Canadian Division Sets the Stage for Epic Season:
Who will win the Canadian Division? Did Montreal take a step forward? Will Toronto win a playoff-round? These are a few of the questions that I will attempt to predict while explaining how I expect each Canadian team to perform.
With the NHL season upon us, many analysts have given their predictions on how the season will unfold. The North Division is set up to create a playoff-style hockey atmosphere for the entirety of a 56-game schedule. Six of the seven teams in this Division had legitimate playoff aspirations in their respective non-COVID divisions, and now 2 of them will be relegated to spectators. Hockey Night in Canada will be must-watch TV this season, as we will find out who is truly Canada's #1 team.
Let’s start by analyzing each team’s strengths and weaknesses, followed by whether or not each team should make the playoffs. This will provide a playoff bracket, in which I will pick the eventual playoff winner, and the representative for the North Division, in the NHL’s final four.
Lead by the young players on their roster in Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, Ottawa will be looking for big contributions from their prospects and journeymen-veterans to help make them be competitive.
Trusting that Matt Murray can regain the form that back-stopped the Penguins to back-to-back Cup wins, Ottawa will rely on a starter who has yet to play more than 61% of a full season. With little depth, Ottawa will be looking to the entirety of their roster to out-perform expectations in order the make the playoffs.
Currently, the Ottawa Senators are the team pegged to finish at the bottom of the Canadian pack. With a rebuilding roster, I believe even the Senators will look to provide a nightly-challenge for opposing teams.
Ottawa will be in a large percentage of games on a nightly basis, but don’t expect them to come out on the winning side in many of these contests. Winning 20 games during a 56-game schedule would provide them with an almost identical winning percentage from last season.
Given that they look to have improved on paper, but will no longer get to play NHL basement dwellers like Detroit and the California based-teams, this seems more than fair. Finishing 7th with around 46-points is the most likely scenario for this club.
From worst to projected first! With a star-studded line-up, the Leafs will have arguably one of the league's most potent offenses; with Matthews and Tavares as a one-two punch down the middle, few teams can match them.
Toronto is set upfront with a mix of high-end skill and leadership. Marner and Nylander round out the other top-50 point-getters on their roster from last season with Joe Thornton providing some serious leadership that seemed to have been lacking at times.
On the back-end, it becomes more of a question. With the addition of T.J Brodie and the encouraging signs that Rasmus Sandin has produced, they have a promising top-4. With Muzzin and Rielly leading the way, this group looks to improve this season. Though, even if all four top-end players meet expectations, they will need to avoid the injury bug, as a key injury will force players into uncomfortable positions on the depth chart.
Few analysts will pick against Toronto as the top team, and on paper, it's hard to disagree. Looking to give Fredrick Anderson more rest will keep Toronto closer to the pack than most expect, 30 wins would prove to be a solid season in a division that I expect to be separated by a slim margin.
I believe they will finish no worse than 3rd in this division with a heavy possibility of being the leader. Let’s keep them 1st for our playoff prediction's sake.
After going shopping through Vancouver’s roster and bringing in 4 former Canucks, the Flames will look to regain their first-place form from the 2018-19 season, especially after a season in which they bested the Winnipeg Jets only to fall to the eventual Western Conference Champion Dallas Stars. The Flames have a solid roster from top to bottom and may have found their answer in net.
Finishing in the bottom 3 in offensive-rating and the bottom half in defensive-rating, Calgary will need a bounce-back performance, which they are more than capable of providing. Luckily for them, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are top-candidates for a bounce-back season and should provide an expected uptick in production for their forwards.
The flames will look to offset key defensive departures with the addition of Jacob Markstrom. I believe Markstrom will be their first real starting goalie since Mikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013.
Markstrom will look to steady the ship and keep Calgary in contention for the division's top spot all year. The Flames could even be a surprise at #1 in the division. I have them coming in just behind the Maple Leafs.
Vancouver had the deepest run in the bubble last year. After eliminating the Minnesota Wild and defending Cup champion, St. Louis Blues, they were bested by the Vegas Golden Knights in a seven-game series. After shaking things up this offseason, Vancouver will be hard-pressed to repeat.
Many expect the Canucks to take a step back for this season. Having J.T Miller as their leading scorer will raise questions around the league about sustainability, though Elias Peterson should lead the way for Vancouver’s offense with Boeser, Quinn, and Horvat; together, they should have enough to be average.
The offense this season won’t be strong enough to make up for Vancouver’s defense; after ranking 27th in expected goals against and 23rd in actual goals against in 2020, it won’t be much better. After substituting in Holtby for Markstrom and losing their 2nd best defensive forward, Toffoli (XGoals Against per 60 is 2.29 only bested by Boeser’s 2.26), I expect to see the number of actual goals increase this year.
On the outside looking in, Vancouver has a floor of 6th and a ceiling of 4th place, which I think will keep them on the outside. They will be battling with this next team for that final spot.
Edmonton boasts last season's top-two scoring leaders. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, no team in this division has a more dynamic-duo, though the rest of the team is a big question mark.
Being only one year removed from a 25th place finish and being bounced out by the 23rd place Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round, the Oilers have their sights set on the playoffs. The Oilers outperformed their advanced metric in real terms which provided them the boost they needed to get into the bubble.
Outside of the duo, there has been a lack of scoring-depth for years. I expect that to improve, but their goaltending tandem of Koskinen and Smith doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Fate won’t be as kind this year, but with Draisaitl and McDavid, this team will be the hardest to predict. I have them squeaking into the playoffs and narrowly edging out the Vancouver Canucks for that final sport.
Winnipeg may just have this division's most potent offense, boasting 5 players who finished in the top-50 in scoring last season. With Scheifele, Connor, Wheeler, Laine, and Ehlers, no other team can claim to have that many talents upfront.
Though they may have more offensive firepower than the Leafs up front, they lack the defensive-core. The Jets' major issues are their defensemen; outside of Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk, you’d be hard-pressed to find quality NHL defensemen on the roster.
Hellebuyck was the backbone of this team last year, leading the league in Saves Above Replacement. He is a great goalie, but last year's performance is what allowed the Jets to remain competitive and get into the bubble.
Trying to replicate this will be a herculean effort. Hellebuyck will be the only hope for this team to keep the opposing offenses from scoring at will. I don’t expect Hellebuyck to replicate last season and have the Jets on the outside looking in.
If you have been keeping track, you'll deduce that I expect the Canadiens to make the playoffs.
Montreal was the surprise team of last season's return to play. After an injury-plagued season, Montreal was limping towards a 24th place finish with many fans hoping to tank further to increase their odds of drafting Lafreniere.
Fortunately(?) for Habs fans, they won their play-in series against Pittsburgh and watched as a home-grown star was selected by the Rangers. Many fans quickly forgot about that after seeing the offseason Marc Bergevin executed.
Addressing the team’s biggest flaws (size and scoring), Montreal will look to improve on their showing in the bubble. Kotkaniemi will finally have quality NHL wingers who can score... and count me as someone who expects big things from the third-year player.
The added depth up front and competent back-up (for the first time this decade) should lead the Habs back to the playoffs (legitimately) for the first time in 4 seasons.
With Vancouver on the outside looking in, Edmonton will steal the final spot that this division has to offer. Montreal will come in 3rd behind Calgary at 2nd while the Toronto Maple Leafs will take the top spot... at least in these projections.
Setting up the following matchups: Edmonton vs Toronto and Montreal vs Calgary.
Edmonton will be looking to capitalize on the Maple Leafs' 4-year first-round losing streak but will be unable to do so. Toronto wins the battle of star-studded rosters with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner tasting their first playoff success.
With McDavid and Draisaitl, Edmonton will make this an offensive explosion, but their lack of depth, compared to Toronto, will undo them. Toronto will prove to be too much for them, but we will see an amazing display of skill. This will leave Toronto to play the winner of Montreal vs. Calgary.
Calgary will be feeling good with a bounce-back performance, while the media will have anointed Markstrom the franchise goalie they have desperately been seeking. Calgary will be favored by many, but this won't stop the upstart Canadiens, who will be feeling good having earning a playoff spot for the first time in 4 seasons.
I believe that this will be a highly contested series that goes to 7 games and that Montreal, Carey Price, and the revamped roster will have enough to beat them. Kotkaniemi and Suzuki will continue their playoff prowess, and with a spectacular performance from Price, Montreal will get to face their arch-rival. This sets up a Montreal vs. Toronto playoff series for the first time since 1979.
Montreal vs Toronto
If this was the Division Championship Series, it would be a dream for both fanbases. The highly powered skilled offense of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the balanced depth and defense-first approach of the Canadiens sets up a clash of styles that will be highly entertaining.
The question here is: Will Montreal be able to hold up defensively and capitalize on the chances they get? I believe that with Price in peak form in the net, that answer is yes! They will be able to roll all 4 lines and will capitalize on the back end of Toronto’s roster.
With Danault’s line able to keep Matthews in check, and the makings of another possession-driven, defensive-minded line with KK, Armia, and Toffoli, Montreal will be able to outmatch Toronto with its well-balanced attack, sending them on to the next round against an American foe.
After hearing Bill Daily on Tim & Sid clearly state that the Canadian Division will be a one-time thing, I believe it will provide one of the most exciting 56-game schedules a division has seen in decades.