Reduced NHL season hits the ice

Tanner Curtis, Sports Editor

With COVID-19 still being a major issue worldwide, many sports have had to change the way their leagues are run, but no one has had to change quite as much as the National Hockey League.

The NHL has shortened its season from the normal 82 games to just 56. They also have realigned all of their divisions to reduce travel.

Now, there are four divisions split up by region: the West, North, Central, and East. Teams will play only teams in their division. Once the regular season is completed, the top four teams from each division advance to the playoffs. There are also no specific conferences in the league this year.

Let’s take a look at how these teams have performed so far since the season started Jan. 18 and how they are most likely to end the regular season when it concludes on April 4.

West

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year after a disappointing loss in the second round of the playoffs in last year’s NHL bubble. The Avalanche have a lot of talent led by Nathan Mackinnon, the runner up for the MVP last season and top defenseman Cale Makar, the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

The Avalanche attack their opponents using their speed and scoring ability, taking their opponents out of the game before they realize it has even started. If the Avalanche are able to improve on their power play efficiency, where they ranked 19th in the league last season, there will be little opportunity for other teams to stop them.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights are the newest team to the NHL, joining the league just three years ago. But don’t let their youthfulness as a franchise fool you. This team has taken the league by storm, making the playoffs every season and even going as far as the Stanley Cup finals their inaugural season.

The Golden Knights have the strongest duo of goalies in the NHL with Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Golden Knights were also able to add the most coveted free agent in the league, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. This team is loaded with talent and if they can take their play to the next level, Vegas could be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup this season.

St. Louis Blues

The 2019 Stanley Cup champions may not be the powerhouse team they were two years ago, but they are still easily a playoff team. They have one of the league’s top goalies in Jordan Binnington, and their captain Ryan O’Riley is one of the top scorers in the league.

The Blues have enough talent to contend with most teams in the league ,but unless they can add another weapon defensively they aren’t built to go deep into the playoffs. There is a good chance they are first round exits just like last season.

 

San Jose Sharks

The hometown Sharks are clearly in a rebuilding phase, but with the new division configuration they have a shot to make it to the playoffs.

If the Sharks are going to have any success this year they are going to need goalie Martin Jones and top paid defenseman Erik Karlsson to have big bounce back years. They will also need steady contributions from their younger and highly skilled players such as Timo Meir and Tomas Hertl.

The Sharks have hope in being a top four seed in their division, but if they want to live up to that expectation they are going to all need to step up and play much better than they did last year.

Arizona Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes are coming into the season as a question mark. They were able to squeeze into the playoffs last season only to be sent home immediately.

The team has strong goaltending with Darcy Kuemper and some talent on offense, but they don’t have the talent to get higher than fourth or fifth in the division.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are looking to try and improve from last season but will likely still miss out on the playoffs.

With star players like forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Sutter starting to show their age, it is looking like the Wild aren’t going to make much of an impact on the NHL this year. At best, the Wild would see a first round playoff exit.

Los Angeles Kings

The Kings are in no state to be contenders this season because they are in the middle of a rebuild. Their second overall pick, Quinren Byfeild, isn’t quite ready to play in the NHL and with their two stars Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty reaching the end of their careers, the Kings will likely just be going through the motions this year.

They do have promise for their future, but in the current state of the team they are probably not going to challenge the top teams.

    Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are another team that doesn’t have much of a shot this year. The team doesn’t really have any star players to make an impact and is getting very old as a group. Don’t expect to hear much news about the Ducks winning games this year.

North

Toronto Maple Leafs

Due to travel restrictions, Canadian hockey teams can’t leave the country. So for the first time ever, there is a division of only Canadian teams. The best team is probably the Maple Leafs, who are loaded with talent on the offensive end with young star and San Ramon native Austin Matthews and vetran Jonathan Tavares.

The main issue with this team is their lack of depth on the defensive end. When this team has to rely on good defense to win games, they start to show weakness.This keeps Toronto from taking their game to the next level.

Montreal Canadians

The Canadians were one of the biggest surprises of the NHL bubble last year and they look like they are ready to be a top team in the league.

 

The Canadians have had one of the best goalies, Carey Price, for the last several seasons but have had no supporting cast to help him out. They finally seem to be putting something together, which might let them make it deeper in the playoffs.

As long as this team continues to play at a high level around Price, fans should expect to hear their names in the playoffs this season .

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have been rebuilding for the past few seasons, but they finally seem to be exiting that phase and are ready to contend for the Stanley Cup. They have strong young players such as defenseman Quinn Hughes and forward Elias Petterson to go with veterans like JT Miller.

This team has to make sure everyone steps up to make sure they have success this season. And if they get strong production from their star players, the Canucks have a good shot at being  a star player in the league.

Winnipeg Jets

The Winnipeg Jets are an interesting team this season because of trades they have made. The Jets traded their young star forward Patrick Laine but remained a decent team after the deal. The Jets still have strong forwards in Blake Wheeler and the player they got in return for Laine, Pierre-Luc Dubois.

If the Jets can get players to step up and fill the shoes of Laine, and continue to have strong goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck, they should still be able to contend for a playoff spot.

Calgary Flames 

The Calgary Flames have had disappointing appearances in the playoffs the last two seasons with a pair of first round exits. They are hoping to make a return to the playoffs, led by forward Johnny Gaudreau and defenseman Mark Giordano, who is one of the best in the league.

The Flames should be able to contend for one of the bottom playoff spots in their division and will be hoping for more success in the postseason than in recent years.

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have Connor McDavid who is considered to be the best player in all of hockey and the second coming of Wayne Gretzky. They also have last season’s MVP Leon Draisatle. But they will still most likely miss the playoffs because of poor goaltending and a lack of offensive firepower.

Ottawa Senators

The Senators, widely considered to be one of the worst teams in the NHL, have been rebuilding for the past few seasons. They will most likely be considered an easy win for most teams they play this season.

Central

Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year’s Stanley Cup champions hit a little speedbump when they lost their top scorer, forward Nikita Kucherov due to a season ending hip injury. Although this will hurt them, the Lightning will also be getting back their captain, forward Steven Stamkos.

The Lightning are one of the most talented teams in the league from head to toe with a top five goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and one of the best defensemen, Victor Hedman. They may have a little more difficulty this year without Kucherov, but the Lightning should still be considered one of the best teams in the league and should be in the running for a back-to-back championship.

Dallas Stars

The Stars were the runner ups in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and are looking to improve upon that. In last year’s NHL bubble the Stars had a breakout star with their goalie Anton Khudobin, who has continued to be a force this season.

The Stars also have the Sharks’ fomrer captain Joe Pavelski leading their teams after a very impressive performance in last year’s playoffs. So far it looks like Pavelski will continue that high level of performance because he has been one of the hottest players in the league to start the season.

The Stars have the capability of winning it all this season, but they are also in the toughest division in the league. But if any team could make it out of the division over the Lightning, it is the Stars.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets might be a team ready to make a jump this year and become a top contender. Columbus got a major boost with the addition of  Patrcik Laine from the Jets. With this huge scoring addition, the Blue Jackets might be able to make the jump from a bottom seed in the playoffs to a top five seed in the playoffs.

The Blue Jackets will just need some stronger play from goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and that will help them win more games this season. Expect to see the Blue Jackets in the playoffs this year.

Carolina Hurricanes

Led by young star Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes shocked the world two seasons ago when they made it all the way to the Easter Conference finals as a wild card team, and they improved last year earning a fifth seed.

The Hurricanes should continue to improve this season but in this tough division and with how the playoffs are formatted, it may be hard for them to make it far in the playoffs with another string of surprising upsets.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers should be able to be a bottom seed in the playoffs this year. With aging stars like Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad leading their team, Florida could be able to put up a strong enough fight to make the playoffs.

The Panthers also have goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has seemed to take a step back in the past two seasons. If he can pick up his production then the Panthers should be able to contend with most teams.

Nashville Predators

The Predators are no longer the powerhouse team they once were, but they still have some promise. They have strong talent on defense but are lackluster on the offensive end.

If the Predators trade for some scoring talent they could be a threat to make playoffs, but until then don’t expect them to make any impact this year.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks just made it into the playoffs last season but don’t expect them to be returning there this season. After losing captain Jonathan Towes for most of the season, Chicago loses a good part of their scoring.

The Blackhawks are probably going to struggle in this tough division this year and won’t make it far.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are the worst team in the league and won’t do anything impressive this season. They will most likely be last place and hope to improve more in the next couple seasons.

East

Washington Capitals

The Washington Capitals are still a similar team to the one that won the Stanley cup in 2018. Alexander Ovechikin continues to dominate the goal scoring title for the league. The Capitals also have strong players on the defensive end, led by their top guy John Carlson. Finally, the Capitals have new goalies, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanek, after the release of long time netminder Brayden Holtby.

So far the  Capitals have gotten strong play from Vanek, who has yet to lose a game in regulation this season. As long as Vanek continues to play well like he has early on, the Capitals will most likely be a top seed in the playoffs when the season comes to an end.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers surprised a lot of people last year when they snatched the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But after a disappointing game seven loss in the second round, the Flyers will be looking to improve their final seed.

The Flyers are a powerful offensive team with a strong goalie in Carter Hart. But Hart has had difficulties due to the poor defense of the Flyers so far. The Flyers will need to improve on the defensive end if they wish to jump over the Capitals and take the first seed.

The Flyers will likely be looking for defense through trade this season. Until they do, the Flyers’ ceiling will likely be second place. They do show a lot of promise, however, and will be a fierce contender for the next few seasons.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins always seem to be in the playoffs contending for the Stanley Cup. Led by the NHL’s chief dirty player, Brad Marchand, the Bruins are a team with enough skill to beat anyone. To start the season they don’t have their point-leading forward David Pastrnak, who is out because of a hip injury. When he returns, the Bruins will have a very high-powered offense.

The Bruins have the capability of being the best team in their division with their level of talent. Right now their biggest issue is that not everyone can stay healthy. If they can then the Bruins should be a strong playoff contender.

New York Islanders

The Islanders made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season behind their very talented young forward, Mathew Barzal. In the new division layout ,however, the Islanders are the underdogs. Being a little under talented at the defensive end, the Islanders are going to have trouble beating division contenders like the Capitals and Bruins.

The Islanders have a good goalie, Semyon Varlomov, and should contend for a playoff spot but with the new divisional layout it will be very difficult for them to go much farther than the first round.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are an aging team, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good. Captain Sydney Crosby is reaching the end of his prime years, but he is still one of the best goal scorers in the league. They don’t have great goaltending anymore and in a high scoring era in the NHL, that is a big problem.

The Penguins have a shot at making the playoffs this season, but they are most likely entering a rebuild and will probably come up just short of making it in.

Buffalo Sabers

The Sabers do have some talent with young forward Jack Eichel and  new free agent acquisition Taylor Hall. But this team isn’t quite ready to take that next step and make a playoff appearance. They will likely be sitting on the outside of the playoffs when this season comes to an end.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that isn’t ready to make a playoff run this season. However, second- year forward Jack Hughes has shown  promise after a disappointing rookie season. The Devils will likely look to start building a tea around him for the future.

New York Rangers

The Rangers have acquired loads of talent over the past few seasons, but they just can’t seem to put it all together. They will need a new piece to boost their defense if they want any chance at contending this season.

Stanley Cup Prediction

Colorado Avalanche defeat Tampa Bay Lightning 

The Colorado Avalanche have too much scoring ability and speed this season for any team to contend with them. The Lightning have the best chance at slowing them down, but I just don’t see them being able to do it. The Avalanche will win in seven games and hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001.