Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season.
There are still a lot of questions facing the NHL as we inch towards the league’s anticipated start date of Jan. 1 for the 2021 season.
How long will the season be? Will there be some kind of modified bubble? What about hub cities? Will there be any fans in seats?
One of the most interesting obstacles facing the NHL is the Canada-U.S. border being closed. While Major League Baseball had a fairly easy time dancing around this by tossing the league’s only Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays, in Buffalo, the NHL faces a greater challenge as seven of its 31 teams are based in Canada.
As of right now, it seems inevitable that the league will operate with an All-Canadian Division in which the Oilers, Flames, Canucks, Maple Leafs, Senators, Canadiens, and Jets only play each other.
Obviously, a lot can change between now and January. The Canadian government is piloting a rapid testing project in Alberta this month which could potentially result in the easing of border restrictions. But if the NHL wants to start on Jan. 1, there isn’t much time to wait.
For right now, let’s just assume that there’s an All-Canadian Division for the 2021 season.
From a fan’s perspective, this is a pretty exciting change of scenery. Rather than boring games against the Kings, Coyotes, and Ducks, we would get to watch rivalries build among the Canadian franchises. Those rivalries already exist among Canadian fans and the existence of an All-Canadian Division would create a battle for bragging rights that we’ve never had before.
So, with that in mind, who looks like the best team in the All-Canadian Division? It’ll be a fun division, that’s for sure. Save for one bad team, the other six Canadian teams were separated by only 12 points in the standings last season.
I’ll give my thoughts from the bottom to the top…
7. Ottawa Senators
This is an easy place to start. The Ottawa Senators finished 2019-20 with the second-worst record in the league ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings.
Though the Sens’ future looks bright — I mean, as bright as it can be when your owner is Eugene Melnyk — there’s still a long road ahead for this team. At the draft, they added Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson to a deep prospect pool but neither player will be a game-changer in 2021.
Two moves that will help Ottawa in 2021 are the additions of goaltender Matt Murray and forward Evgenii Dadonov. The Sens are moving out of the basement but they’re still pretty clearly the weakest team in the All-Canadian.
6. Montreal Canadiens
Things start to get quite a bit more difficult to project now.
The Canadiens were pretty bad last season. They went 31-31-9 and were the worst team to be invited to the NHL’s summer tournament when the league expanded its playoffs from 16 to 24 teams. Despite that, the Habs managed to take down the Pittsburgh Penguins in the wild-card round thanks to some amazing goaltending from Carey Price.
But don’t overvalue what happened in a five-game series after a multi-month layoff. While Price can steal a short playoff series, given his age and health, it isn’t a great bet to assume he can play like that over the course of a full season.
Montreal made some odd moves this off-season, too. They swapped Max Domi for Josh Anderson, sending away a guy who had 44 points for a guy who had four. They also acquired Jake Allen to be Price’s back-up. Allen was good last year but he posted a .906 and .905 save percentage in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
On paper, the Habs don’t look that much better than the .500 team they were last year but a huge season from Price could change everything.
5. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are an interesting team that could really go either way.
Last season, they were one of the many bubble teams in the mix for a playoff spot in the Western Conference mess when the season was paused and ended up making it because the field was expanded.
They managed to make it there because of their top-heavy forward group and an amazing, MVP-calibre showing from goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who ended up winning the Vezina Trophy.
The Jets’ forwards can absolutely be great again in 2021. They added Paul Stastny over the off-season, giving them a very good second-line centre who’s already familiar with the team. The big question is whether or not Hellbuyck can be amazing again.
And he’s going to have to be because Winnipeg’s blueline, which was among the weakest in the league last year, didn’t get any better this off-season.
4. Vancouver Canucks
After enjoying a breakout season in 2019-20, the Canucks were one of the biggest losers in the off-season.
Despite his team’s competitive window just starting to open, Jim Benning has managed to put the Canucks into a difficult salary-cap situation. With nearly $20 million committed to guys like Tyler Myers, Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson, and Jay Beagle, the Canucks weren’t able to improve their roster at all this fall.
In fact, they weren’t even to remain as good as they were last season. The Canucks lost Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, and Troy Stecher to free agency and their only notable addition was Braden Holtby, a downgrade in net.
The biggest loss for Vancouver is Markstrom, who was the team’s MVP last year. Markstrom posted a .918 save percentage and was instrumental in the Canucks’ breakout season. He packed up and went to a division rival and the Canucks replaced him with Holtby, a guy who has declined substantially over the past couple of years.
The key for Vancouver will be continued internal progression from young stars like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. A big season from Thatcher Demko in net would also be huge.
3. Calgary Flames
After finish the 2018-19 season as the top team in the Western Conference, the Flames had a disappointing showing in 2019-20.
They were a middle-of-the-pack team, finishing with a 36-27-7 record before the season got paused. The Flames went 12-12-4 under Bill Peters and did see a decent improvement after he was fired and replaced with Geoff Ward, but it was nowhere near their showing from 2018-19.
The Flames’ biggest move of the off-season was inking Jacob Markstrom to a six-year contract worth $36 million to shore up their goaltending. The Flames’ goaltending tandem of Cam Talbot and David Rittich combined to post a good-not-great .911 save percentage in 2019-20, so Markstrom should be a nice upgrade.
Another major change for the Flames was losing a couple of veterans from their blueline. T.J. Brodie went to Toronto and Travis Hamonic is still on the open market. The Flames inked Chris Tanev, a veteran from the Canucks, to replace Hamonic, but losing the wildly underrated Brodie is a huge loss for the team’s defence.
2. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers posted the best record among Canadian teams in 2019-20, going 37-25-9 and finishing with 83 points, two ahead of the Maple Leafs.
The biggest loss for the Oilers this off-season is undoubtedly Oscar Klefbom, who likely won’t suit up for the team in 2021 as he undergoes surgery on his shoulder. Losing your No. 1 defender is a massive obstacle to overcome.
Despite that curveball and a challenging salary cap situation, Ken Holland did nice work with Edmonton’s roster this off-season, adding Kyle Turris, Tyler Ennis, Tyson Barrie, and Dominik Kahun to value contracts. Jesse Puljujarvi is also set to return to Edmonton after spending 2019-20 in Finland.
Are the Oilers better than they were last season?
In some aspects, yes. They boast a much deeper forward group now and have a third line that can actually produce offence. But their blueline and goaltending didn’t improve. Klefbom, again, is a huge loss, and the Oilers are going into 2021 with the same questionable goaltending tandem as they did last season.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
Because of Klefbom’s injury and the question marks surrounding a Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen goaltending tandem, I have the Leafs as my projected top team in the All-Canadian Division.
The Leafs had a pretty forgettable season in 2019-20. Their 36-25-9 record was underwhelming but it’s important to note that they went 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe after Mike Babcock was fired.
The team also had a strong off-season, adding T.J. Brodie to help shore up their blueline and adding veterans like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Zach Bogosian to the fold. A deeper, more mature squad with a full season of Keefe behind the bench should result in the Leafs being quite a bit better than they were in 2019-20.
But, as I said off the hop, this will be a tight, competitive division so there’s a very good chance my prediction is entirely off. No matter what, though, an All-Canadian Division would be a blast for entertainment value. Let’s hope it happens.