Analyzing which North Division teams are contenders, pretenders

Carolina Cameron kick's off this weeks Great Canadian Debate with Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Mike Futa as they debate the North Divisions best defenceman, who would be on Connor McDavid's line at the Olympics and more.

We are now officially two months into the truncated 2020-21 NHL season. Most teams have played 25 to 30 games and we are starting to get a sense of which teams look real, which teams have some issues, and which teams will likely find themselves on the outside looking in when the season ends.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the North Division to see where each team ranks so far this season.


Toronto Maple Leafs

The only team in the North Division that looks like a true contender, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This team can score, we all know that. The Leafs rank second in goals per game and power play percentage. The biggest difference from last season is they can defend as well. The Maple Leafs are sixth in goals-against, averaging 2.50 per game, a massive improvement from last season where they ranked 26th allowing 3.17 per game.

It’s not just goaltending bailing them out, either. Thanks to the addition of T.J. Brodie, the progression of Justin Holl, and an overall commitment to better team defence, Toronto has become one of the most well-rounded teams in the NHL.

Defending against opposition cycle plays has been a critical weakness of the Maple Leafs the past few seasons where they routinely ranked bottom-five in the NHL in cycle chances and goals against.

This season, they sit middle of the pack, which is just fine when you consider how dangerous is as an offensive team. The Maple Leafs have five players with at least 20 points this season. Auston Matthews leads the league in goals with 21, four more than anyone else.

Leafs fans are feeling pretty good about this team, but we all know how their season will ultimately be judged. Can Toronto win a playoff round for the first time in the salary-cap era? If so, can they knock off a top team from another division should they make it that far? For now, it looks as though the Maple Leafs are a step above everyone else in their division and that makes them a true contender.


Winnipeg Jets

The Jets sit second in the North in points percentage and will finish their three-game set with the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight on Hockey Night in Canada.

Winnipeg split the first two games with the division-leading Maple Leafs thanks to incredible performances by Connor Hellebuyck, and the Jets' top-six forward group is as good as any team in the NHL. Mark Scheifele ranks sixth in points, plus Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor are both top 20 in goals.

Ehlers doesn’t get a lot of praise outside of Winnipeg, but he is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Ehlers ranks among the league leaders in several key offensive categories that highlight his puck-moving and scoring ability.

Combine the offensive firepower the Jets possess with a reigning Vezina trophy winner in net and you have a team capable of beating anyone on any given night. Hellebuyck has been dialed in this week against the Maple Leafs, making a month's worth of highlight-reel saves in the span of two games.

As has been the case in recent years, the Jets' inability to limit quality shots against holds them back as they rely far too often on Hellebuyck to bail them out. More often than not, he does. However, as we saw on Thursday, eventually top teams will breakthrough.

At even-strength, the Jets rank 24th in expected goals against, 25th limiting shots from the slot, 27th at limiting passes into the slot and 25th at preventing rush scoring chances. That’s a lot of weight to put on your goaltending. As good as Hellebuyck is, he can’t shut down top teams game after game.

Until the Jets can better limit the number of dangerous chances they allow, there will be question marks as to whether they are a legit contender to threaten in the post-season.

Montreal Canadiens

Inconsistency is one of the few constants with this Montreal Canadiens team.

A record of 7-1-2 in their first 10 games of the season, 2-5-3 in their next ten games and 3-1-2 since.

The Canadiens don’t have any glaring issues that would prevent them from being considered a true threat to not only make the playoffs, but to do some damage once there. Montreal is in the top 10 in goals for and against. Their power play has come around since Dominique Ducharme and Alex Burrows replaced Claude Julien and Kirk Muller behind the bench. The penalty kill hasn’t been great this season, but still ranks middle of the pack. At five-on-five, Montreal is one of the best teams in the NHL.

What prevents the Canadiens from being listed as a true contender right now is that it’s difficult to tell which team is going to show up on a given night.

At their best, the Canadiens are a fast-paced team capable of turning the puck up ice quickly and using its speed to create offence. Montreal is aggressive in its pursuit to get the puck when they don’t have it and the Canadiens don’t allow a high number of dangerous shots against.

At their worst, they are turnover-prone and have suffered from bouts of inconsistent play from their goaltending, specifically Carey Price. That said, since the coaching change, Price has posted a 3-1-1 record with a 1.78 GAA and .935 save percentage. The Canadiens look more like the team we saw at the start of the season since Ducharme took over behind the bench and Price is looking like his old self again, so we’ll lean more towards contender than pretender, but will need to see this team play at the level it is capable of going forward before bumping them up to the same class as the division-leading Maple Leafs.

Edmonton Oilers

Any team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should be respected and the Oilers are earning respect with their play so far this season. An 18-11-0 record is good for third in points percentage in the North and 13th overall.

McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two scorers in the league and Mike Smith is having a terrific season in goal. Darnell Nurse is having a breakout year and Jesse Puljujarvi is providing secondary scoring. Putting the puck in the net isn’t a problem for the Oilers, who rank fourth in goals-per-game and seventh in power play percentage.

As mentioned, Smith has been solid in net – Mikko Koskinen has been OK. Defensively, the Oilers have been better than average this season but have struggled to limit opposition scoring chances when the other team starts whipping the puck around in their end. The Oilers allow an average of 7.3 cycle scoring chances against at even strength, which ranks 27th overall.

Thankfully for Edmonton, its goaltending has been strong enough this season to mask some of their defensive issues but if Smith’s play dips, the Oilers' inability to prevent chances while defending in-zone could become a problem.

The good far outweighs the bad to this point of the season and the Oilers look closer to being a legitimate threat to contend for the top spot in the division than not. However, Edmonton had a chance to prove it belongs in the same conversation as the top team, but faltered in its recent three-game set against Toronto, losing all three. Not only did they lose those games, but their biggest stars were also shut down in a way we haven’t seen all season.

Some holes can still be poked in this team and for that reason, the Edmonton Oilers sit in the ‘Might be Real’ category.

Calgary Flames

The Flames got new head coach Darryl Sutter a win in his first game behind the bench Thursday night. With the win, the Flames pulled to .500 in points percentage with a record of 12-12-3.

When you look at how this team has performed offensively, defensively and in goal, you see one of the most average teams in the NHL. Not great, not terrible, but pretty close to the middle across the board. The Flames rank 23rd in goals and 17th in goals against per game. Their power play ranks 18th and the penalty kill ranks 14th.

When isolating goaltending from team defence to see if Calgary’s goalies are costing or saving the team goals, the Flames rank 18th in goaltending performance. So, the good news is that on the surface there are no glaring issues but at the same time, the Flames don’t seem to have any particular strengths they can rely on.

With the trade deadline approaching, it will be interesting to see which direction general manager Brad Treliving chooses to go. Calgary is thin on right shot forwards and with Elias Lindholm cantering the second line, the Flames currently have Dillon Dube and Brett Ritchie at right win in their top six forward group. Adding a proven scorer to play on the right side in the top six would help a team that is bottom-10 in goal scoring add balance to their line-up.

Defensively, the Flames rank 24th in expected goals against so they are benefitting in terms of actual goals-against average from the strong play of Jacob Markstrom. Calgary gives up a lot off-the-rush and does not do a particularly good job of defending the blue line against oncoming attacks.

Perhaps this will be addressed with Sutter now behind the bench. As it stands, the Flames have been a decidedly average team this season. If Calgary can get more consistent scoring and play a bit tighter defensively, especially off-the-rush, it has a decent shot at making the playoffs. If not, odds are good that the Flames will finish on the outside looking in.


Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks’ point total is a bit deceiving as they have played four more games than the team they are chasing for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North, the Montreal Canadiens.

Vancouver has had an up-and-down season. Four straight wins to end January and three blowout losses in the first week of February. A couple of recent wins against the high-flying Maple Leafs, followed by a split against the Canadiens.

Thatcher Demko has been outstanding this season, saving the Canucks almost 10 goals above expected which ranks amongst the top goalies in the league.

As great as it is to see Demko on this list, it’s a bit of a problem that he’s had to save his team so many goals this season. The Canucks are a nightmare defensively ranking dead last in expected goals against per game (3.43). The one area the Canucks get beat worse than any team is off the rush. Vancouver allows an average of 7.2 scoring chances off the rush per game, the most in the NHL.

Quinn Hughes has played a majority of his even-strength minutes with Jordie Benn and Travis Hamonic, two defencemen who would likely not be in a contending team's top-four. Nate Schmidt, Alex Edler, and Tyler Myers have not provided enough stability on the back end for this team to limit chances and ease the workload on its goaltenders.

The Canucks will struggle to make the playoffs regardless of what division they play in with their current defence corps and for that reason, they are unlikely to make the playoffs.

Ottawa Senators

This season was never about making the playoffs for the Ottawa Senators so much as it was about developing their young players. The Senators’ start to the season had many wondering not whether they would finish last but by how much. Well, the Sens have been much better over the past few weeks and have pulled themselves out of last place overall.

The Senators’ top-five scorers are all under 25 years old, so the future is bright. Brady Tkachuk leads the team lead in goals with 10 and is one of the best net-front players in the NHL. Tkachuk has 45 shots from the inner slot, which ranks second in the NHL. Drake Batherson is having a breakout season and Tim Stutzle has had moments of brilliance this season as well.

The Senators would likely have a few more wins this season if their goaltending performed even at an average level. Matt Murray has been streaky at best, disappointing at worst, ranking among the worst goalies in the league this season in goals saved above expected.

Ottawa’s goaltending has allowed one goal-per-game more than expected relative to the team's expected goals-against average - a reflection of team defence based on the quality and quantity of shots allowed. That ranks last in the NHL by far. The Sharks rank 30th at 0.54.

The Senators are a hard-working team but are still at least a couple of years away from being a serious contender.

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