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What an all-Canadian Division means for the Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG — Think Smythe Division, but even better.

One of the few benefits of a global pandemic and border closure as it relates to the NHL is the ability for the Winnipeg Jets to be one of the seven teams in an all-Canadian Division, albeit for one condensed and compact season.

No, this doesn’t mean Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson or Paul Coffey stepping onto the ice at the Winnipeg Arena to torment fans of the Jets with a breathtaking play — or even Grant Fuhr making an acrobatic save to foil another potential comeback.

For all of what the Jets accomplished with the late Dale Hawerchuk leading the charge for so many years, playoff success was almost always tough to come by.

The Oilers, Calgary Flames and even the Vancouver Canucks were there standing in the way.

Those rivalries were a lot of fun and only grew with high-intensity playoff matchups.

With that as a backdrop, the prospect of the Jets and Flames meeting somewhere between eight and 10 times next season, on the heels of qualifying round match-up in August, is welcome news.

It took all of five minutes and change for the bad blood to boil as Flames agitator Matthew Tkachuk knocked Jets centre Mark Scheifele out of the series with a hit that infuriated Paul Maurice.

This isn’t to suggest the Jets will have ample opportunity to try and settle the score — Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Tkachuk dropped the gloves and Scheifele himself has already stated publicly he doesn’t hold a grudge for the play in question.

But that doesn’t mean the play has been forgotten entirely and it certainly has been stored in the memory banks of many on both sides.

Tkachuk generally leaves a lasting impression with his opponents and isn’t one to shy away from confrontation, but he also led the Flames in scoring last season and is an impact player — not to mention emerging leader.

Here’s a closer look at the top storylines for the Jets going into next season, whenever it gets around to starting:

Calgary Flames

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Calgary: 1-0-0

Things escalated quickly between the two sides after meeting only once during the regular season — and that meeting came in an outdoor football stadium (Mosaic Stadium) as part of the 2019 Heritage Classic.

The Flames took a one-goal lead into the third period, but Josh Morrissey tied it late with a power-play goal and veteran Bryan Little was the overtime hero and propelled the Jets to a 2-1 victory in late October.

Fast forward to August and both teams hardly resembled the clubs that left Regina.

Little had suffered a season-ending and career-threatening head injury several weeks later and the Flames had made a coaching change, promoting Geoff Ward after the dismissal of Bill Peters.

The Flames eliminated the Jets in four games, exorcising a few playoff demons along the way.

As for the Jets, Scheifele was lost on his first shift while sniper Patrik Laine and energetic forward Mason Appleton were also injured in Game 1 and didn’t return.

Those blows were too tough for the Jets to overcome, especially after Cam Talbot outplayed eventual Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck by allowing only six goals over four games — including a 31-save shutout in the clincher.

The Jets’ top guns were mostly silenced against the Flames (Wheeler and Kyle Connor combined for no goals and two assists in the series), though Nikolaj Ehlers ended a lengthy post-season goal drought.

Ehlers finished the series with two goals and erased a tired narrative about whether or not his game would translate to the playoffs.

Hellebuyck is a highly-motivated individual and after achieving personal success as the top goalie in the NHL and being a candidate for the Vezina in top of the past three seasons, going on a long playoff run is at the top of his wish list.

As for the Flames, they believe they’ve upgraded between the pipes with the addition of Jacob Markstrom on a six-year, $36 million deal.

It’s not a stretch to suggest both Hellebuyck and Markstrom could be in the running for the Vezina next season.

There’s little doubt the Jets are highly motivated to rebound after two early exits from the postseason, but the Flames were left wondering what might have been after being 11.9 seconds away from taking a 3-1 series lead against the Dallas Stars — who eventually advanced to the Stanley Cup final.

Despite the strides made by the Flames, they didn’t reach the ultimate goal either and now the Jets are one of the teams standing in their way.

Edmonton Oilers

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Edmonton: 2-1

No, it’s not Gretzky and Messier but the prospect of superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl coming to town a few more times a year is welcome, even if it represents a monumental challenge for those who line up opposite them.

McDavid is viewed by many as the best player in the game, while Draisaitl won both the scoring title and Hart Trophy as the Most Valuable Player last season — partly for his play when McDavid was out with an injury.

The Oilers had the best power play in the NHL last season and the prospect of trying to shut down the dynamic duo while shorthanded was often an exercise in futility.

Edmonton was second in the Pacific Division behind the Vegas Golden Knights at the time of the pause, but suffered an upset at the hands of Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks during the qualifying round, so they’re another team looking to put playoff disappointment in the rearview mirror.

A shoulder injury to Oscar Klefbom could put a strain on the Oilers back end and some questions persist about the goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, but Ken Holland has worked hard to add depth to the forward group and there are prospects on defence that could be given the opportunity to show they’re ready to shine.

Vancouver Canucks

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Vancouver: 2-0-0

One of the head-scratching stats is that the Jets have defeated the Canucks in 10 consecutive games, dating back to Dec. 20 of 2016.

The Jets defeated the Canucks 4-1 and 4-0 last season and the third meeting was scheduled for March — after the season was already paused.

Players don’t care much for historical trends, but you can be sure the Canucks want this streak to vanish.

The Canucks were one of the surprising teams in the bubble, bouncing the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round before ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the opening round.

Despite losing Markstrom to an injury, Thatcher Demko came off the bench and played brilliantly (allowing only two goals on 123 shots over 180 minutes of play) as the Canucks pushed the Golden Knights to seven games before getting knocked out.

This was a valuable learning experience for an emerging team that is led by the offensive wizardry of Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, the runner-up for the Calder Trophy that was captured by Colorado Avalanche blue-liner Cale Makar.

The Canucks were hit hard in free agency, losing Markstrom along with defencemen Chris Tanev (Flames) and Troy Stecher (Detroit Red Wings) and forward Josh Leivo (Flames), but signed Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby to share the net with Demko and added Nate Schmidt in a deal with the Golden Knights.

Two members of the Canucks defence corps have ties to Winnipeg, as Tyler Myers suited up for the Jets for parts of five seasons before leaving last summer as a free agent and veteran Alex Edler, who suited up for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League before graduating to the NHL.

Montreal Canadiens

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Montreal: 1-1-0

There have been times during the past several seasons where the Canadiens used their speed to enjoy great success against the Jets – one of those times was in the final game before the Christmas break in 2019.

While the Jets got a measure of revenge while earning a victory in Montreal in January, it was the Canadiens who turned heads in August when the NHL returned to action.

The Canadiens took advantage of the expanded playoff format to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round, then pushed the Philadelphia Flyers to six games before getting eliminated.

Goalie Carey Price was excellent in the playoffs and has a new backup in veteran Jake Allen, who bounced back nicely last season after losing the starting job in St. Louis to Jordan Binnington.

Captain Shea Weber continues to play at a high level, while feisty forward Brendan Gallagher is the emotional leader on a team that saw young pivots Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi emerge during the postseason.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin’s off-season included acquiring power forward Josh Anderson in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Max Domi and getting defenceman Joel Edmundson from the Carolina Hurricanes and signing him to an extension.

The Canadiens improving blue line is about to get a further boost with the arrival of Russian Alex Romanov, the 20-year old who spent the past two seasons in the KHL after he was chosen in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Losing defenceman Ben Chiarot to the Canadiens in free agency in the summer of 2019 ended up being a big blow for the Jets, one that was compounded by the departures of Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien and Myers.

The Canadiens lineup also features former Jets winger Joel Armia, while Nate Thompson signed in Winnipeg as a free agent after spending part of last season with Montreal.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Toronto: 1-1-0 (season series: Jets 1-1, Maple Leafs 1-0-0-1)

Whenever these two teams get together, fireworks soon follow in the form of high-event hockey.

Both of last season’s meetings came after Sheldon Keefe took over from Mike Babcock, with the Maple Leafs winning the first meeting 6-3 and the Jets winning the second 4-3 in a shootout.

Although neither player cares for the comparison between the first and second overall picks in the 2016 NHL Draft, both Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have supplied plenty of highlight-reel moments in the limited meetings (eight so far) and that shouldn’t change anytime soon.

Laine has six goals (including a hat trick and OT winner in the first meeting back in October of 2016) and seven points in those head-to-head matchups, while Matthews produced three goals and 11 points.

Like both the Jets and Oilers, the Maple Leafs are motivated to deliver a playoff breakthrough after being bounced by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, so there is pressure on this group to break through.

Toronto should benefit from departing the Atlantic Division and not having to face the likes of the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning with regularity.

The core of talented offensive forwards led by Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander has been augmented with the experience of Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds.

Adding TJ Brodie to play alongside Morgan Rielly should help the defence corps and as long as Frederik Andersen plays well, many observers are predicting the Maple Leafs should be a front-runner for top spot in the all-Canadian Division.

Ottawa Senators

Jets 2019-20 record vs. Ottawa: 2-0-0

Most of the meetings between the two clubs have been nondescript, with the Jets earning a pair of blowout victories last season as the Senators were in the midst of a rebuild that helped yield the third (Tim Stuetzle) and fifth (Jake Sanderson) overall picks in the 2020 NHL Draft.

The Senators appear to be heading on the upswing under head coach D.J. Smith.

Defenceman Thomas Chabot is in a position to move into the stratosphere of bona fide superstar status and several other top prospects set to burst onto the scene over the next year or two.

The Senators’ top forward is Brady Tkachuk, son of Jets 1.0 captain Keith Tkachuk and brother of Matthew.

The Jets acquired Dylan DeMelo from the Senators last February and he played his first game with Winnipeg in Ottawa against his former team.

DeMelo stabilized a Jets defence corps that endured a dramatic overhaul last season and he signed a four-year deal rather than test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.

Previously, the Jets had tried to acquire Derick Brassard from the Senators prior to the 2018 NHL trade deadline (but ended up with Paul Stastny in a deal with the St. Louis Blues instead) and had been linked to Winnipegger Mark Stone at the 2019 deadline before he landed with the Golden Knights and signed a contract extension.

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