Updated: Jan 8, 2021
Due to the unique structure of this season's schedule, the NHL is now split into four exclusive divisions. Over 56 games, each team will only face its division foes, leaving plenty of fuel for some new rivalries to brew and old rivalries to reignite.
Over the course of this week, we will be taking a look at the intricacies of each division by predicting the season standings and giving a rundown of the rosters. As with the start of any new season, there are new faces in new places and new line combinations leaving us all intrigued.
More than ever before, the road to the playoffs runs through the division. The top four teams in each division will advance to the dance and the races could get really tight. With limited opponents and a condensed schedule, every game will matter.
To keep you up to date throughout the season, we will have updated standings projections weekly based on our player standings points value added, team play, remaining schedule, current lineups, and optimization. This should give you all you need for your futures bets, and give you an idea of which teams should bounce back from lulls and which teams are giving false hope.
Today, we begin with the all-Canadian North Division - perhaps the league's most intriguing division. This is the only division with seven teams, meaning that each team will play ten games against two teams and nine games against the others. We'll count down from worst to first, so find your favorite team and make sure to leave your predictions in the comments!
7. Ottawa Senators LINE: 46.5 CUP ODDS: +15000
New Faces: Derek Stepan, Evgeny Dadonov, Cedric Paquette, Alex Galchenyuk, Tim Stuetzle, Erik Gudbranson, Braydon Coburn, Josh Brown, Matt Murray
Key Departures: Bobby Ryan, Anthony Duclair, Ron Hainsey, Craig Anderson, Anders Nilsson
Deciphering Ottawa's projected forward lines has been proven tricky so far, although I'm not sure it will matter much to their spot in the division. It is very likely that the Senators will be towards the bottom of the standings not only in the North Division, but also in the entire NHL.
Derek Stepan will likely get first crack at the top line between Brady Tkachuk and Evgeny Dadonov, although Colin White spent time there last season and rookies Josh Norris and Logan Brown could also factor in to see what they can do offensively in the NHL. If Tim Stuetzle, who was very impressive during the World Junior Championships for Team Germany, gets a crack at center, he is likely the long-term favorite for the number one center job. It is more likely he is sheltered on the wing this season if he sticks with the club, however, which would likely bump him to the second line.
The current projected third line of Alex Galchenyuk, Artem Anisimov, and Drake Batherson looks horrifying, assuming those players don't happen to revert to the little success each one of them has found at times in the past.
The lone bright spot on the defense again is Thomas Chabot, who will have a heavy burden on him this season. The only potential for surprise here really is Erik Brannstrom, who was once a highly regarded prospect but has yet to show he has what it takes to have success at the NHL level.
Matt Murray was traded for in the offseason to shoulder the load in net for the Sens, but he's only been mediocre over his regular season career despite his previous playoff success. Marcus Hogberg has shown some promise, so it will be interesting to see if he can earn some extra starts if he impresses in limited time.
6. Edmonton Oilers LINE: 65.5 CUP ODDS: +2800
New Faces: Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, Tyson Barrie, Slater Koekkoek, Devin Shore (tryout), Anton Forsberg
Key Departures: Andreas Athanasiou, Oscar Klefbom (opt out)
As it has been over the past few seasons for Edmonton, the top six is stacked. The addition of Dominik Kahun, who will potentially steal the number two left wing slot from the aging James Neal, provides even more of a boost to the second line. The trouble with the optimization comes from the return of Jesse Puljujarvi, who is sort of the wildcard here. If Puljujarvi has truly taken his game to the next level during his NHL hiatus, then he could be a real factor for the secondary scoring of the team.
Divisional play is expected to contract the margin of error for teams, so it's very possible a hot Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could lift the Oilers up the standings quickly. Both stars will have to pick up their play in the defensive end, however, if they want that to happen.
With Oscar Klefbom opting out for the season, this defensive unit took a bit hit. Tyson Barrie was signed to replace Klefbom's offensive firepower, but Barrie lacks the same defensive capabilities, as was on display last season in Toronto.
Many Edmonton fans were bummed to see Mike Smith return to form the same goaltending duo as last season, but Mikko Koskinen showed that he could probably garner more starts and take over as the surefire number one.
5. Winnipeg Jets LINE: 62.5 CUP ODDS: +4000
New Faces: Paul Stastny, Dominic Toninato, Dylan DeMelo, Derek Forbort, Trevor Lewis (tryout)
Key Departures: Cody Eakin, Dmitry Kulikov
Paul Stastny returns to give the Winnipeg Jets exactly what they have been missing - a number two center. Last time he was on the team they were a Stanley Cup contender, and not much has changed up front for the Jets since then. The looming elephant in the room is the rumored trade requests by Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, although Laine has showed up to training camp and Roslovic has not. If Laine does indeed stay, expect a big year in the goal production department.
The forward group's depth was tested at times last season, and players like Andrew Copp responded in a big way in an expanded role. This could prove valuable for Winnipeg, since they've essentially only added up front.
Dylan DeMelo was a much needed addition to a suffering defense, but in order to have an optimal lineup he needs to be playing top line minutes instead of bottom pair. The Jets also should be benefactors of addition by subtraction, as Dmitry Kulikov was more of a liability than an asset to them last season while chewing up big minutes.
The youngsters are the wildcards here, and that means Sami Niku and Ville Heinola. Niku looks to be getting a crack on the top pair off the bat, but he has measured unfavorably so far in his young career. Heinola, on the other hand, has the highest measured impact among Jets defenders, albeit in limited time. If either of those two prove reliable this season, the club could fly up the standings.
Connor Hellebuyck is of course coming off of a Vezina season, and with any bit of improvement in the defensive end by his teammates, he could see another big year. He projects to play about 46 of Winnipeg's 56 games this season.
4. Calgary Flames LINE: 64.5 CUP ODDS: +3300
New Faces: Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom, Dominik Simon, Chris Tanev, Nikita Nesterov, Jacob Markstrom, Louis Domingue
Key Departures: Tobias Rieder, Travis Hamonic, TJ Brodie, Cam Talbot
It looks like the Flames are taking a new approach to their forward combinations this season, and, if they stick with it, they should see optimal results. Moving Elias Lindholm to second line center allows him to help drive his own line, while complimentary players Dominik Simon and Josh Leivo should fit well in the top six. That leaves Mikael Backlund to center a defensive-minded third line - a role he should thrive in.
The one alarming thing in this projection is that if this forward arrangement does not stick, and a guy like, say, Sam Bennett is moved up the lineup, the Flames could drop up to a couple spots in the division standings. They're only projected for two more points than the Jets and four more points than the Oilers, so it's a situation to keep an eye on.
The defensive unit took a hit this offseason, despite a nice add in Chris Tanev. Losing both TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic forces Rasmus Andersson up the lineup. By individual standards, Andersson is well suited for the role, however, by team impact standards, the third pair is now looking like more of a burden than something that can suffice.
Jacob Markstrom really turned it up a notch last season. Perhaps this was because it was a contract year, but the prospects of him repeating are pretty solid. It's always nice to have your capable starter then fall into a backup role, as is the case with David Rittich.
While such an optimal lineup doesn't provide much in the way of a high ceiling for this team, it is encouraging that Calgary seems to have their finger on the right pulse of their roster as it is constructed.
3. Montreal Canadiens LINE: 65.5 CUP ODDS: +2200
New Faces: Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry, Michael Frolik, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen
Key Departures: Max Domi, Karl Alzner
Montreal revamped their forward corps this offseason, and now their lineup is nearly foolproof no matter the combinations. While not overly flashy, this is one of the most well-rounded groups of forwards in the league. The only detractors right now are Jonathan Drouin, who has scoring upside, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who seemed to progress during the bubble.
Of course, there are a couple veterans that could find roles this season that may detract from the club a bit. Corey Perry is assumed to get into the lineup, especially if the powerplay struggles, but he's a shade of what he once was. Michael Frolik used to be a reliable defensive forward, but he is coming off a couple subpar seasons. If the projected starters can remain healthy for a good portion of the year, it would be much to the team's benefit.
Montreal's defense, on the other hand, is not nearly as optimal. The acquisition of Joel Edmundson, a negative impact in its own right, detracts from Victor Mete's initial chances of finding the lineup. Mete has had strong isolated impacts in the NHL so far, so he deserves a fair look. Also, Brett Kulak's ice time is affected by this, and he has been really underrated over the past few years.
While it is obvious to most that Carey Price should be the Canadiens' starter, Jake Allen actually had a stronger season last year. This raises some question as to whether Price with man the net for over 70% of starts as he is accustomed to doing, but the team may be better off for it.
2. Vancouver Canucks LINE: 64.5 CUP ODDS: +3300
New Faces: Nate Schmidt, Travis Hamonic (tryout), Braden Holtby
Key Departures: Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, Jacob Markstrom
It's interesting that general manager Jim Benning didn't add a forward this offseason, considering they lost a key contributor in Tyler Toffoli to the Canadiens. What's becoming clear as training camp begins is that the Canucks are ready to see what they have in some youngsters. The first opportunity is being given to the flashy Nils Hoglander, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with it.
The real heartbeat of the offensive success of the Canucks will be primarily driven by their top line, which is one of the best in the league. Elias Pettersson is a star, and J.T. Miller stepped up in a huge way for Vancouver last season. Cap it off with the lethal shot of Brock Boeser, and the Canucks should reap in the benefits.
Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic replace Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher on the blueline, which should at least amount to a wash. Alex Edler is getting the first chance to team with Schmidt, which allows Quinn Hughes to roam a little more freely while paired with the defensive-minded Hamonic. This also pushes Tyler Myers down the lineup, which is better overall for the team as he negatively impacts the standings.
Despite acquiring a former Stanley Cup champion in net, the Canucks will likely experience a bit of a downgrade from Jacob Markstrom in Braden Holtby. Thatcher Demko ran red-hot during the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see if he can build off of that performance and steal some starts.
It should be noted that second and fifth place in the division only project to be a whopping five points apart, so the likes of Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg should be in a heated battle for playoff contention. Edmonton in sixth only projects seven points back, so anything is up in the air.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs LINE: 68.5 CUP ODDS: +1200
New Faces: Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, Joe Thornton, Travis Boyd, TJ Brodie, Zach Bogosian, Aaron Dell, Michael Hutchinson
Key Departures: Kasperi Kapanen, Dmytro Timashov, Cody Ceci
Coach Sheldon Keefe revealed his master plan for this season that raised some eyebrows across the hockey world by announcing that aging veteran Joe Thornton will be playing left wing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. There's no questioning Thornton's vision on the ice, and he could turn out to be quite the compliment to the dynamic duo.
This move frees up the ability for Keefe to construct a shutdown line by playing Zach Hyman with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev, which should be able to match up nicely against offensive-oriented opponents.
The one detractor on the team is Wayne Simmonds, who is merely a shade of his former self. The one area he can still prove valuable in is in front of the net on the powerplay, although he will likely only see about 30% of powerplay minutes available this season by playing on the second unit.
The defense this season sees a major upgrade on the top pair by replacing Cody Ceci with TJ Brodie. Brodie has proven to be able to handle big minutes, and should free up some of the pressure on Morgan Rielly to carry the pair. Justin Holl looks to bounce back from a down year, and newly acquired vet Zach Bogosian will try to fend off the younger Rasmus Sandin and Mikko Lehtonen for playing time.
Frederik Andersen has faced some criticism in Leafs nation, but, the truth is, he's averaged a strong goals saved above expected rate over the past three seasons. In a North Division that is not expected to score much relative to the rest of the league, Andersen should be able to backstop this team to the top seed in the division. Expect the Leafs to coast their way to the playoffs.
**Regular season point total lines and Stanley Cup odds courtesy of BetOnline.ag**
Other division breakdowns: