Things are going to look a little different in the NHL this season as the league had to shuffle its division and playoff format for the 56-game schedule. All of the Canadian teams are going to be together in their own division, while the other three divisions have new teams mixed throughout.
For some teams, that temporary change could help improve their chances of making the playoffs or even going on an extended playoff run once they get there.
Here we take a look at some of the teams that could benefit the most.
Toronto Maple Leafs (North Division)
The Maple Leafs are going from a situation where they were clearly the third best team in their division, to a situation where they could be the best team. Without Tampa Bay and Boston standing in the way, the Maple Leafs are going to enter the 2020-21 season as one of the top favorites in the North (all Canadian) division.
On top of that, the playoff format should also give them a better chance to finally break through the First Round door. Obviously nothing is a guarantee, especially in a best-of-seven series, but if you are a Maple Leafs fan you have to like the prospect of a First Round matchup against Calgary or Winnipeg a lot more than you like a possible First Round matchup against Boston or Tampa Bay.
[Related: Plans for NHL 56-game NHL season]
None of this is to say Toronto is going to show up and simply waltz through this division. A lot of these teams are close to them with some very real strengths that will make them formidable opponents. Edmonton has two MVPs, Vancouver has a couple of young superstars, Winnipeg has the best goalie in the division, Calgary spent big this offseason, and Montreal should be a MUCH improved team.
But none of those teams are Tampa Bay and Boston. For that reason alone, Toronto catches a little bit of a break.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Central Division)
Playing in a division with the two most recent Stanley Cup Finalists (Tampa Bay and Dallas) is not going to be a cakewalk by any means. But even with that the division as a whole is still not as tough as the Metropolitan Division the Blue Jackets normally play in.
It also is not as tough as the East Division where most of those Metropolitan teams will play this season.
Look at it this way: A year ago Columbus’ .579 points percentage was sixth best in the Metro. Among the teams it is playing against this season it would have been fourth best. That is a playoff spot. The Blue Jackets also went 11-1-4 in the regular season against the teams in its new division. Obviously that is a small sampling of games, and a lot changes from one year to the next (different rosters, different season, etc.), but the door is a little more open with these opponents.
Minnesota Wild (West Division)
This is kind of a mixed bag. The top of the West Division is insane with three bonafide Stanley Cup contenders in Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis. That is going to make coming out of this division in the playoffs quite the challenge for anybody.
But there is a pretty significant drop off beyond those teams for the fourth and final playoff spot.
Minnesota might have its flaws, but so do the teams it will be competing with.
• Los Angeles. Bright future, but rebuilding and probably not ready to compete this season.
• Anaheim. Should be rebuilding and loaded with flaws.
• Arizona. Coming off another chaotic offseason, lost Taylor Hall in free agency, and can not score.
• San Jose. Coming off a terrible season and still has lousy goaltending with an aging core. The three teams above, as well as Minnesota’s flaws, could open the door for the Sharks to rebound themselves, but again, that goaltending, and they have a ton of ground to make up.
The travel schedule is going to be brutal for the Wild, and I do not think it has much of a chance of beating two of Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis to go on a deep run. But, it should be the best of the other five teams in the division, and that is going to be enough to be a playoff team. Not sure it would have been a playoff team in the normal alignment.
Florida Panthers (Central Division)
The Panthers are desperate to make the playoffs, and were once again very active during the offseason in an effort to fix their flaws.
They should be better. But even with those improvements what was their in the Atlantic Division? Very clearly a distant third behind Tampa Bay and Boston, and most likely fourth behind Toronto. That would have put them in the Wild Card bubble where they would have to compete with the teams that did not finish in the top-three in the Metropolitan. And that would have been a problem.
While their ceiling in this division is still probably fourth (Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina should be considered the favorites), that still might give them a better chance than they would have normally had this season.