2020-21 North Division Preview

Hockey is finally right around the corner, and with it comes a great deal of excitement. This season, NHL fans will be treated to four new divisions due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, including the North Division, which includes all seven Canadian franchises.

This division is sure to be intense, as new rivalries will be created and others heightened. With that in mind, let’s try to predict where these teams will finish in the standings when the 56-game schedule is completed.

7th – Ottawa Senators

This one should come as no surprise to anyone, as the Senators are indeed the worst team in the North Division. That’s not to say, though, that they didn’t improve this offseason.

The Senators said goodbye to many veterans and long-time Senators this offseason, including Craig Anderson and Mark Borowiecki. They also decided not to give a qualifying offer to Anthony Duclair, a move that surprised many after Duclair just had 23 goals and 40 points in 66 games.

Matt Murray was acquired from the Penguins on the second day of the NHL draft. Murray had a disappointing final season with the Penguins putting up a .899 save percentage. Murray, though, has won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and is just 26 years old. If Murray can find his game again in Ottawa, the Senators might have their solution in the net long-term.

They also signed free agent goal scorer Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year, $15,000,000 contract. Dadonov has scored 81 goals in his first three seasons in the NHL since coming over from the KHL and is sure to give the Senators an extra offensive punch this season.

You also can’t forget to mention the Senators’ 3rd overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft Tim Stuetzle, who just helped carry the Germans to the World Junior Hockey Championship quarterfinals. Stuetzle will likely start the season on the wing, but from his play at the World Juniors (10 points in 5 games), he looks to be ready to make an immediate impact at the NHL level.

They also acquired some veteran players such as Derek Stephan, Cedric Paquette, and Brayden Coburn. However, those players aren’t going to move the needle a whole lot in terms of wins this season. The Senators are a team on the rise and had an excellent draft this offseason but are still below the other six teams in the North Division.

#6 – Winnipeg Jets

Full disclosure, every team that isn’t the Senators could very well make the playoffs. Besides the Senators and the team in 1st place, these five teams aren’t separated by a whole lot. The Jets are here in sixth place because of one particular element of their team, the defence.

The Jets’ defence was destroyed last season with Myers and Trouba leaving and the whole situation with Dustin Byfuglien. This offseason, they lost Dmitry Kulikov and replaced him with Derek Forbort, which makes it tough to argue that they improved their defence at all.

The team’s saving grace came from their goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. With a .922 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against average, Hellebuyck won his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Whatever success the Jets have this season, it will be on the shoulders of Hellebuyck.

The Jets brought back Paul Stastny in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, a player the organization is exceptionally familiar with. However, the uncertainty with Patrik Laine could cause a distraction, and their defence will have a tough time slowing down some of the superstars that the North Division has to offer. The Jets will need another Vezina worthy season from Hellebuyck to compete for a playoff spot this season.

#5 – Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have two of the most dynamic offensive players in the entire NHL, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Opposing teams will have no surprise when it comes to who they will have to try to slow down to defeat the Oilers; the problem is slowing them down has proven to be a nightmare of a task.

The Oilers tried to help their depth scoring out with the signings of Kahun and Turris, as well as convincing Jesse Pulijujarvi to give it another go with the Oilers. Those players will help a little, but there’s no doubt this team still needs to improve their scoring away from their two superstars.

The Oilers’ biggest problem comes from keeping the puck out of their net. Their only addition to the defence was Tyson Barrie, who will help the powerplay but will not solve many problems regarding defensive structure. They will also be without Oscar Klefbom for the entire season due to an injury, a vital member of their defence.

Oilers fans were also hoping for an upgrade in net, which didn’t happen. The Oilers looked to be in the mix for Jacob Markstrom before signing with their provincial rival Calgary Flames. They ended up re-signing Mike Smith, but there will be questions about if their goaltending is good enough to make the playoffs in a very competitive division.

The Oilers will get production from McDavid and Draisaitl, but if one were to go down with an injury, things would get very interesting. There might not be a team in the NHL who would be hurt more from one player getting injured than the Oilers, and that is cause for concern.

#4 – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens set off this offseason to try to find help for Carey Price and did just that when they acquired Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues. Allen and Price look to be a much stronger tandem in net and will allow Price to get the rest he needs to play at 100%.

The Habs also ended their era with Max Domi, sending him to the Blue Jackets in exchange for Josh Anderson. Anderson then signed a seven-year contract with the Habs at $5,500,000 per season. Add that with players like Suzuki and Kotkaniemi being another year more experienced and the addition of talented winger Tyler Toffoli, and this team looks to be poised to take another step forward this season.

The reason the Habs aren’t projected higher than 4th is based on the reminder that Montreal wasn’t all that good last season. They had a successful run in the bubble, beating the Penguins in the play-in round, but also just barely made it into the bubble. The Canadiens were 24th in the NHL at the time of the pause, and it’s tough to say that only with their additions this offseason they are ready to be among the best in the NHL.

They don’t have the top-end skill like the Oilers do but do have the depth, defence and goaltending to finish higher in the standings.

#3 – Vancouver Canucks

This was absolutely the most challenging spot to predict. Who would finish second and who would finish third? Right now, the Canucks look to have taken a bit of a step back after taking a gigantic leap forward last season. The Canucks, led by Ellias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, won their play-in round against the Wild, then upset the Blues to make it to the second round of the playoffs. It was there that the Vegas Golden Knights eliminated them.

However, the Canucks lost some significant players to free agency during the offseason. Starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defencemen Chris Tanev both signed with the Flames. Also leaving was Tyler Toffoli, a great fit with the Canucks but decided to sign with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canucks signed Brayden Holtby to create a tandem with playoff sensation Thatcher Demko and were able to trade just a 3rd round pick to acquire underrated defenceman Nate Schmidt from the cap tight Vegas Golden Knights. They are also bringing in Travis Hamonic on a professional tryout (PTO).

The Canucks will be good again this year and will need their young stars to continue to get better if they want to challenge for 2nd place in the division, which right now looks to be the….

#2 – Calgary Flames

There is pressure on the Calgary Flames to perform this season, especially on superstar Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau has continued to be a steady producer in the regular season but needs to show up in the playoffs. If he doesn’t this season, it might be his last in a Flames jersey. The Flames didn’t do a ton to improve their offence, only signing depth players such as Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon.

However, they did solve the most significant issue this team has had for some time now, a number one goalie in net. Convincing Jacob Markstrom to sign in Calgary over the Oilers or re-signing with the Canucks was a massive win and a clear upgrade in net. We could talk all day about if Markstrom will live up to his contract’s full length, but he should be quality starter material for the next couple of seasons.

The defence took a hit with the loss of T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic leaving but was able to bring in stay at home defenceman Chris Tanev. Giordano isn’t getting any younger, and the blueline’s openings present an opportunity for Rasmus Andersson to take the next step in his development.

The Flames can score, and now with Markstrom in the net, they have someone who they can rely on to give them a chance to win every night. It will be a close race for second in the division, but the Flames have the opportunity to take it.

#1 – Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are the best team in Canada. They should win the division and look dominant on the ice in just about every single game. The biggest opponent for the Maple Leafs isn’t any other team; it’s themselves.

Too many times last year, the Maple Leafs were at fault for their losses, and team toughness and defence were a concern. This season the Maple Leafs brought in Brodie and Bogosian to help out in both those categories, as well as KHL star Mikko Lehtonen.

The Leafs also got a lot more veteran experience in guys like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds. Two guys who are past their prime but can still bring leadership and toughness to the forward group.

They are also a much deeper team. On offence, the Maple Leafs have options such as Jimmy Vesey, Joey Anderson and Travis Boyd. They also have much more depth in net with Aaron Dell, who had a .907 save percentage in 33 games with the Sharks last season, as their third goalie.

Then there’s also the incredible star power this team has in Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares and Rielly. This team is a lot more of a complete, 200-foot hockey team. They improved the defence and have players who play a physical style of hockey.

If the Leafs don’t win the division, it will be because they once again failed to live up to expectations, not because they aren’t good enough.

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