An early look at how 2021 North Division teams are faring in full-league play

Things are back to normal in the NHL, at least in terms of the divisions. With the unique divisions in place for the 2020–21 season being a thing of the past, the return of regular divisions has brought back a sense of familiarity in the NHL. Early standings are all over the place with the crazy—if not consistent—presence of over and underperforming teams in the league. Hockey is back in full swing and there’s lots to talk about across the board. With interdivisional play back in the schedule, the NHL returns to a more regular means to evaluate teams against one another.

Most explorations into the stats this early in the season include the disclaimer that there’s not a large enough sample size to conclusively say anything about any one team, but there’s plenty of room for observations—especially at a team level. For the teams hailing out of the North Division last year, there was a lot of discourse on how it was a weak division and those teams coming back into full league play could easily stumble against stronger opponents spread across the four regular divisions.

Now that we’re more than two weeks into the 2021–22 NHL season, let’s see if those concerns (or expectations) of the North Division teams hold true by breaking down their records against former Canadian foes versus the American teams now back in the mix.

The North Division versus everyone

So far, the seven teams that made up the North Division has seen mixes of perfect starts by the Edmonton Oilers to disastrous stumbles out of the gate from last year’s Stanley Cup Finalists in the Montreal Canadiens.

There’s a lot to unpack in how Canadian teams are faring. Their starts are all over the place. According to HockeyViz’s standings point projections, there’s already plenty of movement with the first two weeks of games complete.

On aggregrate, the Canadian teams are split with some trending up and others trending down. The impacts of how Canadian teams play reach further than the just the standings. The launch of online sports betting in Canada comes at a good time now that the NHL season is underway. The launch date is supposedly this Fall/Winter and as of right now, not every province will be approved for betting. Nevertheless, tracking how the former North Division teams fare across the league will come with plenty of storylines throughout the season.

The four divisions bring with them a big change in the quality of competition for each Canadian team. Edmonton and Toronto are poised to contend for the stop spot in their respective divisions—just as they did in the North—whereas Ottawa is looking like they might be in the mix for the lottery pick come the end of the 2021–22 season. However, Montreal might be in the mix right there with Ottawa in the bottom of the league. Out west, Calgary is setting up to battle it out for a seeded spot in the playoffs and Vancouver a wild card spot, while the Jets are caught in the crazy mix of four teams in a tight race out in the Central.

Of course, it’s only been two weeks—lots can and will happen over the season. This past week has seen all four Western Canadian teams trend upwards, while all three Eastern Canadian teams have trended down. Week over week, anything can happen in the NHL. An early look at differences in records for the former North Division teams against themselves versus American teams so far can perhaps reveal what we can expect for the Canadian clubs for the rest of the season.

Canadian NHL club records so far

Records include all games ending October 26, 2021.

TeamOverall RecordPointsRecord vs. 2021 North Division teamsRecord vs non-North Division Teams

For each team, we’ll also look at stats from Natural Stat Trick—going over game-by-game expected goals (xG) at 5v5, score-and-venue-adjusted. Though it’s just one metric, the idea is that it can reveal overall on-ice performances beyond just the record. They won’t tell the whole story, but this early in the season, expected goals at 5v5 can give a sense of whether a team is dominant on ice or if they’re being outplayed.

Oilers still undefeated

The Oilers have started off with five wins after five games, four of which have been against Pacific Division teams, and the other against a former Pacific team in the Arizona Coyotes. Their start saw them winning two against Canadian teams—beating the Canucks 3–2 in the shootout in their first game of the season and the Flames 5–2 in the first round of the Battle of Alberta. Thus far, they’ve had the most even split against Canadian and non-Canadian teams, and they’ve strung together five wins no matter the opponent.

Oilers game-by-game record

VAN3–2 W (SO)2.331.5460.2
CGY5–2 W1.311.9240.7
ANA6–5 W2.441.8357.1
ARI5–1 W1.961.1563.1
VGK5–3 W1.942.1247.8

Overall, the Oilers have fared well when looking at xG. With the exception of their game against Calgary, they are either dominant or close to breakeven. It’s a sign that they can rely on their offence to give them the best chance to come out atop. Mix in their best-in-league power play and it’s clear they’re going all out on offence.

Flames bounce back

After losing their 12th straight season opener, the Flames earned nine of a possible ten points over five games. They’ve only played a Canadian team once so far, losing to the Oilers, but they’ve had great results against Eastern American teams. This includes a matinee overtime win over the Washington Capitals—and matinees are situations the Flames don’t often excel at.

Flames game-by-game record

EDM2–5 L1.921.3159.7
ANA2–3 L (OT)3.151.5167.5
DET3–0 W1.281.8141.4
WSH4–3 W (OT)1.121.6540.3
NYR5–1 W2.072.2248.2
NJD5–3 W1.601.0759.9

The Flames aren’t exactly a high offence team, but they’re designed to be a better defensive team than not. Their large swings in xGF% is partially a result of having lower overall xG in their games, where differences in xGF and xGA are magnified when looking at percentages due to the lower overall xG counts. That said, they’ve played four straight games of Darryl Sutter brand hockey, where getting up ahead in a game leads to a direct shift from creating offence for Calgary to preventing offence from their opponents. The Flames are one of the teams that definitely need more situational data to fully understand how this team reacts against different circumstances.

Jets untested against Canadian teams

The Jets are the only team to have yet to faceoff against any Canadian counterpart. So far, their season has been a bit of a mixed bag, with a string of losses to open their season coupled with big wins right after. They’ve been in ivolved in several high-scoring games so far—both in and against their favour.

Jets game-by-game record

ANA1–4 L1.481.0957.6
SJS3–4 L1.071.7338.2
MIN5–6 L (OT)1.151.8538.4
ANA5–1 W1.302.4634.6
NSH6–4 W2.301.2465.0
ANA4–3 W2.372.5048.6

Looking at the Jets’ xG, they have been in lopsided tilts in almost every game with the xG always heavily favoured for either the Jets or their opponent. It took until their sixth game for there to be an equal game against the Ducks. The big swings in on-ice quality is worrisome and a bit more consistency from the Jets will do them well as they are caught in a deep Central Division.

Canucks stuck in mediocrity

Similar to the Flames, the Canucks have only faced off once against a Canadian team and it was also the Oilers—though the Canucks were able to secure a point by taking the game to a shootout before losing. Against American teams, the Canucks have a record muddled in mediocrity with a mix of wins and losses. Not exactly good, not exactly bad.

Canucks game-by-game record

EDM2–3 L (SO)1.542.3339.4
PHI5–4 W (SO)1.641.4752.7
DET1–3 L1.611.4452.9
BUF2–5 L1.542.2740.4
CHI4–1 W1.091.4942.2
SEA4–2 W1.051.8636.2
MIN2–3 L0.812.4824.7

In terms of xG, the Canucks have yet to have a dominant game, whereas they’ve had five games of being completely outplayed—their latest against the Minnesota Wild the worst showing yet. This isn’t a good sign for Vancouver. There’s lot to clean up in their 5v5 play if they’re going to want to compete for a playoff spot, otherwise they can quickly fall to the outside looking in.

Maple Leafs faring better versus Canada

There’s something going on in Toronto, and the Maple Leafs are struggling in their games against American teams. One year removed from winning the North Division with a 35–14–7 record, the Leafs have not gotten off to a great start. Going up against Canadian teams, they’ve won twice—once against Montreal and once against Ottawa—but they’ve also lost to Ottawa as well. Against teams south of the border, the Maple Leafs have yet to win a single game, picking up just one point (in an overtime loss against the Rangers) out of a possible eight.

Maple Leafs game-by-game record

MTL2–1 W2.701.8259.7
OTT2–3 L2.653.3144.5
OTT3–1 W1.671.2557.1
NYR1–2 L (OT)2.201.4160.9
SJS3–5 L2.802.3254.7
PIT1–7 L1.492.0542.1
CAR1–4 L2.532.4650.7

Over their seven games so far, they’ve had fluctuating expected goals. Most of the time they’ve been the better team at 5v5, but they faltered in a 7–1 loss to the Penguins and were not able to muster much 5v5 offence in that game. For the most part, Toronto is not a team that should be worried and there’s plenty of hockey left, but their start has been far from inspiring.

Senators heading back toward expectations

Out of all the Canadian teams, Ottawa’s results so far are probably the least surprising. They’re pretty much right where they were expected to be, with a couple of wins but more losses. They opened their season with a win and a loss against Toronto and have faced American teams since, picking up one win against Dallas before losing three in a row.

Senators game-by-game record

TOR3–2 W3.312.6555.5
TOR1–3 L1.251.6742.9
DAL3–2 W1.521.7746.2
SJS1–2 L1.681.4354.0
NYR2–3 L1.421.1156.2
WSH5–7 L2.012.0749.3

Interestingly, the Senators haven’t been in many games that were too lopsided—their biggest expected goals difference came in their second game of the season at the hands of Toronto. Every other game had a tight range in xG between the Senators and their opponent, making for close battles. Their game outcomes reflect this too.

Canadiens in free fall after Final appearance

Whatever happened to the Montreal Canadiens? After losing in the Stanley Cup Final in five games, the Canadiens opened up this season with a five-game losing streak. Losing their season opener to the Leafs, the proceeded to lose four more games to American teams. Their first win of the season came against the Detroit Red Wings.

Canadiens game-by-game record

TOR1–2 L1.822.7040.3
BUF1–5 L0.641.5928.6
NYR1–3 L1.621.0760.1
SJS0–5 L1.031.3842.8
CAR1–4 L1.381.6046.4
DET6–1 W1.921.5056.0
SEA1–5 L1.231.3447.8

What’s particularly bad for the Canadiens is their expected goals as well. Looking at xG numbers, they’ve had some disastrous games to match their disastrous record. In their game against the Sabres, they managed just 0.64 xG, the second lowest total in a game so far in the whole league. However, Montreal hasn’t been all bad—they’ve had some a couple of good showings mixed in—but when they lose, they seemingly get entirely outplayed by their opponents. This isn’t where a team that made it to the Final wants to be to start a new campaign, but as a small consolation, the Lightning posted a 3–3–1 start to their season too.

O, Canada

It’s early in the season, and all teams are readjusting to full league play again—not just Canadian teams. With more game spread out rather than longer mini-series the NHL had in its schedule last season, there will be more travel, changes in time zones, and other added hardships in always commuting.

But that’s a good thing. There are crowds in all the stands again. There’s life injected back into arenas. Each Canadian team will surely welcome that whether they’re the home or away team. After all, they all spent the entire North Division season in empty arenas while some of their American counterparts had limited crowd capacities during the shortened season.

As the 2021–22 season wears on, we’ll see how these Canadian teams hold up in their respective divisions and see how much truth there was in saying the North Division was weak. May the best Canadian club win.

Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

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