The 2021 NHL season is set to kick off on January 13th after a short training camp. For this season, the Oilers will compete in an all-Canadian North Division. I’ve asked our sibling SB Nation websites to give us a preview about their upcoming season. Trevor Beggs from SB Nation’s Nucks Misconduct is here to help us out with our questions today.
Let’s jump right in.
- Copper and Blue: In 2020, the Canucks took the Golden Knights to the seventh game of the Western Conference Semifinals. Was this a surprise? Is there an expectation to go further in 2021?
Trevor Beggs: The Vegas Golden Knights had dominated the Canucks ever since entering the NHL, so it was certainly a surprise to see the Canucks push them to Game 7. However, anyone watching knows that the series would likely have ended in five games if it wasn’t for the heroics of Thatcher Demko.
Nonetheless, it was exciting for the city to enjoy their first playoff series victory since 2011 with the First Round victory over St. Louis.
Expecting the Canucks to go further in 2021 is probably a bit unrealistic. On paper, they took a step back by losing Markstrom, Toffoli, and to a lesser extent Tanev and Stecher. The North Division also appears to look more competitive than the weak Pacific Division. Similarly to Edmonton, the expectation is for the Canucks to make the playoffs, and then see what happens.
- Copper and Blue: Elias Pettersson had a very good year for Vancouver, but it was J.T. Miller who led the Canucks in scoring with 71 points in 2020-21. Can we expect a repeat performance in 2021?
Trevor Beggs: It’s certainly possible. JT Miller and Elias Pettersson spent the majority of their time on the ice together in 2019-20, both at even-strength and on the power play. Also, before the pandemic halted the season, Miller was definitely the Canucks most effective and productive skater ahead of Pettersson.
However, the safer bet is that Pettersson takes another step forward in 2021. Our Bailey Chambers previewed what his third season could look like, and based on how he’s progressed during his first two seasons, the expectation is that he can take another step cresting the point-per-game mark this season.
- Copper and Blue: With Jacob Markstrom headed to Calgary, the Canucks filled out their goaltending by signing free agent goaltender Braden Holtby from Washington. Is Holtby an upgrade on Markstrom? With Thatcher Demko, what do you expect the split to look like?
Trevor Beggs: Ha ha ha...how quickly would SB Nation take away my credentials if I called Holtby a better goaltender than Markstrom?
It’s crazy to think that Holtby and Markstrom are separated in age by four months, because Markstrom is in the midst of his prime, while Holtby appears to be trending downwards. That being said, I like the chances of Holtby bouncing back while providing a stabilizing presence behind Demko.
With the season condensed, I expect something close to a 60-40 split, with Demko starting the majority of games for the Canucks in 2021.
- Copper and Blue: Tell us about a breakout Canuck in 2021.
Trevor Beggs: I’m going with Thatcher Demko. I’m telling Oilers fans right now, his playoff performance wasn’t some mirage.
That’s not to say he’s going to stop 98% of the shots he faces, but he’s ready to be a number one goaltender in the NHL.
Demko has done everything asked of a goalie prospect. He’s dominated in both college and the AHL, and he’s been fairly decent in his NHL minutes, even before his dominant stretch against Vegas in the playoffs. While his 3.06 GAA and .905 save percentage during the regular season were both average, they were skewed by a couple of brutal starts. In fact, he had a higher quality start percentage than Jacob Markstrom during the regular season, showing that he provided above average goaltending on a consistent basis.
Another guy to watch for might be Adam Gaudette. He scored at a second-line rate despite receiving bottom-six minutes. Because of the Canucks lack of forward depth, he’ll get every opportunity to prove that he’s a solid two-way player that can provide offence.
- Copper and Blue: It’s been a few years since defenceman Olli Juolevi was drafted fifth overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. After spending last year with Utica, is he ready for prime time?
Trevor Beggs: I think so...although it’s hard to be confident based on how injuries have derailed his development.
He has been quietly efficient at the AHL level, and surprised many when he was named to the Canucks taxi squad for the playoffs after a strong camp. He even played his first NHL game in the Canucks play-in series victory against the Wild, although Travis Green gave him less than seven minutes of ice time.
Because the Canucks have open spots on their defensive depth chart at the NHL level, Juolevi should begin the season in the NHL. He still has top four potential, but it’s hard to be sure of how effective he’ll be until the games begin.
- Copper and Blue: Finally, where do the Canucks finish in the North division in 2021?
Trevor Beggs: This is a great question, and the fact that there are so many competitive teams in this division has me stoked to watch hockey this season. I think that the healthiest teams will likely finish highest, and both teams that lack depth like the Canucks and the Oilers are going to be screwed if top guys are injured.
While the Canucks have flaws, I like their top two defenceman in Hughes and Schmidt, along with their goaltending tandem and starpower up front on offence.
Oilers fans will love this...and surely this could come back to bite me, but here’s my half-baked predictions for how the North Division will shake out.
- Calgary Flames
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Vancouver Canucks
- Montreal Canadiens
- Edmonton Oilers
- Winnipeg Jets
- Ottawa Senators
Editor’s note: Yeah, that’s gonna be real popular with Oiler fans.