Making an NHL Canadian Division

NHL Canadian division

When the Tampa Bay Lightning raised the Stanley Cup, it was vindication. And not just for a team who obliterated the league the previous season only to fall short when it mattered most. That the league went from a complete standstill on March 12 to a final game on September 28 that was nothing short of amazing. The nearly unprecedented cooperation between the league, the owners, and the players salvaged the season – and possibly saved one or two teams. Now we have a new season coming – eventually – and with it a new challenge. With the border crossing a major issue for all international sports, an old idea has been reborn: an NHL Canadian division.

Whither Canada

Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley let slip a Canadian division was being considered for next season. That would be one of three re-formed divisions who could keep play contained solely to themselves. And it makes a lot of sense: no bubbles, limited travel, and most importantly no need for cross-border quarantine.

The idea is hardly new – the late Glen Sather talked about it when he was still Edmonton Oilers GM. In a pre-cap era, there was a lot of concern from smaller teams that the larger teams in the US could simply throw money at good players with little heed for budgetary restrictions. Edmonton, not coincidentally, was at risk of losing their players even as they racked up championships.

The All-Canada division proposal was shot down then because even with the exchange considered, the vast difference in travel was prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t as much of an increase in cost for the Western teams, of course. They already had to budget for travel East and South, while Eastern teams had more short hops or even bus trips. And most of the power sat in the East even as the Stanley Cup travelled West.

Slaps and Bennies

The biggest negative to having one division in Canada is dealing with the farm teams for the three Western teams. Not crossing the border is a serious obstacle for AHL teams as well as NHL ones. We talk about the possible fixes over here.

The second hardest issue to resolve is obviously the travel. For Western teams, trips to the East normally include whichever US teams were convenient. A trip to Toronto could easily incorporate Buffalo or Detroit. Going to Montreal?  Get Boston off your To-Do list. Hitting Ottawa? Swing down to visit New York or New Jersey.

All that is going to be gone. But how much would we really miss it? Sure, some of the stars will be off the menu for a year. Quebec’s latest phenom won’t be back home professionally until 2021-22. But they will get to see more of Elias Pettersson and Connor McDavid.

An All-Canadian NHL division would be a lot of fun, first off. They are already hyper-competitive with each other anyway. Go into any arena in the West during a visit from the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs and there are a substantial number of Original Six fans in the stands. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers matches aren’t called The Battle of Alberta for nothing. The Vancouver Canucks have had regular playoff clashes with both Albertan teams. The Winnipeg Jets are fighting for the respect they feel they’ve earned since their return. And the Ottawa Senators? Well. Picture growing up beside two of the oldest, most successful teams in league history. That can put one hell of a chip on your shoulder.

For the Prize!

An informal trophy would undoubtedly be created by fans and media in Canada. There are plenty of options: we understand the Canada Cup is available. Heck, so is the Avco World Trophy – just to give Winnipeg a bit more incentive. And the division would be surprisingly competitive! The highest-finishing Canadian team was Edmonton with 83 points. After them, Toronto (81), Winnipeg (80), Calgary (79), and Vancouver (78). Montreal hit the pause at a disappointing 71 points and Ottawa down at 62, but things change a little when we restrict the competition to how they fared against their national siblings.

As Travis Yost pointed out at TSN, the best team in goal differential and expected goal differential was… Montreal! Not every team played the same number of games, but it is still rather illuminating.

NHL Canadian Division Standings:

Montreal: 10-3-2
Winnipeg: 9-3-0
Calgary: 8-4-2
Toronto: 7-3-4
Edmonton: 7-7-2
Ottawa: 4-7-3
Vancouver: 5-10-0

If any team is going to complain, it should be Vancouver. They got six wins out of three Californian teams in nine games, going 6-2-1. That’s more wins than they managed in 15 games against the six teams in Canada. And they have gotten worse so far – at least on paper. As for the other sub-.500 team, it could be argued Ottawa has improved as much by giving their kids another year. That being said, progress isn’t linear unless your name is Bo Horvat. If they’ve improved, it hasn’t been by much.

The drama around Winnipeg and Patrik Laine isn’t helping them, but bringing back Paul Stastny and keeping Dylan DeMelo certainly does. But they’ve also lost Bryan Little, so they’re… worse? Better? They haven’t actually lost Laine yet, and it’s tough to bet against anyone with Connor Hellebuyck. Unfortunately for these three teams, the rest of Canada’s lot has gotten better.

Edmonton has improved dramatically, bringing back Jesse Puljujarvi and deepening their offence. Their goaltending is fine for as long as Mikko Koskinen holds up. Toronto’s done well to shore up depth scoring and getting T.J. Brodie certainly doesn’t hurt. Calgary plucking the best available goaltender in Jacob Markstrom solidifies them in net for the first time in years. Coach Geoff Ward leading them from the start of the year should help, too. Then there’s Montreal. For better or worse, moving Max Domi for Josh Anderson is a bold move. Anderson’s a better fit with the Habs, and they also signed Tyler Toffoli and Jake Allen.

Predictions Are For Chumps

Here’s our far-too-early prediction for how the NHL Canadian Division would shake out over the course of a season. However long next season will be.

Montreal Canadiens
Calgary Flames
Toronto Maple Leafs
Edmonton Oilers
Winnipeg Jets
Vancouver Canucks
Ottawa Senators

Obviously a lot can – and will – happen before the next season starts three or more months from now. Missing the playoffs would be a step back for Winnipeg and Vancouver, but if only four teams make it, three have to fail.

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