The puck will finally drop on the 2020-21 season this Wednesday — over 100 days since the league handed out the Stanley Cup in late September and 10 months since the last regular-season game was played back in March. Needless to say, the NHL’s return has been a long time coming, but with an all-new North Division and the accompanying storylines, it may well be worth the wait.
One of the main storylines, of course, will be the intensified rivalries inherent to an all-Canadian division. From a Toronto Maple Leafs perspective, things are particularly intriguing, largely because it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly will emerge as the team’s fiercest foes.
It’s widely expected that Toronto will be at or near the top of the division, but which matchups will be the most exciting? And which teams will give the Leafs the most trouble and challenge them for the Canadian crown?
Montreal Canadiens: The Historic Rivalry Continues
Toronto vs. Montreal, last 10: 6-1-3
The easy choice for the Leafs’ top rival has to be the Montreal Canadiens, not only because of their history but also because of the moves both teams made this offseason.
With several big acquisitions over the past few months, the Canadiens, in particular, have become one of the most hyped (or overhyped?) teams in the NHL, and certainly in Canada. Most notably, they sent Max Domi to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for power forward Josh Anderson, picked up 6-foot-4 defenceman Joel Edmundson from Carolina, acquired backup goaltender Jake Allen from St. Louis, and signed Tyler Toffoli in free agency.
On the surface, it may look like the Habs took a huge step forward with some of these moves, but I think it’s easy to get carried away by shiny new toy syndrome, especially with respect to Anderson and Edmundson. The Canadiens wanted to get bigger, and they certainly succeeded in that area, but they likely downgraded from Domi to Anderson, with the former Hab outscoring the power winger to the tune of 161-81 (or 2.41 to 1.65 points per hour) over the last three seasons. We also can’t ignore the fact that Anderson is coming off a dreadful campaign in which he tallied just one goal and four points in 26 games. His resurgence is anything but a guarantee at this point.
Edmundson also brings a ton of size to the blue line, but his -3.4 goals above replacement (GAR) suggests that he’s a bottom-pairing defenceman at best. While Jeff Petry is still elite, Shea Weber isn’t the all-star he used to be, and Ben Chiarot rounds out a relatively mediocre top-four.
I think the Allen acquisition should help, but Carey Price is another wildcard in my books. He still carries a sterling reputation around the league, but his results over the last several seasons suggest that he’s well past his prime. Could he find his game again with a lighter workload? It’s certainly plausible, but once again, no guarantee.
Given that both teams added a ton of size and grit this offseason, we may see more fireworks than ever before between the long-time rivals. The Maple Leafs do have the upper hand over the past few seasons, but I expect some tight battles over their 10-game series in 2021, with both teams finishing towards the top of the division.
Edmonton Oilers: McDavid vs. Matthews
Toronto vs. Edmonton, last 10: 8-2-0
When you potentially have two of the best players in the world on the ice at the same time, it’s bound to be an exciting game. The Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid matchup is simply must-see TV, and regardless of allegiance, we should all be grateful to see them go toe-to-toe nine times this season.
While Matthews and McDavid compete against each other for the title of top star in the North Division, we can’t gloss over the rest of the Oilers’ lineup. They’ve obviously got the reigning Art Ross and Hart winner in Leon Draisaitl, as well as some skilled secondary scoring in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the returning Jesse Puljujarvi. I think the Leafs get the nod in terms of offensive depth, but there should be a ton of firepower between the two teams this season.
Edmonton’s blue line is where things get a bit sketchy, especially with the news that Oscar Klefbom will miss the season with a shoulder injury. The Oilers will be relying heavily on Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, and former Maple Leaf Tyson Barrie to carry most of the defensive load. That lineup does not inspire a ton of confidence, and it may be a defence that the skillful Maple Leafs can pick apart.
Regardless of results, I think we’ll see plenty of high scoring games and highlight reel goals between the Leafs and Oilers this season.
Vancouver Canucks: Following the Leafs’ Blueprint
Toronto vs. Vancouver, last 10: 7-1-2
The Vancouver Canucks have always reminded me so much of the Maple Leafs in terms of how their roster is built. They’ve got the franchise centre in Elias Pettersson, the defensive cornerstone in Quinn Hughes, and a skilled core in Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller. They had the pillar in net as well in Jacob Markstrom — until he walked to the Calgary Flames as a free agent — which would have really completed the comparison.
Speaking of goaltending, I think that’s the big question mark for the Canucks and will likely determine their fate this season. We all saw what Thatcher Demko did in the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights, but I’m always wary of putting a lot of faith in any player based on such a small sample size.
Demko’s wider body of work is not all that impressive in the NHL, with a .906 save percentage (SV%) over 37 games. At 25 years of age, it’s basically now or never for him, and he’ll have to take a big step to solidify the Canucks’ crease. If he can do that, though, I think Vancouver has more than enough talent through their top six and top four to fight for a playoff spot and give the Leafs a good battle.
No matter what happens this season, the new North Division should give us some of the most heated rivalries and debates that we’ve seen in quite some time. There are at least four or five teams that believe they have a legitimate shot at the Canadian crown, and we’ll finally get to see it all play out in short order.
Strap in, folks. Hockey is finally back!
Player stats from Evolving Hockey