One question facing each Canadian team after frantic North Division start

Saturday Headlines are back, with talk of the Blue Jackets and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Penguins' potential interest in Jack Roslovic, and the Oilers looking at different options for their third goalie spot.

The North Division has not disappointed through four days of action. We've seen thrilling overtime, heated physicality, and the storylines we've been waiting months to talk about are beginning to unfold.

We're not even a week into this experiment and the all-Canadian matchups have us drooling.

There are no North Division games on Sunday, so we can take a breath, evaluate what just happened, and look forward to what it could mean over the next seven days.

Here is a question facing each of the seven teams over the next seven days.

Toronto: How will the starts be handed out?

It's not a goaltending controversy in Toronto yet, but the seeds for one have been planted. No, it wasn't an indication of anything that Andersen didn't dress Saturday -- better to give him a day of work in practice without the potential of having to play in relief if you can. That's the luxury of having Aaron Dell as a third-stringer (or at least it was, before Dell was placed on waivers Sunday).

But we know Andersen has been a historically slow starter to seasons, and usually there's time to let that get sorted out. That's not the case when 56 games are crunched into four months -- you can't sit back and just wait for that course to correct. Because what if it doesn't? Andersen is 31 years old and coming off the worst season of his NHL career. Odds are he settles in as a difference maker again for Toronto this season, but no one wants to talk about the other possibility: there is a non-zero chance his absolute best seasons are gone.

Campbell was good in his first start, making a few timely saves that Andersen largely hasn't so far. But he also played behind a Leafs team that gave its absolute best Saturday night, outshooting the Senators 40-19.

It's not clear how much longer Dell will be part of this mix. Nick Robertson's injury has complicated matters and forced Dell to waivers in order to clear room for a player recall, where it seems likely he'll be claimed. Suddenly, the comfortable depth in goal would vanish.

But, really, something would have had to go wrong for this to ever be Dell's crease. It has to be Andersen's, but if he's going to stay cool for a while Campbell will be given a chance to take the reins for a stretch. If that happens, Leafs Twitter will be ablaze with takes.

Andersen was always the biggest story in Toronto this season, the last on his contract. Would he play well enough to get this team over the hump, or to earn an extension when the goalie market to replace him is, at best, foggy? It's been a rocky start, but too early to draw conclusions.

Still, with three home games against Winnipeg and Edmonton this week, it's already become a talking point about who should start. And there is some merit to the idea of letting Campbell build on his own confidence.

Edmonton: Can Mikko Koskinen hold the line?

If you picked the Oilers to win the Canadian division this season, you were betting on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to carry them there, and probably hoping for some improved team defence as well. It wasn't the goalies who grabbed your attention and inspired you to pick the Oilers.

Let's face it -- returning Koskinen and Mike Smith to the crease left the Oilers with a big question. Sure, the team in front of those netminders needs to learn from their qualifying round loss to Chicago and get better at protecting the net in Year 2 of Dave Tippett's tenure. That buy-in and progression needs to be seen.

But in Montreal with Carey Price, Winnipeg with Connor Hellebuyck, Calgary with Jacob Markstrom and even Toronto with Andersen, you'd expect those starters to rise above and lead their teams to a win here and there. The Oilers saw that firsthand Saturday, when Price turned a tight game into a 5-1 blowout. Everyone has a weakness in this division and this, on paper, is Edmonton's

Their situation got a little more dire already when Mike Smith went on LTIR and their preferred third-stringer, Anton Forsberg, was gobbled up on waivers first by Carolina, and then by Winnipeg. Edmonton claimed Troy Grosenick off waivers, a fine minor leaguer four years removed from being the AHL's goalie of the year and coming off a .920 save percentage season. He's 31 and quarantine rules mean he won't immediately be available. Certainly not for the upcoming road games.

Heading into a stretch where the Oilers play Montreal Monday at home before setting off on a four-game trip to Toronto and Winnipeg -- to face a couple of teams that can come at you in waves of offence -- the Oilers have Koskinen, 22-year-old Stuart Skinner (.892 in 41 AHL games last season), and ... an EBUG?

"What the Oilers are looking at is: are there any amateur goaltenders in quarantine in those two cities they could use as a No. 3 in those two particular situations," Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported during the Headlines segment of Hockey Night in Canada. "That's how they're going to try to navigate this for the next little while."

Unless Koskinen strings a few Vezina-worthy performances in a row, Skinner is likely to get a start in here. But it's the Finn who will be leaned upon during this stretch. It's all on him for now, where with Smith at least there was comfort in trusting one of them could be hot at a given moment.

Koskinen has allowed five goals in two of his three starts thus far, but Edmonton's leaky defence in those games was the bigger concern. His 38-save win in the second Canucks game on a back-to-back was, at least, encouraging, and deserving of kudos.

Calgary: Has the new first line taken over?

Johnny and Monny have been the longstanding leaders of this team on offence, but the guard seems to be changing. The Flames haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since 2015 led by that duo, and it's been especially questioned whether or not Gaudreau can be the line one driver of a contender.

Enter Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk.

Lindholm gives the Flames tremendous flexibility. Where he used to play the wing on that Johnny-Monny line, now he centres a trio with Tkachuk and Dillon Dube.

Look at ice time and you'll still see Monahan and Gaudreau with the most at even strength through two games, and they're each on the board with two points apiece. There's been no immense negative to draw from.

But Tkachuk and Lindholm are the team's scoring leaders, and they've been the more impressive play drivers so far at 5-on-5. If that continues, how long until the ice time tilts in their favour as well?

Vancouver: Will the special teams start getting it done?

They missed J.T. Miller, that much is clear. Elias Pettersson has not been Elias Pettersson yet, with a killer instinct that single-handedly takes over games. His 43.53 CF% at 5-on-5 is shockingly the worst on the team so far.

Yes, yes, three games in. Pettersson is due for an explosion here.

What's actually slightly concerning is Vancouver's special teams units. They finished with the fourth-best power play last season and a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill. In 2021, through two games with Edmonton and one against Calgary, the Canucks are 0-for-11 on the man advantage. Their penalty kill rate is just 64.3 per cent. And now they'll see a Montreal Canadiens team that is surrounded with all kinds of positive vibes (and a 60 per cent power play, first in the league) three times this week.

The Canucks will be without Miller through this stretch, and getting him back will do wonders to help kickstart the power play (Update: Miller, surprisingly, joined the team in Calgary for Sunday's skate. Now he's likely back as soon as possible. But Pettersson is due, and Brock Boeser needs to be rookie-season Brock Boeser. After scoring a couple of goals on some great opportunities in game one of the season, Boeser talked about how his shot was back to what it was in his freshman year. He didn't record a point, or get the same great chances, in either of the two following games.

Boeser was a 16 per cent shooter as a rookie, a rate that fell in his second and third seasons. If he is going to be back at his 2017-18 level, it's got to start with his power play chances. He led the the Canucks with 10 power play goals as a rookie.

Vancouver could use that shot right about now.

Ottawa: Can they throw a wrench in the North Division?
The Senators are everyone's pick for seventh in this division, but in Game 1 against Toronto they at least had us all raising an eyebrow, wondering if they could be more of a factor than any simulation would predict.

Then Saturday night happened, and the Sens were completely outclassed by Toronto, who most have pegged to win the division.

The Sens just want to be a pain this season and not hand out two points like candy. Nick Paul's first two games were a great story, and though Matt Murray lost on Saturday night, it was notable that he kept the Sens in it longer than they should have been hanging around -- especially since he did it on the second night of back-to-back starts.

Brady Tkachuk looks poised to take a step. Tim Stützle got on the board with a beauty. There are positives to glean from those first two games.

And yet, we still saw two very different versions of this team. On night one, the Sens looked like they could make things complicated in the North and be a huge factor. On night two, they were hanging on for dear life, as a rebuilding team tends to do more often than not.

This week, the Sens get two home games against the Jets before traveling to Winnipeg Saturday night. If Ottawa isn't going to finish seventh in the North Division this season, the Jets are one of the two or three teams they could realistically beat out, so how they match up in the early going is worth keeping an eye on.

Montreal: Can they finish this road trip as strong as they started it?

The Habs have the league's best power play. Early returns on Josh Anderson are excellent. Price has already been a huge story and lifted them to a win. Nick Suzuki is being compared to a young Patrice Bergeron.

You could say things have started off rather well for the bleu, blanc et rouge.

Montreal will face Edmonton on Monday, where holding McDavid and Draisaitl to limited point production will again be the primary focus. Good luck getting that done two games in a row (ask Vancouver how that went for them).

Then they'll face Vancouver three times, including back-to-back in the middle of the week, all on the road.

We'll get our first look at Jake Allen sometime this week. He was acquired so Price could be rested a little more often to keep him playoff ready in 2021. A smooth performance there would be just another positive gone according to plan.

The Habs have hit all the right notes so far, and bolstered confidence to anyone who was believing in all of Marc Bergevin's upgrades to the roster. There will be lulls, of course, but it'd be nice to get through this early road trip without any of them.

And remember, they were a better road team (17-14-3) than home team (14-17-6) last season.

Winnipeg: How will the defence hold up?
We barely saw any of Winnipeg this week, just the one game against Calgary -- a 4-3 OT win.

While Hellebuyck is who they lean on most, the Jets' blue line and team defence were the biggest questions this season. No team allowed more high danger 5-on-5 chances than the Jets last season -- and that Hellebuyck still put up dazzling numbers is why he won the 2020 Vezina.

But despite their situation in net and all their offensive firepower (Patrik Laine looked freakin' fantastic) the Jets will only return as Cup contenders if they can protect the front of the net much better.

In that game against Calgary, it started much the same as last season went, with the Jets being out-chanced 9-4 in the first period at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. But in the second that swung 12-3 in Winnipeg's favour. The third was a near-even split.

So what will we see from the Jets this week? They're in Toronto on Monday night, Ottawa on Tuesday and Thursday, and then host the Sens on Saturday night. If they are the worst Canadian Division team at protecting against scoring chances this time next week, concern will start to rise ahead of a visit from McDavid, Draisaitl and the Oilers.

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