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Six bold predictions for the NHL’s Canadian division

The NHL’s four realigned divisions will give us a much different look than we’re used to in 2021, especially when it comes to playoff hockey.

Whenever we get to the post-season, the top four teams in each division will have to play through one another first before advancing to a final four, when conferences are thrown out and teams are re-seeded based on regular season point totals.

Even though we’re not sure where they’re going to play yet, the “North” division, aka the Canadian division, is certainly the most interesting one on this side of the border. Rivalries will be front and centre, with 10 meetings between Edmonton and Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. And if two teams don’t meet 10 times this season, they’ll still see each other nine times, so plenty of animosity will be built up everywhere.

The mid-season “blahs” shouldn’t really be a thing in a 56-game season, where one prolonged bad stretch could end your hopes. A playoff atmosphere should be a nightly occurrence this season.

So, while we gear up and get excited for what’s to come among these seven teams, we tried to have a little fun with it before training camps get going. Here, then, are six bold predictions for the Canadian division that will self destruct on Jan. 13.

FREDERIK ANDERSEN HAS CAREER YEAR, RE-SIGNS WITH LEAFS

In Andersen’s first three years with the Toronto Maple Leafs he was remarkably consistent in the regular season, with save percentages of .918, .918, and .917. He won 33, 38 and 36 games in those seasons and led the team to the playoffs each time.

The 2019-20 version of Andersen was not the same and now that he’s heading into the final year of his contract, that dip leaves Andersen as Toronto’s biggest question and X-Factor heading into the season. Will he be his same old predictably solid self, or was last year’s .909 save percentage indicating the start of a decline? It is worth noting that as last season went along, Andersen’s save percentage moved the wrong way, posting a .904 save rate in December, .893 in January, and .884 in February.

Here’s predicting he comes back in 2021.

While, yes, there is a non-zero chance that Andersen’s absolute best seasons are behind him now that he’s 31, it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion. We could have easily assumed Jacob Markstrom’s best years were behind him when last season started, but he ended up with a career year, which turned into a six-year, $36 million contract as an unrestricted free agent. He turned 30 last January.

Most of Mike Smith’s best seasons came in his 30s. Corey Crawford had more solid seasons in his 30s than he did in his 20s. That age is not is not necessarily a marker where goalies fall off, and Andersen had more consistent and solid regular season performances in his 20s than those examples. And he was still a late-blooming starter, so it’s not as though he’s had a notably long career he could be wearing down from.

On top of that, the Maple Leafs are aiming to be a better defensive unit in 2021 and made the off-season acquisitions to prove it. T.J. Brodie is excellent in transition, which means getting the puck out of the defensive zone and down the ice efficiently. Zach Bogosian was a nice depth add and 26-year-old blue liner Mikko Lehtonen brings promise and upside. They’ve also floated the idea of using a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defencemen, to create challenging matchups for opponents up front, and to keep the ‘D’ more rested and refreshed.

The Leafs have been in the top half of the league in high danger scoring chances allowed at 5-on-5 each year Andersen has been in net, and last season was their worst, finishing within the top 10 for the first time. Cutting back on those sort of opportunities would go a long way to helping Andersen get back on track.

The regular season is one thing, and the playoffs another for Andersen though. It’s not that he’s been objectively bad in his playoff career, but he’s been the second-best goalie in every series he’s played for the Leafs. If he loses in Round 1 again this season, it’d be difficult to bring back the same goalie who lost five playoff series in a row.

But the conditions are ripe for the Maple Leafs to finally breakthrough. No offence to the Oilers, Canucks, Flames or Jets, but none of them are at the same level as the Bruins, who the Leafs have lost to twice with Andersen, or the Lightning, another Atlantic Division rival and defending Cup champion. If it’s going to happen for this core and goaltender, this is the season for it.

If Andersen stabilizes this regular season and wins a round or two in the playoffs the price point on his next contract would become the biggest hurdle to a re-sign, but the state of the free agent market is more cloudy than ever. There will be no Sergei Bobrovsky-like contract out there for Andersen, but matching Markstrom’s $6 million AAV could be a possibility — that would represent a $1 million raise. If all goes well, it might be hard for the Leafs to walk away from the free agent, and also hard for the free agent to walk off into that uncertain market.

If the Leafs don’t sign Andersen, they’d be left with Jack Campbell and a UFA market that doesn’t clearly have an upgrade on Andersen. Next off-season’s list of UFA goalies includes soon-to-be 34-year-old Tuukka Rask, 38-year-old Pekka Rinne, Jordan Binnington, Devan Dubnyk, Philipp Grubauer and David Rittich. How many of those would be obvious improvements, and how many will even make it to the market?

Toronto’s goal of being better defensively, the fact they are now the divisional favourite and that this is a motivational contract year for Andersen appear to be optimal conditions for him to recover in the regular season. If that happens, the Leafs may find it too big a risk to seek a replacement.

CALGARY WILL FINISH FIRST IN THE REGULAR SEASON

This might be an odd prediction after proclaiming Toronto’s goalie will recover for a career year, but that can be true while Calgary finishes with the most points in a Canadian division.

There’s no doubt the Flames have much to prove this season. Not only have they lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of their past three attempts, but GM Brad Treliving added some key pieces to the roster this off-season with the goal being to get them over the hump ASAP.

Markstrom is in as the starter and will team with Rittich for the compact schedule — Rittich himself was good enough to be at the All-Star Game last season. Another former Canuck, Chris Tanev, was signed and added to the defence group, which may be the deepest collection of all the Canadian teams. Calder hopeful Jusso Valimaki could be on their third pair after missing all of last season to injury.

The forward group remains the same and though they finished 20th in goals per game last season, they got better as it went along and ranked sixth from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season. In the playoffs, Calgary’s 3.30 goals per game were the third-most.

Consider, too, the environment this team played through at points last season. The controversy and subsequent parting of ways with Bill Peters came in November when the Flames were below .500 and 20th in the NHL in points. That episode and the transition to interim head coach Geoff Ward could have set them back further and sunk their playoff hopes, but instead they rallied, won their first seven games under Ward, and had the league’s eighth-best points percentage the rest of the season (tops among Canadian teams in that span).

You know Matthew Tkachuk is going to thrive in the spotlight of a Canadian division, especially in the 10 Battle of Alberta games we’re going to be treated with. Johnny Gaudreau is still a star point-getter in the regular season.

Doubts around the Flames mostly revolve around their failure to meet playoff expectations and that, ultimately, will be how this team is judged. But they’ve been solid in the regular season and, remember, finished atop the tough Pacific Division in 2018-19.

It’s their playoff failures that everyone remembers, which is why too many are sleeping on Calgary’s regular season upside.

MONTREAL WILL REIGN AS PLAYOFF CHAMPS

The Canucks and Canadiens were the two most impressive Canadian teams in the playoffs last season — one of them added a few key pieces in the off-season, and the other lost a few key pieces.

I’m buying into what the Habs did and the reason why is that GM Marc Bergevin has done a solid job rebuilding his team on the fly to this point. Centre was once a major weakness on the team, but the rise of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the playoffs hugely improves their situation there, while Phillip Danault will again build a Selke Trophy case as a strong two-way pivot.

The trade for and signing of Josh Anderson is a huge risk to take considering he scored just once in an injury-shortened 2019-20 season, but he is a natural winger where Max Domi had to play out of position there. And, come playoff time, Anderson’s big power forward game should thrive, though the 26-year-old hasn’t shown that yet in his 21 career post-season appearances.

Tyler Toffoli will add scoring punch. Tomas Tatar should be motivated by his contract year. Joel Edmundson adds depth and size to the blue line, which again should help in the playoffs.

But the biggest reason why we’re boldly predicting the Habs to come out of the Canadian division in the playoffs is that Carey Price should be in a great position to lead them there.

It has been a few years since Price’s numbers rose to the level that put him in the conversation of world’s best goalie, but as he got up in age (he’s now 33) there was some wonder about how much fatigue played a role in that. In the past two years combined, Price has played more games than any goalie, and faced more shots than anyone other than Connor Hellebuyck. The team has been on his shoulders, but he may be getting relief at a crucial time.

Jake Allen may prove to be Montreal’s most important off-season addition because now they have an NHL veteran who will give them more starts to be confident about. And with so many games being packed into a short schedule, Price will need to be rested more often than usual.

The 2020 playoffs gave us an indication of what a rested Price could do. After taking four months off between starts, Price posted a .947 save percentage against the Penguins to eliminate them, and then posted a .926 against the favoured Flyers, losing in six games when many predicted a sweep or something close to it. In his 10 playoff starts, Price never allowed more than three goals, and kept opponents under that number seven times.

With an improved roster in front of him that was built with an eye on playoff hockey, a rested Price could be devastating come playoff time in 2021.

CONNOR MCDAVID REACHES 100 POINTS

In any normal season this would be a rather tepid prediction — the best player in the world challenges for the Art Ross you say? Wow, how bold.

But in a 56-game season, which amounts to 68.3 per cent of a regular schedule, reaching this height is an awful lot to ask. Only one player reached 100 points last season — Leon Draisaitl ended at 110 in 71 games. McDavid finished second in the scoring race, and remember he wasn’t too far off the pace he’d need to hit 100 this season, finishing with 97 points in 64 games. As amazing as that is, he’d need to do better still.

You might be screaming at your screen right now about why this bold prediction is being directed at McDavid and not last season’s highest-scoring Oiler by average points or actual points. To that, I say, if I’m going to guess anyone to score at this crazy pace, it’s going to be the player who can seemingly produce at will.

For anyone to reach the century mark in 56 games played, they’d need to average 1.79 points per game, which no one has been able to accomplish in the salary cap era. Over the past 30 years, only two players not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux have averaged more than that mark in a season: Adam Oates in 1990-91 (1.89) and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96 (1.82). Lemieux went over two points per game three times in the ’90s and Gretzky once. In the salary cap era, Nikita Kucherov’s 1.56 is the best mark in a full season, though Sidney Crosby averaged over 1.6 points per game in two seasons where he played less than 43 games.

So, ya, this is a big ask.

If McDavid is going to do this, his health is paramount, as any missed games could derail it. The schedule could prove difficult in that teams will be playing basically every other day, so fatigue will be even more of a factor to contend with.

But, considering the overall strengths of the teams within the Canadian division, the conditions for him to pile up these points may just be perfect…

IT WILL BE THE HIGHEST-SCORING DIVISION

I’m going to make this argument for a few reasons. First, the obvious:

McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, J.T. Miller, Mitch Marner — all of these players finished within the top 20 in NHL scoring last season. And then there is Elias Pettersson, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk (maybe Brady takes a step up, too), John Tavares — this division is stacked with offensive stars. And that’s just the start.

If you look at team stats from Jan. 1 to the season pause in March (giving rosters time to settle and figure it out), four Canadian teams were in the top 10 in average goals for (Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver), and four were in the bottom seven in average goals against (Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary). Using that same time frame, but looking at 5-on-5 totals, four of the five worst teams in goals against came from Canada, with Calgary also fitting inside the bottom 10. Meantime, from Jan. 1 on, Canada had four teams within the top nine league-wide in expected goals for at 5-on-5.

And, while five of Canada’s teams finished in the bottom half of the league in penalty killing percentage last season, five finished in the top half in power play percentage, including three of the top six.

Now, there are factors that could change this equation for some teams. Calgary now has Markstrom in net, which will theoretically improve their goals against. Toronto has added to its defence corps and Andersen has contract-year motivation, so that could help them. The Canadiens, on paper, are better this season. And with Matt Murray, Ottawa has seemingly upgraded from Craig Anderson in net.

But for as many possible defensive/goaltending improvements as there are within Canada’s NHL teams, there are just as many questions. Edmonton was 25th in 5-on-5 team save percentage last season and are returning the same two goalies. The Jets’ leaky defence was buoyed by Connor Hellebuyck’s outstanding performance last season — but can he play at the same extreme level again?

In this division, there are no Dallas’ or New York Islanders — shutdown teams known for their defensive strengths. To the contrary, each of these teams is built on offence and I’d expect that to shine through in division-only play.

THE OTTAWA SENATORS WILL NOT FINISH LAST

Really sticking the ol’ neck out on this one because, well, on paper the Senators are clearly the worst Canadian team (these are bold predictions, not boring predictions people!). They’re the only one still in the middle of a rebuild. Their long-term outlook is promising and the cap space they have in the coming years could help launch them before long, but there’s not much optimism this is the season they’ll do it in.

The bold prediction isn’t that they’ll reach the playoffs (no one is that bold), just that they won’t finish last.

The Senators’ big weakness is the blue line, where Nikita Zaitsev and Erik Gudbranson could both be in the top four. But, in a division where defence is the general weakness, perhaps it won’t matter as much if the Sens can score a bit more and get improved goaltending.

And there should be optimism that both of those things could happen.

Their big UFA signing up front was Evgenii Dadonov, a 31-year-old who scored 25 times last season and recorded 70 points the season before. Younger players such as Brady Tkachuk or Colin White could reasonably be expected to improve, while perhaps Drake Batherson or Josh Norris could add pop in stepping up from the AHL. And the most important new addition, Tim Stuetzle, arrives as a hyped third overall pick who put up 34 points in 41 games for Mannheim in Germany’s top professional league last season.

Hope is what you have when you’re built on youth.

Murray should improve the situation in net though, granted, he is coming off his statistically worst season yet.

It is really easy to see how Ottawa could finish last here and that is the most likely outcome. However, they did make some positive improvements in the off-season and the “bottoming out” part of the rebuild may be over. They have nothing to lose and are full of youthful exuberance. So, in what will be a strange season where anything could happen, we’ll boldly predict the Sens will not be last in the Canadian division.

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