The North division is a dream that many Canadian hockey fans have been wanting for years. Well now they get it: all Canadian, all the time. With the Christmas holidays wrapping up and a brand new NHL season approaching faster than Santa’s sleigh, let’s review what the teams of the ‘North’ division had asked for from St. Nick, hoping something good under their hockey stick tree.
On the Christmas List: Quality goaltending
The C of Red were very productive during this off-season. Geoff Ward has been appointed full-time head coach after filling in amidst the Bill Peters scandal last season. Two big acquisitions arrived in Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev from rivals Vancouver. The age of the players and the money paid was scrutinized but these give Calgary a massive shot in the arm. With Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan still present, this could be a fun year for Flames fans.
With more quality in net and on the blue line, this could well see them challenging for higher spots in the division. They have played some fun hockey in previous years but were always falling just short. Last season they fell in the first round of the playoffs against Dallas, hopefully, there won’t be a repeat of this in 2021!
On the Christmas List: A Hart trophy
The rise of Leon Draisaitl dominated the headlines last season as he walked away with the Hart Trophy. However, for all their talent Edmonton was unable to get beyond the qualifying round of the playoffs. This season will be all about proving the hype that has buzzed around this team in recent years. Connor McDavid needs a cup ring badly, so everyone needs to step up. During the off-season, Edmonton has been quietly building bringing in Tyson Barrie, Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun and Tyler Ennis as supporting players.
The never-ending Mike Smith is back in net, but re-signing dud Jesse Puljujarvi left many scratching their heads! Edmonton should aim high for this season because with one of the stronger rosters in this division they need to back up their plaudits. This roster has the potential to do so, they need to be more productive in the postseason.
On the Christmas List: Fountain of Youth
Few GM’s were busier this offseason than Marc Bergevin who’s never shy about making moves. He shipped Max Domi to Columbus for Josh Anderson, and also added Joel Edmondson, Jake Allen and Tyler Toffoli, veteran guys who have won a Cup to help add depth and size to their roster, or maybe just somebody to hang out with in the weight room…The Habs core of young players like Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are going to be given every opportunity to carry the load and finished strong in the playoffs, knocking off heavily favoured Pittsburgh in the play-in round. That said this team will only go as far as its veteran stars carry them.
Carey Price continues to be an enigma in net, at times looking like the best goalie in the world, and at others, well, not…The addition of an experienced back up in Jake Allen from St. Louis was an expensive but potentially shrewd move, especially with the compressed 56 game schedule. They’ve lacked consistency there for several years and if Price can be rested over what amounts to a sprint for the playoffs, the Habs should contend for one of the top four spots in the temporary ‘North’ division. On the blue line retaining Jeff Petry and the continued excellence of captain Shea Weber alongside some young up and comers like Victor Mette should give them a steady presence against their divisional counterparts who have more high end offensive ability. If they can get some added offence from their new comers, and they young guys take the next step, they may surprise.
On the Christmas List: Capital in the Capital
The Sens find themselves the prohibitive 7th seed in the North (Canadian) division, and for a young, rebuilding team, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In saying that, they’re not afraid of anyone and are more than willing (and eager) to play spoiler. They parted ways with long time and fan favourites Craig Anderson and Mark Borowiecki, but they additions of Matt Murray and Evgenii Dadanov showed that they team was trying to improve from last year, or at least make it to the cap floor…The most frustrating thing for Sens fans continues to be the actions (or lack thereof) from ownership to truly take the next step. After watching one star player after another walk away like they’re the 90’s Expos, fans in the capital are finally excited about the impressive crop of young stars on the way.
However, they had the opportunity to add even more with their bevy of cap space, in taking on lousy contracts for picks and prospects which could set them up for years to come. But if the writing on the wall was ever more evident, ownership doesn’t have the money. To be fair, nobody expects them to be a cap team, and understandably many franchises are cash strapped with the pandemic, but this is par for the course from Eugene Melnyk whose pride seems tantamount to Ebenezer Scrooge’s, only without the finances, or change of heart…He’s unwilling to sell, but doesn’t seem willing to spend, or perhaps even have, the money necessary to run the team effectively. The on ice product should improve with the like of Thomas Chabot, and Brady Tkachuk coming into their prime, and 3rd overall pick Tim Stutzle and others on the way, but until something is done with ownership, Ottawa seems destined to be stuck in this awkward perpetuity.
Toronto Maple Leafs
On the Christmas List: Clock
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas spent the off season doing what many in Leafs nation have been clamouring for him to do for years: add some much needed size and, as one of his predecessors would say, ‘truculence’. With Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie not so much departing as having their bags packed for them, he set about acquiring Zach Bogosian who was a useful piece for the Lighting during their Cup run and TJ Brodie from Calgary. Alongside Wayne Simmonds, this gives Toronto a trio who bring a physical element much beleaguered Leafs fans have been yearning for. In addition to the seemingly ageless Joe Thornton, and shipping Kasperi Kapanen off to Pittsburgh, Toronto will have a different mix to try and win the temporary ‘North’ division. And if we’re being honest, anything less will seem like a failure. After losing another seven game series to a talented Boston squad in 2019, management claimed they were ready to make a run, but a loss to Columbus in the play in round last year had some calling for more than a few moves, perhaps starting at the top.
Kyle Dubas seems like a calculating, rational guy who strongly believes in his method and strategy of icing a skilled based team, but of late, as his moves would suggest, he’s starting to come around, if loathed to admit it outright. One need look no further than the last few Stanley Cup champions to see that a mix of size and skill seems necessary to get the job done. For all their talent, the Leafs haven’t been able to find that extra gear, or pay the necessary price, come the post season and perhaps these new additions will help. There is also the matter of arguably their most important player of the last few season Freddie Anderson heading into the last year of his contract. The time is now, and if they fail to capitalize, one or more prominent names may, for once, find themselves paying the price.
On the Christmas List: A doctor that will sign off on bottom 6 LTIR “injuries”
The Canucks offseasons acquisitions were the prime focus of scrutiny this off-season. Unwilling to pay huge extensions for ageing talents like Chris Tanev or Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks went with some cost-effective options as cap space is needed for the future. Braden Holtby‘s tenure in Washington came to the end and he came to Vancouver on a two-year deal. Nate Schmidt arrived from Vegas to bolster the blue line but names like Tyler Toffoli and Troy Stecher were key losses in the free agency market. Vancouver boasts one of the most exciting and youngest top 6 lines in the league that can once again challenge for a playoff spot. However, the Brock Boeser question will again be asked this season as trade rumours constantly swirl. For the Canucks it is going to be a matter of keeping their prime talent than making splashes in the trade market. This team has the potential to excite, but they will need to ensure Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat and yes, Boeser want to remain in B.C to challenge for glory.
On The Christmas List: Squat Rack
That is to say, something to bolster their uh, ‘back end’. The Jets blue line was decimated last year and Paul Maurice and co. (I mean, honestly, mostly Connor Hellebuyck) deserve credit for how they handled the situation. The Dustin Bfuyglien mess now behind them, and some cap space as a result, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff now has to give his star netminder the help he deserves. You don’t have to be a big fan of analytics, the old fashioned eye test would do just fine to show how lopsided things were in their own end. Their expected goals against was somewhat akin to the Easter Bunny handing out candy and the fact that they still qualified for the play in round was largely a testament to Connor Hellebyuck and his well-deserved Vezina trophy season.
So, how best to fix this problem? The rumours surrounding young sniper Patrik Laine netting a return for a top tier rearguard have many speculating his tenure in Manitoba may be coming to an end faster than his one-timers. The Jets are deep up front, but the reality is with his upside and the risk of a lackluster return looking very bad in the not too distant future, should the Jets make that gamble? That said if you can’t sign him before his bridge deal expires after this coming year because he’s asking for more than they can reasonably afford, there’s no sense going the Toronto method and putting all your eggs in the forward basket, so it would seem the prudent move to address a glaring need.