2021 NHL divisional realignment is probably worst-case scenario for Sharks

The team will lose games against “easy points” for the best of the West.

We’ve known for weeks now that there will be a temporary re-alignment to the four NHL divisions for the 2021 season, to accommodate the border closures in the United States and Canada due to COVID-19 concerns. Though Canadian Division was obvious, how the rest of the league would break down wasn’t necessarily set in stone. What was left of the Pacific Division — the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights — would likely take on the three teams furthest West in the old Central Division.

Earlier today, Pierre LeBrun of the Athletic posted what might be the final divisional alignment for next season:

The Pacific (or “West,” as other versions have named it) Division will lose the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames and replace them with the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. A previous report from ESPN suggested that the Minnesota Wild would move into the division, while St. Louis stayed in the Central Division.

The Sharks would probably rather take Minnesota. St. Louis may have been a first-round exit in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Minnesota lost in the Qualifying Round, also to the Vancouver Canucks), but they won the Western Conference in the regular season. The Avalanche finished right behind the Blues in the regular season, and likely may have passed them if the full season had played out. The Dallas Stars were in the Stanley Cup Final.

Of course, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary were also part of the NHL’s expanded postseason, but the Oilers didn’t qualify, the Flames lost in the first round and the Canucks lost in the second. The top of the Pacific Division was about as good as the middle of the Central Division last year and they’re being replaced by ... the top of the Central Division.

This isn’t a perfect way of looking at this, but here’s the Sharks’ all-time records against the three Canadian teams, the three new Pacific Teams and the Minnesota Wild.

Sharks All-Time Record Against


Obviously, this is historical, not predictive, and teams change year-to-year, as does parity in the league overall. But I think it’s fair to question what patterns those records could identify. Historically, the Sharks have been able to take a larger percentage of games against the Oilers, Canucks and Wild. Games against the Blues, Stars and Avalanche run much closer to  .500.

Since finishing last in the Western Conference last season, the Sharks have only really improved on the margins, hoping that players will bounce back from the laundry list of issues, individual and perhaps systemic, that led to the Sharks missing playoffs for the first time since 2015. Maybe they will, and maybe this time there are kids like John Leonard and Sasha Chmelevski who might be ready to step in and make an impact. But their solution to league-worst goaltending might make that all for naught, anyway.

If there’s hope for San Jose’s “re-tool,” it would have come in the fact that the league will likely only play intra-divisional games until playoffs, in order to limit travel and potential coronavirus exposure. The Pacific has traditionally been a weaker division, but last year especially saw a huge gap in performance between the Pacific teams and their counterparts.

The league has cut a lot of that traditional dead weight in the division. With the Ducks allegedly in “compete now” mode and the Kings introducing some young stars, there might not be any easy points next year.

A new target start date for the league is Jan. 13, 2021, with camp beginning two or three weeks prior. Teams that did not make the extended postseason were promised an extended camp, but pushing the season back (and safeguards to start the season as late as February) may change that decision. The schedule is anticipated to be 56 games, and owners are pushing for teams to be able to play in their own arenas. The three California teams may still struggle to do so, even with a later start.