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Who is biggest threat to Maple Leafs for North Division supremacy?

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The 2021 NHL season is set to get underway and is shaping up to be unlike any campaign in the league’s 103-year history. You’ve probably heard some version of this before in previous years, but due to COVID-19, the NHL needed to be clever about how a season could take place, with the Canadian federal government and its respective provinces placing travel restrictions on teams.

In response, the NHL played ball and re-aligned the divisions, if only as a unique, one-off solution to facilitate a 56-game schedule.

Among the amendments is the introduction of an All-Canadian division, officially known as the North Division, or more officially as the Scotia NHL North Division — a development that benefits the Toronto Maple Leafs more than the other clubs.

Toronto is entering its most critical season to date of the Auston Matthews era — a term used here to broadly define the core group that’s been to four consecutive playoffs and failed to advance past the first round, or if you want to be pedantic, three playoff appearances followed by an embarrassing elimination in the qualification round by the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer. Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander remain among the NHL’s best under-25 talents but you can no longer characterize this group as a young, talented team devoid of experience. Frederik Andersen enters his final year of his contract and as of now, the Maple Leafs don’t have a real contingency plan if he walks this summer. Kyle Dubas and his staff should be praised for a stellar offseason, but the cap gymnastics they had to pull off only highlights the urgency of this season.

When the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares on Canada Day 2018, it was — and still is — the correct move for the organization, but it absolutely accelerated and narrowed their Stanley Cup window. With T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton aboard among a host of other signings, the Leafs boast the roster of a Cup contender. But it is also downright laughable to start talking about a potential Cup when getting past the first round — or the qualifying round in last year’s case — still eludes this group.

The new divisional format is a necessity brought on by the pandemic, in the absence of a bubble, but it provided the Maple Leafs with an escape route from their foremost rivals. The Maple Leafs will no longer have to battle against consistently elite teams like the Lightning and Bruins, who have repeatedly thwarted Toronto’s playoff ambitions. The Maple Leafs posted consecutive 100-plus point seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19, while playing at a 94-point pace during a 2019-20 campaign when Mike Babcock was dismissed and usurped by Sheldon Keefe.

In 2018, then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri spoke candidly about how he detested the NHL’s playoff format at the time, which pitted the division’s No. 2 and No. 3 seeds against each other, in an ostensible way to conjure up divisional rivalries. The revised playoff format will likely ensure that the Maple Leafs won’t be pitted against a juggernaut again, and with all due respect, the Western Conference was inferior to the Eastern Conference last season, so the Oilers, Canucks, Jets and Flames won’t benefit as much as the Buds, even if they have real cases to win the division.

Here’s how every other Canadian team fares and if they can uproot the Maple Leafs, while battling for one of the four divisional playoff spots.

Calgary Flames

Calgary was arguably the most disappointing team during the 2019-20 season, regressing to a 93-point pace after posting a 107-point season in 2018-19. There’s no reason why Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan can’t return as one of the league’s most dangerous scoring quartets after each player underwhelmed relative to their standards last season, giving them the best chance of winning the division outside of the Maple Leafs.

Calgary’s fate largely relies on its forward group returning to elite status, along with the continued development of young forwards Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane, who took big strides last season. With the team’s core four forwards all under 27 years old, we could see career peaks from the Flames’ best, and it’s a really matter of figuring out if the 2019 or 2020 version was more predictive of what this team’s true talent level is.

Mark Giordano remains among the NHL’s elite defencemen and while there’s little reason to question his statistical profile, this might be the year he enters age-related decline at 37. Giordano will likely be paired with newcomer Chris Tanev, who joins the Flames after spending his entire 10-year career with the Canucks. Tanev benefited from playing with Quinn Hughes last season and while he’s known as a defenceman who rarely makes mistakes, he quietly had the worst year of his career, with Hughes’ rise to stardom overshadowing his decline. Noah Hanifin was once considered the most promising American defenceman of his generation, and he’s been far from that in the NHL, but he’s still 23 and we’ll boldly predict that he makes the leap to functional top-four option this year.

Calgary also plucked Jacob Markstrom from the Canucks in free agency and he now forms an effective 1-2 punch with David Rittich. Markstrom is coming off the best season of his career, earning an All-Star nod for the first time and signing a six-year, $36-million contract this summer, rendering him as the goalie of the future. Now, we’ll have to see if Markstrom’s All-Star form continues or whether he’s due for regression. How he performs, along with the star-studded top-six forward group, will dictate Calgary’s ceiling in 2021.

Edmonton Oilers

As long as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are under contract, any Oilers preview will begin with the superstar duo. Draisaitl elevated his game when McDavid missed a few weeks due to a quad injury, running away with the Art Ross Trophy after posting 110 points, 13 more than McDavid, who finished second. Will the rest of the roster be able to support their two perennial MVP candidates?

OK, so it’s not entirely bleak. Kailer Yamamoto posted 26 points in 27 games and rightfully cemented his spot within the top-six. Paired alongside Draisaitl, the 2017 first-round pick is a sleeper breakout candidate this year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t have the pedigree of most first overall picks but he can be counted on for approximately 25 goals per year and is starting the season on a line with McDavid and Zack Kassian. The narrative around the Oilers still hasn’t changed entirely, however.

Edmonton signed Tyson Barrie on a team-friendly, one-year, $3.75-million deal with the hopes the offensively-minded defenceman can shake off a career-worst year with the Maple Leafs. After being brought over from Colorado to provide some firepower from the backend, Barrie’s offensive production tailed off despite an impressive 53.85 xGF while his defence remained calamitous. If Barrie can return to form and provide elite offence for a defenceman, the Oilers may walk away with the steal of the summer.

Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are an uninspiring goaltending tandem, and it’s surprising the Oilers didn’t view this position in need of a desperate upgrade. In large part due to McDavid and Draisaitl’s superhuman talent, the Oilers’ ceiling is the most fluid — they very well could win the division — but despite their best efforts, the roster still relies far too heavily on their stars.

For now, here’s McDavid walking Morgan Rielly, the goal of the 2019-20 season.

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Montreal Canadiens

Whether you think Marc Bergevin should’ve been dismissed ages ago, or you believe in his long-term plan for the Canadiens, you can’t say he’s boring! Bergevin operated with the mandate to improve the team’s scoring punch, and he made some of the most clever and puzzling signings of the free agency window.

Montreal signed Tyler Toffoli to a four-year contract worth $17 million, a cost-effective deal that could age poorly during the final two years, but that’s tomorrow’s problem. Toffoli is expected to receive power-play minutes alongside Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin, while Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Jesperi Kotkaniemi feature on the second unit. Toffoli posted a 56.46 CF% last season and is tasked with helping an inconsistent Canadiens attack retain possession.

Carey Price isn’t at his peak, but he outperformed Carter Hart for stretches of the playoff series against the Flyers, and he can be spelled by Jake Allen, who instantly becomes one of the NHL’s best backups. Price shouldn’t be expected to work miracles anymore, but Jeff Petry has quietly developed into one of the NHL’s most underrated players, Ben Chiarot’s underlying numbers were strong, Shea Weber remains one of the league’s best offensive defencemen and prized rookie Alexander Romanov could surprise early.

More puzzling, however, is the decision to trade Max Domi for Josh Anderson. Although Domi was disappointing in 2019-20, he’s a far superior scorer than Anderson, who infamously posted one goal in 26 games last year. Bergevin then compounded his questionable move by signing Anderson to the worst deal of the offseason, a seven-year, $38.5 million extension for a player who has topped the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. The best-case scenario is that Anderson’s 27-goal season in 2018-19 wasn’t an anomaly, but why pay a player based on what you think the best-case scenario could be as opposed to a deal approximating market value? The worst-case scenario is that Anderson continues to struggle badly offensively and this deal haunts the Canadiens in the long-term.

If Montreal is to surge through the standings, they’ll need a vintage season from Price and for the organic development of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi to raise the ceiling on the team’s offence. Montreal once again will be in the mix for a playoff spot, but we’ll have to see how the new additions fare up front first.

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa has one of the more promising futures in the NHL but this season should be bleak, as the team is more likely to draft Owen Power first overall in 2021 than it is to make the playoffs. With its two top-five picks in the 2020 draft, Ottawa selected Tim Stutzle at No. 3, who was named the best forward during the world juniors, and Jake Sanderson at No. 5, who helped the U.S. win gold. Stutzle is already showing he’s ready for the NHL, while Sanderson ought to be worth the wait. This season, however, will be an eye sore.

It’s not as if the Senators didn’t try to add reinforcements for Brady Tkachuk. Evgenii Dadonov, two seasons removed from a 70-point campaign, signed a three-year, $15-million deal and adds instant scoring punch to a team in desperate need of it. Alex Galchenyuk joins the Senators after a disappointing 2019-20 and the 26-year-old has everything to prove as perception of his value league-wide continues to descend. But simply put, this team is still going to struggle to score. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

You have to feel for Thomas Chabot, an elite defenceman who perhaps would have an even larger profile if he wasn’t stuck carrying arguably the NHL’s worst unit. Chabot, who led the NHL in time on ice at exactly 26 minutes per game, may see an ever larger load as you could argue easily that he’s the lone NHL-caliber defenceman on the team. It really is Chabot and Just Some Guys.

Matt Murray had a dreadful 2019-20 campaign, but he’s a capable starter and has proven playoff experience. The latter quality won’t matter, however. This is the consensus worst team in the North.

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 10: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates by Elias Pettersson #40 of the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena December 10, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)"n
John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs are the North Division pre-season favourites, but Elias Pettersson and the Vancouver Canucks are not far behind. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver was easily one of the most fun teams to watch in 2019-20 but its goals should extend beyond being entertaining this year. Elias Pettersson is elite and silky smooth up front, J.T. Miller benefited greatly and posted 72 points, while Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser round out a solid top-six with the potential to ascend to the top of the North.

Let’s talk about Quinn Hughes. Hughes was spectacular during his rookie season, and quickly went from being one of the NHL’s best young talents, to one of the league’s best defencemen — with no qualifiers. The 21-year-old boasts world-class speed and vision and appeared to improve with every game during his rookie campaign. Tanev signed with the Flames during the offseason but Hughes will certainly elevate his new partner, Tyler Myers, and is a sleeper pick for the Norris Trophy. Nate Schmidt was also quietly one of the best signings of the offseason. The Canucks shouldn’t miss a beat.

Jacob Markstrom left for Calgary during the offseason and Vancouver replaced him with Braden Holtby. Holtby struggled last season in Washington, posting a ghastly .897 save percentage, but he could benefit from the change of scenery, and Thatcher Demko might serve as co-starter, rather than nominal backup. Demko appears to be growing more comfortable at the NHL level, and the Canucks have the luxury of alternating between two legitimate pro goalies.

The Canucks’ two best players have yet to reach their prime, as Hughes and Pettersson both have the potential to be among the top-of-the-crop at their positions. As a result, the Canucks can win this division and perhaps go on a long run during the playoffs.

Winnipeg Jets

Connor Hellebuyck did everything he possibly could for the Jets last season and was a deserving recipient of the Vezina Trophy. Hellebuyck posted a spectacular 22.40 goals saved above average, with a .922 save percentage, carrying a Jets team that did not live up to the sum of its parts after losing in the qualifying round.

It’s difficult to assess the Jets’ ceiling without addressing the Patrik Laine trade rumours first. Laine, the NHL’s streakiest goal-scorer, bristled at the notion that trade talks were affecting him as he reported to camp, despite his apparent discontent. He is a pending RFA this summer and if Laine gets traded, it very well could alter what the Jets’ ambitions look like in 2021.

For the time being, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers round out a very talented top-six that will have to offset the limited production the Jets receive from their bottom-six. Scheifele suffered a gruesome Achilles injury during the NHL’s return to play but he’ll be back for the start of the season, and if this forward group can shoot the lights out while Hellebuyck puts up another Vezina-calibre year, they have the potential to surprise and win the division.

Questions remain on the back end, however. Neal Pionk is supremely underrated, but expecting him to provide star-quality production on a unit devoid of high-end talent is simply unfair. Josh Morrissey will be the group’s anchor, while Dylan DeMelo and Derek Forbort round out a solid, if unspectacular top-four. If the defence caves again, they know they have Hellebuyck to bail them out. This strategy seems unsustainable, however, and the uncertainty surrounding the Jets make them the North’s wild card.

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