The NHL looks like it’s getting closer and closer each day to returning. The latest rumor is that teams will play a 56-game season that starts on or around Jan. 13. However, because the Canada/US border is still closed, it means a divisional realignment is needed. TSN insider Pierre LeBrun reported on what that might look like. While not official, let’s take a look at what it would mean for the Colorado Avalanche.
Not finalized yet, and still subject to change, but the 2020-21 four-division re-alignment currently looks like this according to sources:— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) December 9, 2020
In this proposed format, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues would remain in the Avalanche’s division and five new possible teams would enter. Which, as we’ll get to in a second, might be a good thing.
First, let’s take a quick look at what having the Stars and Blues mean. Fans are pretty familiar with both, as the Avs have been competing in divisional matchups with them for a while. The Stars went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals this year, eliminating the Avalanche on the way. So there is no doubt they will be a tough team to play against in 2021. However, they may not be quite as dominant, at least to start: Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin are both out longterm.
Both had surgeries in November that would see them be out at least five months, which would mean a return date of around March. In a shortened season, that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. It is also a quick turnaround from playing in the Cup Finals to starting the following year, and that will be no different this season. The Stars will be a tough out, but maybe not as tough as originally expected.
Then there is the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. The Blues saw massive changes this year by losing Alex Pietrangelo and gaining Torey Krug. They still need to re-sign Vince Dunn despite currently being over the salary cap. That cap also forced them to sell off Jake Allen to Montreal, meaning their goaltending depth is questionable. Jordan Binnington will have to be great all year, or they will need someone like Ville Husso to step up. Either way, this is still a very solid roster but with some missing pieces.
The Avs division would see the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks in a different division this season. While those were the bottom four Central teams in 2019-20, it still might not be a bad thing. Chicago likely would have been easy points, as it essentially admitted to rebuilding. The team has already traded away a key piece in Brandon Saad, who will now help the Avs pursue the Stanley Cup. However, it’s possible there’s more to come. Chicago got rid of Robin Lehner at the last trade deadline and let Corey Crawford walk in the offseason. The goaltending duo this year will be suspect, to say the least.
The Wild has had a very interesting offseason. It’s made some questionable trades but overall have gotten slightly better—based on subbing Devan Dubnyk for Cam Talbot alone. That being said, the team certainly isn’t a force to be reckoned with. Like every squad, the Avs would need to play Minnesota hard, but if they play their best hockey, there would be no issues in beating it.
The Predators and Jets are somewhat in the same circle heading into this year. Two teams that were fairly underwhelming last year and changed very little this offseason. The Preds bought out Kyle Turris and have enough cap space for someone like Mike Hoffman, who would give them much-needed goal scoring.
The Jets brought back Paul Stastny for cheap but did nothing to upgrade the blueline aside from re-signing Dylan DeMelo. Both of these teams seem like wildcards for the 2020-21 season. Depending on last-minute moves, they could be anywhere from the top of a division to the bottom.
New Teams - California
Let’s start with the three California teams since they all finished very close in the standings last year. After years of the California road trip being one to worry about, things changed when all three degraded significantly in quality—the first time in a very long time it’s happened. The LA Kings have been rebuilding for a bit now. They’ve sold off pieces like Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez as part of it, and their prospect system is one of the best. However, it seems unlikely the start of a new era will happen in 2021. Jonathan Quick has struggled in the past few years, and this team will likely find itself near the bottom of the division once again.
Then, there are the Anaheim Ducks. Their issue is that they’re stuck between two cores, with the younger one not quite good enough to bring them anywhere just yet. They have some interesting pieces in Sam Steel, Troy Terry and Max Jones, but they haven’t shown enough so far to help out guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler and even Hampus Lindholm. The one true x-factor, though, is John Gibson. He struggled last year, but before that he was one of the league's best goalies. If he’s back to his old self, he could steal some games. In a short season, that’s all you need. The Ducks are likely to be near the bottom in 2021, but a mix of goaltending and young talent gives the team potential to be better.
Finally, there’s the San Jose Sharks. They had a disastrous year in 2019-20, with seemingly everything crashing down all at once. Age, regression, injuries and goaltending all failed. Despite being in the conference finals the year before, the team looked, to put it bluntly, like a mess. And the issue for 2021 is how much of that will change? They should have more health this year, but their core is very old. Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones are all 29 or older. And the biggest question is in the net: Both Jones and Dubnyk have struggled heavily over the past few seasons, especially if you look into the underlying analytics. One of them will have to turn it around or this Sharks team could be looking at another season at the bottom.
New Teams - The Desert
The last two teams joining this proposed Avalanche division would be the Arizona Coyotes and the Vegas Golden Knights. The Coyotes have had a very long offseason. From their GM leaving before the return to play, to losing multiple picks over a draft scandal, to renouncing the rights of their first selection from 2020. This is a team that is ready for the season to start. However, the intentions appear to be to sell and retool. If that’s the case, the Coyotes may be in for a long 2021. The strongest part of the team is goaltending: Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta are both very strong when healthy. If the Coyotes want any shot, that duo needs to be lights out.
Vegas, on the other hand, is the one team the Avalanche probably isn’t that happy to see added to their division. One of the best teams in the league alongside the Avs, the Knights may be their toughest competition. They added Pietrangelo and re-signed Lehner, who has been one of the best goalies over the past few seasons. However, they had to say goodbye to Statsny and Nate Schmidt because of it and may look to move even more salary. Regardless, they are one of the better squads and are likely a team the Avalanche will be competing with for the top spot in the division.
This should be an interesting division if comes to fruition. The Avalanche will see one very good team and four potential lottery teams enter. Overall, it feels like the opponents may have gotten easier when it comes to the path to the playoffs, but the division title may be harder to grab.
For those curious, here's the projection if they had kept the divisions the same but were still playing a 56 game season with no inter-divisional play: pic.twitter.com/LFFCXcjbbM— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) December 9, 2020
Here are two scenarios for the updated division vs the old format based on one model. As you can see, the Avalanche are favorites no matter what. However, the bottom of the old division is a lot closer than the new one. There might be a chance for the Avalanche to feast on some easier points, and they need to take advantage. No matter what happens, how things play out will certainly be interesting to watch.