North Division favorite debated by


The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2020-21 season, which will start Jan. 13, 2021, and have each team playing a condensed 56-game intradivisional schedule.

The new-look North Division is an all-Canada affair with several quality teams.

The Montreal Canadiens were among the most aggressive teams in the offseason, adding power forward Josh Anderson, defenseman Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen to a roster that opened eyes by upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. The Calgary Flames have been building their core for several years and reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Edmonton Oilers feature perhaps the two most exciting forwards in the NHL in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking to take the next step and get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004 with top forward Auston Matthews at the forefront. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, leads the defensively stingy Winnipeg Jets. The Vancouver Canucks, who upset the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, are led by the dynamic duo of forward Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes.

The Ottawa Senators are rebuilding their roster, led by exciting defenseman Thomas Chabot and the potential of forward Tim Stuetzle, the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

So which team in the North Division is the favorite?

Five staff writers offered opinions. Here are their answers:


Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks are a team on the rise and were the lone North Division team to reach the second round of the playoffs last season, making them the favorite to finish first this season. In their first postseason appearance since 2015, the Canucks defeated the Minnesota Wild in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues in the Western Conference First Round and pushing the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games in a second-round loss. Pettersson, the 2019 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top rookie, and Hughes, the Calder runner-up last season, will continue to improve with experience. The addition of Nate Schmidt in a trade with Vegas will help the defense. Although Jacob Markstrom left to sign with the Flames, Vancouver’s goaltending remains strong with Thatcher Demko, who excelled in the playoffs when Markstrom was injured, and the signing of Braden Holtby, who helped the Washington Capitals win the Cup in 2018. — Tom Gulitti, staff writer

Video: 31 in 31: Vancouver Canucks 2020-21 season preview


Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens used to have an elite goalie (Carey Price) and defenseman (Shea Weber) but questionable depth. Now they have an elite goalie and defenseman — and excellent depth. They’re better for what they did last season, defeating the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before a six-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. They’re better because they added Allen, forwards Tyler Toffoli and Anderson, and defensemen Edmundson and Alexander Romanov. They’re better off with Price playing 35-40 games and Allen playing the rest of the 56-game schedule than they would be if Price had to play 45-50 games. They have the best goalie tandem they’ve had since Price and Jaroslav Halak (2008-10). They’re better down the middle with Nick Suzuki, Jesper Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault, a solid 1-2-3 in whatever order coach Claude Julien uses them. They’re better along the walls with Anderson. They’re better at putting the puck in the net with Toffoli. Montreal is better everywhere and will be good enough to finish first in the North. — Dan Rosen, senior writer


Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers were among the many teams that learned lessons during the postseason. Under a new general manager, Ken Holland, and a new coach, Dave Tippett, they were trending in a good direction for most of last season before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. The Oilers are unsurpassed at center with McDavid and Draisaitl. McDavid finished second in the NHL in scoring last season with 97 points (34 goals, 63 assists) in 64 games behind Draisaitl, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer with 110 points (43 goals, 67 assists) in 71 games. Draisaitl also won the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player and the Ted Lindsay Award as the outstanding player as voted by members of the NHL Players’ Association. Edmonton had the NHL’s best combined special teams, ranking first on the power play (29.5 percent) and second in penalty killing (84.4), behind the San Jose Sharks (85.7). The Oilers have dangerous down pat. They will finish first in the North Division by adding some attention to discipline, a quality that Stanley Cup contenders require. — Tim Campbell, staff writer

Video: 31 in 31: Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 preview


Calgary Flames

The Flames made two of the biggest offseason acquisitions in Markstrom and defenseman Christopher Tanev. They have depth at each position, including star-caliber talent at forward in Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund, capable defensemen in Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, and a solid goalie pairing with Markstrom and David Rittich. I feel coach Geoff Ward, who guided Calgary to a playoff series win for the first time since 2015, will be able to build on that success. He’ll have greater flexibility with this roster, which will include the top prospect in the pipeline, defenseman Juuso Valimaki. Before returning to North America to prepare for the NHL season, the 22-year-old ranked first among defensemen in Liiga, Finland’s top pro league, with 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 19 games after missing all of last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during offseason training. — Mike G. Morreale, staff writer


Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs have as much talent and star power as any team in the North. Forwards Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander each scored at least 59 points last season and ranked in the top 50 in NHL scoring. Defenseman Morgan Rielly is healthy again and will try to replicate his 72-point season of 2018-19. Goalie Frederik Andersen was fourth in the NHL in wins with 29 and has experienced backups in Jack Campbell and Aaron Dell. Forward Joe Thornton, signed as a free agent, can still be an elite playmaker at 41, especially on the power play, and brings leadership to the dressing room. Veteran free agent forward Wayne Simmonds brings toughness. The Maple Leafs went 27-15-5 after Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach and know the style Keefe wants to play. No longer having the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in their division will help their chances as well. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

Video: 31 in 31: Toronto Maple Leafs 2020-21 season preview

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