All-Canadian would be fun for hockey and highly competitive
As soon as an American fan sees an NHL game in a Canadian city, he or she understands that the passion for hockey is more vibrant north of the 45th parallel.
There’s nothing quite like being in Montreal for a playoff game. Cab drivers. Hotel clerks. Shopkeepers. Everyone kibitzes about the game. If it is a Sunday, you can bet the parish priest will reference the game in his homily. You sense a buzz pulsing through the city.
In Toronto, the walk down Yonge Street on game night isn’t any less memorable. The energy in the air slaps you in the face as you see the steady stream Leaf jerseys moving toward the arena.
White-outs in Winnipeg. The nostalgia of those Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers teams. Every Canadian city as its own NHL traditions.
If I had to produce my top 10 highlights of reporting on the NHL for 35 years, the privilege of seeing hockey in Canada would be on my list.
That’s why I’m completely sold on the idea of an All-Canadian Division as a one-time-only solution to help deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Fewer border crossings is the reason why we may see it, but the extra layer of fun is why we should do it.
The Montreal-Toronto rivalry and the Battle of Alberta will have a far greater importance.
The timing for this probably couldn’t be better because you can make a case that every team in the division will be improved this season. Montreal added some goals. Calgary finally has a goalie in Markstrom. Winnipeg landed a No. 2 center in Paul Stastny. The OIlers improved their depth. Toronto has TJ Brodie. Vancouver strengthened its defense with Nate Schmidt. GM Pierre Dorion did plenty of good things in Ottawa this season.
After the offseason shuffling, it’s not ridiculous to say that every Canadian team except the Senators would have some kind of shot to win an All-Canadian Division:
Here is my guess of how it will unfold:
Toronto Maple Leafs: With Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares leading the way, the Maple Leafs have the best talent on paper. Brodie will help stabilize the defense, along with Mikko Lehtonen. Fans like to dump on goalie Frederik Andersen, but the majority of the goalies who were available this offseason weren’t more talented than Andersen. They were just different. If the defense is improved, Andersen will get the job done. We know this team is going to score plenty of goals.
2. Montreal Canadiens: This team is going to score 10-12% more goals this season, thanks to the addition of Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, plus Jesper Kotkaniemi’s continued improvement. The trade for Joel Edmundson and the signing of Alexander Romanov will upgrade the defense. Word is Carey Price is excited about the offseason moves. Look for him to have a strong season. Remember, he posted a 1.79 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in the postseason. With the season likely to be condensed, the acquisition of Jake Allen was shrewd. He should give the Canadiens some big wins in those three-games-in-four-nights situations.
3. Vancouver Canucks: It’s fair to worry about the loss of Markstrom. He bailed out the Canucks many times last season. But a Thatcher Demko-Braden Holtby combination is a noteworthy replacement. The addition of Schmidt is what makes me believe they will make the playoffs in this group. He’s a two-way defenseman with experience in all situations. He provides the Canucks with the consistency and poise they lacked last season. That brings us to Vancouver’s core group. Quinn and Elias Pettersson are two of the best young players in the game at their position. Bo Horvat is a quality player and leader. Brock Boeser has a rocket shot. J.T. Miller might be the NHL’s most underrated offensive standout.
4. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers’ goaltending probably ranks sixth in this division, maybe seventh if Matt Murray has a good season for the Senators. But as long as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl remain healthy, they are likely going to make the playoffs. While general manager Ken Holland didn’t make a major splash in free agency, he made small deals that will improve the Oilers’ depth. Kyle Turris will be a quality third-line center. Tyson Barrie and Kris Russell give the back end a new look. Dominik Kuhan could chip in 10 to 15 goals. Nobody will be a playoff lock for the All-Canadian Division. It’s possible third through sixth place will be separated by four to six points. But it’s hard to imagine a team with two of the top five offensive players in the game missing the playoffs.
5. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets have the goaltending and offense to win this division. But defense will continue to hold them back. Connor Hellebuyck gives them a shot at the playoffs, but it feels like they will fall short unless the defense is more effective than we think it be or GM Kevin Cheveldayoff adds an above-average defender. Here’s hoping he doesn’t trade Patrick Laine to secure that defenseman. It would be a mistake to trade such a pure goal scorer.
6. Calgary Flames: History tells us that one of these Canadian teams will not live up to expectations, and the Flames might be that team. If Matthew Tkachuk was here, he would say there is no way he would let that happen. That’s why we love Tkachuk. But he can’t do it all by himself. The Markstrom signing was smart. But this team has other issues. We still don’t know why Johnny Gaudreau’s production has declined, and Sean Monohan didn’t play like he has in the past. Mark Giordano is 37 now. If Calgary’s No. 1 line doesn’t have a strong season, the Flames could look average.
7. Ottawa Senators: The Senators have added enough young talent that they are going to start the climb toward being a credible force in the NHL. But we probably aren’t going to notice their ascent until 2021-22.