Chris Peters: Can the North Division produce a Stanley Cup contender?
Our NHL expert assesses the state of play in the North Division and asks whether a Canadian team can challenge for the 2021 Stanley Cup.
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The all-Canadian North Division certainly sounded like a good idea.
Canadians love it, the Canadian TV networks love it, and I’ll admit that it’s been really fun to watch the Canadian squads go head-to-head. What’s less clear, however, is if any of these teams are good enough to actually contend for the Stanley Cup.
It's been 28 years since a Canadian club hoisted the Cup that was originally awarded to the champion of the dominion, starting in 1893. As the current season progresses, it’s getting harder to see even the best teams in the division having a complete enough roster to get it done against the best teams south of the border.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have looked like the most likely to contend. They’re in first place in the entire league, but pretty much everyone outside of the North Division wonders if that really means anything given the quality of competition they’ve faced.
The same goes for the Edmonton Oilers, who shook off some early-season woes to ascend to third place in the entire NHL.
Points percentage tells a slightly different story. The Leafs are still top in the league in that category, as they’ve won 15 of 21 games and rank second in the NHL with a plus-19 goal differential.
The Oilers, however, slip all the way to ninth overall in the league. This is a good reminder that the recent hot streak they’ve been on and the fact they haven’t yet missed any games due to postponement give them these nice gaudy numbers, but those numbers still don’t suggest they’ve achieved contender status.
The way this season is set up is going to allow four teams to get into the playoffs from the North Division. The Maple Leafs are a mortal lock. The Winnipeg Jets - despite a relative lack of defensive depth that has been tested some by injuries this year - are second in points percentage. Edmonton is third and right now the Montreal Canadiens sit fourth - the same Canadiens that just fired their head coach amid a backslide which has seen them lose seven of their last nine.
Both the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are currently in striking distance in terms of standings points, but have a taller hill to climb when it comes to points percentage - which is what will be used if the NHL regular season has to end with teams playing an uneven number of games.
Meanwhile, the Senators have so much ground to make up it’s hard to see them putting themselves in the playoff conversation. That being said, according to Moneypuck.com, Ottawa has a 9.1 per cent chance of making the playoffs, while Vancouver’s chances have dipped to 7.5 per cent.
The fact is, the first two rounds of the playoffs will still be among North Division teams. So, one of these clubs is going to come out and be in a conference final right away. With a seemingly widening gap between the top and bottom of the division, one wonders what’s going to happen once any of these teams steps outside of this division and faces a club that had a tougher road to get there.
Goaltending has been among the chief concerns across the North Division. Winnipeg is one of the few teams that doesn’t really have to worry about that as much, with reigning Vezina Trophy Winner Connor Hellebuyck in net, as well as an exceptionally capable backup in Laurent Broissoit.
According to hockey-reference.com, the NHL’s league average save percentage right now is .908. Only Winnipeg (.918), Edmonton (.912) and Toronto (.909) are above that threshold, with the Leafs just barely so.
Given the way the playoff format is set up, we might be looking at a situation where the Canadian team that has the best goaltending at the right time could be the one to get out of the division, because the goals are coming with regularity.
The Maple Leafs’ top contender status is going to be put to the test in a major way this weekend, with Toronto hitting the road for a three-game set with the Oilers. With Edmonton four points shy of the first-place Leafs, this is a great opportunity to gain ground. All the eyes of the North Division will be turned to Edmonton.
The season series between the top two teams is tied, with each club owning two wins over the other. In fact, the Oilers’ most recent hot streak of 11 wins in 13 games began at home against Toronto last month. After beating up on the Senators, Flames and Canucks over much of that streak, they have to show that this stretch wasn’t just the benefit of a soft schedule.
The Oilers have been getting more contributions from throughout their lineup, and Mike Smith has been a revelation with a .944 save percentage in seven starts so far this season. He has yet to face the high-scoring Maple Leafs, however. It’s hard to imagine the 38-year-old is going to sustain this kind of performance over the course of the season, but he can certainly make a statement.
As for Toronto, they’ve been getting by on the back of their offensive attack, spearheaded by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The dynamic duo have combined for 61 total points this season, while Edmonton’s own star pair Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have 74 points between them.
The work both duos have done is so impressive, though it’s constantly qualified with: "but it's against the North Division." It’s going to be interesting what kind of conversations that sparks when it comes to thinking about league MVP and the All-Star teams at the end of the season.
Regardless of how you feel about the quality of competition, this upcoming series between Toronto and Edmonton is massive for the division as a whole. If the Maple Leafs can put Edmonton away, it’s going to further push Toronto ahead of the pack and allow them to keep their hold on the division for some time.
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