Opinion

The NHL and NHLPA still haven't agreed to terms of a new hockey season. But given everything we're hearing about ongoing negotiations, it's only a matter of time. Expect significant news later this week on that front, with both sides expected to sign off on a truncated campaign that should start with training camps on Jan. 3 and puck drop on Jan. 13.

The league is going to look quite different. Teams will be playing in empty arenas, at least to start. Traditional rivals are going to find new dance partners as part of a one-year-only realignment necessitated by border restrictions. And familiarity should likely breed plenty of contempt, with divisional play only meaning a steady diet of each other.

The NHL and NHLPA still haven't agreed to terms of a new hockey season. But given everything we're hearing about ongoing negotiations, it's only a matter of time. Expect significant news later this week on that front, with both sides expected to sign off on a truncated campaign that should start with training camps on Jan. 3 and puck drop on Jan. 13.

The league is going to look quite different. Teams will be playing in empty arenas, at least to start. Traditional rivals are going to find new dance partners as part of a one-year-only realignment necessitated by border restrictions. And familiarity should likely breed plenty of contempt, with divisional play only meaning a steady diet of each other.

At the risk of putting the cart before the horse, let's dust off the crystal ball and take a gander into the not-too-distant future, shall we? With excitement building about what's to come, here are some way-too-early predictions on how the 2021 season is going to play out.

CANADIAN DIVISION:

The ultimate post-holiday gift for hockey fans is getting to see all seven Canadian clubs try to beat the maple syrup out of each other on a nightly basis. In fact, I suspect this is going to be so popular, there will be a push in some markets to make this a permanent thing. The chances of that happening are slim and none, so enjoy it while it lasts.

To me, it's a two-horse race for top spot, between Edmonton and Toronto. Or, more accurately, new BFFs Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, who have been training together in recent weeks. Although scoring shouldn't be a problem, both those teams have considerable flaws when it comes to keeping pucks out of their net.

Winnipeg has questions on the blue line, but the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net and a potent group of forwards should keep them in the mix. Vancouver is a team on the rise with a solid young core to build on, along with bringing in Braden Holtby and Nate Schmidt to offset some personnel losses. I like what Montreal did this off-season with the additions of Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen.

ADAM GLANZMAN / THE WASHINGTON POST

The NHL was able to complete its season by placing players in a bubble and testing daily, an impossible task when it comes to the 650,000 amateur players across the United States.

ADAM GLANZMAN / THE WASHINGTON POST The NHL was able to complete its season by placing players in a bubble and testing daily, an impossible task when it comes to the 650,000 amateur players across the United States.

Calgary looks to have taken a step back, but new No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom might just steal some games. And while Ottawa is heading in the right direction, they're still a year or two away from truly being competitive.

As the only division with seven teams, teams are expected to play each other nine times, with everyone playing an additional 10th game against two opponents in order to get to 56. That should be pretty cool, eh?

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Toronto
2. Edmonton
3. Vancouver
4. Winnipeg
5. Montreal
6. Calgary
7. Ottawa

CENTRAL DIVISION:

This division is central in name only, given several new members including the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They will be the heavy favourites to not only win the division, but run away with it, as head coach Jon Cooper's crew is very much intact after navigating considerable salary cap issues.

The team they beat in the final, Dallas, is expected to remain in the Central, despite a proposal last week that had them moving West. The belief now is it will be Minnesota going that direction.

Those "bunch of jerks" from Carolina are poised to continue making noise, but never count out what the surly but successful John Tortorella can do in Columbus. After that the quality really dips in this division, including middling teams such as Nashville and Florida, along with long-term rebuilds in Chicago and Detroit rounding out the field.

In these eight-team divisions, expect to see everyone meet eight times. Which should mean plenty of free spaces on the bingo card for the Lightning, provided they aren't suffering from a championship hangover. Maybe just give them one point for every victory? They'd still likely separate themselves from the pack.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Tampa Bay
2. Carolina
3. Dallas
4. Nashville
5. Columbus
6. Florida
7. Chicago
8. Detroit

WESTERN DIVISION:

This is going to be a lot of fun, with three elite franchises battling it out in St. Louis, Colorado and Vegas. Those will be heavyweight tilts whenever they face off, which will be early and often. New Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo against the Blues team he left behind should be must-see TV.

As will getting eight doses of San Jose's Evander Kane vs. Vegas's Ryan Reaves, two foes who have the best reality show going in the NHL.

Assuming Minnesota is placed here (instead of Dallas), they'll likely have to settle for trying to be the cream of the remaining crop, which isn't exactly a murderer's row. All three California teams have lost the lustre they once had, and Arizona appears stuck in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

This is probably the most top-heavy and bottom-heavy division.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Colorado
2. Vegas
3. St. Louis
4. Minnesota
5. San Jose
6. Arizona
7. Anaheim
8. Los Angeles

EASTERN DIVISION:

Last, but certainly not least, is what should be the most competitive division. This one should be wild and unpredictable, with just enough bad blood between these East Coast neighbours to have players and fans foaming at the mouth.

You have the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners in Boston, who are expected to be without a couple key players to start the season, legacy teams with aging superstars in Pittsburgh and Washington, clubs coming off terrific seasons in Philadelphia and the New York Islanders, and franchises on the rise in Buffalo, the New York Rangers and New Jersey, thanks to past putrid play that has result in deep prospect pools.

I suspect whoever finishes in fifth place here and misses the playoffs — the format is expected to be 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 in each division for the first two rounds — will be a very good team that deserves to be in the dance, much more so than those in other divisions who get to make hay against weaker opponents.

Buckle up!

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Washington
2. Boston
3. Pittsburgh
4. Philadelphia
5. NY Islanders
6. Buffalo
7. NY Rangers
8. New Jersey

A few other predictions you either heard here first, or not at all, depending on their accuracy:

*McDavid, with a chip on his shoulder the size of Alberta after being overlooked for the Hart Trophy in favour of teammate Leon Draisaitl, has a season to remember. He wins the scoring race, both in goals and points, and also is the runaway Most Valuable Player in the league. But the trophy he wants the most will elude him, despite getting close.

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid should win the scoring race. (Jeff Roberson / The Associated Press files)

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid should win the scoring race. (Jeff Roberson / The Associated Press files)

*Alexis Lafrenière takes the Big Apple by storm and wins the Calder as the league's best rookie with the New York Rangers, edging out teammate Igor Shestyorkin, who is the undisputed No. 1 netminder with "King" Henrik Lundqvist moving on to Washington.

*Tampa's Andrei Vasilevskiy wins the Vezina Trophy, the result of being both extremely good while also playing against inferior opponents most nights. Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets' reigning Vezina winner, is definitely in the running.

*Cale Makar follows up his rookie-of-the-year campaign by capturing his first of what will likely be several Norris Trophies as top defenceman, edging out Pietrangelo for the honour.

*I'll take Edmonton, Tampa Bay, Colorado and Boston emerging from their respective divisions in the playoffs — with the Avalanche raising the Stanley Cup to the rafters at some point in mid-July.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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