Training camp has officially wrapped up, the opening-day roster is coming into focus and the season opener is just a few days away for the Winnipeg Jets.
The topic of the day is: where do the Jets fit in this season in the North Division?
How do they stack up and where might they finish?
Do they have what it takes to be a playoff team?
“That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” said Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu.
“It’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be like a lot of playoff series. That’s my personal opinion on it. There’s no games where you’re going in on a back-to-back, you’re not playing in your own division and you’re not so much there.
“Every game matters. You get behind the eight-ball early this season and it’s gonna be a tough grind to get back. We’re excited, I think our team is built for this challenge.”
With the temporary evacuation from the Central Division, there isn’t a clear-cut favourite or a recent Stanley Cup winner in the bunch.
There are teams on the rise and looking to build off a strong performance in the bubble and there are others like the Jets looking to put recent playoff disappointment behind them.
There’s an abundance of high-end talent, especially at the centre position, and a goalie in Jacob Markstrom who is expected to be a contender for the Vezina Trophy after leaving the Vancouver Canucks for the Calgary Flames.
Sure, the Ottawa Senators are the consensus pick to finish in the basement, but brighter days are on the horizon and they’re not going to be an easy out as head coach D.J. Smith begins his second season behind the bench.
Assessing the field is no easy task, since there are not many outcomes that would register as a real surprise when it comes to the standings.
While life in the Central Division was often viewed as a bit of a “grinder” in the eyes of Jets head coach Paul Maurice, this North Division has the potential to be a little more wide open in terms of style.
“There are some teams that have some pretty vaunted offensive players. You’ve got Connor McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl, the two big boys in the league in your division, there’s some goal scoring,” said Maurice.
“There are some teams that have drafted really good young players and they’re all kind of maybe at the same place, so you’ve got that four or five years ago we all drafted real high and got really good high-end skill.
“There are some teams that have that in terms of individual talent and all of those teams, that section of teams is all trying to become a better defensive hockey team because they’re more weighted to the offensive skilled player, especially up front.
“But they’re all trying to find a way to become a better defensive team.
“Calgary, we’ve always felt they were more of a defensive-minded group, maybe in style of play. I find the teams that are in the East seem to have a more open game that’s more of an offensive-minded game than we have in the West so we’ve got that kind of unique thing going on.
“I think all of these teams are trying to become a better defensive hockey team because they’ve got good, young skill players and those guys usually come into the league with their offensive game fairly developed but their defensive game has got lots of room to grow and we’re probably all looking to become the team that makes that jump, that marries the two, skill players that are willing to defend.”
These teams are mostly evenly-matched and there isn’t expected to be a whole lot of separation between the four teams that reach the postseason and the three that end up on the outside looking in.
The crystal ball is a bit cloudier than usual in the middle of a pandemic but what we know is that it’s going to be outstanding to see how things play out during this 56-game season of games played between established and soon-to-be heated Canadian rivals.
Here’s how I see thing playing out:
2019-20 regular season record: 36-27-7, 79 points
2019-20 season finish: 19th in points percentage, lost to Dallas Stars in six games in first round of Stanley Cup playoffs.
Additions: G Jacob Markstrom, D Chris Tanev, D Nikita Nesterov, RW Josh Leivo, F Dominik Simon (W), LW Joakim Nordstrom.
Subtractions: D T.J. Brodie (Toronto Maple Leafs), D Erik Gustafsson (Philadelphia Flyers), C Mark Jankowski (Pittsburgh Penguins), D Travis Hamonic (Vancouver Canucks), F Tobias Rieder (Buffalo Sabres), D Derek Forbort (Winnipeg Jets), G Cam Talbot (Minnesota Wild)
The skinny: The Flames added one of the biggest fish in free agency by securing Jacob Markstrom on a long-term deal to create a tandem with David Rittich that should be among the best in the division.
There was some turnover on the back end, but the Flames are hoping for the emergence of Rasmus Andersson to continue and for Juuso Valimaki to make an impact as a rookie. Former Manitoba Moose D-man Chris Tanev should pair nicely with Noah Hanifin.
Up front, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm look like they’ll be driving the offensive bus but don’t forget about guys like Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube – they’ll also help the likes of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Calgary took an important step by bouncing the Jets, but they’ve got several steps to go before reaching their ultimate goal.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 regular season record: 36-25-9, 81 points
2019-20 season finish: 13th in points percentage, lost in five games to Columbus in the qualifying round.
Additions: D T.J. Brodie, F Joe Thornton, LW Jimmy Vesey, RW Wayne Simmonds, D Zach Bogosian, D Mikko Lehtonen, F Alexander Barabanov, RW Joey Anderson, C/RW Travis Boyd.
Subtractions: RW Kasperi Kapanen (Pittsburgh Penguins), LW Andreas Johnsson (New Jersey Devils), Tyson Barrie (Edmonton Oilers), Cody Ceci ( Penguins), Kyle Clifford (St. Louis Blues), Frederik Gauthier (Arizona Coyotes)
The skinny: Plenty of observers have the Maple Leafs ranked first in this group of seven, and there’s a good reason for that. High-end talent is in abundance with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander up front.
Those four forwards will continue to flourish, but this team hasn’t been out of the first round since 2004 and it’s time for them to make a step. Goalie Freddie Andersen is in the final year of his contract, so that’s a storyline worth watching this offseason.
GM Kyle Dubas brought in some experience, but the pressure is on this core group to make some noise when it matters most.
2019-20 regular season record: 31-31-9, 71 points
2019-20 finish: 24th overall in points percentage. Lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Additions: G Jake Allen, D Joel Edmundson, D Alexander Romanov, RW Josh Anderson, RW Tyler Toffoli, F Michael Frolike, RW Corey Perry.
Subtractions: C Max Domi (Columbus Blue Jackets), RW Dale Weise (free agent)
The skinny: This is a group that is tough to get a handle on. It wouldn’t shock me if they finished first in the division, but the team that wins the offseason doesn’t always produce on-ice results.
The defence corps should be a strength, with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry joined by former Jets blue-liner Ben Chiarot and Manitoban Joel Edmundson.
There are enough offensive weapons and the tandem of Carey Price and Jake Allen should be solid. Led by Brendan Gallagher, but look for continued growth from centre Nick Suzuki.
2019-20 regular season record: 37-28-6, 80 points
2019-20 season finish: 20th overall in points percentage, lost in four games in qualifying round to Calgary Flames
Additions: C Paul Stastny (Vegas Golden Knights), D Derek Forbort (Calgary Flames/Los Angeles Kings), C Nate Thompson (Philadelphia Flyers/Montreal Canadiens), RW Trevor Lewis (Los Angeles Kings)* on a pro tryout offer but a good bet to make the team.
Subtractions: C Cody Eakin (Buffalo Sabres), D Dmitri Kulikov (New Jersey Devils), D Carl Dahlstrom (Vegas Golden Knights), D Anthony Bitetto (to New York Rangers), C Nick Shore (to Europe), LW Gabriel Bourque (free agent), RW Logan Shaw (Ottawa Senators), C Mark Letestu (retired).
The skinny: They’ve got a Vezina-Trophy winning goalie in Connor Hellebuyck and a highly-skilled forward group that should not have any issues putting the puck in the net.
Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor tied for the scoring lead last season, while Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers look to take another step in their overall development. Captain Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny will provide both leadership and production to round out the top-six, while Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry will look to deliver some valuable secondary scoring.
The primary concern is buckling down defensively and if the Jets improve in that area — and also take some strides on special teams, they could be a force to be reckoned with.
2019-20 regular season record: 69 GP, 36-27-6, 78 pts
2019-20 season finish: 15th in points percentage, Lost in 7 games to Vegas Golden Knights in 2nd round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Additions: F Nils Hoglander, D Nate Schmidt, D Olli Juolevi, D Travis Hamonic, D Jalen Chatfield, G Braden Holtby.
Subtractions: G Jacob Markstrom (Calgary Flames), F Tyler Toffoli (Montreal Canadiens), F Josh Leivo (Calgary Flames), D Chris Tanev (Calgary Flames), D Troy Stecher (Detroit Red Wings), D Oscar Fanteberg (free agent)
The skinny: Elias Pettersson is going to be a joy to watch for years to come and Bo Horvat provides some important backing with the 1-2 punch down the middle, but there are still questions about the supporting cast – even after a fun playoff push.
Quinn Hughes had a dynamite rookie campaign and won’t be a candidate for a sophomore slump. If Thatcher Demko plays like he did against Vegas, the Canucks could easily contend for the division title and Braden Holtby figures to be a solid goalie partner.
Travis Green is an excellent coach, but he needs a few more offensive horses to prevent this group from taking a small step backward. Even the slightest step back could be the difference between finishing fourth or fifth.
2019-20 regular season record: 37-25-9, 82 points, 12th overall
2019-20 season finish: 12th in point percentage, lost in four games to Chicago Blackhawks in qualifying round.
Additions: LW Dominik Kahun, RW Jesse Puljujarvi, C Kyle Turris, D Tyson Barrie, D Slater Koekkoek, D Theodore Lennstrom.
Subtractions: C Riley Sheahan (Buffalo Sabres), D Matt Benning (Nashville Predators), F Andreas Athanasiou (Los Angeles Kings), D Oscar Klefbom (to LTIR)
The skinny: How can a team with reigning MVP Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid not make the playoffs? It’s a valid question and far from a certainty, especially given how dangerous they can be on what was the league-leading power play last season.
But with Oscar Klefbom lost for the season, this defensive group could be faced with some serious challenges in its own end. The biggest question is between the pipes, where Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith return.
2019-20 regular season record: 25-34-12, 62 pts.
2019-20 season finish: 30th in points percentage, missed playoffs
Additions: G Matt Murray, D Braydon Coburn, D Erik Gudbranson, D Josh Brown, D Artem Zub, F Evgenii Dadonov, F Derek Stepan, F Alex Galchenyuk, F Austin Watson, F Cedric Paquette.
Subtractions: G Craig Anderson (Washington Capitals), D Dylan DeMelo (Winnipeg Jets), LW Anthony Duclair (Florida Panthers), C Jean-Gabriel Pageau (New York Islanders), F Tyler Ennis (Edmonton Oilers), F Bobby Ryan (Detroit Red Wings), D Mark Borowiecki (Nashville Predators), D Ron Hainsey (free agent).
The skinny: Far from the free space in the bingo card, the Senators are working hard to change the culture and have taken important steps under the guidance of Smith.
Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are excellent building blocks and the future looks bright with the arrival of third overall pick Tim Stuetzle. But the lack of depth in goal and on defence means there are still going to be some growing pains in this rebuilding process.