NHL point projections: How we see the 2021 season unfolding

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

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

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 they have a solid goaltender in Jacob Markstrom. …. The Canadiens were one of the busiest teams in the offseason and could be the most improved this season, 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 Sports

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 deep collection of role players. … Henrik Lundqvist’s open-heart 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 league's 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 Journal News, part of the USA TODAY Network

Central Division

Even with 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 still 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 Sports

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-to-back 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 inking defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a monster deal in free agency. … The Blues stumbled in the bubble after having the second-most points in the NHL before the shutdown. Pietrangelo is gone and winger Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to miss the start of the season …. What kind of team does the Wild want to be? Minnesota fired Bruce Boudreau, a move that seemingly signaled the start of a rebuild – except they then had a strong showing under coach Dean Evason before the shutdown. They don't have a path to achieve the salary cap 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 Sports

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