The Columbus Blue Jackets mark their return to the Central Division by facing an old rival when they visit the Nashville Predators in Thursday night's season opener.
The Jackets spent their first 12 seasons in the Central before being moved to the Metropolitan Division, but the NHL's temporary realignment for the 2020-21 season sent Columbus on the move again after seven seasons in the Metro.
Both Stanley Cup finalists from last season (the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars) are in the Central, and seven of the division's eight teams reached at least the qualifying round of last season's playoffs. It makes for a lot of competition for the Jackets and Predators, two teams each looking to take a step forward.
Columbus has won a series in each of the last two postseasons, yet a lack of offense has held them back from joining the league's top tier of contenders. The Blue Jackets finished last season tied for third in the NHL for fewest goals allowed (183) but also tied for fourth in fewest goals scored (180).
Max Domi, Mikko Koivu, and Mikhail Grigorenko were acquired to add some depth and scoring punch to the Jackets' forward corps. Domi is tapped for the largest role, set to center a line between Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson.
"Playing with those two guys is a lot of fun. ...When you're someone that likes to have the puck and make plays and stuff, those guys create a lot of room, and when you get them the puck, they put it in the back of the net," Domi said.
While the Blue Jackets are hoping for more consistent scoring, their bread-and-butter will continue to be stout defense and goaltending. Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins are expected to share starting duties in net this year, with the more experienced Korpisalo likelier to get the opening night start.
Though the Predators played better once John Hynes assumed head coaching duties last January, 2019-20 was a frustrating season overall for Nashville, especially after a qualifying round loss to the Arizona Coyotes in the playoffs.
Nashville hopes for more with both a full season of Hynes in charge, plus the additions of Luke Kunin, Erik Haula, and Nick Cousins to the top nine. As forward Matt Duchene sees it, the Predators have "got to be insanely competitive every time (we) touch the ice" and more cohesive.
"It's about buying into the structure of the team, whether it be the actual structure in terms of the X's and O's, or like, 'Okay, what is our identity? What are we trying to accomplish here?'" Duchene said. "I think that's something that we lacked at times last year, an identity of what kind of a team we were. ...Coming in this year, it's about buying into those concepts, and I think if we do that as a group and everyone's on the same page, it's hard to play against."
Juuse Saros is expected to start for Nashville on Thursday. The goalie posted a 2.70 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 40 regular-season games in 2019-20, but then struggled in the playoffs.
Predators forward Mikael Granlund will miss at least Thursday's game due to COVID-19 protocols.
The Blue Jackets and Predators will have an immediate rematch when the two teams play again in Nashville on Saturday. Six of the Predators' first eight games are on home ice, while the Jackets begin the season with four consecutive road dates.
The Predators are 35-9-1 in 45 all-time home games against Columbus.
--Field Level Media