I understand why a lot of pre-season prognosticators have picked the Toronto Maple Leafs to finish atop the NHL’s North Division this season. Likewise, I understand why a lot of hockey fans west of Ontario are sneering at that as we get ready for the puck to drop on this COVID-shortened 56-game season.
It’s what we do, a Pavlov’s Dog thing, a reaction to a team that hasn’t won anything since 1967. So it goes again this season as the Maple Leafs are getting lots of love in pre-season polls, like the one just published by the folks at NHL.com. While the 15 writers and editors there are almost unanimous in believing the Colorado Avalanche will win the Stanley Cup, eight of them have the Maple Leafs winning the North Division.
I get it. Like ‘em or not, the Maple Leafs are a good hockey club. With four playoff berths up for grabs, there’s no chance they don’t finish in the top three. Sure, they can win it. What I don’t get is how dismissive the same group is about the Edmonton Oilers, who had the best points percentage, with .585 in 71 games last season, of the seven teams who make up the North Division. Just one of the 15 has the Oilers winning the division. Six others have them in the top four. Eight writers have them missing the playoffs.
Predictions, whether they’re as well thought out as those done by Jason Gregor on this site yesterday, or those offered in the piece I reference, are nothing more than educated guesses. Injuries always play into things. There’s no way for sure to know which players will have a breakout year and who will hit the tank. On top of that, a new alignment with the Canadian teams playing only within the division makes getting it right even trickier. So, sure, the Maple Leafs can win it. But the Oilers out of the playoffs? No chance.
IN THE MIX
There’s no question the Oilers crapped the bed by losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in series at Rogers Place last August. That series started to go south right off the hop when Mike Smith got the nod from Dave Tippett in Game 1, then gave up five goals before he got the hook. The penalty killing, terrific all year, gave up three goals. The ugly details we know. The Oilers had no business losing to the Blackhawks in four games. I understand why that sticks in the memory, but I don’t think it makes what we saw from this team during the regular season a mirage.
We can debate how much GM Ken Holland has improved the roster, but I don’t think there’s any question he did when you look at who is gone, most notably Oscar Klefbom with his bad shoulder, and the players Holland has added – Tyson Barrie, Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun and Jesse Puljujarvi, to name four. There is more depth around Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up front and on the blueline, no?
Will the goaltending be good enough with Mikko Koskinen as the starter and Smith as the only option as his back-up now that Anton Forsberg has been claimed on waivers by Carolina? Fair question. I think it is, especially with a shorter season and with Koskinen as the clear-cut starter. Can the power play and penalty killing be as good? Will the Oilers be better 5-on-5, their weakness last season? The questions we know. We’ve had them under the microscope for months. But miss the playoffs? Again, no chance.
For what it’s worth, here’s how I see it the North Division shaping up (last season’s points percentage in parenthesis). Top four teams make the playoffs.
MOST OVER-RATED: MONTREAL
Eleven of the 15 writers at NHL.com have the Habs in the playoffs, but this is a team that was .500 at 31-31-9 and sixth among Canadian teams last season. The Habs are set in goal with Carey Price and Jake Allen arriving as his back-up, but their special teams are mediocre and they’re thin on high-end talent outside the blue paint. For me, it’s tight between the Habs and Winnipeg for fourth place. With Connor Hellebuyck in net and Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler up front, I’ll take the Jets.
It’s the Oilers by a bunch. Any doubts duly noted, I see the Oilers neck-and-neck with the Maple Leafs atop the North Division and with a 50-50 chance to win it. Only four of 15 writers had the Oilers in the top two and, as noted, eight scribes have them out of the post-season altogether. There isn’t a team in the NHL with a better one-two punch than McDavid and Draisaitl. Barrie is the PP quarterback and rush D-man they’ve lacked. Turris is a key addition. There’s more depth up front and on the back end. Expect amends for how the Oilers shat the sheets against Chicago when the puck drops Wednesday.
Previously by Robin Brownlee
- Opportunity Knocks for Tyson Barrie
- Jesse Puljujarvi: The Encore
- Deeper Blue
- From the Top: Ken Holland
- Gretzky, Messier and What Happens with That Third Line
- At Random: Progress