2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.
To make this simpler: the Canadian teams are in three of the four divisions before this realignment. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Canadian teams, from Vancouver to Montreal, will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Canucks, Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the seven have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?
#1 Edmonton Oilers
In the Pacific division, the Vegas Golden Knights reign supreme, but if we’re talking the Canadian teams, Edmonton’s the best and most talented. Coach Dave Tippett will look to build on the progress made from last year’s season, and continue to tweak line changes.
Edmonton has the edge over the Flames, Leafs and Canucks because of their overwhelming offense, special teams advantages, and pesky defense. While Vancouver is ahead of schedule, they don’t have Conor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (the reigning league MVP) reaching their prime. Most defenses of the other five Canadian teams are shaky at best.
#2 Vancouver Canucks
Anyone supporting the Canucks couldn’t feel more positive going into the season. The combination of general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green have the team ahead of schedule contending for a championship. Quinn Hughes is a spectacular defenseman. Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and depth at the forward position make the Canucks a real threat to advance to the final two in the Canadian division.
To have a playoff run, the Canucks have two great goaltenders in Thatcher Demko (who is the starter and presumed 1A), with Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby as 1B/backup. Holtby should be relieved to play with a better defense this year, getting back to his better days when playoff runs were expected. While Edmonton is the presumed favorite, Vancouver won’t be far behind.
#3 Toronto Maple Leafs
After the Canucks, there’s a drop-off in quality play in the North. The Canadiens need more offense, the Jets need more defense, and the Senators are still re-building. That leaves Toronto and Calgary as the two attractive options left. Between the Flames and the Leafs, the Leafs are the better team.
Toronto will be an offense-first team with the talent and stars they have. They overwhelm opponents with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander on offense. The improvements on defense should solidify. T.J. Brodie comes over from the Flames to anchor a top defense spot with Morgan Reilly. Zach Bogosian signed with Toronto in the offseason after winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. Jack Campbell is an interesting choice at backup behind goaltender Frederick Anderson, though he’s a better option than Aaron Dell.
The Leafs need improved coaching, better and consistent physical play and to win the games they need to early on, such as opening night in Montreal. They should take the positive step this season.
#4 Calgary Flames
The Flames could go as far as Cam Talbot took them, and that dropped off after their third game against the Dallas Stars. After an ugly series loss, the Flames signed Vancouver Canucks starting goalie Jacob Markstrom to a six year deal, while Talbot signed with Minnesota.
The offense, coaching and defense are solid, but Calgary has a lot to prove and work through this season. The Bill Peters saga is over and Geoff Ward will have a better philosophy with the players. They can’t afford season ending injuries when the other three teams will scrape what they can for the fourth spot. While the Flames will get the fourth spot, this could be a long season for the team and fans.