There isn’t too much we know about how the coming NHL season will shape up, what the schedule will look like or even when exactly it will begin.
In a normal year the season would have already started, but of course 2020 is no ordinary year. There are so many rumors swirling around about how the league is going to handle the next COVID-impacted season, but one thing is certain: it’ll be another year of change and adjustment as the NHL and its teams adapt to what is going on.
One rumor that has been making the rounds, and seems to have a good bit of validity, is that there will need to be some divisional realignment for the 2021 season. The main issue with the way the divisions are shaped up now is that it’s unknown how freely Canadian teams will be able to travel back and forth to the United States (and vice versa), and there’s a chance that the seven franchises north of the border may have to just play among themselves.
This of course throws a wrench into the current NHL divisional alignment, with three of the NHL’s four divisions housing Canadian franchises (the Hurricanes’ Metropolitan Division being the lone exception).
So, what will the divisions look like in 2021 if an all-Canadian division is necessary? There have been a few versions floating around, but one first brought forward by The Athletic’s Michael Russo here ($) seems to have the most legs.
That proposal would have the divisions set up like this:
Canadian Division: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
Pacific Division: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, Vegas
Central Division: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis, Tampa Bay
This, of course, is just an early proposal, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense. While keeping the Canadian teams separated, it also limits travel as best as it can by keeping the Northeast teams (starting with Washington and going up) together.
As for the Hurricanes’ proposed Central Division, it’s made up of the Midwest and Southern teams that aren’t up towards New England or out West. Of course all of this could be changed, with the Canes being a lot closer to some of those Northeast teams than Chicago, but for now let’s take a look at how this potential divisional alignment could impact the Hurricanes.
So, would this realignment help or hurt the Hurricanes?
In short, it would help. While the Hurricanes would be getting grouped with the last two Stanley Cup champs in the Lightning and the Blues, Carolina would be getting away from the gauntlet that is the top of the Metropolitan Division with the Capitals, Penguins, Flyers and even Islanders.
A quick look at the 2019-20 records of the seven teams Carolina played in the Metropolitan Division compared to the seven other teams that would be in the Canes’ new temporary division shows that the road to the playoffs would be easier.
In 2019-20, the seven Metropolitan Division teams not named the Carolina Hurricanes combined to go 255-166-63, averaging 81.86 points per team when the season shut down (led by 90 points from Washington and pulled down at the rear by 68 points from the New Jersey Devils.)
In contrast to that, the seven teams that would make up the Canes’ new division combined to go 237-193-60, around 20 games worse than the Metro. The average points per team for those seven was 76.29, five points lower than the Metro. The one team the Canes would carry over from the Metro to the new division would be Columbus, who would sit right in the middle of both groups with 81 points.
Imagine for a second that the 2020 playoff format was the same as it always has been. The Hurricanes, with a 38-25-5 record and 81 points, would have finished fourth in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (in reality the Canes finished tied with Columbus, though Carolina had two games in hand). With that, the Canes would have taken the Eastern Conference’s top wildcard spot.
However, had the Canes played the 2019-20 season in the proposed Central Division, they would have finished in third behind St. Louis and Tampa Bay (again, assuming they got a single point in the two games in hand they had over Columbus). Carolina would have gotten into the playoffs as the third-place team, rather than as a wildcard.
Going back to the last full NHL season bears the same result. While the proposed Central Division’s collective record and average points were actually higher than the Metropolitan’s in 2018-19 (these numbers being heavily skewed by Tampa Bay’s incredible 62-win, 128-point season), the Canes still would have gotten into the playoffs as the division’s third-place team rather than a wildcard.
In that hypothetical 2018-19 Central Division, the Hurricanes would have just edged the Blues out for the third divisional spot on wins not in shootouts. In the real 2018-19 season, Carolina made the playoffs as the East’s top wildcard team after securing 99 points but falling just one point shy of Pittsburgh for third.
So, the last two seasons show that this proposed Central Division would offer the Canes a slightly easier path to the playoffs. Does that mean this new division would be easy? Of course not. Tampa Bay and St. Louis are perennial contenders, and even Columbus has pretty much kept pace with Carolina over the past few seasons.
Still though, getting away from Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Islanders would be a plus. On the other end of the divisions, the combination of Detroit and Chicago presents a likely easier group of bottom feeders than New Jersey and the Rangers provided.
From a talent standpoint, the Hurricanes would rid themselves of a division containing Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Malkin and more, but would also be adding a ton of talent in the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Patrick Kane and Roman Josi, among others.
This proposed Central Division would by no means be easy for the Hurricanes, but it may present a slightly more friendly path than the Metropolitan has the last couple of years.
Regardless of who the Canes are playing, the 2021 season will certainly be unlike any other.