NHL North Division Preview for 2021
Finally hockey is back as we are heading into the New Year and we will have the NHL season underway by mid-January in this unusually scheduled 2021 hockey season that has been impacted by the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic has also resulted in some divisional shuffling for this season. Below I give a quick hitter report on each of the seven teams in the North Division:
Calgary – Look for Jacob Markstrom to thrive in Calgary. The change of scenery will be great for the goaltender and he continues to show signs he is on the verge of being able to put a team on his back. Overall this is a quality Flames team that should end up in the post-season once again this year. With Giordano and Tkachuk leading by example, this team also has some solid leadership in the lockerroom. Factor in top talent like Gaudreau and Monahan and this is a team that could make some noise if Markstrom comes through between the pipes.
Edmonton – The Oilers are another high-quality team that should be playoff bound. Amazingly, even with McDavid and Draisaitl as well as Nugent-Hopkins, this is a team that has missed the playoffs far too often. However, they appear to finally be turning the corner and the Oilers do get a boost with the signing of Tyson Barrie too. I also like the fact that Edmonton was the best team in the league on the power play and 2nd best on the penalty kill last season. Special teams go a long way toward success in this league including in the post-season.
Montreal – This team was similar to Chicago last season. By that I mean they were very fortunate to get a shot to make it into the playoffs with the revised format and they took advantage. However, this was not and still is not a true playoff team. The Canadiens are simply a middling team that is trending a bit downward as Drouin underachieved after coming here from Tampa Bay and he was close to Domi who now got sent to Columbus because of not getting along with head coach Claude Julien who is not returning from heart surgery during the post-season. This once-proud franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015 and this year they are unlikely to even have the opportunity as they don’t make the playoffs given the tough North Division they’re in.
Ottawa – This is the one team that will keep Montreal out of the basement. Ottawa is in a rebuild mode as they have had 3 straight tough seasons now. The Senators also lost a number of contributors in the off-season. Long-range this team will be better off as a result of the changes made but short-term it will challenge this team’s compete level. A lot of youth on this team plus new personnel to work into the roster. That said, we’ll likely see some improvement with this hockey club as it gets a chance to jell as the season goes on but there will still be some early season struggles and, overall, this team is unlikely to get out of the basement in this division.
Toronto – This could finally be the year for the Maple Leafs. The divisional re-alignment for this season only really helps Toronto as they get away from the Lightning and Bruins and I expect the Leafs to take advantage and earn the top spot in this division. That is not to say it will be easy but it does position them well to then make a playoff run too. So much top tier talent plus then they added the veteran presence of Joe Thornton and they will be hungry right along with him as he goes for the Cup at the age of 41. The Maple Leafs certainly can score well with big guns like Matthews and Marner and Tavares. They also can get solid goaltending from Frederik Andersen but will this team get enough defense. They need all the skaters to step up in that department not just the blue line guys. That said, this is a team to keep an eye on for plenty of “overs” too depending on how much “buy in” is seen in terms of team defense.
Vancouver – Braden Holtby in goal backed up Thatcher Demko after shining in the post-season and a ton of talent up front where guys like Miller, Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser lead the way. This is a talented team and they added Nate Schmidt from Vegas to pair with Quinn Hughes on the blue line. It will very likely be between the Canucks and Maple Leafs for the top spot in this division. This team has a great power play and if they can be a little stronger on the penalty kill and their 5 on 5 play at both ends this a team that is absolutely on the cusp and on its way up. Their point totals the last 3 seasons went from 73 to 81 to 93. Another solid season on tap for the Canucks as they have responded well to coach Travis Green.
Winnipeg – It was just a couple seasons ago that the Jets were one of the top teams in the NHL. Then they have regressed some each of the past two seasons and the regression is likely to continue this season. Too many issues, too many question marks, problems with chemistry, and a blue line in a state of flux. That latter issue is of particular concern because goalie Connor Hellebuyck is off a fantastic campaign but has had trouble going to back to back with strong seasons. If the D in front of him struggles or he falters some this season, it could be a long campaign for the Jets. The whole Patrik Laine situation took a lot out of this team and guys like Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are simply being asked to do too much. The result is this team will have to battle hard just to make the post-season this year.