Un­wrap­ping NHL sea­son; wrap­ping up col­lege foot­ball

NHL divi­sion pre­views, plus re­align­ment.

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The NHL sea­son will have a (tem­po­rar­ily) dif­fer­ent look in 2021 when it opens to­day. There will be a shorter reg­u­lar sea­son (56 games), re­align­ment de­signed to limit travel amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic and solely in­tradi­vi­sional play. The high­lights are a re­gional setup that in­cludes a North Divi­sion of all the Cana­dian teams and a Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal matchup that can be the East ver­sus East (or West ver­sus West) be­cause the teams are re­seeded in the third round re­gard­less of divi­sion or tra­di­tional con­fer­ence.

Our USA TO­DAY Sports ex­perts pre­dict that the Avalanche will lead the league in points, with the Light­ning, Bruins and Maple Leafs also pac­ing their re­spec­tive di­vi­sions. The all-Canada divi­sion seems to be the most com­pet­i­tive.

Sco­tia NHL North Divi­sion

The Maple Leafs will ben­e­fit from the ar­rival of de­fense­man T.J. Brodie and a full sea­son of coach Shel­don Keefe. Plus, Bos­ton and Tampa Bay are no longer in the divi­sion. ... The Flames are two sea­sons re­moved from a divi­sion ti­tle, have a strong mix of play­ers and now have a solid goal­tender in Ja­cob Mark­strom. ... The Cana­di­ens were one of the busiest teams in the off­sea­son and could be the most im­proved, es­pe­cially if Nick Suzuki builds on his play­off per­for­mance. ... Re­cent MVPs Leon Drai­saitl and Con­nor Mc­David will pro­vide the Oil­ers with plenty of of­fense, but there’s not much depth be­hind them and Ryan Nu­gent-Hop­kins. De­fense­man Tyson Bar­rie will be mo­ti­vated on a one-year con­tract. ... With Mark­strom gone, the Canucks will have to hope Braden Holtby re­gains his form or Thatcher Demko shows his play­off form. ... Vez­ina Tro­phy win­ner Con­nor Helle­buyck was a work­horse last sea­son and the Jets need more of the same. Will Pa­trik Laine be with the team at sea­son’s end? ... The Se­na­tors’ off­sea­son moves give them im­proved for­ward depth and goal­tend­ing, but they’re still the weak link in the divi­sion.

– Mike Brehm, USA TO­DAY

MassMu­tual NHL East Divi­sion

Af­ter los­ing Torey Krug and cap­tain Zdeno Chara in free agency, the Bruins have holes to fill on de­fense. But the NHL’s best reg­u­lar-sea­son team from last sea­son still has its top line with Pa­trice Berg­eron, David Pas­tr­nak and Brad Marc­hand and a deep col­lec­tion of role play­ers. … Hen­rik Lundqvist’s open­heart surgery an­nounce­ment puts the pres­sure on Ilya Sam­sonov to shoul­der the load as the Cap­i­tals’ No. 1 goalie, but the 2018 Stan­ley Cup champs could have one more run in them with veteran coach Peter Lavi­o­lette. … The Fly­ers are on the up­swing un­der Alain Vigneault. What they lack in star power they make up for with depth, ver­sa­til­ity and grit, not to men­tion one of the best young goalies, Carter Hart. … An­a­lyt­ics paint the Is­lan­ders as a mid­dle-of-the-pack team, but they went to the con­fer­ence fi­nals dur­ing the sum­mer restart. Their de­fense was lock­down and they could grind out wins in tight games, par­tic­u­larly if rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin is as good as ad­ver­tised. … Will the ad­di­tion of Kasperi Ka­pa­nen give an ag­ing ros­ter a jolt? The Pen­guins also need vin­tage per­for­mances from Sid­ney Crosby and Ev­geni Malkin. Don’t be shocked if their 14-year play­off streak ends. … The Rangers should be fun to watch, led by Artemi Pa­narin and Mika Zibane­jad and two Calder Tro­phy can­di­dates in goalie Igor Sh­esterkin and No. 1 pick Alexis Lafrenière. But they’re prob­a­bly a year or two away from se­ri­ously con­tend­ing. … It sure will be in­ter­est­ing to see how Sabres cen­ter Jack Eichel meshes with free agent ad­di­tion Tay­lor Hall. Re­gard­less, there are just too many holes in their bot­tom six, on de­fense and in net. … The Devils’ top six for­wards are in­trigu­ing, es­pe­cially if 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes can take the next step af­ter an un­even rookie sea­son. The hir­ing of coach Lindy Ruff was a head-scratcher for a team that will be re­ly­ing on too many in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers.

– Vince Mercoglian­o, The (Westches

ter County, N.Y.) Jour­nal News

Dis­cover NHL Cen­tral Divi­sion

Even with right winger Nikita Kucherov out for the sea­son, the Light­ning have the pieces to win a sec­ond Stan­ley Cup in a row. ... If the Hur­ri­canes get con­sis­tent goal­tend­ing, watch out, Tampa Bay. ... The de­fense will carry the Stars, a team that needs more scor­ing and will start the sea­son with­out Tyler Seguin; can De­nis Guri­anov and Roope Hintz take the next step? ... The Blue Jack­ets are top heavy and might lack enough game-break­ers on of­fense, but coach John Tor­torella and a weak divi­sion will keep this team com­pet­i­tive. ... The Preda­tors have not reached their lofty ex­pec­ta­tions in re­cent sea­sons, though the team has a for­mi­da­ble core. ... The key to the Pan­thers re­main­ing in the pic­ture is goalie Sergei Bo­brovsky. A .900 save per­cent­age like he had in his first sea­son won’t get the job done. ... As the Black­hawks em­brace a youth move­ment, they will be noth­ing if not ex­cit­ing; it could be a long sea­son if the Collin Delia-Mal­colm Sub­ban tan­dem in net un­der­whelms. ... The Red Wings could be in the mix for the league’s worst team again.

– Jimmy Has­cup, USA TO­DAY

Honda NHL West Divi­sion

The Avalanche have spent the past few years as­cend­ing from worst to top Cup con­tender. Af­ter suf­fer­ing Game 7 losses in the sec­ond round in back-to­back years, is it Nathan MacK­in­non and Co.’s time? ... Af­ter reach­ing the fi­nal four but com­ing up empty in two of their first three sea­sons, the Golden Knights took an­other big swing by sign­ing de­fense­man Alex Pi­etrangelo to a mon­ster deal in free agency. ... The

Blues stum­bled in the bub­ble af­ter hav­ing the sec­ond-most points be­fore the shut­down. Pi­etrangelo is gone and winger Vladimir Tarasenko is ex­pected to miss the start of the sea­son .... What kind of team do the Wild want to be? Min­nesota fired Bruce Boudreau, a move that seem­ingly sig­naled the start of a re­build – ex­cept the Wild then had a strong show­ing un­der coach Dean Eva­son be­fore the shut­down. They don’t have a path to achieve the salarycap flex­i­bil­ity to tear it all down. ... The

Sharks made the con­fer­ence fi­nals two sea­sons ago, but the core con­tin­ues to get older, the depth is di­min­ished and there doesn’t seem to be an an­swer in goal. ... A team stuck in tran­si­tion, the Ducks have ag­ing tal­ent matched with young, largely un­proven prospects. They could find them­selves in con­tention in the divi­sion if goalie John Gib­son bounces back. ... The

Coy­otes have been in tur­moil off the ice lately, which doesn’t seem to bode well for a team that has hardly in­spired much rea­son for ex­cite­ment on it. ... It’s go­ing to be a rough sea­son for the

Kings, but with one of the best prospect pools in hockey, bet­ter days seem not too far away.

– Jace Evans, USA TO­DAY

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