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2021 North Division Preview

Hockey is finally back! We are less than a week away from the start of the 2021 NHL Season, and fans across the country are fired up for the all-Canadian North Division.  Many fans look at this season as an opportunity to answer the question “Who is the best team in Canada?”.  Today, I take a look at each team in the North Division and predict who will finish where in the 56-game sprint to the playoffs.

Winnipeg Jets

2019-20 Record: 37-28-6, .563 PTS%, 5th in Central

Playoffs: Lost to Calgary 3-1 in Qualifying Round

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Additions: F Paul Stastny, F Nate Thompson, D Derek Forbort

Subtractions: D Carl Dahlstrom, F Gabriel Bourque, F Cody Eakin, F Mark Letestu, F Logan Shaw, F Nick Shore, D Anthony Bitetto, D Dmitry Kulikov, F Andrei Chibisov, F Michael Spacek

Last Season: The Jets had a rough start to the 2019-20 season, losing Dustin Byfuglien to retirement, Jacob Trouba via trade, and Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency.  Connor Hellebuyck was the deserving winner of the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goaltender, and almost single-handedly led the Jets into the Qualifying Round of the playoffs.  While the Jets were one of the hottest teams in the league before the pause (8-3-1 in their final 12 games), injuries to Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Mason Appleton in game 1 of their series with Calgary were too much to overcome, and the Jets went out in 4 games.

2021 Outlook: Paul Stastny replaces Cody Eakin as the Jets’ second line centre, while Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis were added for bottom 6 forward depth.  The Jets were and are still looking for an upgrade within their top 4, but Derek Forbort was brought in as an upgrade to Dmitry Kulikov within the Top 6 and on the PK.

Stats to Watch: The Jets had the 2nd highest Offensive Zone start % in the league in 2019-20 at 53.2%.  With a defense corps that is still not nearly as effective as it was only 2 seasons ago, it will be important for the Jets to maintain a high level of Offensive Zone starts and possession to take the pressure off of the D and Connor Hellebuyck.

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While the Jets were 20th in the league in number of games scoring first (32), they had the 3rd best winning percentage when leading after 2 periods in the league last year at 96.0%.  If they can get off to better starts this season, they have shown an ability to lock games down when they are playing from ahead.

Edmonton Oilers

2019-20 Record: 37-25-9, .585 PTS%, 2nd in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost to Chicago 3-1 in Qualifying Round

Additions: F Jesse Puljujarvi, F Tyler Ennis, F Kyle Turris, F Alan Quine, G Anton Forsberg, D Tyson Barrie, F Dominik Kahun, D Slater Koekkoek

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Subtractions: F Andreas Athanasiou, F Riley Sheahan, D Matt Benning, D Mike Green, F Markus Granlund, F Tomas Jurco, D Brandon Manning

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Last Season: Edmonton had the best record by points percentage in Canada, led by a Hart trophy season from Leon Draisaitl.  Even though he missed 7 games, Connor McDavid still finished second in the league in assists and points, and will be motivated by not being a finalist for the Hart trophy.  The Oilers appeared to be due for a big playoff run at home in 2020, but were tamed by the 12th seeded Chicago Blackhawks in 4 games in the Qualifying round, resulting in yet another disappointing end to a promising season.

2021 Outlook: Due to their cap situation, the Oilers changes were more on the periphery than several other North Division teams in 2021.  The Oilers hope they can receive production from Kyle Turris and Tyler Ennis to take the burden off of McDavid and Draisaitl, and Tyson Barrie was brought in on a prove-it 1-year deal to run the Oilers powerplay with the absence of Oscar Klefbom.

Stats to Watch: Like the Leafs, the Oilers will need better goaltending from Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen to take the next step in 2021.  The Oilers were tied for 25th in 5v5 save percentage at 91.2%, which is exacerbated by the fact that they were a bottom 10 team in the leader in Fenwick % at 48.3% in 2019-20.  The Oilers will need improvements throughout their lineup to help reduce the number of shots faced by the goalies, but the goalies will need to be better at 5v5 to give the Oilers a chance to top the division.

Toronto Maple Leafs

2019-20 Record: 36-25-9, .579 PTS%, 3rd in Atlantic

Playoffs: Lost to Columbus 3-2 in Qualifying Round

Additions: F Joey Anderson, D TJ Brodie, F Wayne Simmonds, C Travis Boyd, D Zach Bogosian, F Jimmy Vesey, G Aaron Dell, F Joe Thornton, G Michael Hutchinson

Subtractions: F Kasperi Kapanen, F Andreas Johnsson, F Kyle Clifford, D Tyson Barrie, D Cody Ceci, F Jeremy Bracco, F Miikka Salomaki, D Kevin Gravel, G Kasimir Kaskisuo

Last Season: Toronto’s season last year can be split into 2 sections – the Mike Babcock period and the Sheldon Keefe period.  Under Babcock, the Leafs went 9-10-4 for a .478 PTS%.  After Babcock was fired and Keefe came in, the Leafs went 27-15-5 for a .628 PTS%.  Avoiding an opening round against Boston gave Leafs fans hope that they would finally win a round this time around, but the Leafs went crashing out in 5 games to Columbus in the Qualifying round.

2021 Outlook: The Leafs had a clear priority to improve their defense and toughness heading into 2021, and they did a good job addressing both issues in the offseason.  Tyson Barrie went to Edmonton and Cody Ceci headed to Pittsburgh, and in their place are veterans TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian.  Bogosian, along with free-agent forward Wayne Simmonds will provide the Leafs with more toughness than they have had in several years.

Stats to Watch: For the Leafs, their season will come down to the goaltending tandem of Andersen and Dell.  Toronto’s goaltenders ranked tied for 25th in the league in 5v5 SV% at 91.2%, with only Florida, Detroit and San Jose coming in worse.  The Leafs have proven that they can score with the best teams in the league, ranking 3rd in even strength goals scored last season.  If the goaltending can improve, the Leafs have the ingredients for a special season in 2021.

Vancouver Canucks

2019-20 Record: 36-27-6, .565 PTS%, 3rd in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost to Vegas 4-3 in 2nd Round

Additions: D Nate Schmidt, G Braden Holtby

Subtractions: F Josh Leivo, F Tyler Toffoli, D Oscar Fantenberg, D Troy Stecher, D Chris Tanev, G Jacob Markstrom, G Louis Domingue, F Reid Boucher, F Nikolay Goldobin

Last Season: Vancouver’s young stars took a significant step in 2019-2020.  Elias Petersson was an elite scorer and Quinn Hughes finished 2nd to Cale Makar in Calder trophy voting.  However, the biggest factor in the Canucks’ improvement in 2019-20 was the play of Jacob Markstrom.  Markstrom went 23-16-4, with a 2.75 GAA and .918 SV% in 43 games last season.  Once the playoffs rolled around, the Canucks proved that they can be Canada’s best team, beating the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round, before upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion St Louis Blues in the first round.  The play of Thatcher Demko kept the Canucks in a series against Vegas that they should have lost in 5 or 6, but were able to push the Knights to game 7.

2021 Outlook: An argument can be made that the Canucks had the worst offseason of any Canadian team.  They watched Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev head to the rival Calgary Flames in free agency, while trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli went to Montreal.  While Nate Schmidt, Braden Holtby, and Travis Hamonic are veterans who are nice additions to the team, they are all on the wrong side of their prime, and it will be interesting to see if they can still play at an elite level.  Holtby will have to battle Demko for playing time, and the Canucks hope that the two can push each other to provide them with elite goaltending.

Stats to Watch: The Canucks were an elite faceoff team in 2019-20, ranking 2nd in overall Faceoff win %, as well as top 3 in several faceoff subcategories.  However, even though they started with the puck more often than most teams, they still ranked 23rd in Corsi % and 20th in Fenwick % in the league.  This tells us that their puck possession did not translate into a high volume of shots reaching the net.

Calgary Flames

2019-20 Record: 36-27-7, .564 PTS%, 4th in Pacific

Playoffs: Lost to Dallas 4-2 in 1st Round

Additions: G Jacob Markstrom, D Chris Tanev, F Joakim Nordstrom, F Dominik Simon, D Nikita Nesterov, F Josh Leivo

Subtractions: C Mark Jankowski, RW Tobias Rieder, D TJ Brodie, D Derek Forbort, D Erik Gustafsson, D Travis Hamonic, G Cam Talbot, F Austin Czarnik, F Alan Quine, F Ryan Lomberg

Last Season: Calgary had to handle some adversity throughout the 2019-20 season, stemming from the allegations against and eventual dismissal of head coach Bill Peters.  Geoff Ward stepped in after the dismissal, and led the Flames to a 24-15-3 record after his arrival (.607 PTS%), leading the Flames to the 8th seed in the West.  After eliminating the Jets in 4 games in the Qualifying Round, the Flames ran into the buzzsaw Dallas Stars, and were eliminated in 6 games in the 1st round.

2021 Outlook:  While the rival Oilers had a quiet offseason, the Flames were very active in free agency.  Jacob Markstrom replaces Cam Talbot as the number one goalie in Calgary, while Chris Tanev replaces TJ Brodie in the Flames’ D-corps.  Up front, additions of Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon, and Joakim Nordstrom provide the Flames with additional forward depth.

Stats to Watch: The Flames surprisingly were third worst in the NHL in # of games giving up the first goal at 40, with only Ottawa (41) and Detroit (44) being worse in that category.  However, the Flames had the 8th best winning percentage when giving up the game’s opening goal at 40%, as well as the 8th best winning percentage when trailing after 2 periods at 22.2%

Montreal Canadiens

2019-20 Record: 31-31-9, .500 PTS%, 5th in Atlantic

Playoffs: Lost to Philadelphia 4-2 in First Round

Additions: F Josh Anderson, D Joel Edmundson, G Jake Allen, F Tyler Toffoli, F Michael Frolik, F Corey Perry

Subtractions: F Max Domi, F Charles Hudon, F Dale Weise, D Karl Alzner, D Christian Folin

Last Season: Little was expected of the young team in Montreal in 2019-20, and the Habs approached the trade deadline as such, trading veterans Marco Scandella, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins at the deadline to acquire additional assets.  When the NHL came back with 24 teams in the playoffs, Montreal snuck in by 3 points over Buffalo and New Jersey for the 12th and final Eastern playoff spot.  The Habs took advantage of this opportunity, upsetting Pittsburgh in the Qualifying round before bowing out to the #1 seeded Flyers in 6 games in the 1st round.

2021 Outlook: The big trade of the offseason occurred when the Canadiens sent RFA forward Max Domi to Columbus in exchange for fellow RFA forward Josh Anderson.  Montreal then immediately signed the 22-year-old forward to a 7-year contract worth $5.5 million per season.  The Habs also improved their goal prevention, trading for and extending both D Joel Edmundson and G Jake Allen.  Allen will be especially helpful in giving some extra rest to Carey Price, and protects the Habs in the expansion draft next summer.  Late offseason acquisitions of veteran forwards Frolik and Perry provide Montreal with more depth in their bottom 6, as well as needed veteran experience.

Stats to Watch: The Habs were a top 5 team in all Fenwick (unblocked shot) percentages in 2019-20 in the NHL.  The additions of Toffoli (56.0% Fenwick) and Anderson (51.3% Fenwick) will only help the Habs improve this stat in 2021.

The Habs were 9th in the league, scoring first in 38 of their 71 games, but were 29th in winning percentage when leading after 2 periods at 66.7%, only better than Columbus and Detroit in that category last season.

Ottawa Senators

2019-20 Record: 25-34-12, .437 PTS%, 7th in Atlantic

Playoffs: Did Not Qualify

Additions: G Matt Murray, D Erik Gudbranson, F Austin Watson, F Derek Stepan, D Braydon Coburn, F Cedric Paquette, F Evgenii Dadonov, F Alex Galchenyuk, F Tim Stuetzle

Subtractions: G Anders Nilsson, F Mikkel Boedker, F Anthony Duclair, F Jayce Hawryluk, F Bobby Ryan, F Scott Sabourin, D Mark Borowiecki, D Andreas Englund, D Ron Hainsey, G Craig Anderson

Last Season: Ottawa struggled start to finish in 2019-20, ending up with the 2nd worst record in the NHL.  Only the tanking Detroit Red Wings finished with a worse record last season.  The Senators did make the most of the assets they were able to sell off at the Trade Deadline, acquiring 5 draft picks in exchange for JG Pageau, Vlad Namestnikov, Dylan DeMelo, and Tyler Ennis.

2021 Outlook: Optimism and future are the name of the game in the nation’s capital in 2021.  Third overall pick Tim Stuetzle comes off a wonderful World Junior tournament for Team Germany, and will be given every opportunity to shine this season.  Veteran goalie Craig Anderson is replaced by 2-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray in net, and veteran help has been brought in up and down the lineup, including forwards Derek Stepan, Cedric Paquette, Austin Watson and Evgenii Dadonov, as well as defensemen Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson.  Combine these additions with growth from young stars like Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, and the Sens can make life difficult for the North in 2021.

Stats to Watch: The one bright spot for the Senators in 2019-20 was that they led the league in shorthanded goals scored, with 15 in 71 games.  The next best teams in the league each only had 10 goals (Anaheim and Carolina).

Predicted Finish:

  1. Edmonton
  2. Toronto
  3. Calgary
  4. Winnipeg
  5. Montreal
  6. Vancouver
  7. Ottawa

What do you think?  Do you see the Jets as a playoff team?  Will the Habs continue the growth shown in the bubble last year?  Will this finally be the year the Leafs win a round?