In a shortened 56-game season, the NHL was forced to realign its divisions to help limit travel while the coronavirus pandemic persists.
Here’s a quick look at the Lightning and the seven other teams in the revamped Central Division.
Hockey commentator Don Cherry called them a “bunch of jerks” for their over-the-top victory celebrations. But 42-year-old Zamboni driver/emergency goaltender David Ayres gave the ‘Canes one of the best feel-good stories of the season, center Sebastian Aho emerged as a star and Carolina swept the Rangers in the qualifying round of the playoffs before the Bruins put an end to their season.
Captain and center Jonathan Toews is out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical issue, further depleting a lineup that also is missing forwards Kirby Dach (wrist) and Alex Nylander (knee), out four to six months following surgeries. But, hey, they still have right wing Patrick Kane, a nine-time All-Star and three-time Stanley Cup champion, right? For now, anyway.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Raise your hand if you’re excited to see John Tortorella eight times this season. No one? Really? Well, let the mind games continue. If the last two playoff series between the Lightning and Blue Jackets are any indication, we’re in for a treat. And since there are different rules during the regular season, you won’t have to worry about any game lasting five overtime periods.
The NHL gods did this on purpose, didn’t they? There was no way the Wild would stay in the division over the Stanley Cup finalist Stars, and the teams were swapped in December, with Minnesota going out West. So here we go, again, Lightning fans. Minus Corey Perry (who signed with Montreal) but with a healthy Ben Bishop, Dallas is poised to make another run after retaining most of the roster that took Tampa Bay to Game 6 of the Cup final.
Detroit Red Wings
By the time the Red Wings hit the ice for their season opener, it will have been 310 days since their last game. Almost cruel, right? To go nearly a year without playing hockey and then not even have a slot on the Wednesday start date (they’ll play the next day). Ouch. Maybe six nationally televised games will help ease the pain for the one team in the division that didn’t qualify for last season’s expanded postseason.
At least the Lightning will have one recognizable opponent among their new division foes. The Panthers are the only Atlantic Division team that joined the Lightning in the Central. And there are some familiar faces, too, with four ex-Bolts on their roster, including Cup winner Carter Verhaeghe. Will this be the year Florida breaks its drought of 23 straight seasons without a playoff series win?
After an early exit from the postseason bubble thanks to a qualifying-round loss to the Coyotes, the Predators are on the hunt for a better finish this season. First-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Roman Josi leads the way, with forwards Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene helming the offense. The sad news: no Tim McGraw goal celebrations with fans.
Tampa Bay Lightning
As if facing the reigning Stanley Cup champions eight times this season isn’t enough, division opponents have to deal with the fact that Tampa Bay improbably brought back nearly every impact player from that squad. With restricted free-agent center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak back in the fold, it’s time to see if Lightning can strike in back-to-back seasons.