2021 NHL North Division preview

Hockey is Canada’s game after all, right?

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Even if it’s just a one year thing, the fact that we’re getting an all-Canadian division for the 2020-21 NHL season is something special. Hockey is Canada’s game after all, right?

No Canadian team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, and while limiting all the teams to just one division definitely doesn’t increase the odds of taking home Stanley’s mug, now there’s a chance for some true bragging rights. Whether it’s being the best team in the east, the best in the west or just the top overall in a country that’s absolutely nuts about the sport, winning this season will mean more than usual.

The division is simple: all seven Canadian teams, not traveling across the border and sticking home – albeit, in three different time zones. Edmonton finished with the most points among Canadian teams with 83 last season, while Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Montreal all advanced to the first round of the playoffs. Outside of Ottawa’s 30th place finish with just 25 wins and 62 points, Canada’s teams were productive on the ice, and just about all of them found a way to improve over the off-season in some capacity.

Let’s break down each of the seven teams in the fun, talented and potentially explosive Canadian division for 2020-21:

Calgary Flames

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +3300
  • Odds to win division: +250
  • Notable Arrivals: Jacob Markstrom (G), Josh Leivo (F), Nikita Nesterov (D), Dominik Simon (F), Joakim Nordstrom (F), Alex Petrovic (D), Chris Tanev (D), Louis Domingue (G)
  • Notable Departures: T.J. Brodie (D), Jon Gillies (G), Tobias Rieder (F), Mark Jankowski (F), Cam Talbot (G), Alan Quine (F), Derek Forbort (D), Erik Gustafsson (D), Austin Czarnik (F)

The 2019-20 season felt like a true step back for the Flames, who were fresh off of winning the Western Conference title the year prior. The Flames topped a battered Winnipeg squad in the qualification round but couldn’t disassemble the Dallas Stars in the first round, ending an otherwise lackluster season that saw them finish eighth in the west.

Are the Flames a better team than last year? On the surface, yes. If Jacob Markstrom can replicate what he did in his latter years as a Canuck, Calgary finally has the star goaltender it’s been missing since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013. Losing T.J. Brodie on the point was a bummer, but Chris Tanev should fill some holes after joining from Vancouver. Youngsters Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki are on their way to becoming big-time contributors to a defensive unit that already features Noah Hanifin and Mark Giordano. Overall, there isn’t much to worry about on the back end.

But what about up front? There were rumors that Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan would be on the way out after their poor play last year, but the Flames elected to hold on to them. If Gaudreau can revive his near 100-point production from two years ago, Calgary is in good shape. Matt Tkachuk is the man the team seems destined to build around, though, considering his ability to put up big numbers and get in the face of just about anyone on a given night. That core can continue to be built around if the Flames’ brass believe they have a shot at the Stanley Cup, but they need everything to click, and that’s easier said than done with this group.

The Flames should contend more convincingly than they did a year ago, but is it enough to win the division? If all their pieces fall in line, they’ll be one of the favorites for sure.

Edmonton Oilers

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2200
  • Odds to win division: +250
  • Notable Arrivals: Kyle Turris (F), Alan Quine, (F), Anton Forsberg (G), Seth Griffith (F), Tyson barrie (D), Dominik Kahun (F)
  • Notable Departures: Andreas Anthanasiou (F), Matt Benning (D), Josh Currie (F), Tomas Jurco (F)

Since Connor McDavid joined the team in 2015, the Oilers have had a tough time finding secondary scoring to join him and Leon Draisaitl. Will they finally have that for 2020-21? 

Well, they’re getting closer, at least. Kailer Yamamoto emerged as a star forward for the club and should stick with Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on Edmonton’s second line. Despite his struggles in Nashville, Kyle Turris is a formidable third-line center. Dominik Kahun could be a cheap steal – especially if he finds some chemistry with his good friend and fellow German Dominik Kahun. Add in the return of 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi, fresh off a hot stint in Finland, and the Oilers look solid up front – but let’s look a little deeper.

Clearly, having two 100-point players doesn’t mean enough, as Edmonton has made the post-season just once (2017) since the emergence of McDavid and Draisaitl. In part, the team’s struggles have come due to a lack of scoring elsewhere in the lineup, while finding the right goaltending has been a true mystery. It seemed like the Oilers would make a splash by bringing in Jacob Markstrom or Braden Holtby, but they missed out on both and brought back 38-year-old Mike Smith to once again pair up with Mikko Koskinen. This duo struggled in important games last year, often making the goalie position the club’s weakest link. The Oilers could see a bit of a defensive boost with Evan Bouchard and Tyson Barrie joining the fray, but the goaltending could still be what prevents the Oilers from taking a long trip in the post-season.

Carry Price
Feb 8, 2020; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) puts his helmet before the game against Toronto Maple Leafs at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Montreal Canadiens

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +4500
  • Odds to win division: +750
  • Notable Arrivals: Jake Allen (G), Joel Edmundson (D), Josh Anderson (F), Tyler Toffoli (F), Alexander Romanov (D)
  • Notable Departures: Max Domi (F), Karl Alzner (D)

The Canadiens pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the 2019-20 season, beating the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins as a bottom 12th seed in the qualification round before ultimately falling to the Philadelphia Flyers – but even then, they put up a good fight. This miracle run led some to wonder: with a bit of tinkering, were the Canadiens better than many thought?

It’s unlikely that the Habs will turn things around immediately, but there’s some reason for hope. Nick Suzuki was a star prospect for the club last year and 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi finally came in to his own during the playoffs after suffering injuries and spending time in the AHL earlier in the campaign. If Kotkaniemi can find his form, that’s huge for the Habs, who could finally have two top centers in the system.

The Canadiens were expected to have a busy off-season but instead added pieces to strengthen depth. Jake Allen was one of the best backup goaltenders last season and the Habs acquired him from St. Louis to give Carey Price more time off. Top prospect Alexander Romanov and veteran Joel Edmundson offer the Canadiens more defensive options, with Romanov being a true contender for the Calder Trophy. Josh Anderson gives the team a more intimidating presence up front (at the cost of Max Domi, though) while Tyler Toffoli will help strengthen Montreal’s winger situation. Overall, this is a better team than a year ago, but is it realistic for them to move up the standings? A lot of small things would have to come together perfectly, and I can’t see it happening.

If you’re looking for value, though, Montreal could surprise.

Ottawa Senators

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +15000
  • Odds to win division: +2500
  • Notable Arrivals: Tim Stutzle (F), Josh Brown (D), Matt Murray (G), Erik Gudbranson (D), Logan Shaw (F), Austin Watson (F), Evgenii Dadonov (F), Alex Galchenyuk (F)
  • Notable Departures: Bobby Ryan (F), Anthony Duclair (F), Mark Borowiecki (D), Anthony Duclair (F)

I made the bold prediction on Twitter earlier in 2020 when I said the Senators were going to be the next Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup – and I’m sticking to that prediction. Given how far they are from being competitive, I know it sounds crazy.

Ottawa is building a group that’s worth getting excited about. Whether it’s Brady Tkachuk up front or Thomas Chabot on defense, this team has something to build around. Drake Batherson and Josh Norris look poised to make an impact offensively, Erik Brannstrom has what it takes to be a top-four defenseman (perhaps the team’s No. 1 option down the line), while Evgenii Dadonov and Alex Galchenyuk bring additional scoring depth to the fray. Oh, and that doesn’t include Tim Stutzle, the No. 3 pick at the 2020 draft. If NHL all-star Anthony Duclair returns, even better.  

However, don’t mistake these exciting developments for Ottawa being competitive right now. There’s a ton of unproven faces up front, the defensive core is still one of the weakest in the NHL, and can we really trust Matt Murray in the No. 1 slot after he finished 2019-20 as one of the league’s worst goaltenders? That’s a huge burden to put on a team that simply isn’t going to give him much support. The pieces are there for the Senators to improve on their 30th-place finish from this past year, but the focus is truly on improving for the future.

Toronto Maple Leafs

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +1800
  • Odds to win division: +170
  • Notable Arrivals: Wayne Simmonds (F), Joe Thornton (F), T.J. Brodie (D), Joey Anderson (F), Zach Bogosian (D), Jimmy Vesey (F), Aaron Dell (G), Michael Hutchinson (G), Mikko Lehtonen (D)
  • Notable Departures: Kasperi Kapanen (F), Frederik Gauthier (F), Tyson Barrie (D), Andreas Johnsson (F), Kyle Clifford (F), Cody Ceci (D), Jeremy Bracco (F)

What do dinosaurs and the Stanley Cup have in common? Neither has been in Toronto for a looooooooong- Okay, sorry, you’ve heard that joke a thousand times. The Maple Leafs have been a colossal disappointment in one of the biggest hockey markets in the world, and fans have been restless for, well, decades.

So, is 2020-21 their year? Toronto is definitely a favorite in the Canadian division, but performing when it actually matters has been the team’s biggest downfall over the past 50 years. The Leafs entered the off-season needing to make a splash on defense, then added depth in Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen, and a reliable top-four option in T.J. Brodie. At best, the team has improved depth throughout the defense. At worst, they can’t go much lower than Cody Ceci.

Defensive liabilities were a big talking point, and we know the Leafs don’t have issues scoring. But can goaltender Frederik Andersen be the answer? Andersen has a tendency to start slow and the Leafs can’t afford that in a shortened season. Andersen has yet to win a playoff series in a blue and white uniform and, while he can’t be the main person to blame for the struggles against Columbus, he needs to be better.

A healthy lineup featuring Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and company will be tough to beat in a fun, fast Canadian division. But that’s meaningless if they can’t rise to the occsion when it matters, and you have to wonder how long GM Kyle Dubas will have a job if Toronto doesn’t pull off an extended post-season run.

Vancouver Canucks

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2200
  • Odds to win division: +750
  • Notable Arrivals: Braden Holtby (G), Nate Schmidt (D), Jayce Hawryluk (F)
  • Notable Departures: Jakob Markstrom (G), Chris Tanev (D), Troy Stecher (D), Louis Domingue (G), Tyler Toffoli (F), Josh Leivo (F)

It’s hard to look at the departures list and not be a bit concerned. The goaltending has been downgraded, a key scoring piece in Tyler Toffoli is out of the picture, and some fans weren’t too thrilled about losing Chris Tanev (even if Nate Schmidt is a solid replacement). The Canucks didn’t bring in a ton of new pieces, instead hoping the likes of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko would be enough to bring this team back to glory.

The Canucks nearly found themselves playing in the Western Conference final over the summer, a surprise to just about everyone. But now it’s about building around that momentum, and even though they lost some key pieces this off-season, there’s still a good base to build around. The Canucks aren’t better on defense, but if Olli Juolevi can perform at a solid level, having him and Jordie Benn as a third pairing isn’t all too bad. Bad contracts to Antoine Roussel, Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle up front isn’t ideal either, but if the key men hold their own, they could be in good shape to at least put up a fight in the playoffs. 

A potential bid-low team to win the division? I’d say so.

Winnipeg Jets 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +4000
  • Odds to win division: +650
  • Notable Arrivals: Paul Stastny (F), Nate Thompson (F), Derek Forbort (D) 
  • Notable Departures: Cody Eakin (F), Dmitri Kulikov (D)

The Winnipeg Jets looked like the team to beat at one point a few years ago. With a strong prospect base, a talented young core and a star goaltender, the Jets had a team many believed would be competing for Stanley Cups by the time 2019-20 rolled around.

Well, that season has come and gone and the Jets were far from impressive. By the time the regular season was put on hold in March, the Jets sat fifth in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference, a performance that wouldn’t have been enough to make the post-season under normal circumstances. The club looked completely different from what was iced the year before and now there are questions about Winnipeg’s long-term success viability.

One redeeming factor, though, is reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebuyck. He stole so many victories for the Jets last year after playing behind one of the worst bluelines in the league – a defensive core that didn’t really improve this year. If Hellebuyck is on top of his game once again, and Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Mark Schiefele continue to perform, they can make up for the defensive liabilities.

Is it enough to make Winnipeg a real contender? No, but they may have seen a better fate had Laine and Schiefele not been injured in the qualification round, either. Maybe this team is more dangerous than we give credit for, but they need to start proving it.

Check out our other division previews from Steven Ellis

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