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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes: Canucks @ Oilers

The NHL is back. Awesome.

Welcome to the 2021 NHL season, where the seven Canadian teams will play a 56-game season without leaving the country. It will be wild, unprecedented and possibly the only time we see all seven Canadian teams in the same division.

The Edmonton Oilers will play the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames 10 times and the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets nine times.

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I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

— For the second consecutive season the Oilers open up their season at home against the Canucks. This is the Oilers 41st season opener and the 31st time they will open on home ice. They are an impressive 19-7-4 in 30 season openers on home ice after beating Vancouver 3-2 last year. They are 3-6-1 (tie) in season openers on the road, and overall they are 22-13-5 on opening night.

— The Oilers will start the season with no rookies in their lineup. Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi are the youngsters at 22 years of age. With Ken Holland in the GM spot don’t expect any rushing of young players. This is a good thing. Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg and other young Oilers prospects will be on the ice soon, but I’d be surprised if we see a teenager as a regular in the Oilers lineup for a long time.

— The Canucks will be without their leading scorer from last season, JT Miller, tonight. Miller, along with Jordie Benn, are out due to COVID concerns. Miller was living at Benn’s place and reports out of Vancouver is one has tested positive so both are under quarantine. It is an unfortunate reality of the 2021 season, where teams could be without top players for weeks at a time due to quarantine rules. The Oilers have to take advantage of the Canucks being without their best winger. An early win or a possible two-game sweep would be an excellent start for the Oilers.

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— It will be very difficult in a 56-game season, but birthday boy Connor McDavid will try to become the 26th player in NHL history with four 100-point seasons. He would need to average 1.78 points/game, which is a lot. Leon Draisaitl had 89 points (1.58 P/GP) in the Oilers first 56 games last season, so I think a 90-point campaign for McDavid and Draisaitl is very possible, but 100 points would be incredible. McDavid will need a good start and in his last four season openers he has scored one, two, three and three points. I expect McDavid to be flying tonight based on how he looked in camp and the scrimmages. He will give himself a nice 24th birthday present with a multi-point night.

— Edmonton will have eight skaters in tonight’s lineup who weren’t on the opening night roster last year. Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, Tyson Barrie and Slater Koekkoek will play their first game as Oilers, Jesse Puljujarvi returns after a season in Finland, while Tyler Ennis was in Ottawa and Kailer Yamamoto and Caleb Jones started in the American Hockey League. Both of them finished the season in Edmonton, and Ennis was acquired at the trade deadline. So 44.4% of the Oilers skaters weren’t on the team last year on opening night. They are a much quicker and more skilled team.

— But the main question remains: Can the Oilers reduce their goals against? Oscar Klefbom, Matt Benning and Kris Russell are out while Barrie, Jones and Koekkoek are in on the blueline. Edmonton has a more mobile defence and will pass the puck better, but will they be able to break up the cycle consistently?

— Edmonton’s goals against at 5×5 has been their glaring weakness for three seasons. Last year they finished 25th, allowing 2.16 GA/game, and over the past three seasons they are 28th, allowing 2.16 GA/game. They allowed 2.18 in 2018, 2.14 in 2019 and 2.16 in 2020. That must improve this season if they expect to contend for the division title.

— Vancouver has seven new regulars from last year. Braden Holtby in goal, Nate Schmidt, Travis Hamonic, Jalen Chatfield and Olli Juolevi on the blueline and Zack MacEwan and Jayce Hawryluk up front. Juolevi, the fifth overall pick from 2016, looks ready to contribute similar to Puljujarvi.

— Over the past two seasons, Leon Draisaitl has the second most goals in the NHL with 93, McDavid is seventh with 75 and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is 52nd with 50 goals. The top-three Canucks are Elias Pettersson, 28th with 55, Bo Horvat, 55th with 49 goals, and Brock Boeser 89th with 42. Edmonton’s top-three forwards have outscored Vancouver’s 218-146.

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But how about the rest of the roster?

Edmonton:                           Vancouver:
Chiasson: 33                         Miller: 40
Kassian: 30                           Virtanen: 33
Ennis: 28                               Pearson: 30
Kahun: 25                             Gaudette: 17
Archibald: 24                        Roussel: 16
Turris: 16                              Motte: 13
Yamamoto: 12 (one year)     Sutter: 12
Khaira: 9                               McEwan: 5 (only played 22 games combined)
Puljujarvi: 4 (one year)         Beagle: 5

Edmonton’s supporting cast has combined for 181 goals while Vancouver’s have tallied 171. So Edmonton’s forward group has outscored Vancouver 399-317 and Miller’s 40 goals won’t be in tonight’s lineup. After years of not having adequate scoring depth compared to many teams, the Oilers finally have some balance after their top forwards. They aren’t close to elite depth like Tampa Bay, but Edmonton has finally upgraded the overall skill of their forwards.

— Both teams would be wise to stay out of the penalty box. The Oilers had the best PP last season at 29.5%, while the Canucks were fourth best at 24.2%. Vancouver had the second most PP opportunities with 236 in 69 games. Edmonton was 22nd with 200 in 71 games. The Canucks had four or more PP opportunities in 40% (28) of their games, while Edmonton had four+ in 25% (18) of their games. Against each other last season, Vancouver went 2-for-11 in four games while Edmonton was 3-for-9.

— The unique North Division makes predictions even more unpredictable this season. I asked numerous writers across the Nation Network as well as other media people to list, in order, which four teams will make the playoffs.

Craig Button TSN Ray Ferraro TSN Pat Steinberg
Nation Network
Jason Strudwick
TSN 1260
John Steitzer
Nation Network
Baggedmilk
Nation Network
Thomas Hall
Nation Network
MTL TOR TOR MTL TOR TOR TOR
TOR MTL CGY TOR CGY EDM EDM
CGY CGY EDM EDM EDM CGY CGY
WPG EDM WPG CGY WPG VAN WPG
Scottie Upshall
Missin Curfew
Dave McCarthy
Sirius XM
David Quadrelli
Nation Network
AJ Jacubek
TSN 1200
Connor Halley
TSN 1260
Tom Gazzola
TSN 1260
Tony Marinaro
TSN 690
TOR WPG TOR VAN TOR CGY TOR
VAN TOR CGY EDM EDM EDM MTL
EDM CGY VAN WPG CGY TOR EDM
CGY MTL EDM MTL MTL WPG VAN

The only consensus pick is that Ottawa won’t make the playoffs. All the other six teams missed the playoffs in at least one prediction. I’m going with:
Edmonton
Toronto
Montreal
Calgary

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I’ve covered the Oilers for 20 years and this is the first time I’ve ever picked them to win their division. Of course for a decade we didn’t pick them to make the playoffs, so maybe it isn’t that surprising.

Winnipeg will be close, and easily could get in ahead of Calgary, but Vancouver will take a step back. They lost Markstrom, and they were incredibly healthy last season. Their top-five defence missed a total of 12 games combined and Boeser (12 games) was their only top forward who missed time.

Let the games begin.

Who do you have making it?

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