Early impressions of Canada's NHL teams in return to normal divisions

Sportsnet's Jesse Fuchs gets you set for Friday's matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks.

During the shortened 2020-21 NHL season, a constant topic of conversation was the introduction of the Canadian division -- The Scotiabank North Division, if you wanna get fancy -- and just what it was going to be. There were many theories. Some thought it would make for contentious hockey, with the same teams playing each other more than ever before. Some thought it was a great chance for Canadian fans to better get to know one another’s teams and fanbases. I thought … well I’ll be honest, I thought it was a weak division, but I was excited to see how it would all play out anyway.

In the end, I think fans settled on a conclusion: it was fun at first, but it got tiresome. Even with all the superstars in the division, only seeing six other opponents wore us down, and the lack of fans to bring energy to some of those mid- and late-season games made it harder to get through still.

But those days are over my friends. Canadian teams have been re-introduced to the wild, like some animals raised in captivity until they’re released into the world. And just like in those scenarios, sometimes they aren’t ready, and “real nature” eats them. (I’m looking at you, Montreal.) Canadian teams are 7-9-3 so far against their American opponents.

With 10 days of this young 2021-22 season in the books, let’s take a look at the early returns for Canadian teams as they resume normal NHL life.

Edmonton Oilers (4-0-0)

The Oilers finished second in the Canadian division before getting inexplicably waxed in four games by Winnipeg in the playoffs, so maybe last season wasn’t what they’d deem a true success. But their start to this season can certainly be called one, as they’re 4-0-0, the only undefeated Canadian team left, and Connor McDavid appears poised to have one of the greatest seasons in NHL history. Book it. He’s got 11 points through four games, which is on pace for 225 points. I think two points per game is well within his reach this season, and as of today it feels like his floor.

They got deeper up front with the additions of Zach Hyman (three goals so far) and Warren Foegele (beautiful first goal as an Oiler Thursday), and Jesse Puljujarvi has turned into a legit top-six forward, which gives them the best group up front they’ve had in McDavid’s time there. Time will tell if the veteran additions of Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci can help keep enough pucks out of their net for bigger things or not, but early returns have been promising.

Montreal Canadiens (0-5-0)

Last season the Habs grabbed the last playoff spot before getting white hot at the perfect time on the backs of solid team defending, quick-strike transition offence, and goaltending. This season they’re missing much of the personnel that made that run possible -- Carey Price, Shea Weber, Phillip Danault, and Joel Edmundson come to mind -- and they’re getting eaten alive. They’re 0-5-0, and on the verge of becoming the first NHL team to ever make the Stanley Cup playoffs, then start the next season 0-6-0.

Outside Montreal, I don’t know if there were many believers in that roster this season, but “weren’t believers” meant we thought they’d finish fifth in the Atlantic. Right now Ottawa, Detroit, and Buffalo have played fewer games than them, and have at least four points each. How long until Habs fans stop thinking playoffs and start musing about the possibility of adding Shane Wright in the draft?

Toronto Maple Leafs (2-1-1)

The Leafs have only had one game of Auston Matthews, but so far they’ve been exactly what they’ve been for some time now. They’re a talented group that’s heavily dependent on the success of their big-four offensive players, and a group that mostly treads water when those guys aren’t on the ice. Much like in years past, they’ve shown they’re elite at creating scoring chances, can be prone to giving up rush chances against, and they feel skilled and dangerous but not dominant. Maybe they’re best summed up by their third D pair of Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin -- good possession numbers and no shortage of talent and fun to watch, until the puck is below the goal line in the D-zone, then all bets are off.

They’ve got good things going for them outside their four oft-discussed forwards. Their top-four D are quality and they’ve got good goaltending. There’s lots to like, which is why Kyle Dubas brought them back in a similar form to years gone by. He believes they’ve been unlucky and can find a way to improve things. But at 2-1-1 right now they look like a team that probably hasn’t changed anyone’s mind about what they are. If you already believed how they’re built won’t translate in the post-season, no chance you feel differently four games into this season.

Ottawa Senators (2-2-0)

Last season the Sens proved to be plucky upstarts with talent who reflected their coach's tendencies by being scrappy and in your face. They weren’t a great NHL team, but they didn’t give away easy points. I stopped betting against them at some point last season.

This season they’ve proven to be plucky upstarts with talent who reflect their coach's tendencies by being scrappy and in your face. They don’t give you any easy points, and I still don’t bet against them.

The hardest thing about a rebuild is going from hope and potential to winning hockey games with consistency. A big challenge there is establishing an identity and leaning into it. The Sens have an identity and hope and potential. They’re not ready yet, and so they won’t be a playoff team this season. But you can see they’re building something to be proud of, and moving in the right direction.

Vancouver Canucks (2-2-1)

The Canucks were a common bet for those picking a team that just missed the post-season, but would find their way in during the 2021-22 season. Their new additions have been great, as Connor Garland has been engaged and dangerous, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson sits second in the NHL in shots with 20 through five games. I’ve liked Dickinson down the lineup too. There’s talent throughout the roster, but something remains curiously … off. They’ve been out-shot and out-chanced at even strength, and have relied on their goaltending to earn a record of .500. They lost a game to the (mighty?) Sabres, and that’s never good. Travis Green has publicly questioned them.

There’s no shortage of ability, it’s just that sometimes their defence leaves you wanting, and that puts a lot of pressure on their offence to out-score those troubles. They seem to be searching for an identity. Their coach has said he doesn’t see them as a “run and gun” style team, but I sure don’t see them as a 2020-21 NY Islanders-style team either, with a bunch of structure and physical play and impermeable D-zone coverage. There’s enough there to believe in the Canucks, they just need to be like Chunky from I Think You Should Leave, and figure out what it is they do.

Calgary Flames (1-1-1)

If the Canucks are searching for an identity, the Flames have at long last decided on one and committed to it, now it’s just a matter of “will this work?” They want Darryl Sutter to have Darryl Sutter players, and they want to play the Darryl Sutter way. So they went out and got Blake Coleman, who fits, and Erik Gudbrandson (same), and they’re legitimately going to try to be the Isles of yore. The core names of Gaudreau (who’s on an expiring contract) and Monahan (who’s on … the fourth line right now) and Matthew Tkachuk are good players but compared to other teams' elite names, are maybe not quite able to hang, so it makes sense to choose that “grit and defence” direction.

I see a team that will be in the middle of the pack all year, the Minnesota Wild of old. If they buy in to the Sutter way and things go perfectly, maybe there’s a playoff run in them where they use smothering low event hockey and Jacob Markstrom gets hot. But in all likelihood they finish somewhere around 88-95 points and either sneak into playoffs or just miss. That’s not an insult, it’s just hard to see them being much better or worse than that league tranche.

And last but not least,

Winnipeg Jets (1-2-1)

The Jets seem … perturbed. They were handed a soft start to the season, with eight games in October and only one against a playoff team from last year, that being the Minnesota Wild. They also added to the one place they really needed help -- their defence -- and expectations were high. Then they lost to the Ducks, Sharks and Wild to kick things off, the latter in heartbreaking fashion. Now they’re battling COVID absences after getting their first win of the year, over those same Ducks.

Still, they’ve got all the pieces -- great goaltending and scorers and improved D, and I like how they stack up in their division. The Jets are the epitome of “wouldn’t want to play them in a playoff series” given their goaltending and offensive talents. But over the course of the long haul, they’re looking like a team that’s going to squeak into the playoffs as an away team to start, not quite among the upper echelon of the NHL. A few injuries or bad luck and they could miss entirely. They’re good and they’re fun and I don’t think they need to panic too much about a somewhat slow start, but you’d hate to see them fall too far behind, too early.

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