2020-21 NHL North Division Preview

January 13, marks the start of the 2020-21 NHL season with a condensed schedule and realigned divisions.  Due to the pandemic and borders being closed between the United States and Canadian, the National Hockey League had decided to re-align the divisions with one being the Scotia North Division which really should have been called the Canadian Division.

Many hockey folks in Canada are excited about the thought of an all-Canadian division which means that Canadian teams will only be playing other Canadian-based teams.  This translates into playing each other nine or ten times throughout the season.  For hockey fans this means the Western teams will get to play the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators nine times this season rather than the typical two to three times.  It should be fun for fans north of the border.

With the season starting tomorrow, I wanted to go through each of the seven Canadian teams as a reminder of what we may be in for in this shortened -regular season.  Here’s a breakdown of what each team has to offer in 2021.

North Division Preview

We’ve already made some predictions on how we feel the divisions will net out.  Many (especially writers in the East) are thinking that the North Division is the Toronto Maple Leafs to lose.  Personally, I’m not entirely sold on this, but you never know.  I’ve seen a number of various models and forecasts on where people have picked the Canadian teams to finish, but anything can happen in a 56-game season.  Teams that get off to a strong start will definitely have an advantage.  Here’s a look at each of the Canadian teams as the NHL begins its 2021 season tomorrow. (Teams are listed alphabetically).

Calgary Flames

Why the Flames will make the playoffs:  Consistency.  Historically the Flames are a very consistent team.  In a shortened season a strong start and consistent play goes a long way.

Why they won’t: There is no reason the Flames shouldn’t make the playoffs, however there is one potential reason some expected playoff teams may miss the playoffs and that is health.  With the COVID pandemic entering its second year, should the Flames become a team with an increase in man game lost, their season could be in jeopardy.

Player to watch: Johnny Gaudreau.  It will be interesting to see how ‘Johnny Hockey” performs with a condensed schedule and few days off.  What does he have left in the tank?

Newcomer that will make the most impact: Jacob Markstrom.  Signed as a free agent as the Flames outbid their provincial rivals to the north, the Flames have upgraded in net during the short off-season.  Markstrom was great for the Canucks last season, question is can he take it to the next level?

Most important game: Game #11 on February, 6th vs. the Edmonton Oilers.  The first of ten (yes ten) Battles of Alberta.  This Battle of Alberta was as good as it has been in twenty-years last season.  The schedulers were smart in spacing out the Oilers / Flames games, but the hate will be on starting with this tilt in early February.

Highest Potential Finnish: First, if the stars align the Flames could win the Division.  Realistically they will most likely finish anywhere from second to fourth.

Lowest Potential Finnish: Fifth.  There are a couple of Canadian teams that are a bit of a “wild-card” with Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg.  There is parity in the Canadian (sorry North) Division.

Edmonton Oilers

Why the Oilers will make the playoffs: Two words Connor McDavid.  Does anyone else feel that McDavid continues to get snubbed in the media?  In NHL award voting and just in general.  This guy is motivated and he’s healthy.  Don’t forget that it was reported that he already had COVID, so the guy even has extra antibodies.  In all seriousness, I think that he’s going to be playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and may just will the Oilers into a first-place finish in the North Division.

Why they won’t: Goaltending.  This was one area that the Oilers were looking to upgrade in the offseason but were unable to.  So what did they do?  They gave Mike Smith a raise and brought the same tandem back.  Here’s the thing folks, at the time of the pause in the season last March, the Edmonton Oilers were the top Canadian team after 71 games… and that was with Smith and Koskinen as the stoppers.  While they might not be the sexiest option in net, they are capable of getting the job don and getting the Oilers into the playoffs.

Player to watch: While Jesse Puljujarvi is a consideration, it will be interesting to see how Ryan Nugent-Hopkins performs.  He’s has a couple of strong seasons and continues to improve his all-around game.  This guy gets overlooked all of the time, but he’s quietly become a very effective 200-foot player.  Playing a full season with McDavid only bolds well for Nuge.  He’s shown what he could do with Leon Draisaitl.  Oh, and don’t forget it is a contract year, and while the pandemic has impacted the financial aspect of the game, Nugent-Hopkins is due a raise.

Newcomer that will make the most impact:  Tyson Barrie.  Tyson Barrie is the player to watch.  He’s a player the Oilers have been missing for a number of years.  A powerplay specialist, good puck moving defenseman who should put up a pile of points if he can be successful in getting McDavid and Draisaitl the puck.  Canadian teams should be wary if they take the Oilers to Overtime.

Should Evan Bouchard stick with the team for a full season he could also make a bigger impact that many may expect.  For the first time in a long time, the Oilers have some depth on defense.

Most important game: Game #13 on February, 6th vs. the Calgary Flames.  The Battle of Alberta round one (of ten). ‘Nuff said. 

Highest Potential Finnish:  First.  All you Eastern folks have written the Leafs in for top spot in the all-Canadian Division, and while that could happen, Connor Mc David, Leon Draisaitl may have something to say about that.  Adding Tyson Barrie to the league’s top powerplay? Teams will need to be disciplined against the Oil this season.

Lowest Potential Finnish: Fifth.  Goaltending may be an issue.

Montreal Canadiens

Why the Habs will make the playoffs:  Goaltending.  Of all of the Canadian-based teams, the Canadiens have the best one-two punch in Carey Price and newly acquired Jake Allen.  Good goaltending can steal games and in a shortened season with a lot of back-to-backs, look for the Habs to get some solid goaltending and a few extra wins as a result.

Why they won’t:  Slow start.  If the Canadiens stumble out of the gate it might be too late to recover.

Player to watch: Josh Anderson.  A great pick up by the Habs.  He’s been injured as of late, but he’s ready to go and has something to prove and is probably looking for some increased responsibility.  He’s got some offensive upside, and he might just get the chance to show how much this season.

Newcomer that will make the most impact:  Josh Anderson

Most important game: Game #1 vs the Toronto Maple Leafs.  What Canadiens team will show up on opening night of the season.  Will they have the offense needed to match up with the high scoring Leafs?

Highest Potential Finnish:  Third place.

Lowest Potential Finnish:  Sixth.  Lots of great additions in the offseason so it’s hard to see Montreal drop this far down in the division, but again in a shortened season you just never know.

Ottawa Senators

Why the Sens will make the playoffs: Hard works.  If the PESKY SENS 2.0 show up this team could surprise everyone.  Lots of young talent on this team so we might get an opportunity to see a lot of this talent get some game time in if the Sens faulter out of the gate.

Why they won’t:  Injuries.  Not a lot of depth at certain position on the team yet, so a couple of key injuries would have a dramatic impact on the Sens chance of making the playoffs.

Player to watch: Evgenii Dadonov.  High-end offensive forward free agent signing.  Dadonov should see a lot of powerplay time which is needed as the Sens powerplay has struggled for a few years now.  Dadonov had 11 PP goals last year, that total could very well go up this season.

Newcomer that will make the most impact:  Matt Murray.  Goaltending is such a critical position, especially in a shortened season.  The Sens take a bit of a gamble on Murray, who hasn’t been nearly as solid as he was in his first few years in the league.  Murray will not doubt make a huge impact on the team but it remains to be seen if it will be a positive or negative one.

Most important game:  Game #22 on February 25th when the Calgary Flames come to town.  Brady Tkachuk plays against older brother Matthew (Flames) nine times this season.  Do you think they will drop the gloves with one another?  According to dad, Keith, he doesn’t put it past them.  They don’t face each other until the Sens twenty second game of the season so depending on where both teams are in the standings at this point this could be a good one.

Highest Potential Finnish:  Fourth if the stars align.  Ottawa should be better than most people they think at this stage.

Lowest Potential Finnish:  Sixth

Toronto Maple Leafs

Why the Leafs will make the playoffs:  Offense.  Lots of offensive fire power on this Leafs squad with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.  The Leafs added some wily veterans in Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds to help guide this team not only to the playoffs but to a series win (which has not happened in quite some time).

Why they won’t:  Defense and goaltending.  It’s been a challenge in the Leaf’s end at times over previous seasons.  They have lacked that goaltender that can steal them a win when they need it and a defenseman that can shutdown the opposition’s top line on a consistent basis.

Player to watch: Auston Matthews.  Many are predicting Matthews to take home the scoring championship this year, but has the young forward matured enough as he enters his fifth year in the League?

Newcomer that will make the most impact:  T.J. Brodie.  A quiet addition that can help steady the back-end for Toronto.  Will be interesting to see how much impact Brodie will have with the Leafs defensive core.

Most important game:  Game #56, the Leaf’s final game of the season vs. the Montreal Canadiens.  We will know then how Toronto’s season has gone and if they have what it takes to take the next step and win a playoff round or two.

Highest Potential Finnish:  First

Lowest Potential Finnish:  Fourth

Vancouver Canucks

Why the Canucks will make the playoffs: Coaching.  The Canucks surprised a number of people with their performance last year.  You have to give credit to Travis Green and the coaching staff of the Canucks.  The players bought in and will continue to do so this season.  In a shortened season, you can never underestimate a team on the rise.

Why they won’t:  Inexperience.  The Canucks have a lot of great young talent, but they are still a relatively inexperienced team.  They overachieved a little last season, so no one would be surprised if they stumbled a bit this season.  This team is ahead of their “rebuild” and is definitely a team on the rise.

Player to watch: Quin Hughes.  The secret is out about just how great of a player this youngster is.  Runner-up for the Calder trophy as NHL rookie of the year, the sky is the limit for Hughes.  Don’t expect a sophomore slump here.

Newcomer that will make the most impact: Nate Schmidt.  Jim Benning made a great move in getting Nate Schmidt out of Vegas.  Schmidt will definitely be a little more dynamic on the backend this season.  Very solid pickup by the Canucks.

Most important game: Game #28 on March 6 vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs.  This game marks the half-way point in the season for the Canucks.  By this time, we will have a good understanding of how things are shaping up in the North Division and whether the Canucks can continue to fight for a spot in the post season.

Highest Potential Finnish: Fourth

Lowest Potential Finnish: Sixth

Winnipeg Jets

Why the Jets will make the playoffs: Connor Hellebucyk.  If Hellebucyk can steal a few games like we know he can, the Jets have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.  They play the Ottawa Senators ten times, if they can win six or seven of those games, it just might be enough to get them into the final playoff spot in the division.  With strong goaltending in the playoffs, winning a round or two is not out of the question.

Why they won’t:  Off-ice distractions.  Rumors persist that Patrik Laine will be traded at some point.  Jack Roslovic doesn’t have a contract.  Kevin Cheveldayoff has some work to do and in a normal season we might expect things to move a little quicker, but with the challenges of making transactions, the Jets will have to be patient to ensure they get a solid return for these two assets.

Player to watch: Patrik Laine.  It’s been communicated that perhaps Laine’s days as a Winnipeg Jet are numbered.  Rumors suggest Columbus as a potential destination in a deal that would bring Pierre Luc Dubois to the Jets.  That deal might work for both teams, but there is still the logistics of the pandemic to work through such a deal.  I expect that Laine will have a strong start to the season.  He’s got Paul Stastny back on his line, so lightning might strike twice and Laine could be a consideration for the Rocket Richard Trophy if all goes well.

Newcomer that will make the most impact: Paul Stastny returns to the team that he helped propel into the final four a few seasons back.  If anything, he should have a positive impact on Patrik Laine.

Most important game: April 12 vs. the Ottawa Senators.  Why this game?  Well April 12th marks the date of this year’s NHL trade deadline.  It will be interesting to see if there are any new faces on the Jets for this game against the Sens.

Highest Potential Finnish: Third.

Lowest Potential Finnish: Fifth

One thing for sure there is a lot of hockey to be played over the next four and a half months.  Canadian hockey fans are in for a treat when their favourite Canadian teams are squaring off every other night.  If anything, it will provide us with a great distraction of politics and pandemics which is something that hockey fans could use right now.

Here is a look at some of the odds for the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup contenders: