One of the most unique aspects of the upcoming 2021 NHL season is divisional realignment. Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic (or as I call it, #CoronaSZN), the United States-Canada border has been closed for quite some time. The NHL has realigned divisions for the 2021 season and, as a result, the North Division was created. The division is made of the seven Canada-based franchises: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. What should hockey fans up north, and beyond for that matter, look for this season? Here’s what fans could expect in this 2021 NHL North Division Preview.
Last season started with some turmoil for the Flames after the resignation of head coach Bill Peters. Eventually, they pulled things together and made it to the Stanley Cup qualifier. The Flames advanced following a heated round with Winnipeg, but were ousted by eventual Stanley Cup finalist Dallas in the playoffs. The Flames have plenty of scoring touch up front with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm. They also have grit with Matthew Tkachuk. Defensively, Mark Giordano and Tanev will bolster the Flames’ backline. Markstrom earned a big contract after a stellar season in 2019-20, but will his play be worth the price tag?
Much was expected out of the Oilers in the Stanley Cup qualifier after earning the fifth seed. In fact, many thought they had had what it took to win a Stanley Cup. However, the Oilers were upset by Chicago in the qualifier and the result left the organization searching for answers. The Oilers will have Connor McDavid and Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl to generate most of the offense. They added scoring depth with Turris and Kahun. Barrie replaces the retired Green and joins Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson on defense. Who will be in goal? It appears that Mikko Koskinen is, but veteran Mike Smith will be looking over his shoulder.
Departures: forward Max Domi.
Hardly anyone outside of Montreal expected the Canadiens to advance out of the Stanley Cup Qualifier, but they wound up frustrating Pittsburgh’s top scorers and upset the Penguins, capping it off with a shutout by Carey Price. They looked to continue that trend by winning their first two against Philadelphia in the playoff, but fell in six games. This offseason, general manager Marc Bergevin went shopping for size up front, adding Anderson, Toffoli, and Perry. More will also be expected of forwards Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who each scored four goals in the playoffs. Bergevin also added size on the blue line, too, with the acquisition of Edmundson. After spending his first seven NHL seasons in St. Louis, Allen provides a capable veteran backup for Price.
The Senators were the lone Canadian team not to make the playoffs. Ottawa was actually one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, finishing 16th. Their futility was rewarded with the third-overall pick in the draft and they selected German forward Tim Stuetzle. He’s part of a rebuild that will include forward Brady Tkaczuk and defenseman Thomas Chabot. The Sens added plenty of veteran depth, including Galchenyuk, Stepan, and Paquette. Gudbranson and Coburn will be relied on heavily on the blue line. Perhaps the biggest acquisition was made in between the pipes when they acquired Murray from Pittsburgh in October.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Another Canadian team that started off on a sour note in 2019-20 was the Maple Leafs. Management fired Mike Babcock as head coach following a slow start and promoted Sheldon Keefe from the AHL. The move seemed to pay off as the Leafs went on a hot streak before the season was shut down. They made the Stanley Cup Qualifier, only to be ousted by Columbus in five games. What did Toronto do in the off season? The Leafs added loads of gritty veterans in the offseason, including Simmonds and Thornton. Fans hope they will help support the young core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander make “The Jump” out of the first round of the playoffs.
The Canucks seemed to have made “The Leap” earlier than expected in 2019-20. One of the youngest lineups in the league exceeded expectations to make the Stanley Cup qualifier. The Canucks advanced out of the qualifying round, dethroned 2019 Cup champion St. Louis, and nearly accomplished a comeback out of a 3-1 hole against Vegas. They lost Markstrom in free agency, but signed veteran Cup-winning Holtby while they wait for prospect goaltender Thatcher Demko to develop. They have a young core group, including Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser. The Canucks’ success, though, will depend on whether or not they have enough depth on the blue line, which they need after losing Tanev.
Is the window starting to close on this Jets group? The Jets made the Stanley Cup Qualifier only to be ousted by Calgary in four very intense games. Their primary problem is the salary cap; they have over $40M invested in six players. One of them is goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy last season. Stastny joins the Jets for a second time following a trade from Vegas, but he adds playoff experience and grit up front. Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine make up the Jets’ core group, but will one or more by the trade deadline in mid-April?
Who Makes the Playoffs?
Which teams make it to the playoffs in this 2021 NHL North Division preview? If I’m honest, this is a really wide-open division. Even Ottawa, who was in the draft lottery team last season, has a chance to be a playoff team. The most challenging part for these teams will be the schedule, where all teams will have to travel a lot. Whichever team can establish itself in the early going has the best chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here’s how I see things working out:
- 1. Calgary: proper depth at forward and defense, Markstrom will need to shine.
- 2. Edmonton: goaltending is suspect, but they have plenty of offensive punch to counter.
- 3. Montreal: a healthy mix of veterans with championship-caliber should help a young squad.
- 4. Toronto: they have enough to eke out a playoff berth; will they finally get out of the first round?
- 5. Vancouver: lots of offense, but not enough depth on defense; will just miss out.
- 6. Winnipeg: too many departures and depth loss to compete.
- 7. Ottawa: youth will go through more growing pains, but the future is bright in Canada’s Capital.