Let’s project the 2020-21 Canada Division standings for now

The National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players’ Association have agreed to the most basic structures for the upcoming 2020-21 regular season, but the next step in the process is getting two-thirds of the league’s Board of Governors to vote in favor of the expected 56-game regular season format.

That vote should be coming sometime in the next week after last Wednesday’s Board of Governor’s conference call went… well?

With the United States and Canada border remaining closed for the near future, the league has already confirmed an all-Canadian division as part of the 2020-21 plans, but the rest of the expected realignment has yet to be formally announced.

But if the regular season is set to get underway on January 13th, then it’s probably time to start talking a little about what to expect from each team this season.

Let’s dig into the Canadian Division and try to guess how things might go.

1. Winnipeg Jets

Connor Hellebuyck is the defending Vezina Trophy winning goaltender as the league’s best in 2019-20 with a 31-21-5 record in 58 games played (56 starts), as well as a 2.57 goals against average and a .922 save percentage in that span.

Hellebucyk recorded six shutouts last season—tying a career-high— while playing in fewer games than he did the last time around when he had six shutouts in 67 games played in 2017-18.

His 2019-20 stats were better than his 2018-19 regression, but if there’s one thing that’s been plaguing the Jets goaltender— it’s overuse.

With a 56-game regular season ahead, lots of time off between the pause from the middle of March until the postseason in August, as well as the second go-around for this offseason, Hellebucyk should be able to find his rhythm in a lighter workload and be in his prime by the time the playoffs come around.

There’s no guarantees that Winnipeg— let alone the league as a whole— makes it through the season without any positive COVID-19 tests, however, which means there’s always a chance for another stoppage due to the ongoing global pandemic.

Although, there’s certainly optimism with vaccines becoming more available as the season progresses.

Meanwhile, Jets General Manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, re-acquired Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights to strengthen up his core down the middle and if he can stay healthy, there’s a good chance Stastny can reacclimate to his familiar Winnipeg teammates and elevate his level of play to that of Winnipeg’s 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs performance when the team went all the way to the Western Conference Final (and Stastny had 15 points in 17 games), only to lose to the Golden Knights in five games.

An all-Canadian division presents a tough challenge for the Jets, however.

Despite signing Nate Thompson to a fourth line role for toughness, the usual suspects in the traditional Western Conference (so… …Calgary, mainly) combined with, say, Montreal, might have the edge at using the body. 

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have the best chance at upsetting the Jets for control of the Canadian Division lead by the end of the regular season. That said, they could be their own worst enemy this season.

The addition of T.J. Brodie on the blue line with a four-year contract worth $5.000 million per season is perhaps GM Kyle Dubas’ best free agency signing in recent offseasons.

The subtraction of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen through separate trades with the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins might come back to haunt the Maple Leafs in their quest for immediate short-term success.

Then again, when you haven’t won the Cup since 1967, there’s bound to be a little impatience and some reactionary moves made— wait, this was mostly just because they put themselves tight against the cap without any room to improve their defense unless they dealt a player for another player or shed cap space, right?

In that case, carry on with the “Shanaplan” or whatever the Leafs are doing these days.

Wayne Simmonds is getting older as a 32-year-old power forward reaching the twilight of his prime, but his one-year, $1.500 million contract is attractive as a potentially low-cost, high-reward depth signing.

It’s not so much that Simmonds is even that much of a depth signing, but rather that Toronto needed to bolster their NHL capable talent on their roster and the addition of Simmonds, Joe Thornton and (potentially) a full 56-game season from Nicholas Robertson should give them an experience boost in the long run.

If the Leafs can’t put something together this season in terms of forward progress when it counts (the Stanley Cup Playoffs), then it may be time to consider larger changes— especially since their current starting goaltender, Frederik Andersen, is a pending unrestricted free agent at season’s end and the salary cap situation isn’t going to improve on its own.

3. Calgary Flames

After signing roughly half of last season’s Vancouver Canucks in free agency, the new look Calgary Flames are ready to take on the 2020-21 season and— oh, there’s not that much different about them is there?

Geoff Ward had the interim tag removed and was officially named head coach on Sept. 14th, which was the right call to be made, despite Calgary’s colossal collapse in Game 6 of their 2020 First Round matchup with the Dallas Stars.

The Flames led, 3-1, entering the first intermission. The Stars led, 6-3, after 40 minutes of play. Dallas finished off Calgary with a, 7-3, win and clinched the series, 4-2.

Not impressed by their goaltending tandem of David Rittich (24-17-6, 2.97 GAA, .907 SV%, 2 SO, 48 GP in 2019-20) and Cam Talbot (12-10-1, 2.63 GAA, .919 SV%, 2 SO, 26 GP in 2019-20) last season, Flames GM Brad Treliving signed Jacob Markstrom(23-16-4, 2.75 GAA, .918 SV%, 2 SO, 43 GP in 2019-20) to a six-year deal worth $36 million ($6.000 million per season).

Markstrom will likely take a good chunk of Rittich’s workload for the foreseeable future and (hopefully) improve both goaltender’s goals against average and save percentage in the process.

Talbot, meanwhile, left for the Minnesota Wild in free agency.

Treliving also added some depth to his lineup— bolstering the top-four defenders with the addition of Christopher Tanev on a four-year contract worth $4.500 million per season and adding a pair of bottom six forwards in Josh Leivo and Joakim Nordstrom to one-year contracts worth $875,000 and $700,000 respectively.

While tough guys like Zac Rinaldo remain part of the team, the Flames gave themselves more flexibility with their game-to-game lineup— decreasing the emphasis on big physical play in favor of penalty killers like Leivo and Nordstrom. Besides, if Matthew Tkachuk can stay healthy this season, then Calgary will already have more than enough of an edge to their physical game.

Calgary’s been a good regular season team as of the last few seasons, but they haven’t caught fire when they need it most going into the playoffs. With a shorter season, the Flames might be able to make some adjustments to their rhythm and find a way to make a deeper postseason run possible.

4. Vancouver Canucks

The biggest loss for the Vancouver Canucks this offseason isn’t that Markstrom went to the Flames, but rather the fact that— due to a tight salary cap— the Canucks just might be one of those teams that takes a step back before taking a few steps forward next season.

Not many people had Vancouver pegged for a long Second Round series against the Vegas Golden Knights that ultimately ended in a, 3-0, shutout loss in Game 7, but nevertheless the Canucks exceeded expectations.

Now they face the challenge of living up to those raised standards and, despite signing Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.600 million contract ($4.300 million cap hit) and acquiring Nate Schmidt from the Golden Knights for a 2022 3rd round draft pick, Vancouver isn’t that much better than they were last season on paper.

Sure, Canucks head coach, Travis Green, can muster his team into the postseason and make some noise like they did in 2020, but for all the smart, calculated moves Vancouver’s GM, Jim Benning, has made in the last couple of years there’s still a backlog of bad contracts (*ahem* Loui Eriksson) and players past their prime in the bottom-six, which inhibits scoring depth.

That lack of scoring depth ultimately cost them the series against Vegas, since Thatcher Demko can’t stop pucks and score goals for the team too.

At least they brought back a classic look for their Reverse Retro threads and they’ll look cool regardless of scoring prowess.

5. Montreal Canadiens

It’s a shame the Montreal Canadiens have to play in an all-Canadian division this season, because they’d likely make the playoffs otherwise in the Atlantic.

Sure, trading Max Domi to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Josh Anderson then signing Anderson to a seven-year extension worth $5.500 million per season through 2026-27 isn’t necessarily the smartest move Habs GM Marc Bergevin could’ve made, but he did add Tyler Toffoli in free agency on a four-year contract worth $4.250 million per season.

Anderson only played in 26 games last season— recording a goal and three assists (four points) in the process while battling injuries throughout the year. If he can stay healthy in his tenure with the Canadiens and match his career-highs in 2018-19 (27-20—47 totals), then there’s a chance Montreal can claim “low-cost, high-reward” on the trade, but they still gave Columbus a top-six center in the process.

Meanwhile, Toffoli amassed 44 points (24 goals, 20 assists) in 68 games last season split between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks and was the best bargain among the top unrestricted free agents on the market.

He’s still in his prime at 28-years-old and will be 32 by the time his contract expires— which doesn’t have a no-trade or no-movement clause attached to it, making it easy for the Canadiens to move if they need to or make him expendable in the 2021 Seattle Kraken expansion draft as more young Habs prospects begin to crack the NHL roster.

The other good news for Montreal? They acquired goaltender, Jake Allen, and defender, Joel Edmundson, in separate trades with the St. Louis Blues and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively, this offseason.

Edmundson provides depth as a bottom-pairing blue liner and occasional seventh defender turned healthy scratch some nights.

Meanwhile, Allen carries a $4.350 million cap hit this season, but already signed a two-year extension worth $2.875 million per season from 2021-23. He had the second-best goals against average (2.15) among goalies with at least 24 games played last season (behind only Tuukka Rask’s 2.12 in 41 games for the Boston Bruins), which is highly promising for a team that’s badly needed an NHL caliber backup goaltender for the last few seasons.

His 12-6-3 record in 24 games last season and .927 save percentage continued to show a promising trend—that with healthy competition for playing minutes, Allen performs better than when he’s just expected to be the starter.

Finally, Canadiens head coach, Claude Julien, can rest Carey Price and present Montreal with a refreshed starting goaltender coming down the stretch. At least, that’s the hope anyway.

6. Edmonton Oilers

For the first time since the 2018-19 season, Jesse Puljujarvi is back as an Edmonton Oiler after remaining an unsigned restricted free agent past the December 1st deadline and spending last season in Europe.

He found his scoring touch with Liiga’s Kärpät, amassing 24-29—53 totals in 56 games, but he’s never scored more than 20 points in parts of three NHL seasons since making his debut in the 2016-17 season.

If Puljujarvi is rejuvenated, then the Oilers will get a much-needed shot to the arm of their offense given that Edmonton badly needed scoring depth outside of annual All Stars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Draisaitl is coming off of a Hart Trophy winning season in which he set career-highs in assists (67) and points (110) in 71 games, but still finished as a minus-seven in plus/minus.

Edmonton’s goaltending is best described as porous and didn’t get better in free agency, since the team wasn’t able to land guys like Holtby or Henrik Lundqvist as a possible 1A/1B tandem with Mikko Koskinen.

Instead, it’s another year of Mike Smith (19-12-6, 2.95 GAA, .902 SV%, 1 SO in 39 GP) and Koskiken (18-13-3, 2.75 GAA, .917 SV%, 1 SO in 38 GP) which is bound to be lit up by the proficient offense and youth surrounding them in the Canadian Division.

At the very least, the offseason musical chairs of defenders— from Tyson Barrie joining the Oilers via Toronto in free agency, Chris Tanev joining the Flames after leaving Vancouver and T.J. Brodie leaving the Flames to join the Maple Leafs— should be fun to watch all in the same division.

7. Ottawa Senators

Though the Ottawa Senators acquired their new starting goaltender, Matt Murray, in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 7th, in exchange for prospect, Jonathan Gruden, and a 2020 2nd round pick (originally belonging to the Columbus Blue Jackets), Ottawa is still left with most of the same components of last season’s roster.

Yes, while Murray’s 2.87 GAA, .899 SV%, one shutout and 20-11-5 record in 38 games (38 starts) is better than Craig Anderson’s 3.25 GAA, .902 SV%, no shutouts and an 11-17-2 record in 34 games played (31 starts), it’s… …not that much better.

Sure, nine additional wins in the “win” column is an upside, but Murray has had a goals against average above 2.65 in each of the last three seasons.

Perhaps the league is trending back towards 1980s goalie stats, but even still, your number one goaltender should generally be better than the 19th worst GAA in the league. Then again, Anderson had the third-worst goals against average in the league last season among goaltenders with at least 24 games played.

Only Devan Dubnyk (3.35) and Jimmy Howard (4.20) were worse and Dubnyk is the only goaltender among the three of them to have a job with an NHL team this season— albeit with the San Jose Sharks after the Minnesota Wild traded him.

But never mind that, the Sens have new uniforms, a familiar, but slightly altered logo from the 1990s and a new mindset going forward, which is actually just the old mindset from the last few seasons— get better.

And get better they should with the scoring prowess of Evgenii Dadonov (25-22—47 totals in 69 games with the Florida Panthers last season) added to the lineup via free agency.

The 3rd overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Tim Stuetzle, will be fun to watch as Germany continues to emerge as a prospect hotbed, but there’s no “win now” pressure on Stuetzle and the rest of the Senators for this season.

— Nick Lanciani (@lanci53)

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