NHL Futures - Best Bets for the 2021-22 NHL Division Winners: Panthers ready to pounce

Aleksander Barkov recorded 58 points in 50 games for the Florida Panthers last season
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Chris Rivers

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A self-confessed sports nut who has managed to turn his passion into a career, resulting in the last 15 years being spent covering a wide variety of sports for numerous media outlets. You can find me writing mainly about the NFL and NHL here on Pickswise, with a bit of soccer on the side. One of the rarest of breeds: an actual LA Chargers fan.

The NHL divisional landscape has a much more familiar view to it this year with the return of the Atlantic, Pacific, Central, and Metropolitan Divisions.

In order to minimize travel and the risk of spreading Covid, the NHL introduced the North, Central, East and South divisions for the shortened 2020-21 campaign but those are now long gone. It’s a shame they’ve been done away with from a betting perspective having picked out two of the four divisional champions last year but if it means a return to full arenas and a traditional 82-game slate, who are we to complain?

If you want to know our best Stanley Cup bets then head here, but right now let’s focus on where the race for Lord Stanley’s Mug will begin with our NHL division predictions, starting with the Atlantic.

NHL Atlantic Division best bet: Florida Panthers (+500)

The betting suggests it’s a four-way race to be crowned kings of the Atlantic with the Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning the +165 favorites with FanDuel. Next come Toronto at +220, and then Boston at +400, with the Florida Panthers completing the shortlist, way ahead of last season’s Stanley Cup finalists Montreal, who are a massive +4300.

With the top four in the betting all having a realistic chance to grab the top spot in the division, why not take that bit of extra value on Florida coming out on top? Tampa Bay still has a litany of stars but has lost a good chunk of their strength in depth, while Toronto and Boston have several questions to answer entering the season.

The Panthers appear to have momentum after finishing second in the Central Division last term, just one point behind champions Carolina, before they pushed Tampa Bay to seven games in the playoffs.

The loss to the Lightning no doubt hurt but it sent out a signal to the rest of the league that Joel Quenneville’s men mean business. They added Sam Reinhart from Buffalo in the off-season, while Joe Thornton took a lesser deal to come to Florida in the belief he’ll be on a team in playoff contention.

The Panthers had no issues scoring goals last season thanks to one of the league’s best two-way centers in Aleksander Barkov and top point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau, averaging 3.36 goals per game, and the additions of Reinhart and Thornton only improve their arsenal.

Florida also boasts one of the best defensive pairings in the league in MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekbald, the latter returning to action after missing the end of last season with a broken leg.

The biggest question mark for the Panthers is in goal where Sergei Bobrovsky continues to divide opinion. He’s never quite lived up to the big contract Florida handed him, posting a .902 save percentage last year, but an improved defensive core in front of him could help raise his underwhelming statistics. Florida also has top prospect Spencer Knight waiting in the wings to replace Bobrovsky but may be reluctant to throw him into the role full-time just yet.

NHL Central Division best bet: Minnesota Wild (+700)

No surprises for guessing who the favorites are to win the Central Division with Colorado -280 to finish top of the standings. Certainly, the Avs will be a tough team to stop having clinched the Presidents’ Trophy last year and they have little to fear from much of this division.

One team that does look primed to take the next step is the Wild though, who are now more than just a defensively sound hockey team thanks to Kirill Kaprizov. The Calder Trophy winner finished last year with 51 points from 27 goals and 24 assists, while his underlying statistics for shot contributions and Individual Expected Goals Created (18.95) just go to underline his exciting talent. No wonder the Wild paid off stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to make room for Kaprizov’s new five-year, $54million deal which he signed in September.

The Russian is leading a youth movement in Minnesota, one that could take them to the next level with Marco Rossi and Matthew Boldy, both aged 20, tipped to enjoy breakthrough years.

The Wild can now call upon some exciting options on offense, while the defense still figures to be a top-10 unit, despite losing three starters in the off-season. Suter, Ian Cole, Carson Soucy are gone but Alex Goligoski’s addition looks like being an upgrade to the top blue line pairing, while Jon Merrill and Jordie Benn are good depth pieces.

They should give good protection to Cam Talbot, who remains average by league standards but has been dependable and improved his save percentage last year to a .915.

Colorado could run away with this division if they play to their potential but the Wild may sneak up on them if they aren’t at the top of their game.

NHL Metropolitan Division best bet: New York Islanders (+340)

The Metropolitan division is undoubtedly the most competitive division in the league this year and it’s not unreasonable to imagine five teams making the playoffs. Given the cut-throat nature of the Metro, it might seem odd to back the favorite to come out on top but this is a New York Islanders team that has all the tools to go far this year.

The Islanders haven’t got much respect up until now, only earned after reaching back-to-back Conference finals. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning have stopped this team from getting their hands on a Stanley Cup but all that could change this season.

With an average of 101 points over the last three seasons, the Islanders are no longer underestimated, and with good reason as this is a team that’s deep in every department. The defense allowed the second-fewest goals in the league last year with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin looking like a great goaltending combination.

Out in front of the net, Zdeno Chara has been added to a defense that has one of the best top pairings in the league in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. The offense gets a major boost with the return to action of Anders Lee, who netted 12 goals in 27 games before a knee injury. He’s the perfect foil for top-class center Matthew Barzal, a man that epitomizes his team in not getting the respect his play has deserved.

The Islanders are stacked from top to bottom but they’ll have to fight for every point in this division with Carolina likely to push them hard, despite their puzzling offseason which saw them lose Dougie Hamilton and completely change their goalkeeping line-up. Pittsburgh and Washington will also be in the mix, while the New York Rangers’ decision to beef up their squad is intriguing and could bring them into play. This is an extremely talented division, of that there’s no question, but the Islanders appear to have the momentum and can run with it.

NHL Pacific Division best bet: Vegas Golden Knights (-200)

From the strongest division to the weakest and it’s disappointing we have to end with such a short price pick, but it is impossible to overlook Vegas. The Golden Knights won a league-high 40 games last year and finished the regular season with the most goals scored (198) and fewest goals conceded (128). They were shockingly eliminated in the playoff by Montreal having ousted Colorado in round two but are all in for another shot at the cup.

The majority of the big names are back in Sin City, with the exception of one of the faces of the franchise, Marc-Andre Fleury, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap sacrifice. Robin Lehner will now get the majority of the work, backed up by Laurent Brossoit and both should perform well given the quality of the defense in front of them.

The Golden Knights have tried to address their flaws this season, bringing in Evgenii Dadonov and Nolan Patrick to help an ineffective powerplay unit. They still haven’t addressed their center concerns though but that doesn’t stop this from still being the best roster in the division.

Edmonton will hope to challenge Vegas and they have made some good offseason additions in Duncan Keith and Zach Hyman but they still have plenty to prove, particularly in goal.

The race for first might appear a foregone conclusion but there’s a lot of intrigue elsewhere in this division, not least with the arrival of the Seattle Kraken to the NHL. The Kraken has built a solid roster, boasting arguably the best goaltending duo in the Pacific in Chris Driedger and Philipp Grubauer. They’ll struggle to emulate the immediate success of the last expansion franchise, Vegas, but Jordan Eberle and Mark Giordano are amongst a number of solid options on the roster. The bookmakers are clearly worried about their potential, pricing them at odds-on to make the playoffs.

The postseason race will be the most exciting element to this division with the Vancouver Canucks now in contention at +174 after re-signing Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and there’s no shortage of love for the LA Kings at +200 to quality for the playoffs.

Vegas is the bully in the schoolyard but who will win the fight for scraps is certainly worth paying attention to.

Make sure you check out our Stanley Cup picks and predictions, including a +2900 longshot!

At Pickswise we cover every morsel of NHL action with daily NHL Picks and Predictions throughout the season. Be sure to also check out our NHL Best Bets for those NHL top picks.

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