The 5 Most Important Storylines to Watch Ahead of the 2021 NHL Playoffs

Abbey MastraccoContributor IApril 25, 2021

The 5 Most Important Storylines to Watch Ahead of the 2021 NHL Playoffs

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    The end of the NHL season is around the corner, and the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin soon. When? Well, that we don't quite know yet. The postseason has been delayed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the North Division. As a result, the league moved the final day of the regular season to May 16, and the first day of the postseason will come soon after.

    So while we have some time on our hands, let's take a look at some scenarios we could encounter throughout the rest of the season.

    Between the NHL awards, the draft and the looming postseason, there is plenty to discuss. The Professional Hockey Writers' Association has changed the voting structure for the awards, and the league made changes to the draft lottery. It's a strange year, but changes were necessary for a season of constant adjustments.

    Here are five storylines to watch as the regular season winds down.

COVID-19-Related Shutdowns

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    The all-Canadian North Division has been hit hard in recent weeks. The Vancouver Canucks endured a lengthy shutdown, and the Calgary Flames canceled a morning skate earlier this week because Josh Leivo tested positive for the coronavirus. New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban also tested positive this week, according to his social media feeds. The Devils already had an outbreak earlier this season.

    The NHL has done its best to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as well as mitigate the spread between its clubs this season by enforcing numerous health and safety protocols. Still, there were outbreaks. The Dallas Stars, the reigning Western Conference champions, saw the start of their season delayed. The Vegas Golden Knights and New York Rangers used replacement coaches behind their benches.

    Schedules have been flexible all season long, but how much longer can the league delay the postseason? The Flames played their game against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night after negative tests for coaches and players, so the prognosis in Calgary seems to be trending in the right direction.

    But the postseason remains in limbo. A start date should be announced soon, but until then we wait to see what happens with the rest of the season.

The Central Division Race

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    The divisions were realigned for the 2021 season for teams to cut down on travel. Sometimes it worked well, such as when teams faced off four or five times in a row and it felt like the postseason. Other times, the series felt stale.

    The Central Division wasn't supposed to feel like a bloodbath each night. That honor was supposed to be reserved for the East Division, but the Buffalo Sabres have been a disaster, and the upstart New Jersey Devils never quite got started. So the Central is where the drama lies as we head into the final few weeks of the regular season.

    The Chicago Blackhawks weren't supposed to do much damage, especially after captain Jonathan Toews was ruled out for the season with an undisclosed medical condition, but the Hawks have stayed in the mix for the fourth playoff spot, competing with the Nashville Predators.

    The Florida Panthers might be the team that screwed up the standings, as they made the Central Division a much more exciting division race to follow this year. Florida lost its best player, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, to a gruesome leg injury at the end of March, yet the Panthers are still in second place in the division with 67 points and are probably a lock for the playoffs.

    No one could have expected this Florida-based team would be better than the one that won the Stanley Cup last fall. Tampa Bay sports fans have had a fun year between the Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning, but it's the team on the eastern side of the state ahead in the standings.

    Then there are the Columbus Blue Jackets. Patrik Laine seems to be a square peg in a round hole with that team, and one has to wonder how long John Tortorella will be in Ohio.

    The Stars and Blackhawks have a shot at making the postseason, but they won't have it easy in a division that has proved to be much more interesting than many anticipated.

Awards Race

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Adam Fox should win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman this season. He has proved himself to be the best defenseman in New York and probably the best in hockey as well.

    Sidney Crosby has a case for the Selke Trophy as hockey's best two-way forward. According to SportsBettingDime.com, Connor McDavid is the favorite for the Hart Trophy. And if you ask me, Kirill Kaprizov should win the Calder.

    Typically, I am asked. Several of the major awards are voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and select broadcasters. The Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng and Bill Masterton Trophies, as well as the All-Star and All-Rookie teams, are decided by members of the hockey media. As a member of the PHWA, I have been an awards voter the past three years, as well as in other years prior.

    About 150 PHWA members vote on these prestigious accolades each year, but the pandemic has upended much of the workforce, and the temporary divisional realignment has changed the allocation of voters in each market. This year, the PHWA decided to choose a panel of 100 voters, about 20 writers and broadcasters from each division.

    There was an uproar over the selection of these voters. Last year, of the 171 voters, only 15 were women (8.8 percent). This year, of the 100 voters, only seven are women. It's an unfortunate underrepresentation, but the voters will all still see the same numbers.

The Race to the Bottom

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The NHL made changes to the draft lottery this year. Teams are restricted to two drawings (down from three), clubs are restricted from moving up more than 10 spots if they win one of the lottery draws and teams can't win the lottery more than twice in a five-year period. Wins in the lottery prior to 2022 aren't counted, but we're still looking at you, Rangers and Devils.

    Instead of the Hudson River rivals, the ping pong balls favor their neighbors to the north this year. The Buffalo Sabres failed miserably, losing 18 straight at one point, which forced the team to part ways with winger Taylor Hall. Captain Jack Eichel could be next to go.

    The Devils, winners of the lottery in 2017 and 2019, hold the second-best odds for the first overall pick. The expansion Seattle Kraken, the Anaheim Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets have the best odds behind the top two. The moribund Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators slot after those three.

    Obviously, these numbers will change. But the Devils and Sabres have both been rebuilding for nearly a decade, so if the only hope the fans of those teams have is through the draft, then so be it.

Are the Leafs for Real?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are good. Really good. Auston Matthews might score 40 goals in a shortened season, which is just ridiculous. Joe Thornton is 41 and still scoring goals, which is also ridiculous.

    Equally as amazing: goalie Jack Campbell's rise. His .922 save percentage is the eighth-best in the NHL. He's a great story, winning 11 straight to start the season while playing in place of the injured Frederik Andersen.

    But the Leafs are also the best outfit in a division full of mediocre teams. Two teams in the division fired coaches earlier this season, with the Montreal Canadiens letting go of Claude Julien in favor of assistant coach Dominique Ducharme and the Flames turning back the clock by turning to Darryl Sutter when they fired Geoff Ward.

    Toronto is the capital of hockey, and hockey is more fun when the Maple Leafs are in the hunt for a Stanley Cup. This looks like it could be the year, with a deep group of forwards, a steady blue line and a good goalie.

    But the Leafs, like all of the other good teams, haven't been tested outside of their own division. Their last Stanley Cup came back in 1967. Since then, the region has produced countless NHL players but only one division championship. The Leafs are on track to win the North Division by a mile.

    Is this the year? Maybe. At the very least, fans may take solace in the fact that the Leafs don't have to face the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs again. But it's tough to tell how good any team is, so until the team can face one outside of the division, we won't really know.

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