CANADA – So close. So far away.
Each NHL journey north of the 49th parallel brings with it two pieces of luggage: one labelled “drought” and the other “hope.”
For the first time in a long time, the “hope” carry-on was nearly too big to cram into the overhead compartment during the short-haul pandemic campaign of 2020-21. All flights were domestic, and a Canadian club was guaranteed entry into the Stanley Cup semifinals.
This country had waited 10 years for a Stanley Cup finalist. And although the low-seed, high-effort Montreal Canadiens did their city and their sport proud during what might’ve been the final four rounds of captain Shea Weber’s career, the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning retained the belt by decisive knockout.
The Habs’ brilliant blood-sweat-and-tears run served a hot reminder of just how difficult that climb to summit can be… only to discover that you must wrestle The Revenant bear to plant your flag.
And so, we begin anew up north.
Although the world is creaking open and the barns are (mostly) filling up, the hope feels more restrained this time.
Big whiffs in Calgary and Vancouver. An Edmonton sweep. A Winnipeg sweep. Another Toronto collapse. A Hall of Fame goaltender suddenly stepping away indefinitely.
The symptoms and recovery timelines for playoff heartbreak varies.
Yet, with all those best-shape-of-my-life training camp reports, intriguing line combos and juicy free-agent signings, fans of the seven Canadian teams are still allowed to believe.
Even if it’s a smidgen at first. Maybe just to familiarize ourselves with the world’s best before the Winter Olympics.
Who cares if the so-called experts are picking Colorado or Vegas or a Tampa three-peat?
The guys wearing your favourite laundry are undefeated on Oct. 13, and crazy things happen in sports all the time.
Why not us?
Why not, eh?
Out west, the Vegas Golden Knights — a rare creation that came out of the womb a contender — should qualify for the playoffs. The rest of the Pacific, however, is as wide open as the views from Route 101. California’s teams find themselves in various stages of rebuilding, and Seattle just took its first baby step. This means go time for Western Canada.
The Vancouver Canucks shed some overpaid fourth- and fifth-liners and locked up young lynchpins Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. The nightmare that was a COVID-dampened 2020-21 percolating with off-ice distractions could yield a Thatcher Demko breakout, an Oliver-Ekman Larsson revival or a Vasily Podkolzin splash.
In Calgary, the Flames’ old captain became Seattle’s first one. And although long-tinkering GM Brad Treliving explored further changes to the core (note to Jack Eichel: there is one way to keep a “C” on your jersey), he and taskmaster Darryl Sutter are running it back with the heaviest roster (202.7 pounds on average) in the nation.
Picking out Flames who didn’t underachieve last season makes for a short list. Johnny Gaudreau (UFA), Matthew Tkachuk (RFA) and Andrew Mangiapane (RFA) should all be inspired entering contract years, and Sutter won’t settle for anything less than stingy defence and smashmouth offence.
Connor McDavid barges into October as the unanimous Hart Trophy winner and unanimous No. 1 pick in fantasy drafts everywhere. Ken Holland opted not to load up for a run in a patient ’21, the Oilers GM mashing the gas over the summer.
The exec paid top dollar for workhorse wingman Zach Hyman and recommitted to Darnell Nurse and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He crumpled up your fancy charts and graphs and signed Duncan Keith anyway. Because winning can be contagious. Right?
Shifting east to the Central, the Winnipeg Jets will once again be blessed with puck drops appropriate for their time zone. The debacle that was Pierre-Luc Dubois’s first foray as Jet has a chance to vanish like skywriting.
And the additions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon present coach Paul Maurice with his best blue line since Winnipeg stomped its way to the 2018 Western Conference final. Not a bad sleeper pick to go the distance.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs have tripled-down on belief that a lopsided ledger of top-six forwards can carry the day — if you’re shrewd enough to moneypuck around the edges.
There is a distinct sense that No. 1 D-man Morgan Rielly will price himself out come July, and that 2022 may be the last gambit for the Core Four and/or the front office that has bet the house on skill.
Hope takes a slightly different shape in Ottawa, as the Senators shift from “we’re a team” to “we’re a team that is done rebuilding,” according to GM Pierre Dorion. Yet as fans ponder ticket purchases without young star Brady Tkachuk in town, the hope is one of putting the pieces in place.
Dorion, papered with a new contract himself, has already locked up Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson and respected head coach D.J. Smith. Connor Brown and Tim Stützle are bargains. Rookie Shane Pinto is gathering buzz. Sign Tkachuk, and the future brightens. Hey, it’s not as if the Sens don’t have the cap space.
Which brings us to Montreal, the most recent Canadian franchise to both win it all and stumble painfully close to winning it all.
Though proudly built for the playoffs, recent developments have skeptics wondering if the Canadiens can make it the cut in a top-heavy Atlantic Division. Weber’s absence hurts, but perhaps not as much as that of Carey Price, whose mental health rightly takes precedence.
Can Jonathan Drouin rebound strong after his own personal leave? Will Tyler Toffoli’s hot blade carry over to the new season? Can Christian Dvorak soft the blow of Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s departures? Can Goal Caufield live up to his awesome nickname?
All the answers begin tonight. So, store your bags and strap in for the ride.
Yes, it has been 28 years and counting without a Stanley Cup parade down a Canadian city street.
Hockey season is upon us.
It’s OK to hope they’re exactly the kind you’ve been asking for.
“You remember being, like, nine before Christmas?” Jason Spezza smiled on his 19th Opening Night Eve. “It’s kinda the same feeling.”