Despite everything that has been going on, the NHL returns this week, the first games starting on Wednesday, Jan. 13. In this period of uncertainty, there are a lot of new changes in play for this exclusive season. There are only 56 games and teams will only play everyone in their division eight, nine or 10 times. Only the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs this year.
This specific preview focuses on the North division, which covers the teams in Canada. Those teams are the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.
If you like Canada, this is your division. Like the East division, almost every team has the potential to make the playoffs, although only four will make it. There is a lot of talent up front that is going to make this division so fun to watch from faceoff to the final whistle. Let us break the ice and figure out who exactly will do well and who might not.
Edmonton Oilers (First):
After getting robbed of playing in the round robin, the Oilers are out for two things: vengeance and dominance. Conner McDavid continues to prove himself as one of the best players in the game and the best Oiler since Wayne Greztzky. The Oilers also have a new Gretzky-Messier connection with the prime form of Leon Draisaitl, who would be Mark Messier in this case. These athletes are the best duo in the entire league and will be hard for anyone to stop, from defensemen to goalies. Those two cannot carry the offense alone, which is why they have help from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and Zack Kassian, creating one of the best top six forward lines in the division and possibly the league. These six alone define most of the offense, and there is a reasonable amount of depth behind them that will give the Oilers an advantage in most competitions.
On defense, Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse will lead the charge as alternate captains and will get help from Kris Russell and Tyson Barrie to create a dangerous defensive corps to support their lethal offense. The Oilers look unstoppable and with one more big defenseman, could become a major juggernaut for years to come. At the goalie position, Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith create a mediocre tandem, one that I think will lead to Koskinen starting more games, like he should have last postseason. Regardless, the Oilers have their guys behind the crease that can serve to save for as long as they possibly can. The Oilers are not looking to rig the game, but they are looking to dig deeper into the ground to reach Stanley Cup success not seen since 1990.
Calgary Flames (Second):
The Flames have had their playoff hopes extinguished in the first round two seasons in a row, but things could change soon. For starters, they get to fight their archrival Oilers 10 times, but they also have an impressive plethora of forwards and defensemen that can push them to the next level. Johnny Gaudreau is continuing his development as the best player since Jarome Iginla while Matthew Tkachuk produces like his dad did. Those two, along with Andrew Mangiapane, create a combination so hot that not even the fire department could cool it down. It might not be like the Oilers’ duo, but this forward line will make others worried for their lives. The Flames also get support from the resurgence of Milan Lucic, first round draft pick Connor Zary, Sean Monahan, Dylan Dube, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund, all of whom are dangerous when they have possession of the puck. This offense can also be compared to the Flames’ forwards of the ‘80s and 2004, and when those comparisons can be made, that’s when you know the Flames are going to be good.
As for the defense, Marc Giordano brings the experience as the captain as well as his Norris trophy while Noah Hanifin brings the youth that can help others such as Nikita Nesterov, Oliver Kylington, and Carl-Johan Lerby among others. If one of these players can break out, then they are going to have a top-five lethal combination in the league. David Rittich returns to take over the crease, but he is gaining help from Jacob Markstrom, which could lead to one of the best goalie duos in the league. Having two starter-caliber goalies for the Flames is really a game-changer as that will leave the opposition with more questions on how to attack the goalie than answers, which might lead to more wins. The only uncertainty with both goalies is who is going to start more games, and I think that this is a balanced attack. The Flames are full of dynamite and only need one fuse to go on a deep playoff run.
Vancouver Canucks (Third):
The Canucks’ young talent is starting to emerge, which could be the start of something special for them. They also earned playoff experience taking the Golden Knights the distance in the second round, but this is the year where expectations have to be met. At forward, former Calder winner Elias Pettersson has become the franchise player the Canucks expected when drafting him. He gets strong help from Brock Boeser to create yet another deadly duo in the league that is one good season away from being recognized as a top five line. Add in Tanner Pearson and there is a solid first line for Vancouver, which could also feature JT Miller if he continues to produce like he did last season. The Canucks not only have veterans such as Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson, but they also have young studs like Bo Horvat that can lead to this strong meshing of talent from different eras of the game, something that will throw off many opponents.
On defense, Quinn Hughes proved himself as a good defenseman last year, nearly winning the Calder trophy. He gets new support from Nate Schmidt to create a dangerous first line that will leave other forward lines senseless. The Canucks also have the experience of Alexander Edler, the last piece from the Canucks’ 2011 Cup run, and Tyler Myers to construct a defensive stable that has so much potential. In addition to their strong tandems on defense and up front, the Canucks also have a lot of strength from their goalies. The loss of Jacob Markstrom leaves the door wide open for Thatcher Demko to become their franchise goalie, and if he ever falters, the Canucks went out and got Braden Holtby to educate and further improve Demko’s skills. Demko was magnificent in their playoff run last season, and should gain more playoff experience from Holtby’s Cup run and time with the Capitals. The Canucks have combinations that are working, which shows that Jim Benning knows what he is doing. If Pettersson has a great season, the Canucks might possibly win this division, otherwise, the Canucks will be contending for a medium playoff spot, their main expectation this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs (Fourth):
The Maple Leafs have too much talent on offense to be consistent first round losers in the playoffs. John Taveras and Auston Matthews are former first overall picks that have continued to live up to their expectations and contracts. Mitch Marner is continuing to prove himself as a first line winger while Ilya Mikheyev and William Nylander are doing the same thing, leading to one of the best top six forwards in the league. As the Maple Leafs saw it, perhaps their issue was their lack of experience, so the Maple Leafs went out and got some veterans. Joe Thornton joins the team with his 23 years of experience and Jason Spezza returns for his second season providing more experience for this young team. The Leafs also got Wayne Simmonds on a one-year deal that will help the wing position. One would think that this combination of outstanding offense would help the Maple Leafs get past the first round, but they have not. Last year was even worse as the Maple Leafs failed to make it out of the qualifying round in their own house.
The biggest issue that has led to their drought continually being extended, if not for the explosive offense, is the defense. The defense is not bad, but it is also not the best in the league. Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are the top defenders that Toronto has, but after them, their situation is a total mess. That is why the Maple Leafs went out of their way to get TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian, two 30-year-old blue liners that bring experience playing in the big leagues to most, if not all, of the defenders on this team. There is potential for the defense, but that needs to be proven if the Maple Leafs want to contend as a force of nature against other competition. The Maple Leafs also have a questionable goalie situation in which they are trying to find a franchise goalie who can work for them. Frederik Andersen has been their guy the last few seasons, but the Maple Leafs also went out and got Aaron Dell to back him up. The Maple Leafs have two options, one as a backup, and one as a starter, that can swap their roles whenever necessary. The Maple Leafs have players who can cover each position, but the only reason they might not be on top of the division is due to the offense having to carry most of the entire team. If the Maple Leafs got defensive help, then the load can be lightened.
Montreal Canadiens (Fifth):
The Canadiens have a bright future ahead of them and losing to the Flyers last season only helped their core get stronger. Their forward line is going to be special, and the two guys up front that are the future franchise players are Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Both are young and starting to get their feet wet up in Montreal, but don’t be surprised if they are on the first line together this season leading the Canadiens to new successes. The Canadiens also have talents such as Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia, Brendan Gallagher and others who are starting to enter their primes, which can lead to a stockpile of weapons that Montreal can choose from between starting games and closing them out. In addition, the Habs also got Corey Perry, who can provide veteran depth and teach the younger players how to survive in the hockey environment. In a few years, the Canadiens could easily have one of the best offenses in all of Canada.
The defense, meanwhile, is a mixture of many things. They have old veterans in captain Shea Weber, who can shoot the puck so ferociously all of Canada would hear it: Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmunson, Jeff Petry and others. Weber is leading this defense and is looking for help, which he might get should someone on the team have a breakout season. Weber is the one defender the Canadiens remember right now, but there might be more defensemen who could be in the same sentence within a few seasons. Behind the net, Jake Allen was added to be a backup to one of the best goalies in the game by the name of Carey Price, who continues to dominate whenever tasked to be in the crease. While Price will start most games, Allen does bring starter experience and can fill in if he has to. Even if the Canadiens do not make the playoffs this season, it does not matter, they have a lot of upside that is only a year or two away from truly emerging, and the consistent contention for the playoffs will pay off in the long run.
Winnipeg Jets (Sixth):
The Jets might be the one team in this division that are starting to experience a downfall, which is a bad thing. Yes, the Jets have Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, but those are the big three on this team that are likely going to carry most of the offense. If the Jets are experiencing a downfall, then the fatal blow is going to be Laine getting traded, and there are rumors that he is the biggest trading target of the season. While Scheifele continues to prove himself as a top 15 center, the Jets also have Bryan Little, Adam Lowry, Matthew Perreault, the return of Paul Stastny, Nikolaj Ehlers, and more to focus on as they are critical players that are providing more scoring opportunities and play roles that are underratedly pivotal to the success of the Jets. The absence of one of them could lead to disastrous results that cause the Jets to crash and burn.
On defense, losing Jacob Trouba and Dmitry Kulikov over the span of two seasons lead to a significant decrease in defense for the Jets, which leaves Josh Morrissey to lead the defense and help them find their footing again. The Jets have the talents of Neal Pionk, Nathan Beaulieu, Dylan DeMelo and others to help them through that slow rebuild, but the Jets are going to need more help or someone to step up if the defense is going to have any chance of helping the team and providing a gateway for the offense to score. Luckily, the Jets are fine at goal as they have defending Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck to make their goal a no-fly zone, and that might be a good thing because the Jets are trying to find their backup. Their backup could be either Laurent Brossoit or Eric Comrie, but experience and time are going to be the huge factors here. Either way, the Jets will be fine with Hellebuyck. The Jets are cleared for takeoff with their offensive numbers and goalie, but if their defense is delaying their departure, then the Jets are going to be grounded come playoff time.
Ottawa Senators (Seventh):
Putting the Senators here is a tough projection as the team has more upsides than other teams who weren’t invited to the bubbles last season. Their rebuild seems to be nearing an end as Brady Tkachuk is starting to become the franchise player the Sens were hoping for, and he is getting assistance from Alex Galchenyuk and Evgenii Dadonov to help with his development. Together, Ottawa has their front line that will handle most roles and starts. The Senators also need to make sure others on their team are developed for the long run as well, which includes everyone from Colin White to Austin Watson to Cedric Paquette and even first round pick Tim Stuetzle. Derek Stepan was brought in to help with that, but while they develop, the Senators will rely on Tkachuk to have yet another breakout season to solidify the Tkachuk legacy. Tkachuk is to offense as Thomas Chabot is to defense.
Chabot is starting to break out as their first franchise defenseman since Erik Karlsson and will work with either Erik Gudbranson or Christian Jaros to create a new defensive tandem that can stop the attack at the neutral zone. The Senators are a few pieces and a few years away from having a good defensive stable, but while many wait for that to happen, everyone will focus on Chabot’s skills and observe his improvement. Matt Murray, meanwhile, is the replacement and answer for the loss of Craig Anderson, with Marcus Hogberg set to back him up. These two are interesting because no one has any idea yet how they are going to pan out. Murray brings the playoff experience and starter skills the Senators need to transition into a new era while Hogberg will continue to develop as a backup. Eventually, Hogberg will become the starter, but until then, Murray is the answer that Ottawa will consistently rely on. The Senators have their future ahead of them, all they must do is not waste it. Although they are expected to finish here right now, that might change in a couple seasons depending on the direction the franchise goes with what they have.
Due to the nature of this season’s playoffs, the divisional/first round only will be listed for the playoff predictions.
Oilers beat Maple Leafs in seven
Flames beat Canucks in seven
This is how I think the North Division is going to end up. Every team in this division is going to finish with more than 45 points in the 56-game season. I have no idea if this is going to be right; each team could easily make the playoffs and could easily miss the playoffs. Every team will play in their provinces, which makes this twice as interesting because there will be both bad blood and bragging rights on Canadian ground. This should be fun, so let the hockey season get underway.