Winning your division really means something in the NHL now. Winning a division means you automatically get home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs, assuming you win that first round.
That wasn’t the case before the league switched to a round-robin, intra-division playoff format for the first two rounds. In the older days, playoff matchups were reseeded, one through eight, after the first round, and there used to be six divisions in the NHL - not the current four.
Metropolitan: Pittsburgh Penguins
They’ve got the deepest group of forwards in the division, led by longtime stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’ve got a goalie, Matt Murray, who has won two Stanley Cups. They’ve got a smart, tough coach, Mike Sullivan.
They also have something to prove again, after losing out on a third straight Stanley Cup last spring when they blew a 3-2 series lead to Washington in the second round. They probably need a big, shutdown-type of defenseman, and maybe the trade deadline will bring one. Either way, this team should find a way to win a division.
Washington should make a strong run, but the Cup Hangover is a real thing. Take the Penguins to win, at +350 with 888Sport, to win the division.
Atlantic: Tampa Bay Lightning
In this top-heavy division, the Lightning are the top heavyweight. Tampa Bay has a very fine top two lines, led by stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, and a defense led by reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman.
Tampa Bay has been frustrated in recent years late in the playoffs, but they remain a powerhouse team. Boston and Toronto figure to challenge, but Tampa Bay’s overall talent and depth are too much.
The Maple Leafs have John Tavares and Auston Matthews, but the defense and goaltending are just a bit too worrisome. Boston has probably the best top line in the division, with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but are a bit thin after that.
At +120 on 888Sport, Tampa Bay is a safe choice to win the Atlantic.
Central: Winnipeg Jets
This group in the Western Conference remains probably the toughest division in the league. Pretty much all seven teams are very tough to beat, with fluctuations are times.
I think the best team of the bunch are the Winnipeg Jets. They really have no weakness. They are young, talented and deep. They went to the Western Conference finals last spring before losing to Vegas. They are learning to win.
Defending division champion Nashville remains a fearsome opponent, and Colorado and Minnesota remain strong contenders. But I think the Jets are better. It might come down to the final week, but in the end the Jets will prevail. Bet Winnipeg at +335 at SugarHouse to win.
Pacific: San Jose Sharks
This division is pretty wide open. There is no overwhelming favorite. But I’ll stick with the San Jose Sharks to prevail in the end.
The biggest reason? The dynamic duo of defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Both are Norris-caliber D-men, and while Karlsson has been a bit slow adjusting to life in the Western Conference following many years in Ottawa, he should find a smoother runway as time goes on.
I think the Calgary Flames could be a challenger to San Jose, but goaltending is the biggest worry. Defending champion Vegas has had a sophomore slump, a somewhat predictable result from a Cinderella expansion season. They could make a strong run, but I think the Sharks’ star power will win the day in the end. Take the Sharks at +230 to win the division at SugarHouse.