Evaluating the NHL North Division Using Goals Above Replacement (GAR) Metrics

Following the divisional realignment imposed by the NHL for the shortened 2021 regular season, the path to the playoffs and beyond will be solely based on head-to-head matchups with divisional foes. With the regional realignment, which sees all Canadian teams moving into the North Division, the resultant three other divisions are a bit unbalanced in terms of competition.

Each of the divisions’ top four teams will advance to the division playoffs, with the first seed playing the fourth seed, and the second seed playing the third seed. A division will have one division playoff champion that will match up against another division champion for the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals.

Some divisions have more of an even balance of quality throughout, but others are a bit more top-heavy, giving the better teams in those divisions a path of less resistance to the playoffs.

Prior to opening night, NoVa Caps will breakdown each of the new divisions and assess the strength of each divisional team through the use of the Goals Above Replacement metric. In this piece, we’ll take a look at each team in the North Division’s 2019-20 regular season goals above replacement (GAR) to assess the strength of the division. [Statistics courtesy of Evolving Hockey.]

The North Division for the 2021 NHL season consists entirely of Canadian teams, paving the way for intense rivalry matchups throughout the season, namely the Battle of Alberta between the Oilers and the Flames, as well as the Maple Leafs versus the Canadiens.

The North Division will be interesting to watch, as many of the Canadian teams made some marquee additions to their lineups to improve considerably. In this post, we’ll take a look at the 2019-20 regular season goals above replacement (GAR), as well as off-season additions to project the teams that are most likely to make the playoffs. You can access our North Division Preview here. [Statistics used in this article are courtesy of Evolving Hockey.]

Here’s a snapshot of the top teams last year in regards to GAR: [Click to enlarge]

Edmonton leads the way in terms of GAR based on their performance last season, mainly carried by excellent forward play by marquee stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, as well as the top power play unit in terms of GAR in what is now the North Division.

The Oilers added Tyson Barrie (1.2 GAR) to bolster the right side of the defense, giving them a true offensive defenseman to quarterback the already strong power play. Additionally, they brought back Mike Smith (6.4 GAR) in goal, and Dominik Kahun (8.3 GAR) to add to their scoring depth. If Kahun picks up where he left off last season, he’ll help solidify the depth scoring on the Oilers, which has been an area they’ve struggled historically.

Toronto is up next, posting the best even strength offense GAR in what is now the North Division. Toronto’s overall GAR was brought down by their relatively sub-par even strength defense GAR, but they made acquisitions in the off-season to help shore this up. Zach Bogosian (1.1 GAR) and TJ Brodie (5.4 GAR) will help bolster their defense and add depth to their biggest weakness over the past few seasons.

Montreal comes in third in terms of GAR from last season. They were well-rounded overall, posting solid even strength offense and defense GAR, but had some struggles on special teams. Montreal added Josh Anderson (-1.0 GAR), Tyler Toffoli (9.7 GAR), Jake Allen (14.1 GAR), and Joel Edmundson (-3.4 GAR), Michael Frolik (-7.2 GAR). Montreal is really banking on Josh Anderson bouncing back this season after struggling with injury. Anderson posted a GAR of 14 in the 2018-19 season, which would really add to Montreal’s even strength offense and power play offense GAR marks.

Vancouver is fourth, with 90.9 GAR overall. Vancouver will be interesting after losing considerable assets this past season (Jacob Markstrom, Christopher Tanev, Troy Stetcher, and Tyler Toffoli). Vancouver replaced Markstrom (14.1 GAR) with former Capital Braden Holtby (0.1 GAR), and acquired Nate Schmidt from Vegas (13.8 GAR). Vancouver will really need to bank on young netminder Thatcher Demko to continue the performance he put up in the playoffs, as well as Holtby returning to form. The Canucks are really top-heavy at forward, with Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and JT Miller, and that top-heaviness is even more exacerbated with the departure of Tyler Toffoli. Due to the departures, Vancouver is likely to drop a bit here.

Calgary ranks fifth in overall GAR in the newly minted North Division. Calgary is coming off a year where they underperformed expectations and finished third in the Pacific Division in 2019-20 behind Vegas and Edmonton. After years of average goaltending, the Flames added Jacob Markstrom in free agency, which will surely help improve their goaltending GAR. David Rittich and Markstrom will be a strong tandem. The Flames also added Christopher Tanev (2 GAR) to add to their defensive group. Flames’ stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan will need to bounce back after subpar 2019-20 seasons, and Tanev will need to elevate his play to replace TJ Brodie.

Winnipeg is sixth in GAR in the North Division. Winnipeg suffered on defense last year after trading Jacob Trouba and losing stalwart defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, as well as losing top defenseman Josh Morrissey to injury for most of last season. Winnipeg looked to address these issues on the back-end and added Dylan DeMelo (4.6 GAR) and Derek Forbort (-3.9 GAR). Forbort has had sub-par GAR metrics over the past two seasons, likely due in part to the Los Angeles Kings struggles, but in 2017-18, Forbort posted a 4.6 GAR. He should likely have a bit of a bounce back season in a larger role on a better team in Winnipeg. With Connor Hellebuyck backstopping this team, posting the best goaltending GAR in the division, the Jets should have a chance to return to the playoffs with an improved defensive corps.

Rounding out the North Division is the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa will be an intriguing team this season, adding solid veteran talent via trade and free agency in Evgeni Dadonov (5.1 GAR), Derek Stepan (2.3 GAR), Matt Murray (-4.8 GAR), and took a flyer on Alex Galchenyuk (0.4 GAR). Galchenyuk showed improvement after being traded to the Minnesota Wild, posting a 2.1 GAR after a -1.7 GAR showing in Pittsburgh. Murray struggled last season, but put up a 22.8 GAR in the 2018-19 season. If Murray can return to his 2018-19 form, the Senators will be in good hands for the foreseeable future in net. The Senators are still a few steps behind the top teams in this division, though. Their two top performers in GAR for forwards last season, Tyler Ennis (5.7 GAR) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (8.5 GAR) were traded at last season’s trade deadline. If the Senators are going to make a push up the standings, they’ll need to bank on young talents like Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, and Thomas Chabot to make the next step. There are too many variables at play to conclude that Ottawa is ready to make the step up into playoff contention, but they are making strides in the right direction.

Here are potential standings results for the 2021 regular season, taking into account 2019-20 performance, as well as off-season additions and departures:

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs
  2. Calgary Flames
  3. Edmonton Oilers
  4. Winnipeg Jets
  5. Montreal Canadiens
  6. Vancouver Canucks
  7. Ottawa Senators

You can access our North Division Preview here.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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