Coming off a season in which six of the seven Canadian NHL clubs qualified for the expanded playoffs, an all-Canadian division featuring exclusively all-Canadian matchups for an entire season certainly has fans north of the border buzzing.
The North Division boasts the reigning Hart and Vezina winners plus many of the sport’s top stars that’ll be going head-to-head on a nightly basis.
On one hand, the unique situation should in theory make heated rivalries like the Battle of Alberta even more intense. Both Montreal and Toronto acquired toughness in the off-season, which could add some spice to that Original Six rivalry as well. There’s plenty to be optimistic about if you cheer for Winnipeg or Vancouver, and there’s intrigue in Ottawa following a crucial off-season.
On the other hand, one significant drawback to having an all-Canadian division is it means fans won’t get to see their team face the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane and many of the other superstars around the league.
There’s a lot of offence to go around in this division, which could make for some fun hockey. With all that in mind, here’s an alphabetical team-by-team look at the NHL’s North Division and what we might be able to expect in 2021.
2019-20 record: 36-27-7, fourth in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Beat Jets 3-1 in qualifying round; lost 4-2 to Stars in first round
2019-20 top scorer: Matthew Tkachuk (23G, 38A, 61PTS)
Major off-season additions: Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon
Major off-season losses: Cam Talbot, Erik Gustafsson, Travis Hamonic, TJ Brodie
Best-case scenario: The addition of Markstrom proves to be a worthy investment after the Swedish netminder shone with the Canucks last season. With a Vezina contender between the pipes, the Flames play with a swagger that was seldom present in 2019-20 and the team challenges for the division title. The top-six returns to the type of production it had two years ago and strong playoff showings from depth players such as Milan Lucic, Sam Bennett and Dillon Dube are built upon in 2021.
Worst-case scenario: The successful changes in strategy implemented by Geoff Ward last season don’t have positive results in his first full season as Flames head coach. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Tkachuk and even defenceman Mark Giordano continue to struggle offensively. Each had at least 74 points in 2018-19, but no one on the Flames had point-per-game production last year and the team finished 20th in goals for. Overall, the team performs more like the group that blew it against the Stars in the playoffs after being 12 seconds away from taking a 3-1 series lead. The Flames didn’t win again after that back-and-forth Game 4 on Aug. 16.
2019-20 record: 37-25-9, second in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Lost 3-1 to Blackhawks in qualifying round
2019-20 top scorer: Leon Draisaitl (43G, 67A, 110PTS)
Major off-season additions: Tyson Barrie, Kyle Turris, Jesse Puljujarvi, Dominik Kahun
Major off-season losses: Andreas Athanasiou, Matt Benning, Mike Green
Best-case scenario: Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the NHL’s top two scorers from one season ago, continue their unstoppable ways. This season there’s no need to play them on the same line while at even strength. The Oilers were able to add Barrie, a potential power-play quarterback, and veteran skilled forward Kyle Turris for a combined $5.4 million on this year’s cap. We saw how value contracts helped the Lightning build a championship roster and the Oilers hope to take a page out of that playbook. Kailer Yamamoto takes a big step forward in his development thriving beside Draisaitl on the second line, plus Jesse Puljujarvi returns to Edmonton as the player Oilers fans thought they were getting when he was drafted fourth overall in 2016 ahead of Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy.
Worst-case scenario: GM Ken Holland comes to the realization the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith simply isn’t reliable enough to help guide this team on a lengthy playoff run and he has to seek a mid-season upgrade. In addition to that, the blue line is stretched too thin without Oscar Klefbom (shoulder) and the depth forwards aren’t able to chip in enough to take pressure off No. 97 and No. 29.
2019-20 record: 31-31-9, fifth in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Beat Penguins 3-1 in qualifying round; lost 4-2 to Flyers in first round
2019-20 top scorer: Tomas Tatar (22G, 39A, 61PTS)
Major off-season additions: Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen, Michael Frolik, Corey Perry, Alexander Romanov
Major off-season losses: Max Domi, Noah Juulsen, Dale Weise
Best-case scenario: All the bold off-season transactions pay off. Anderson brings that physical edge and proves to be the right fit. Adding Edmundson and 2018 pick Alexander Romanov to the defence helps shape Montreal’s back end into the best in the division. Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry play so well that the lengthy contract extensions they each signed look like bargains, and Jonathan Drouin bounces back with a career year. Remember, Drouin got off to a strong start last season before injuries derailed his year.
Worst-case scenario: The players locked into contracts for multiple years noticeably struggle and having more than $14 million in cap space tied up in the crease hinders Marc Bergevin’s ability to correct some off his off-season overspending. Despite impressive forward depth, the lack of a legitimate No. 1 line and game-breaking scorer renders the Canadiens an average to below average team.
2019-20 record: 25-34-12, seventh in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Missed playoffs
2019-20 top scorer: Brady Tkachuk (21G, 23A, 44PTS)
Major off-season additions: Tim Stuetzle, Jake Sanderson, Matt Murray, Evgenii Dadonov, Alex Galchenyuk, Josh Brown, Austin Watson, Erik Gudbranson, Cedric Paquette, Derek Stepan
Major off-season losses: Craig Anderson, Mark Borowiecki, Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Bobby Ryan, Ron Hainsey
Best-case scenario: The bizarre 2020 off-season proves to be the most productive in franchise history with the team securing a franchise winger in Stuetzle, franchise defenceman in Sanderson and a franchise goalie in Murray. Stuetzle finishes as a Calder finalist and Murray performs like the two-time Cup champ he is. Regardless of all the losses, the Sens played teams tough last year and with Watson, Gudbranson and Paquette joining Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa is going to be even peskier this year and won’t be intimidated physically. The playoffs might be a lofty goal for 2021, but the focus now is more on getting back to the post-season than it is where they’ll be drafting a year from now.
Worst-case scenario: This team is still a significant work in progress and head coach D.J. Smith struggles to get the most out of the young stars partly because of the dearth of high-end veteran talent on the roster. Murray’s save percentage goes down and his goals-against average goes up for a third straight year, which has the Sens playing from behind far too often and before you know it another season is lost and the perpetual state of rebuilding continues. As the only Canadian team that hasn’t played since March, rust becomes a factor.
2019-20 record: 36-25-9, third in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Lost 3-2 to Blue Jackets in qualifying round
2019-20 top scorer: Auston Matthews (47G, 33A, 80PTS)
Major off-season additions: T.J. Brodie, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey, Joey Anderson, Alexander Barabanov, Mikko Lehtonen
Major off-season losses: Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Tyson Barrie, Frederik Gauthier, Cody Ceci
Best-case scenario: Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds not only improve the atmosphere in the locker room but also prove to the league they still have some quality hockey left to offer. Brodie and Bogosian strengthen a blue line that needed help. Anyone that had been calling for Freddy Andersen and/or William Nylander to be traded eat crow as both have career years and Mikko Lehtonen ends up being a diamond in the rough. Auston Matthews wins the “Rocket” Richard Trophy and the Leafs win multiple playoff series.
Worst-case scenario: The off-season additions only slow the team down, literally, and a lack of foot speed has the team chasing the puck and taking penalties. The team’s top stars begin to get frustrated that the bottom six isn’t chipping in offensively and the Leafs end up as sellers at the trade deadline. Wholesale changes are on the horizon if Toronto misses the playoffs or fizzles out in the opening round yet again.
2019-20 record: 36-27-6, third in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Beat Wild 3-1 in qualifying round; beat Blues 4-2 in West quarterfinals; lost 4-3 to Golden Knights in West semifinals
2019-20 top scorer: J.T. Miller (27G, 45A, 72PTS)
Major off-season additions: Braden Holtby, Nate Schmidt, Travis Hamonic
Major off-season losses: Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Leivo
Best-case scenario: Vancouver makes it crystal clear beating the Wild and defending champion Blues in the playoffs was no fluke. They advanced deeper than any other Canadian team and this year they’re here to contend for a division title. Holtby is a steady force between the pipes and a strong mentor for Thatcher Demko. The words sophomore slump never apply to Quinn Hughes as the polished puck-mover leads an improved defence corps and the Canucks qualify for the post-season a second straight year.
Worst-case scenario: The bottom two forward lines don’t pull their weight and Jim Benning is unable to pull off a meaningful mid-season move to shake things up. Losing Markstrom ends up hurting more than anticipated and the Canucks are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. With five pending UFAs on the roster, selling off assets for picks and prospects becomes more beneficial than winning games late in the regular season.
2019-20 record: 37-28-6, fifth in Central
2019-20 finish: Lost 3-1 to Flames in qualifying round
2019-20 top scorers: Kyle Connor (38G, 35A, 71PTS), Mark Scheifele (29G, 44A, 71PTS)
Major off-season additions: Paul Stastny, Derek Forbort, Nate Thompson, Cole Perfetti
Major off-season losses: Dmitry Kulikov, Anthony Bitetto, Cody Eakin, Mark Letestu, Logan Shaw
Best-case scenario: Reuniting with Stastny ends up being a smart move as the team recaptures some of the magic they had in 2018 when they advanced to the Western Conference Final and Stastny had 15 points in 17 playoff games. Patrik Laine gets back on to the 40-goal pace fans saw from him in his first two seasons, while Connor Hellebuyck challenges to become the first back-to-back Vezina Trophy winner since Martin Brodeur did it in 2007 and 2008.
Worst-case scenario: The sour taste left in their mouths from the way they were eliminated by the Flames – with Mark Scheifele and Laine out injured – doesn’t result in the team playing with extra jump. Instead, the relatively quiet off-season bites them in the rear and it becomes apparent the other Canadian teams have made more improvements than Manitoba’s lone team.