It’s safe to say that the 2021 NHL season will be unlike any other that we will ever see. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a short season in which travel across the Canada/US border will cause too many issues to make it feasible. Therefore, we have an all Canadian division! The Canadian teams will face each other exclusively this season. They will see a lot of each other. There will be a Canadian team in the Conference Finals this season. We will get an answer about which Canadian team is truly the best!
I’m going to go through each Canadian team’s roster one by one and break down their off-season moves. Then, I’ll reveal how I think the teams will finish in the standings. Let’s get after it!
36-27-7 (79 points), 3rd Pacific
Notable Subtractions: Brodie, Hamonic, Talbot
Notable Additions: Markstrom, Tanev, Nesterov, Leivo, Nordstrom, Simon
The Flames made the biggest splash in free agency by signing Jakob Markstrom to a 6-year, $36 million deal. Markstrom is just starting to emerge as a top tier starter in the NHL. Signing a 30-year old player to a long-term deal is a disaster in most cases, but goalies tend to peak later and the elite ones perform well into their mid-30s. It was a great move by the Flames, and I’m a little disappointed that Markstrom chose our hated rivals to the South over our Oilers, but I digress. The Flames clearly upgraded in goal.
The Flames continued their pattern of singing ex-Canucks when they signed Chris Tanev. He fills the hole vacated by TJ Brodie. Tanev is more of a stay-at home guy, but he will be a good partner for Giordano. Gio and Tanev make an enviable top pairing. They are relying on their youth to progress further down the defence depth chart. Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson form an intriguing 2nd pairing. It’s a righty-lefty pairing with one mobile puck mover and one tough stay at home guy. I’m not quite as high on their 3rd pairing though. I like Kylington, but he’s largely unproven at the NHL level. Nesterov doesn’t do much to move the needle for me.
The Flames didn’t really make many changes up front. Any changes they did make were at the bottom of the roster. They are still relying on the likes of the turtle, Johnny Hockey, and Monahan to carry the load offensively. They’ve got depth, but they don’t have the high-end game breaking ability that the Oilers boast with McDavid and Draisaitl.
The only place where Calgary really improved is in the most important place. Markstrom will have a big say in how far the Flames will go this coming season. The Canadiens have had Carey Price for a long time, and they’ve only had one deep playoff run during his career. Goaltending is the most important position, but a team still needs the horses in front of him. I don’t think Calgary has the horses to be a contender, but they should be in the mix for a playoff spot in the North division.
37-25-9 (83 points), 2nd Pacific
Notable Subtractions: Klefbom (Injury), Benning, Athanasiou
Notable Additions: Barrie, Turris, Puljujarvi, Kahun, Koekkoek
The Oilers will clearly miss Oscar Klefbom. He is the team’s best defenceman when he’s healthy. The key phrase was “when he’s healthy”. Klefbom wasn’t healthy last season. It was especially evident in the bubble. He’s taking the 2021 off to mend his ailing shoulder. The addition of Tyson Barrie helps to offset the loss of Klefbom. Barrie is the right-handed powerplay quarterback that the Oilers have been trying to find for ages. He wasn’t himself in Toronto, but his play in the second half of last season and in the previous few seasons in Colorado are reasons for excitement. The Oilers are also hoping that Caleb Jones is ready for more responsibility. His fancy stats looked great last season, but the sample size is still quite limited. I’m less bullish on Jones’s readiness than many people are, but he’s going to get an opportunity to step up in Klefbom’s absence.
They added Slater Koekkoek on Boxing Day as an insurance policy. Koekkoek is likely to be a 7D in Edmonton, but he has shown that he can provide quality minutes as a mobile bottom pairing D. That is important just in case Jones isn’t quite a ready as most Oilers media pundits and fans seem to think he is, or if there are injuries.
We know about Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but the Oilers have been lacking offensive contributions from their bottom 6 in recent years. Ken Holland made a few moves to address that situation. He signed Kyle Turris to be the 3C after he was bought out by Nashville. He isn’t a reliable top 6 option anymore, but he’s still a solid 3C. He will be flanked by one of Tyler Ennis or Dominik Kahun on the left. Both Ennis and Kahun are sure bets to provide fantastic value as middle-6 wingers for the Oilers. Jesse Puljujarvi is expected to make his highly anticipated return to Edmonton as the right winger for Turris on the 3rd line. Holland has built himself a 3rd line that should be able to outscore its opposition on most night. None of the Oilers’ middle 6 wingers (Ennis, Kahun, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto) are locks to be productive, but they are all really good bets to be great value contracts.
The Oilers goalies don’t get a lot of love, but here are some numbers for you. Mikko Koskinen had the 2nd best GAA among all North Division starters last season trailing only Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Koskinen had the 3rd best save % among all North division starters last season trailing Hellebuyck and Jakob Markstrom. Koskinen didn’t enjoy the workload that guys like Hellebuyck, Markstrom, Carey Price, and Fredrik Andersen did, but Koskinen was really good when called upon last season. A lot of fans are angry that Mike Smith is back again this season, but he did scrape together a 19-12-6 record. The Oilers would love to see more consistency out of Smith in fewer starts in 2021, which isn’t a wholly unrealistic expectation.
The Oilers had the league’s two leading scorers last season, but they couldn’t outscore the mistakes of the rest of the roster. Holland has done solid work in making the Oilers a deeper and more competitive team for the 2021 season. They are relying on a few value bets to pay off, but the Oilers could be dangerous this year.
31-31-9 (71 points), 5th Atlantic
Notable Subtractions: Domi
Notable Additions: Anderson, Toffoli, Edmundson, Romanov, Allen, Frolik, Perry
Marc Bergevin was certainly busy this fall. The Canadiens have been lacking offensive punch in recent years, and Bergevin worked hard to address that this off-season. He made the biggest trade of the off-season when he moved Max Domi for Josh Anderson. He subsequently signed Anderson to a long-term deal. He then signed UFA sniper Tyler Toffoli to a long-term deal. Then he extended fan favourite Brendan Gallagher. Finally, he added veterans Michael Frolik and Corey Perry.
They have also been lacking clarity up front. First it was Alex Galchenyuk not being able to find a fit as a centre or a winger, then it was Domi and Drouin that have been stuck switching back and forth between centre and wing. The emergence Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki as legitimate middle 6 centres has allowed Bergevin to go out and get true wingers that can fill the net. It also means that Drouin will settle in as a winger rather than a centre. That clarity will do the team a world of good when it comes to off-ice things like media interactions and fan chatter. Having fewer questions and more answers is always a good thing.
I’m really intrigued by Montreal’s defence. The right side of their top 4 is fantastic with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, but Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson appear to be slotted above their pay grades. Chiarot was a great fit with Weber during the playoffs, but who knows if he can sustain that level of play. Edmundson lacks the mobility and speed to log big minutes, so I’ll be curious to see how that works out for the Habs. Alexander Romanov is making his way over to North America this season. The hard-hitting Russian defenceman is a highly touted prospect for the Habs. I’m excited to see what kind of impact he can have for them as a rookie. He seems like a nice fit with the smooth skating Victor Mete on the bottom pairing.
The Canadiens added Jake Allen as well. He had been relegated to the back-up role in St. Louis because of Jordan Binnington’s performance. Allen isn’t a great starter, but he’s a really good back-up. Price and Allen could be the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. Price should see a little bit less work than in normal years because of the compressed schedule and because Allen is the best back-up Price has had since Jaroslav Halak.
I see no reason to believe that the Habs will do anything but improve this season. They have predictable sources of offence, which is something that they haven’t been able to say confidently in many years. They also improved their goaltending by giving Price a solid back-up to ease some of the burden on him. However, they really aren’t all that strong at centre and I feel that their top 4 has a couple of holes in it.
25-34-12 (62 points), 7th Atlantic
Notable Subtractions: Duclair, Anderson
Notable Additions: Murray, Dadonov, Stepan, Watson, Galchenyuk, Gudbranson
L. Brown, Batherson, Stutzle
The Sens are clearly rebuilding, but they took steps to improve their fortunes for the coming season. They traded for a legitimate starting goalie in Matt Murray. They signed UFA winger Evgeni Dadonov, and they traded for Derek Stepan. Dadonov is an exciting player that fit in nicely alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida, but his value as a top scoring option on an NHL team is unknown. My guess is he that is better as a complementary player than a lead dog. Stepan is a veteran centre that doesn’t look out of place in the top 6, but he doesn’t produce a lot of offence anymore.
The Sens also took a chance on Alex Galchenyuk. Their chance on Anthony Duclair worked out nicely last year, and they will hope for similar results from Galchenyuk. 2020 3rd overall pick Tim Stutzle has tantalizing skill. It will be interesting to see if he can crack the Sens roster this year or not.
Thomas Chabot is a gem on the Sens defence, but he is really all they have to offer. They have Erik Brannstrom bubbling in the pipeline, but I’m not sure that he’s ready for the show yet. The Sens defence will likely be their undoing.
The Sens had better hope that Murray can steal them a bunch of games, or it will be a long season in Ottawa.
36-25-9 (81 points), 3rd Atlantic
Notable Subtractions: Kapanen, Barrie, Johnsson, Ceci
Notable Additions: Thornton, Brodie, Simmonds, Vesey, Bogosian
The Leafs continued their recent trend of bleeding depth when they had to trade both Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to save money. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds lead the list of the new additions up front. Thonrton has had an amazing career, but he’s not the player now at 41 years old that he was even a few seasons ago. He will bring leadership and a weapon for their powerplay, but I don’t think he has the footspeed to keep up at 5-on-5 anymore. Simmonds can also be a powerplay weapon and he brings a nasty element to the Leafs, but he doesn’t produce much offence anymore. Those two additions are shiny, but I don’t know that they upgraded their forward group by much. We’ll see if the aging trio of Thronton, Simmonds, and Jason Spezza will be able to keep up in 2021.
The Leafs also had to move on from Tyson Barrie, which worked out nicely for the Oilers. They filled that void by signing TJ Brodie. Brodie is mobile, but he has never been known as a particularly great defender. I’m not sure that they are better as a result of that switch. His likely partner, Morgan Rielly, is one of the best defencemen in the league today. His presence will make this a good pairing. I like Jake Muzzin as a 2nd pairing defenceman. He’s physical, and he can produce a little bit of offence. I’m not super familiar with Justin Holl, but Leafs fans seem to think highly of him. They added Zach Bogosian to provide a veteran presence on the bottom pairing, but they will largely be relying on their youth to round out the defence corps.
The top two lines for the Leafs will be dynamic. Tavares-Marner and Matthews-Nylander are explosive. Ilya Mikheyev was great for them before he got hurt last year. He’s a hidden gem as a complementary winger, which is probably a big reason why Kyle Dubas felt comfortable enough to move Kapanen and Johnsson. The Leafs will score enough to get them to the playoffs, but I don’t think that they have done enough to fix the fundamental flaw of their team, which is the fact that they can’t keep the puck out of their net. Freddy Andersen is a good goalie, but he had the 34th best GAA last season, and he had the 31st best save % last season. Andersen wasn’t at his best and the group in front of him wasn’t good enough defensively. They got slower as a group, which doesn’t bode well for their hopes of allowing fewer chances against. I don’t see the defensive play in front of Andersen getting better this season, so the Leafs will need more out of Andersen.
36-27-6 (78 points), 4th Pacific
Notable Subtractions: Markstrom, Tanev, Toffoli
Notable Additions: Schmidt, Holtby
It’ll be interesting to see what the Canucks will do for an encore after getting to within a game of the Western Conference Finals in the bubble. The performance of Thatcher Demko made it easy for the Canucks to say goodbye to Jakob Markstrom. Braden Holtby had lost his starting job in Washington to Ilya Samsonov, so I’m not sure if he will start in Vancouver or if he will back-up Demko. Either way, the Canucks have a solid goaltending tandem.
The Canucks have a formidable top 4 group. They lost Chris Tanev, who was one of their best leaders, but they upgraded on defence. They took advantage of Vegas’ cap crunch by acquiring Nate Schmidt on the cheap. That was probably one of the most underrated moves of the off-season by any team. Edler-Schmidt is a sneaky good top pairing. Quinn Hughes has quickly become one of the most exciting defencemen in the league. He’s a smooth skater and a dangerous threat offensively every time he’s on the ice. Hughes will do damage paired with rangy veteran Tyler Myers. That Myers contract will look awful in a few years, but it’s not killing them right now.
The Canucks didn’t really make any changes up front. Like Hughes, Elias Pettersson is a young star in the NHL. He and Bo Horvat make a strong 1-2 punch at centre ice. They each have a legitimate scoring winger by their side. Brock Boeser has a great shot, and JT Miller quietly led the Canucks in scoring last season. Their bottom 6 is overpaid but effective when healthy. They are solid defensively, but there won’t be many appearances on the score sheet from this bottom 6. It’s a good thing the Canucks’ D will be able to provide a lot of offense because they don’t have the depth that other teams in the North division have up front.
The Canucks will definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot, but like the Flames, they lack true high-end game breaking production. Pettersson is great, but he hasn’t reached true superstardom yet. The team will go as far as Demko will take them, as we saw in the bubble.
37-28-6 (80 points), 4th Central
Notable Subtractions: Little (Injury)
Notable Additions: Stastny
The Jets have a great top 6 forward group. Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler is one of the best lines in the league. They finally shored up the hole at 2C by signing Paul Stastny. He was a big reason why the Jets made the Western Conference Finals in 2018. They have super sniper Patrik Laine and speedster Nikolaj Ehlers to go with Stastny. It’s a high-powered top 6. However, the bottom 6 appears to be lacking potency.
I was genuinely concerned for the Jets last season after they lost the entire right side of their defence. Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers left for varying reasons. Neal Pionk was the only real replacement, and he was fantastic for them. Josh Morrissey performed admirably as the leader of that defence group that played greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s be real though. The Jets were carried by Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck. He stood on his head last season. The Jets lack the depth to be a contender in the North Division, but Hellebuyck gives them a chance.
The North Division features 5 teams that finished within 5 points of each other last season. The Canadiens were not one of those teams, and they have definitely improved during the off-season. It’s a compelling division not only because of the geographic rivalries, but also because of how wide open it is.
Here’s how they finished last season in terms of standings points/game:
Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Winnipeg are the teams that I feel have made the greatest gains during the off-season. Edmonton and Calgary finished in the top 4 last year and they both got better. I believe that they will both make the playoffs. The question is can either Winnipeg or Montreal push Toronto or Vancouver out of the top 4 in the division? Winnipeg filled a hole that has been empty for a long time at 2C, but their defence will need to play greater than the sum of its parts again. Hellebuyck just won the Vezina. He will play at a high level, but I think it’s fair to expect some regression back to the mean for him this coming season because he was unbelievable last season. I think that too much has to go right for Winnipeg to make it in this division.
Montreal got much more potent offensively. They strengthened their goaltending tandem. They also have a potential impact rookie defenceman coming to join them this year. Montreal could definitely push one of Toronto or Vancouver out of the playoffs this year. Will they though? I’m guessing that they won’t because of their youth at centre ice and their weak left side on defence. There are some elite centres in the North Division. McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews, Tavares, Scheifele, Pettersson, Monahan, and Stastny will have their way with Montreal’s young centres on most nights. Carey Price will have to steal games for the Habs if they are going to make the playoffs.
Here’s how I think the order will go in 2021:
I probably sound like an Oilers homer putting the local team on top of the division, but the Oilers appear to be the most well-rounded team in the division. They have the two highest scorers in the league from last season. The top two lines will be productive, and their powerplay will be one of the top 5 in the league. Holland went out and solidified his 3rd line, and they can put a perennial 20-goal scorer like James Neal on the 4th line.
They lack an elite defenceman right now, but they have quality depth all the way from 1-7. Whether you want to put Russell and Barrie, Jones and Larsson, or Koekkoek and someone else on the bottom pairing, I have no concerns about any pairing being able to hold their own.
I also think that Koskinen is underrated as a starting goalie. He hasn’t had the workload of some of the bigger brand name goalies in the division, but his numbers last year were among the best in the North Division. He showed improvement from year one to year two, and I expect that he will show improve again in year three. Smith’s numbers weren’t good last year, but the team played well in front of him. He will be fine with a reduced workload in 2021.
I sincerely hope that I’m right this time! I’m looking forward to all of the one anthem games to come in 2021. More importantly, I’m just happy that we are on a path towards normalcy. The 2021-22 regular season is expected to start at the normal time. The 2021 season will end in mid-July, and we will be back to hockey in early October. I just hope that fans will be allowed back into arenas soon! Happy New Year and enjoy the season everyone!
On a personal note, I won’t be posting nearly as many articles throughout the coming season because I’ll be turning my focus onto other things. I’ll still be active on Twitter, but I won’t be posting as many articles as you’re used to seeing.