6 big storylines to watch in NHL's Canadian division

Elliotte Friedman joins Eric Thomas to discuss the official agreement between the NHL and NHLPA on a 56-game season, as well as the latest on where the Canadian teams will play.

Though we don’t know just yet how many cities in Canada are set to host NHL hockey in 2021, we have official word the league’s seven Canadian squads will face nobody but each other while competing in the North Division.

Hockey heads who reside above the 49th parallel are understandably excited about this unique situation. But is grouping the seven teams that reside in provinces as opposed to states actually going to shortchange some Canadian fans?

If this were a normal season with the Canadian clubs spread throughout the NHL’s four divisions, six of the seven squads — the rebuilding Ottawa Senators are off to the side for now — would be massively disappointed with missing the playoffs. Under the format we face in 2021, where there will be no crossover seeds to snatch, no more than four Canadian teams will reach the post-season. That leaves two organizations with high hopes on the outside looking in. The flipside, mind you, is we’re guaranteed to have one Canadian team in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

It might be a stretch to say five people would produce five distinct power rankings of these clubs, but there’s no debating they’re a tightly bunched pack. The gap between the best team and the sixth-best outfit is much closer in size to Prince Edward Island than Saskatchewan.

Rather than taking a stab at who will come out on top, we thought it prudent to drill down on some dynamics of this one-off division. With that in mind, here are six all-Canadian considerations for the coming year.

Team With The Most To Prove: Toronto Maple Leafs

While high hopes exist across the country, this was a relatively easy answer. If Toronto makes the playoffs — which, it’s worth remembering, was no slam dunk when play halted last March — and fails to advance past Round 1, that will make it a half-decade of playoff one-and-dones since Auston, Mitch and Willy rolled into town. They’ve spent the money; they’re tinkering with toughness; they’ve endured the gut-punches — it’s time to grow up and make good on the potential.

Most Improved Team: Montreal Canadiens

That scraping sound you heard in early fall was GM Marc Bergevin scratching item after item from his to-do list. The Canadiens added a top-flight backup in Jake Allen, proven scoring in Tyler Toffoli and a mobile big man on the blue line in Joel Edmundson. If Josh Anderson — acquired in the trade that sent Max Domi to Columbus — is the six-foot-three scoring threat they envision and young centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi take appreciable steps, the Canadiens will be much better than the club that wasn’t going to sniff the playoffs last year.

Big Changes Could Be Coming Team: Calgary Flames

While the Leafs have the most to prove, the fallout from a Toronto failure still seems like it could exist on the fringe of the core. If things go sideways in Southern Alberta, watch out. Captain Mark Giordano is 37 years old; GM Brad Treliving has been on the job since 2015, taken some huge swings and has yet to see his vision come to fruition; point-producing Johnny Gaudreau can become a UFA in 18 months and may be the best player in the league who often sees his name in trade speculation.

Treliving made a strong win-now move by signing goalie Jacob Markstrom away from the Vancouver Canucks. If Calgary shows poorly this season, everything will be on the table.

Biggest Breakout Potential: Kailer Yamamoto

Yamamoto made his season debut on New Year’s Eve last season and spent the next two-plus months looking like a top-six star. Playing on the second line with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the tiny right-winger netted 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 27 games. If the slick 22-year-old — who has played just 53 total NHL games over the course of three seasons — can continue that kind of production, it will give Edmonton’s top two lines the balance the Oilers have been searching for ever since No. 97 entered the league.

If you’re looking for a breakout candidate with even less of a track record than Yamamoto, zero in on Flames defenceman Juuso Valimaki. After missing all of last season and the playoffs with a knee injury sustained during summer training in 2019, Valimaki was the best defenceman in Finland’s top league this fall. He could go from playing exactly zero games with Calgary last year to a vital member of the D-corps in a hurry.

Biggest X-Factor: Vancouver’s Goalies

Markstrom provided the Canucks with some of the league's steadiest goaltending over the past five years and kicked it up to another level last season, finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting. Now he plays for a team in Calgary that’s a division rival even when there isn’t a global pandemic.

Markstrom’s departure creates a question mark on the Pacific coast, but not necessarily a problem. Thatcher Demko has size, pedigree and an unbelievable playoff showing from last summer to hang his hat on. His battery mate, newcomer Braden Holtby, was an integral piece of a Cup winner just two-and-a-half years ago. Holtby’s numbers have not been flattering the past couple seasons and Demko has a grand total of 25 starts in his career. If they can both show their best sides, though, the crease should remain a strength for the Canucks. If not, all that bright future talk will get a little cloudier.

Rookie to Watch: Tim Stuetzle

Not long after being drafted third overall by the Ottawa Senators in early October, Stuetzle broke his hand during training with the Mannheim Eagles. He’s back on the ice now and will be part of Germany’s entry at the world junior hockey championship. That competition should have him hit the ground running when he joins the Senators at training camp. The six-foot-four Stuetzle can play centre or wing and has all the abilities required to step in and make an immediate impact against the big boys.

The 22-year-old Valimaki actually remains Calder eligible because he played just 24 NHL games in 2018-19, so he has to be mentioned here. The Canadiens organization is also tap-dancing over the potential of Russian blueliner Alexander Romanov, while Nick Robertson will have the attention of Leafs fans everywhere.

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