For the Blackhawks, in particular, expectations are low. But the unpredictability of hockey makes any outcome possible.

Here are the Sun-Times’ projected standings in every division in 2021:

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. Lightning: Even without injured Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning remain by far the best team in the league entering this season.

There’s a reason they’re 159-60-15 in the last three seasons and went 16-6 en route to winning the 2020 Stanley Cup. Steven Stamkos’ return to health nearly makes up for Kucherov’s absence, and the rest of the team — from Brayden Point to Anthony Cirelli to Victor Hedman to Andrei Vasilevskiy — is just as stacked as always.

The Central, unsurprisingly in a hockey sense but strangely in a geographical sense, clearly runs through Tampa.

2. Hurricanes: The Hurricanes’ young core, which has carried the franchise from bottom-feeder to playoff contender in recent years, appears poised to break into the elite tier.

The defense runs extremely deep — from Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin on down — and the first line of Sebastian Aho centering Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen is one of the NHL’s best. But average goaltending, something the Hurricanes failed to upgrade this offseason, holds them beneath the Lightning.

3. Stars: Surgeries for goalie Ben Bishop and forward Tyler Seguin, which will keep them out for at least the first half of the season, will put a lot of pressure on 2020 playoff stars Denis Gurianov and Anton Khudobin to keep up that level of performance.

The Stars still have two of the NHL’s best defensemen in Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg — the former played a massive role in the playoffs, as well — but the offense might be one of the weakest in the league. The Stars should remain a good team in 2021, but they probably won’t be an elite one.

4. Predators: The Central has a clear divide after the top three, meaning the Predators, Panthers and Blue Jackets likely will fight for the last playoff spot.

The Predators have been in an ever-so-slow decline since winning the West in 2017, chiefly because their best forwards — Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — stalled before reaching their elite potentials. But the combination of reigning Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis on the back end is elite, and goalie Juuse Saros emerged right when Pekka Rinne started to fall off. This is a boring but solid team.

5. Panthers: If the NHL went to three-on-three play in regulation, the Panthers would be set. Forwards Alexander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad are a quietly stellar trio.

But there’s little depth beyond them. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, who led the Panthers in goals last season, departed in free agency, and additions Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair are decent players but downgrades nonetheless. There’s a ton of pressure on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to live up to his contract after an atrocious season.

6. Blue Jackets: Star center Pierre-Luc Dubois’ desire for a trade has cast a lot of uncertainty around this Blue Jackets season. Already one of the NHL’s less explosive offenses, the Jackets would look feeble without him.

The goalie duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, an unexpected revelation last season, seems likely to come back to earth, too. Any defense led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be excellent, but the Jackets might prove themselves to be a lesser version of the Predators.

7. Blackhawks: For as promising as certain players have looked and as optimistic as the mood has been in training camp, reality probably will catch up with the Hawks when they have to play other teams.

It’s simply hard to imagine this team staying anywhere near .500 without Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach or Alex Nylander, no proven NHL goalie and a defense — albeit a seemingly improved one — that allowed the most scoring chances in the league last season. The Hawks are fortunate the Red Wings exist.

8. Red Wings: The Wings were so bad last season — the NHL’s worst team in 20 years — that even a substantial improvement in 2021 won’t pull them out of last place.

Up front, there are some pieces to build around in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Filip Zadina. The addition of free-agent goalie Thomas Greiss will help keep them close in more games, too. But the Wings are still terrible, most of all on the back end. All six of their defensemen would be third-pairing guys, at best, on a contender.

EAST DIVISION (playoff teams in bold)

1. Flyers

2. Bruins

3. Capitals

4. Islanders

5. Penguins

6. Rangers

7. Sabres

8. Devils

WEST DIVISION

1. Golden Knights

2. Avalanche

3. Blues

4. Wild

5. Coyotes

6. Ducks

7. Sharks

8. Kings

NORTH DIVISION

1. Maple Leafs

2. Flames

3. Canadiens

4. Oilers

5. Canucks

6. Jets

7. Senators

SEMIFINALS

Avalanche def. Bruins

Maple Leafs def. Lightning

STANLEY CUP FINAL

Avalanche def. Maple Leafs