Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 2 of 2 previewing the opponents in the Discover Central Division.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. After an surprising early exit in the 2019 NHL Playoffs at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning exorcised that demon and went on to hoist the Cup in 2020. The team will be minus Nikita Kucherov which is a significant loss, but the team is still a good one and by most people’s assessments the favorite to win the division. The team is stacked with top of the NHL players even minus Kucherov. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been a Vezina Trophy finalist for three straight years (and won it once). Victor Hedman has been a Norris Trophy finalist for four straight years (and won it once). And the team is just generally deep with good players throughout the lineup. The Hurricanes actually match up fairly well with the Lightning because when playing well, the Hurricanes can match their pace, but the Lightning will be an every game challenge nonetheless and the team figures to compete for the division title.
Best blue liner to watch: Victor Hedman
Hedman has as good of a claim as anyone to being the best defenseman in the NHL. He is big, skilled and a great skater. His effortlessness reminds me a bit of Joni Pitkanen but is maybe a notch higher in terms of steadiness.
The Panthers squeaked into the 2020 NHL Playoffs by virtue of the expanded format. The team has been a preseason darling as an up-and-comer for a few years now. It makes sense based on the good group of young players the team has, but the results have yet to really materialize. The team made a big move before the 2019-20 season to add Vezina conversation regular Sergei Bobrovsky. But Bobrovsky struggled with his new team and maybe the weight of his $70 million contract. The team is underrated in terms of star power probably by virtue of residing far, far away form the major northern hockey markets. Alexander Barkov is among the best two-way centers in the NHL and Jonathan Huberdeau is an incredibly good playmaker. Whether Bobrovsky regains his form or not will likely have a lot to say about whether the Panthers are in the mix for the division title or instead trying to scratch and claw for a bottom playoff spot.
Best blue liner to watch: Aaron Ekblad
Were he playing in a bigger market farther north, Ekblad would be receive more recognition as he does. Very quickly living up to being selected first overall, Ekblad stepped directly into a top 4 role and soon thereafter a top pairing role in his draft year. He is not as flashy as some offensively but still easily qualifies as a defenseman to watch this season.
Detroit Red Wings
Putting it bluntly, the Red Wings would be a surprise to contend for a playoff spot in 2020-21. The team is still in the early phases of its rebuild. While the young players and prospect pool look reasonably promising, the Red Wings roster still has some gaps. The team is very much a work in progress on the blue line. Combine that with a forward group that can have a ‘gambling for goals’ approach and also added veterans Bobby Ryan and Sam Gagner whose strength is offense over defense, and the Red Wings should again be near the bottom of the NHL for goals allowed. In 2019-20, the Wings allowed 267 goals which was 24 more than the second worst team in the NHL. The addition of Thomas Greiss in net who had a decent 2019-20 season with the Islanders could prove to be a case study in how much the defensive play of the team in front makes a difference. Put me in the camp that will be very surprised if the Red Wings are remotely close to a playoff spot.
Best blue liner to watch: ….I will cheat for the second time and pick Filip Zadina
Zadina is a proxy for the young lineup and how quickly it can rise up and make Detroit a going concern in the NHL again.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you similarly see the Lightning as a reasonably safe favorite to win the division? What, if anything, do you see as a possible downfall/weakness for them?
2) What do you make of the Panthers? Could they be only a Bobrovsky rebound away from competing for the division title?