It was rumored to be in the works for some time, and it’s official that there will indeed be an all-Canadian division, or the “North” Division for the 2020-21 season. With the continued closure of the Canada/U.S. border, such a happening could be seen from a mile away.
Given the strict intradivision play throughout the regular season, Canadian clubs will be going head-to-head as many as nine or 10 times this season which is sure to ignite some of the best rivalries in the game, most notably the Battle of Alberta that was renewed with authority a season ago.
The North Division also happens to be one of the more balanced division. Even the rebuilding Ottawa Senators will be a tough out, but the remaining six teams all boast serious postseason aspirations. Of course, the NHL’s playoff format allows for four of the seven Canadian club a postseason berth.
With all that in mind, let’s dive deeper into this division. We’ll break down the teams and their odds before making a couple predictions on how will win this thing and a team boasting increased value to do so.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
NHL North Division
Of course, the North Division will consist of the following seven NHL clubs:
Vancouver Canucks – Calgary Flames – Edmonton Oilers – Winnipeg Jets – Toronto Maple Leafs – Ottawa Senators – Montreal Canadiens
It’s a three-division mix from last season as the new-look North Division includes three teams from the Atlantic (Maple Leafs, Senators, Canadiens), three from the Pacific (Canucks, Flames, Oilers) and a single team from the Central (Jets).
In other words, we’ll see plenty of matchups from teams unfamiliar with one another, but in this unique season it will not take long to get acquainted.
NHL North Division Preview & Odds
Let’s briefly touch on all seven clubs and their odds to win the division in 2021.
Toronto Maple Leafs (+150)
After four straight seasons of qualifying for the postseason but failing to win a series, the Maple Leafs re-tooled their roster this offseason, seemingly addressing two of their most glaring needs: right defense and grit.
They quickly signed former Calgary Flame defenseman T.J. Brodie. Brodie, the former partner for 2019 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano, is once again bound for top-pairing duties alongside Morgan Rielly. They also added veteran Zach Bogosian to the right side of their blueline after he skated in 20 postseason games with the Tampa Bay Lightning en route to a Stanley Cup championship.
Dubas also stated he wanted his team to be harder to play against this season, i.e. add some grit. Bogosian is one player that fits both needs, and they also signed Wayne Simmonds to a one-year deal as well.
Grizzled veteran Joe Thornton was another high-profile addition in free agency, while the likes of Jimmy Vesey, Travis Boyd, Mikko Lehtonen and top prospect Nicholas Robertson will look to support one of the best young cores in the NHL.
Edmonton Oilers (+300)
The Oilers enjoyed a nice resurgent season in 2019-20, finishing second in the Pacific Division behind the Vegas Golden Knights while forward Leon Draisaitl led the league with 110 points, earning him the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
43 goals. 67 assists. 110 points.
— NHL (@NHL) September 21, 2020
However, all that success was washed away in the team’s qualifying-round upset loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the lowest seed in the west from a season ago.
The club added the likes of Kyle Turris and Dominik Kahun with the hope they can provide some bottom-six offense while 22-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi will return to the NHL after a one-year hiatus in his native Finland.
The forward group is likely improved, but the blueline took a major blow with the news that No. 1 defenseman Oscar Klefbom will miss the entirety of the 2020-21 season with a shoulder injury. Klefbom ranked fifth in the NHL with 25:25 of average ice time, led the league with 180 blocked shots and was on pace for a career-high in points before the pause in action.
Without Klefbom and a suspect goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith in goal, the Oilers appear to be a regression candidate this season.
Vancouver Canucks (+500)
The Canucks’ rebuild seemingly reached its conclusion last year as they finished one spot behind the Oilers at third in the Pacific before ousting the Minnesota Wild in the postseason’s qualifying round and upsetting the St. Louis Blues in round one.
They bowed out to the Vegas Golden Knights in a tight seven-game series, seemingly building plenty of momentum for the future.
However, a lacklustre offseason appears to have put them in flux. They allowed the trio of Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Tyler Toffoli to walk in free agency, otherwise known as their No. 1 goaltender, a top-four defender and a player in Toffoli who thrived in Vancouver after they acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline.
Nate Schmidt was added via trade with Vegas to solve a need on the right side of the blueline, but there is plenty of uncertainty in the bottom defense pairing and the Thatcher Demko/Braden Holtby goaltending duo has question marks written all over it despite the upside of Demko as the goaltender of the future.
Montreal Canadiens (+525)
Contrary to the Canucks, it certainly appears as if the Habs enjoyed a fruitful offseason.
We’ll see how it shakes out, but the trade of Max Domi for Josh Anderson – and subsequent Anderson extension – seems like a nice deal for a team in need of a power forward of Anderson’s ilk. Furthermore, general manager Marc Bergevin was somehow able to lure the aforementioned Toffoli to Montreal on a four-year deal worth just $4.25M annually. Those are two players capable of top-six duties on this offense.
Ouais, on va aimer Josh Anderson. 🚂
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) October 7, 2020
On defense, the Canadiens traded for Joel Edmundson’s rights from the Carolina Hurricanes and signed him to a four-year deal. The Habs will also welcome top prospect Alexander Romanov to what looks like an improved back end.
More than anything, the Canadiens needed to give Carey Price some support, and did so when they acquired veteran netminder Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues. In a season where the importance of a quality goaltending tandem will be magnified, the Allen trade certainly seems prudent on Bergevin’s behalf.
After a qualifying-round upset of the Penguins and a nice battle with the Flyers in round one, the Canadiens seem to have bolstered their roster heading towards this season.
Winnipeg Jets (+600)
After months of trade speculation, Patrik Laine will remain with the Jets as part of a fine-looking top-six that once again features center Paul Stastny after the club re-acquired him from the Golden Knights.
Due to injury and an inability to get out of their own end, the Jets’ offense tumbled last year, but they were able to get into the league’s 24-team postseason format thanks to a Herculean effort from Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.
Of course, the plan is to avoid leaning so heavily on their goaltender, but the Jets’ blueline remains an uninspiring group after the team put form some of the worst advanced metrics in the NHL last season.
Boasting a top six featuring Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Laine, Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers, the Jets have a group that many clubs admire. However, if the suspect defense remains unable to contain the opposition and break the puck out to these forwards, the Jets are going to be in for another disappointing result this season.
Calgary Flames (+650)
The Flames got through the Jets in the qualifying round and put forth a valiant effort against a Dallas Stars team that marched all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
General manager Brad Treliving wasn’t content, however, as he went out and added pieces on the open market. Losing Brodie wasn’t ideal, but he immediately replaced him with Tanev, a stout top-four defender in his own right, when healthy which has been an issue. Not only that, but Treliving pried Markstrom away from a division rival on a six-year, $36M deal. Alongside David Rittich who showed flashes of No. 1 potential last season, the Flames appear to have a fine goaltending duo in place for next season.
— NHL (@NHL) August 3, 2020
If poaching Tanev and Markstrom from the rival Canucks wasn’t enough, Treliving also added depth scorer Josh Leivo after he tallied a solid seven goals and 19 points in 36 games in Vancouver last season.
The additions are nice, but the team’s success will largely hinge on the production of their core four up front in Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk. Despite Monahan and Gaudreau each having two more years on their contracts, it could be this core’s last kick at the can if postseason success is not reached this season.
Ottawa Senators (+2000)
The Senators have turned a major corner in their rebuild after drafting twice in the top five in October, snatching German forward Tim Stuetzle and American defenseman Jake Sanderson at No. 3 and 5, respectively.
Both players join one of the best prospect pools in the NHL while the NHL club added pieces as well. Former Florida Panther Evgenii Dadonov was the prize of the offseason, but Austin Watson, Alex Galchenyuk, Joshua Brown and Erik Gudbranson were also added to the skater portion of their roster.
Of course, the trade for netminder Matt Murray for a third-round draft pick also made headlines. Signing him to a four-year deal worth $6.25M annually coming off a pair of subpar seasons is questionable, but a fresh start for the two-time Stanley Cup winner was needed and he’ll get his opportunity in Canada’ capital.
After years of frustration, the Senators’ rebuild is starting to bear fruit, and while D.J. Smith will have his team ready to compete on a nightly basis, the Sens are still a ways away from contender status.
NHL North Division Predictions
As evidenced by the odds, the North Division is a fairly balanced group. This is especially true in the middle five where there isn’t much separating the second-ranked Oilers at +300 and sixth-ranked Flames at +650.
Such a circumstance could make it a difficult division to handicap, however it didn’t take me long to identify a division winner and a value play from this group.
Division Winner – Maple Leafs (+150)
By all accounts, this is the Maple Leafs’ division to lose. Finally, at least temporarily, they are released from the grasp of the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning within the former Atlantic Division. The Maple Leafs have finished third behind that duo within the Atlantic in each of the last three seasons, but with the Bruins moving to the East Division and the Lightning to the Central, the Maple Leafs find themselves as the team to beat.
Dubas promised changes and quickly identified needs and targets. Brodie was a good bet to land with Toronto in free agency after Dubas tried to acquire him in a trade for Nazem Kadri last offseason, and despite being a left shot, he has spent much of his NHL career on the right side in a prominent role, something he will certainly see in his new digs.
The Buffalo Sabres released Zach Bogosian last year, but he quickly caught on with Tampa Bay and played some of the best hockey of his career in the postseason. His right shot and physical style of play killed two birds with one stone for Dubas.
While we can go through names all day long, the bottom line is this version of the Maple Leafs is the deepest group we’ve seen in some time. Not only will the roster sport serious talent from top to bottom, but the four-to-six man taxi squad is going to contain full-blown NHL talent that simply wasn’t able to get into the lineup on any given night.
Like it has in season’s past, the success of this team could depend on the performance of goaltender Frederik Andersen. Andersen was remarkably consistent in posting save percentages of .918, .918 and .917 across his first three seasons with the Leafs, but slipped to a career-worst .909 mark at the age of 30 last season.
Whether it was an off year or a sign of future decline remains to be seen, but the 2020-21 NHL campaign represents a contract year for the big Dane, and if he shines once again this Maple Leafs team will be off and running.
At this point, the trade deadline deal for goaltender Jack Campbell looks especially critical. Teams will absolutely need to rely on both netminders in a condensed schedule that will feature plenty of back-to-backs and three-in-four-night scenarios as part of the unique, MLB-style schedule that features “sets” in an effort to limit travel.
Campbell worked to a solid 2.63 GAA and .915 Sv% in six games with the Maple Leafs last season. The former first-round pick could be a long-term piece with the team is he’s able to repeat such work.
Have you picked your jaw up from the floor?
— NHL (@NHL) December 17, 2020
Top to bottom, the Maple Leafs have the best roster on paper in this division, and if the new additions can fill their roles properly, the Leafs will indeed be North Division champs in 2021.
Value Pick – Calgary Flames (+650)
Sporting the second-lowest odds to win the North Division, the Calgary Flames seem to boast significant underdog value if the Maple Leafs slip up this regular season.
For an NHL fan of any team except for the Canucks, you have to love what the Flames accomplished this offseason. The team valued Brodie, but wasted no time in adding a replacement in Tanev. When healthy, Tanev is one of the most underrated defensive defensemen in the NHL. He always puts his body on the line – hence the lengthy injury history – handles the puck well and can chip in offensively to boot.
Of course, the headliner of the offseason was Markstrom. The hulking Swede enjoyed a career-year last season, working to a career-high .918 Sv% in 43 starts. Despite some high-end skill up front and the emergence of Calder runner-up Quinn Hughes on the blueline, Markstrom was bar-none the Canucks’ MVP last season, making it a tough pill to swallow for Canucks fans.
Along with Rittich, who was thriving before struggling down the stretch last season, the Flames are set in goal this season.
Another upgrade that hasn’t been mentioned is the addition of top prospect Juuso Valimaki. The 22-year-old played in 24 games with the Flames in the 2018-19 season, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He’ll fill a bottom-pair role to start this season after tallying 19 points in as many games in Finland’s top professional league in preparation for the NHL campaign.
Again, the Flames’ level of success will largely depend on what the core can accomplish. Monahan had just 48 points and a -16 rating in 70 games last season. That’s not good enough as second-line center Mikael Backlund was just three points behind. Gaudreau was better with 58 points and Tkachuk led the team with 61 points on the season, but as a group, the Flames’ core needs a superior effort this season if the team is to make any noise in this division.
Matthew Tkachuk with the beauty of a goal 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/mxHwSpO385
— The Hockey Hangout (@HockeyHangout) February 11, 2020
However, given the major upgrade in goal, the new-look defense and a core more than capable of serious production, the Flames are being overlooked and are an excellent value look at +650 in a division likely to be chock-full of parity.