As the great poet Nasir Jones once said, you can hate me now.
Explaining my order for an all-Canadian NHL division means understanding the angry tweets are already being drafted before the fingers click on the headline.
While fans, players and TV programmers alike should be salivating at the prospect of all these one-anthem games and the national rivalries these tilts should forge, we should also remember that all seven of Canada’s teams are as flawed as they are fun to watch.
Despite our wealth of marquee talent, the highest any Canadian club finished in the 2019-20 regular season was 12th (Edmonton). And for the ninth consecutive season, no team representing our hockey-mad country reached the Stanley Cup Final, let alone win the thing. (Montreal’s magical 1993 run feels like ancient history.) We’re due.
A realigned Canadian Division would bring no proven heavyweights, but instead a cluster of talented teams eager to take the next step.
Six of the seven qualified for 2020’s return to play, and as proven by their willingness to spend in the off-season, those six are all going for it again.
Bring on the hate. Here is how we rate Canada’s Group of Seven heading into 2020-21.
2019-20 regular-season record: 25-34-12, 30th place
Best acquisition: Evgenii Dadonov
Toughest departure: Anthony Duclair
Only the tanking Detroit Red Wings surrendered more goals in 2019-20 than the rebuilding Senators (243), whose negative-52 goal differential underscores just how far this young group has to go.
Massive off-season turnover sees another round of familiar faces (Bobby Ryan, Craig Anderson, Mark Borowiecki, Duclair) exit Kanata and some established NHLers (Matt Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, Erik Gudbranson, Austin Watson, Josh Brown, Dadonov) sign up to help steer the future.
God bless Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk — and give props to Pierre Dorion for smartly adding to the talent pool — but this roster simply isn’t deep enough to contend in any NHL division, Canadian or otherwise, yet.
Anything higher than seventh place will constitute a shocker.
2019-20 regular-season record: 31-31-9, 24th place
Best acquisition: Tyler Toffoli
Toughest departure: Max Domi
Few organizations were as aggressive this fall in addressing their present and near future as Marc Bergevin’s.
Anticipating an overworked Carey Price, Montreal added one of the best No. 2s in the biz in Jake Allen. The Canadiens also cut ties with Domi in order to add power forward Josh Anderson, signed a pure scorer in Toffoli, and beefed up the left side of its blue line with Joel Edmundson. Fine work.
Brendan Gallagher will be free of contract-year pressure, and youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be trusted to take the next step.
After stunning the Penguins to qualify for the playoffs in August, this is the most optimistic Habs fans should be heading into a season in about six years.
And yet … we’re still not convinced the Habs will be vying for the divisional crown.
Last season, they allowed more goals than they scored. They finished in the bottom half of the league in both special teams. Only an expanded format got them into the bubble. And their centre depth and firepower pales next to the rest of Canada (Ottawa excluded).
Bergevin accomplished a ton, and it still might not be enough.
2019-20 regular-season record: 36-27-6, 17th place
Best acquisition: Nate Schmidt
Toughest departure: Jacob Markstrom
The 2020 Vancouver Canucks’ off-season is what salary cap hell looks like.
No first-round draft pick.
No qualifying offer for a young, eager defenceman like Troy Stecher. No ability to retain point-per-game deadline rental Toffoli.
And the worst part: watching your regular-season MVP, Markstrom, and your heart-and-soul right-shot defenceman, Chris Tanev, and a useful top-nine winger, Josh Leivo, all sign with one of your closest rivals.
To his credit, general manager Jim Benning did fleece the Golden Knights in the Schmidt trade and acquired a fine mentor/tandem mate for Thatcher Demko in the turtle-loving Braden Holtby, but it’s difficult to argue that the Last Canadian Team Standing in 2020 didn’t take a step backward.
On the bright side, we only see young stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes trending upward; Brock Boeser, only 23, has more to show; and a healthy Michael Ferland (knock on wood) could be a difference-maker.
The Canucks operate with speed and passion and wield one heckuva power play. If Demko is ready to be the man, we may regret placing them so low on these Power Rankings.
2019-20 regular-season record: 37-25-9, 12th place
Best acquisition: Tyson Barrie
Toughest departure: Matt Benning
Having their bubble burst by a rather mediocre Chicago Blackhawks club reminded the hockey world that high-end star power — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are arguably the two best offensive talents in the game — only goes as far as its supporting cast.
Despite minimum cap space, GM Ken Holland rearranged the pieces around his MVPs, shoring up the forward group with bargains like Dominik Kahun and Kyle Turris, plus giving headache prospect Jesse Puljujarvi a second shot.
Holland’s best move, however, was buying low on power-play quarterback Tyson Barrie, whose role will be especially critical given Oscar Klefbom’s injury.
While we hate betting against McDavid and Draisaitl, Holland’s decision to run it back in net with the Mikko Koskinen–Mike Smith tandem (combined age: 70) has us concerned about the Oilers’ ability to outscore their problems.
2019-20 regular-season record: 37-28-6, 20th place
Best acquisition: Paul Stastny
Toughest departure: Cody Eakin
Fun fact: The injury-riddled Jets’ plus-13 goal differential was the best among all Canadian clubs in 2019-20. And Kevin Cheveldayoff’s loss of personnel (so long, Eakin and Dmitry Kulikov) was kept to a minimum, with the re-signing of rental Dylan DeMelo being one of the GM’s better under-the-radar moves.
Bryan Little’s long-term injury is a crusher, so the Jets did well to fill the 2C spot with Paul Stastny. Stastny was on board for the franchise’s deepest playoff run, to the 2018 Western Conference final.
As long as Mark Scheifele is at full health and trade bait Patrik Laine is at full effort, the Jets’ top six can hang with any in the NHL. And thanks to a Vezina performance by Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg was Canada’s stingiest team last season (2.83 goals against on average).
Cheveldayoff is spending to the cap and has worked diligently to patch his blue line, but beyond stud Josh Morrissey, the left side has more quantity than quality.
Health permitting, the Jets could be the sneaky Canadian Division winners here.
2019-20 regular-season record: 36-27-7, 19th place
Best acquisition: Jacob Markstrom
Toughest departure: T.J. Brodie
For the first time since Mikka Kiprusoff hung up his blocker in 2013, the Calgary Flames have themselves an undisputed No. 1 goaltender, with a six-year, $36-million contract to match.
Departing Canuck Markstrom brings Tanev, Leivo with him one province east, bolstering the latest incarnation of Brad Treliving’s ever-changing roster.
Yes, the Flames waved good-bye to two top-four defenders in Brodie and Travis Hamonic (still unsigned), but they’ve kept the oft-maligned Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan around and will bank on bounce-back campaigns from those core players while interim coach Geoff Ward rolls some more balanced lines.
That venerable captain Mark Giordano is now 37 gives us some pause. But his likely successor, Matthew Tkachuk, mixing it up in one Canadian rivalry after another gives us goosebumps.
2019-20 regular-season record: 36-25-9, 13th place
Best acquisition: T.J. Brodie
Toughest departure: Andreas Johnsson
Man, they look good on paper, don’t they? These high-hopes, quick-exit Maple Leafs, who can frustrate or fly on any given Saturday.
GM Kyle Dubas carved from the middle class (Kasperi Kapanen, Johnsson) to cultivate character (Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds) and internal competition. He also reshuffled a defence group that never fit quite right, bringing in KHL star Mikko Lehtonen, Cup champ Zach Bogosian and local boy Brodie.
Despite the rumours and the critics, the Leafs did not change their goalie or their identity — possess the puck, score in bunches, and ride or die with $40 million worth of star forwards.
But they certainly tinkered with the complementary parts. Out from the long shadows of Tampa and Boston, the Leafs may land in a division they’re favoured to win.
Toronto will roll out Canada’s most talented roster. It’ll be up to the men in the dressing room to prove that talent equals greatness.
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