With the structure of the 2020-21 NHL season shrouded in mystery due to the current COVID-19 crisis, plenty of different rumours have been swirling about on how the season may look. However, Las Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley may have unknowingly shed some light on the league’s plans during his interview with local Vegas radio station KSHP.
When asked about the trade that brought Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks and how that will be facing him next season, Foley responded by saying “Yeah, but they're going to be playing in the Canadian division next year”.
The Canada-US border remains closed for the foreseeable future and getting teams to cross it would pose a large problem for the league. The MLB had to deal with this during this summer and they decided to create a temporary home for the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo.
The NHL has seven teams in Canada compared to the MLB’s one, and realigning the divisions would make much more sense than finding seven temporary homes in the US and forcing the players to leave their families.
So if the NHL does decide that all Canadian teams will be playing together in a new division next season, what does that mean for the Canucks?
The first game against the Flames is sure to be an emotional roller coaster. Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, and Josh Leivo all moved slightly east this offseason and will be competing against the Canucks.
The Canucks played the Flames three times last season and only managed to win one of the contests, a 5-2 victory where Thatcher Demko saved 23 of the 25 shots he faced. Calgary has given Vancouver some trouble in recent seasons, and that was before they poached three strong players.
One of the Flames biggest weaknesses has been their shaky goaltending. Starter Dave Rittich had a Goals Saved Against Average of -3.80 last year, meaning he let in almost four more goals than an average goalie would have. The arrival of Jacob Markstrom should turn that weakness into a strength, Canucks fans would know better than anyone.
However, it’s not all rosy for the Flames as they did let defencemen T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, and Eric Gustafsson walk. The addition of Tanev may not be enough to offset those losses as well as the continuing decline of captain Mark Giordano. Either way, the Flames will not be a pushover next season and will be challenging for a playoff spot.
You can never count out a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers rely on these two to drive most of their offence but the team will need more from their secondary pieces before they are real contenders.
McDavid was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and any possible lingering effects will be a huge blow to the Oiler’s playoff chances.
They added Tyson Barrie this offseason, a player that has been linked to the Canucks on-and-off again over the last couple years, and he should help as a puck mover that can get feed their dynamic duo and a threat on the powerplay.
Goaltending remains a large question for the Oilers as at this point it seems as if they are ready to roll with the Mike Smith / Mikko Koskinen duo again. They were linked to Jacob Markstrom before he chose Calgary and if they could find someone that provides anything close to what Marky would have it would solve one of their glaring issues.
The Canadiens have been big players this offseason as they traded Max Domi for Josh Anderson as well as signed former Vancouver Canuck Tyler Toffoli. The team ended last season on a high note as they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins before taking a very strong Philadelphia Flyers team to six games.
The largest factor in how successful Montreal will be is the development of their young core. Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Alexander Romanov will all be very good NHL players but they are still young and not as proven as the Canucks core.
Goaltender Carey Price will make sure that they have a chance in every game he starts and he looked sharp as ever during these past playoffs. The Canucks roster has a level of high-end skill that Montreal just doesn’t but the thin depth of Vancouver will make these games a battle.
Ottawa is the least threatening team in a potential all-Canadian division and would be the biggest potential positive to this arrangement. The Senators had a huge amount of draft capital this year and do have a strong prospect pool but they do not pose too much of an immediate threat.
The teams offence and defence are lacklustre as they finished bottom seven in both categories last year. This will be a year where they let some kids play and see what they have.
Senators fans finally have something to look forward to but this season is still too early for the team to be real contenders. Crazier things have happened but in an all-Canadian division Ottawa will likely struggle to finish anywhere but last.
The Maple Leafs remain one of the league’s most talented teams on paper but have yet to fulfill any of their lofty expectations. Another disappointing early exit to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a series in which they were shutout twice, led to the team adding a couple veterans in Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Stanley Cup champion Zach Bogosian.
GM Kyle Dubas joined NHL Tonight to discuss the team’s offseason moves and mentioned that one large goal was to make the team tougher to play against. While a physical edge would help the Leafs, the moves they made are unconvincing. Thornton and Simmonds are not getting any younger and as their foot speed continues to disappear they will struggle to play with the Leafs younger, faster, and more skilled players.
They also lost two solid contributors in Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson who were each solid middle-six offensive threats. Still, the Leafs have a bounty of offensive talent and if they manage to put it all together could be serious Stanley Cup contenders. They will be the favourites to win an all-Canadian division but the Canucks are not far behind.
Winnipeg is an interesting team that has managed to give the Canucks fits over the last few years. Look at this year’s pre-playoff exhibition game between the two teams, a 4-1 Jets victory that had Canucks fans worried about the state of the team just before they started playing their best hockey of the season.
The Jets traded for Paul Stastny this offseason, a centre who has consistently scored around 40 points in recent years but will turn thirty-five before this season begins. They have talent up front and a Vezina-caliber goaltender but a weak defence group has been their undoing.
The Jets are a team that the Canucks need to figure out how to beat consistently if they want to take that next step. They don’t have the same level of young talent that Vancouver possesses but will offer a strong test where the Canucks can see where they really stand.
An all-Canadian division would mean a tougher road for the Canucks next season, mostly because of how weak the Pacific division is. The Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks will all be among some of the worst teams in the league this season and having Ottawa in the Canadian division does not make up the difference.
An all-Canadian division will be extremely competitive as six of the seven teams are all in the same class of teams. Old rivalries will be renewed and new ones will be ignited. The Canucks should hope to finish in the top two if they want to continue to show that they are a team on the rise.