Certainty is an illusion at the best of times but especially these days.
And yet, if you’re aware of border policies and COVID-19 spike rates, the NHL’s all-Canadian division feels like a safe bet if and when the world’s premier hockey circuit gets back up and running.
Pitting the seven teams north of the 49th against each other in 2020-21 makes sense, and it should make dollars. Fierce fan bases from B.C. to Quebec will have no issue diving into nightly debates about who rules hockey country.
Who the North?
Such a realignment should also give the Toronto Maple Leafs a steeper regular-season test on the whole and make for more must-see matches midseason. Here are the juicy divisional storylines that will follow the Leafs, from east to west, if this 2020-21 proposal becomes reality.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Montreal: 0-1-2
To the surprise of most folks outside of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ dressing room, the 12-seed Canadiens outlasted the Maple Leafs in 2020 and became the last Canadian club standing in the Eastern Conference bubble — and, ironically, the first Canadian NHL team to win a post-season series at Scotiabank Arena in 16 years.
While the Habs and Leafs haven’t faced each other in a playoff series since Meatballs was in theatres, and the two storied franchises seldom seem to be relevant at the same time, their Original Six rivalry has been kept alive through some highly entertaining regular-season Saturday nights.
Like Toronto, Montreal addressed its goalie depth in preparation for a compact schedule (hello, Jake Allen), has some young forwards eager to take a step (Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi) and propped up its core by adding a number of complementary pieces (Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson).
Regardless if Wayne Simmonds flourishes or flounders for his hometown team, fans on both sides won’t forget that he spurned more dough from Montreal in free agency to take a run with T.O.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Ottawa: 4-0-0
The only Canadian team to surrender more goals than the Leafs in 2019-20, Ottawa has brightened both its future (Tim Stutzle) and its present (Evgenii Dadonov, Matt Murray) this fall.
Although it says here the Alex Trebek–approved Senators are still two years away from being two years away, the greatest Canadian underdog tends to get amped up for a good ol’ Battle of Ontario.
Coach D.J. Smith, the newly extended Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev all have reason to throw money on the board.
Alex Galchenyuk finds himself in yet another prove-it situation. And newbies Erik Gudbranson and Austin Watson will match Simmonds and Zach Bogosian’s sandpaper check for check.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Winnipeg: 1-0-1
Since snipers extraordinaire Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine went one-two in the ’16 draft, one of the small tragedies of the NHL’s schedule is that their respective squads only meet but twice per year.
Recent Jets-Leafs tilts have, for the large part, been doozies. And 2020-21 should be no exception. For our money, Winnipeg — thanks to the return of Paul Stastny — and Toronto will bring the two most complete top-six forwards groups in the nation.
Although the Jets were Canada’s stingiest team last season (2.83 goals against per night), they accomplished that feat largely on the back of Vezina champ Connor Hellebuyck, who’s capable of frustrating scorers like Matthews and John Tavares when dialled in.
Both Kevin Cheveldayoff and Kyle Dubas made a point to bolster their blue line depth via UFA signings. And both GMs believe their roster is much superior than their qualifying-round exits displayed.
Best of all: Game-breaker Mark Schiefele expects to be fully recovered by opening night.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Calgary: 0-1-1
Flame-turned-Leaf T.J. Brodie describes 2019-20, his 10th and final run in Calgary, as “a weird season.” The top-four defenceman was dangled to Toronto as trade bait back in the ’19 off-season, suffered a frightening on-ice collapse last November, navigated a sudden coaching change and a pandemic and then watched his team blow a 2-1 playoff series lead to the eventual Cup-finalist Dallas Stars.
“I thought our team was good enough to go farther,” Brodie says.
Brodie anticipates “an adjustment” moving back to Ontario, where he’ll likely slot in next to Morgan Rielly. And Dubas is banking $20 million that adjustment will go much smoother than the last notable right-side defenceman he recruited.
Brodie’s former partner, Mark Giordano, joins Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett as Flames stars who always get juiced up for matches against the hometown team. And now Calgary can add new guys Josh Leivo and Chris Tanev to that list.
Toss in Matthew Tkachuk’s friendly rivalry with Matthews and Mitch Marner, and the storylines keep giving.
Oh, and with the signing of 2020’s Most Valuable Goalie Available, Jacob Markstrom, scoring on the Flames should get that much more challenging.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Edmonton: 1-1-0
If there is one thing the world needs more of, it’s off-season training partners Matthews and Connor McDavid sharing the same sheet of ice.
One can stickhandle in a phonebooth. The other can stickhandle in a phonebooth travelling at the speed of sound.
The star-studded Leafs and Oilers have both underachieved in a team sport, and thus made tweaks around their young cores to elevate them to the next level.
Last time McDavid rolled through Toronto, he did this. So, yeah. I think Leafs-Oilers games might be appointment viewing.
Toss in the returns of Tyler Ennis and Tyson Barrie, both of whom should be slotted in roles that make the most of their gifts, and giddy-yap.
P.S. We didn’t even mention league MVP Leon Draisaitl. He’s not too shabby either.
Leafs 2019-20 record vs. Vancouver: 2-0-0
The Manny Bowl!
Beloved Canucks player and coach Manny Malhotra left his eye-in-the-sky position on Travis Green’s staff after the bubble burst on the Canucks’ inspiring playoff run to advance his career in Leafland, where he’ll join Sheldon Keefe’s bench and take over the power play.
“You recognize the talent of the group and the potential of the group,” Malhotra told us upon signing with Toronto. “It was a great opportunity to advance my coaching career with a really good organization, with a really good staff, and a team that’s been trending in the right direction.”
Among Canadian clubs, Vancouver ranked second to the Leafs in offence last season — but the losses of Toffoli, Markstrom, Tanev and Leivo could sting.
Fresh faces Braden Holtby (a fine tandem mate and mentor for Thatcher Demko) and Nate Schmidt (2,000 ounces of Monster Energy poured into a set of hockey equipment) will help mitigate the setback.
And Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are guaranteed must-see TV… even if the puck on this matchup always drops at 4 p.m. Pacific.