2021 North Division Predictions
As I was preparing to write this intro, I listed off a bunch of words that I could use to describe what an all-Canadian division is going to be like. The word that stuck out the most to me was “intense”. Not only does each Canadian team play each other nine or 10 times, they do so with such geographical rivalries that only a few teams are familiar with.
If you follow the Canadian teams at all, you’d know that the Battle of Alberta – when both teams are good – is one of the craziest and most intense rivalries in sports. Edmonton and Calgary hate each other with a passion, and getting the opportunity to see this matchup 10 times is going to be exhilarating. The same can be said for the Maple Leafs and Senators as the Battle of Ontario is slowly picking up steam, as is the Maple Leafs rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens. This division, on paper, has the opportunity to be one of the highest-scoring divisions out of the four, with plenty of high-end talent on display and defensive game plans that makes the old-school, dead-puck era loving weirdos sick to their stomachs. I’m here for as many goals as possible. And in this division, I think goals will be tallied in abundance. But it’s not about who will score the most goals, it’s about who is built to survive this war of attrition and set themselves up for a deep playoff run. Remember, the top four teams in each division make the playoffs, so three of these seven teams will be on the outside looking in.
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Toronto Maple Leafs +145, Edmonton Oilers +310
As a die-hard Leafs fan, I’ve heard every single joke you can imagine. I’ve heard about “1967” more times than I can shake a stick at. I’ve heard “it was 4-1” in reference to the 2013 collapse against Boston a bunch, and I’ve heard the “they lost to a Zamboni driver” statement 1,000 more times than I would have liked. Despite the misery, I’ve never wavered from the team and I do believe they are the best team in the newly-formed North Division. The Leafs have an abundance of elite-level talent. Auston Matthews leads the way, while Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander form a core that can provide supplemental scoring. Matthews was nearly to 50 goals last season before COVID cut the season short, while Nylander was on pace to beat his best point total last year in 14 fewer games. The Leafs’ problem, as has always been the case, is their defending. They were better last season under Sheldon Keefe but still gave up more than three goals per game. Frederik Andersen is going to need a bounce-back season after showing signs of shakiness, but the addition of TJ Brodie will help the teams play defensive zone. The Leafs were meant to play in a division like this against teams that are just as bad defensively as them. They won’t get bogged down as they did against Columbus in the play-ins last year. And in games that are likely to be the first team to five goals win, I’ll take the Leafs every time.
As for the Oilers, if we are talking about a team that lacks any ability in the defense zone, we must look no further. Did you watch last year’s play-in series against the Hawks? They gave up 14 goals in four playoff games. If defense really does win championships, the Oilers are nowhere closer to that goal this year than they have been since the Messier/Ranford days in the late 80s. I must admit, though, I wouldn’t want to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl baring down on my defense 10 times a season. This duo is one of, if not the best, one-two punch in the NHL today. The German, Draisaitl, led the NHL with 110 points (43/67) and captured his first career Hart Trophy. McDavid finished second in the league with 97 points in five or six fewer games than his peers depending on who you are talking about. That is lethal. And with the game on the line, the Oilers should feel confident that if they have the puck, one of these two superstars will be able to make something happen. If they have to defend, well then that’s where the problems start.
Vancouver Canucks +600, Montreal Canadiens +650, Calgary Flames +700, Winnipeg Jets +700
It’s really difficult for me to decipher these teams from one another. They are almost identical in terms of annual disappointment, and the odds are telling us just that.
The Canucks got rid of their best goaltender only to replace him with an older goalie who is looking to have a bounce-back season. They’ve got some solid pieces up front and a solid defenseman they can build around in Quinn Hughes. However, they are likely a year or two away from being a good team, and that’ll still require them to get a few lucky breaks and acquire one or two more pieces to round out their roster. I don’t believe they should be the team with the lowest odds in this section, but that’s just my opinion.
The Canadians are almost identical to the Canucks in that they rely on stellar goaltending to keep them in every game, a dogged forecheck, and a few talented forward to score the bulk of their goals. They are not the fastest or toughest team to play against, so I’m not sure that the excitement level should be raised even the slightest level for this squad. Sure, they seem to play the Leafs close, but the Oilers, Flames, Jets, and Leafs are all too quick for them to keep up.
The Flames, on paper, have finally seemed to solve their goaltending issues. They nabbed Jacob Markstrom from the Canucks and that should help immensely since they gave up just more than three goals per game last season. Offensively, the Flames will rely on guys like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Brady Tkachuk, with the ever-present Mark Giordano manning the blueline. With the goaltending issues seemingly figured out, the Flames have every chance to win this division, and this is a great price.
As for the Jets, they have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner between the pipes in Connor Hellebuyck. He led the league last year in shutouts with six and was second with 31 wins, seventh in save percentage, and posted a 2.57 goals-against average. If he can replicate that season in any way, the Jets may be able to overcome their offensive issues, as they ranked 18th in the league in goals scored per game last season. Another thing not to like with the Jets is the issues surrounding trading players, in particular, Patrik Laine. He’s been the biggest talking point in Winnipeg since he came into the league and this team has just had too many off-ice distractions to contend with, which is why I don’t trust them to last an entire year.
Ottawa Senators +10000
And lastly, the lowly Ottawa Senators. For starters, they had a great draft. They nabbed Tim Stuetzle with the third overall pick, and he should slot right in a lineup that’s void of any other good talent. They also drafted Jake Sanderson fifth overall, and he will be a work in progress to crack the defense corps. Other than those two guys, and Thomas Chabot, who is really starting to make a name for himself on defense, the Senators stink. They are full of outcasts from other teams who are simply not good enough to compete with the teams in this division.
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