NHL North Preview: Probably no Cup winners here, but expect a spirited competition

NHL North Preview: Probably no Cup winners here, but expect a spirited competition

Illustration for article titled NHL North Preview: Probably no Cup winners here, but expect a spirited competition
Illustration: Getty Images

The North division, aka the Canadian division, features some of the best offensive talents in the game: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Elias Pettersson, and Johnny Gaudreau, among others, call this division home. None of these teams have won a Stanley Cup since 1993, and that’s not super likely to change this year, but it should be an entertaining 56-game regular season.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames

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Photo: Getty Images

COVID Response: One thing missing from hockey without fans in arenas is the 50/50 raffle where fans get a chance to win money and half of the entries go to charity. The Flames are continuing their 50/50 raffle online, with some of the proceeds going to COVID relief in southern Alberta.

Staying Away: Center Martin Pospisil, who played for the Flames’ AHL affiliate last season, missed training camp after contracting coronavirus in December. Pospisil had been playing in the pro league in Slovakia, so it’s not like he wasn’t in playing shape, but the coronavirus layoff might mean he doesn’t see NHL action this year. Goalie Tyler Parsons also missed training camp after ankle surgery.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Flames gave Chris Tanev four years and $18 million, which is a decision that will age poorly, but not nearly so poorly as the six years and $36 million that Calgary put on a contract for Jacob Markstrom. There were some other lower-level signings, most notably Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon, The salary cap situation in Calgary was dicey. Now? Yikes.

Where’d He Go? A sign that you had a terrible offseason is when one of your players goes to camp just hoping to make another team, and immediately draws comparisons to the guy you signed away from that team… for a four-year, $18 million contract. And yet, here we are, with Tanev in Calgary and Travis Hamonic in Vancouver. The Flames also lost T.J. Brodie to the Maple Leafs, while Derek Forbort signed in Winnipeg, Alan Quine in Edmonton, and Cam Talbot in Minnesota.

What To Expect: Geoff Ward did an incredible job last year to get the Flames back on track after their disastrous and scandalous start under Bill Peters. But the front office that handled the Peters situation so badly in the first place didn’t exactly show hockey savvy in the offseason, and the Flames’ untenable and stupid decisions in free agency are slamming shut whatever window they had. Maybe they’re a playoff team, but they’ll just be fodder if they are.

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Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers

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COVID Response: The Oilers laid off employees in March, and then Oilers players raised money for coronavirus relief in April. Anyway, Daryl Katz was “very proud” of Edmonton hosting the Stanley Cup Final, a thing that hasn’t otherwise happened in the 13 years Katz has owned the Oilers.

Staying Away: Oscar Klefbom is out for the season because of a shoulder injury. James Neal has been “unfit to play” more leading up to the season, for undisclosed reasons. Connor McDavid, thankfully, has recovered from COVID after getting the virus in October.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Dominik Kahun maybe joins Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl on the best line ever to feature two Germans. Is that a thing? Let’s say that’s a thing. Congratulations to Kailer Yamamoto or Jesse Puljujârvi for being part of it. Tyson Barrie on a one-year deal for the back end of the defense is fine in principle, not so good when it means needing cap gymnastics in order to make any kind of upgrade.

Where’d He Go? Edmonton wound up being where Mike Green called it a career after playing two games as an Oiler. Kinda stinks he never got to win a Cup. The Oilers lost Tomas Jurco to Vegas and Riley Sheahan to Buffalo in free agency. Markus Granlund went to the KHL.

What To Expect: Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are the goalie tandem, and Anton Forsberg is in Edmonton, too. So, we’re just wasting another year of Connor McDavid’s prime, eh?

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Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens

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COVID Response: Geoff Molson was appointed to the Order of Canada in recognition of his community work, which is interesting, because the pandemic “forced his company into some restructuring and plenty of layoffs.” Forced? Really? Geoff Molson is a billionaire. But doing some good in the community balances out sending people to the unemployment line, or something.

Staying Away: Quebec just enacted a province-wide 8 p.m. curfew to try to help stop the spread of coronavirus, so Canadiens games will have to happen in the afternoon to make sure that everyone involved with the games — not just players and coaches, but arena security, locker room attendants, electrical crews, and other workers — can get home in time. Haha, just kidding, of course they made an exception for professional hockey.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Did the Habs get sucked into thinking that they’re good by beating the Penguins and giving the Flyers a good fight in the playoffs? Or are they a pretty good team that struggled through the season, and now can be a real contender with the signing of Tyler Toffoli and trade for Josh Anderson? Clearly, Montreal thinks the latter, as the Canadiens also dealt away later-round draft picks to add defenseman Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen.

Where’d He Go? Anderson came at the cost of sending Max Domi and a third-round pick to Columbus. Allen is an upgrade as the backup goalie over Keith Kinkaid, who became the No. 3 with the Rangers. Charles Hudon went to Switzerland.

What To Expect: Carey Price had a .909 save percentage in 58 regular-season starts a year ago, and was a .936 goalie with two shutouts in his 10 playoff starts. When Price won the Vezina in 2014-15, he had a .933 save percentage. Maybe he’s rejuvenated, and 33 isn’t crazy old for a goalie. At the same time, this is a team that had no idea how to beat the Red Wings last year. They’re better, but better than what? Note that it’s “than what” and not “then what,” because “then what” is gonna be the same for a while with Price and Shea Weber locked into their megadeals through 2026.

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Ottawa Senators

Ottawa Senators

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COVID Response: The Senators decided in early April that they would reduce staff with layoffs and furloughs, and provide two months of benefits to impacted employees, up to 80% of base salary. Well, it’s been nine months since then, but the Senators haven’t updated their COVID-19 information page since May.

Staying Away: The creepy guy looking right at you is gone from the Senators’ jersey, as the team has returned to the Senator-in-profile of the team’s early days. It’s kind of weird because they have a red “Reverse Retro” jersey that’s now just a color-reversed version of the home sweaters they’ll be wearing the rest of the time.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Senators traded a second-round pick so they could have the RFA rights to Matt Murray and sign a goalie coming off an .899 season to a four-year deal with a $6.25 million cap hit. In the final week of 2020, the Senators sent a second-round pick to the Coyotes for Derek Stepan, then Marian Gaborik’s contract and Anders Nilsson to the Lightning for Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, and Tampa Bay’s eternal gratitude for helping them get under the cap by being able to stash Gaborik on LTIR. Ottawa gave up a fourth-round pick for Josh Brown and a fourth-rounder next year for Austin Watson. Why? Like, sure, picks that low are roulette spins at best, but, why? At least the one-year deal for Alex Galchenyuk kind of makes sense.

Where’d He Go? Last year’s regular goalie, Craig Anderson, wound up in Washington as a backup, while fellow graybeard Ron Hainsey has yet to find a job and remains a free agent. Mikkel Boedker went to Sweden. Also, Ryan Callahan technically retired as a Senator.

What To Expect: They’re going to suck again. Maybe not quite as much, but they’re still deep in a rebuild.

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Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs

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COVID Response: The Maple Leafs made sure to pay their employees during the stoppage last spring. The Leafs will be able to play home games at their home arena.

Staying Away: Luckily for the TML they won’t have to deal with David Ayres, their Zamboni driver who beat them as emergency goalie for Carolina last season. Under this season’s rules, all teams will be carrying three goalies, with one on the taxi squad.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton signed with the Leafs after 15 years in San Jose. He’s still looking for his first Stanley Cup and first four-goal game. Wayne Simmonds joins the team in its never-ending quest to get tougher, even though they don’t have to play the Big, Bad Bruins this season. Jimmy Vesey also joins the team as a free agent. But the biggest addition is probably defenseman T.J. Brodie, who joins the team after 10 years in Calgary.

Where’d He Go? Smooth-skating Kasperi Kapanen went to Pittsburgh for a handful of prospects and a first-round pick. Andreas Johnsson went to the Devils in a downgrade intended to save cap space, with Joey Anderson coming back. Frederik Gauthier signed with the Arizona Coyotes.

What To Expect: The Leafs will always be able to score as long as John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander suit up for this team. They should be in the mix for first place in this division and have a good chance to win their first playoff series since 2004.

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Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Canucks

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COVID Response: The Canucks are the only team whose COVID-related job cut was defensible, as they told anthem singer Mark Donnelly to take a hike over his plans to perform at an anti-mask rally.

Staying Away: Micheal Ferland won’t be ready for the start of the season as he continues to struggle to recover from a concussion. Ferland was first injured in December 2019, but returned to play in the playoffs. In his second game back, Ferland lasted only four shifts, and wound up leaving the Edmonton bubble.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Getting Nate Schmidt from Vegas for a third-round pick was excellent work as opposed to going out on a free agent market where, well, you saw what the Flames gave to Chris Tanev, and Vancouver basically replaced him with a PTO for Travis Hamonic. As well as Thatcher Demko played in the bubble, the Canucks signed Braden Holtby, but unlike some other teams who played the goalie market this offseason, Vancouver got its man on a two-year deal and a reasonable $4.3 million cap hit — so if Demko outplays him, it won’t be a huge misallocation of resources to let the younger, cheaper guy play.

Where’d He Go? It would’ve been nice to hang on to Tyler Toffoli after giving up so much to get him in February, but so it goes, Toffoli wound up in Montreal. That’s what happens when you have, say, a $6 million cap hit for a third-pair defenseman on your roster with Tyler Myers. The Canucks are probably just fine with Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, and Josh Leivo all going to Calgary.

What To Expect: There’s an issue with defensive depth, but there still should be enough here for the Canucks to make the playoffs, and once they’re there, they have the goaltending to make some noise. Actually, writing those words, the idea of a Toronto-Vancouver series is scintillating. Let’s go ahead and speak that into existence.

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Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets

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COVID Response: The Jets did a pretty cool thing by setting up a “Community Assist Hub” with physical and mental health resources, including giving a boost to several organizations already working in Winnipeg, but also some specially-created at-home workout videos for both kids and adults.

Staying Away: Bryan Little played only seven games last season due to a bizarre and horrific injury suffered when a Nikolaj Ehlers shot hit him in the head, resulting in a perforated eardrum. Little won’t play at all this year, on the advice of doctors, though he’s signed through 2024 and hasn’t closed the door on returning eventually.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Hey, Paul Stastny is back! That’s neat. He was so good in Winnipeg in the 2018 playoffs, and now he’s back and older than Blake Wheeler, who played for the Thrashers and has been with the club since it moved north and became the reborn Jets. Nate Thompson? Also older than Wheeler, also in Winnipeg… for a much lower price, on a one-year contract. The Jets also signed Derek Forbort and Marko Dano to one-year deals.

Where’d He Go? The Jets had a few guys go east — Anthony Bitetto to the Rangers, Cody Eakin to Buffalo, and Dmitry Kulkov to New Jersey. Also, Dustin Byfuglien is officially no longer with the Jets after a mutual agreement to terminate his contract in April. That’s worth noting, because even right now, if you played Family Feud and the question was “Name a current Winnipeg Jet,” there’s a decent chance that “Dustin Byfuglien” would be among the top four answers on the board.

What To Expect: The Jets aren’t the best team in Canada, but they’re far from the worst. They’ll be in the playoffs, and they have one of the best goalies in the sport in Connor Hellebuyck. That means Winnipeg has a puncher’s chance at the Cup. Also, don’t forget Patrik Laine is still 22 years old, and for as much criticism as he’s come in for, he had 63 points in 68 games last year. Having a purely offensive player on a team with an all-world goalie is — sit down for this — a good thing.

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Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.