Way too much of a good thing All-Canadian division exciting at first, boring now
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/03/2021 (558 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I have a vivid childhood memory of a trip to the neighbourhood Dairy Queen, all wide-eyed about trying a cookie dough Blizzard for the first time. A regular-sized one wouldn’t suffice on this day. Oh no. I decided to go all-in on the largest portion they had. Go big or go home, right?
About halfway through the creamy confection, reality hit. I had made a terrible mistake. My stomach was in knots. Each spoonful was starting to feel like punishment, not a reward. Gluttony had got the best of me. I didn’t finish it that day, nor have I ever tempted fate again since. Just say the words “cookie dough” and I’ll immediately look for the nearest washroom.
Which takes me to the NHL’s North Division. Like many of you, I was excited by what the league was serving up when the 2021 season got underway in January, as COVID-19 restrictions including ongoing border closure meant a dramatic realignment. Having the Winnipeg Jets battle the other six Canadian clubs for supremacy seemed like a delicious treat for a hockey-starved nation.
Now? I’m pretty much ready to hurl.
Three more heaping scoops of the Calgary Flames this weekend is my breaking point. It’s the sixth, seventh and eighth times they’ll have met in a 10-week span. Just as I’m sick of seeing the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens over and over and over again.
It’s nothing personal. The on-ice action has, for the most part, been quite solid. Some of the best players in the league are in the division. There have been wild, high-scoring affairs, blown leads and big comebacks, and plenty of emotion. And I’m mindful of the fact that, unlike that ice cream I gorged on years ago, this was all by necessity.
But the novelty has worn off. The same six opponents, nine or 10 times each, is simply too much of a good thing. I’ve had my fill, thanks.
Some NHL executives, including Jets co-owner and chairman Mark Chipman, are pushing for some of these tweaks to the regular-season to carry on beyond this unique year. Specifically, Chipman would like to see his club continue to break bread with their northern neighbours more often than they have in the past.
You’ll recall, under the old 82-game matrix, the Jets would play their six rivals in the Central division either four or five times, for a grand total of 26 games. They would play the eight teams in the Pacific Division three times each, for a total of 24 games. And the remaining 32 games would involve a home-and-home series with the 16 clubs from the Eastern Conference.
Here at Bell MTS Place, that meant hosting just Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa just once each year, and Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton once or twice (they would rotate each year which club got the extra home game out of the three head-to-head).
The schedule will have to change next year with the Seattle Kraken on board, and all four divisions having eight teams. How exactly that gets broken down remains to be seen,
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has already indicated he expects the divisions to go back to how they were, based primarily on geography. That makes some sense. The Canadian division, for example, includes teams in the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones, which is why you’re seeing plenty of late-night puck drops for the Jets. It’s been even worse for a team like Montreal, which recently had an absurd 11 p.m. ET start in Vancouver.
That can’t become a regular occurrence. For Winnipeg, that means returning to familiar battles with the likes of Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Colorado along with Arizona, the new kids on the block who will move over from the Pacific to make room for Seattle.
Here’s the challenge for the NHL. Is there a way to get a few more one-anthem games in Canada even if the respective teams are spread out over three different divisions, and both conferences? I’d like to see that, as long as two caveats are met.
First, divisional play must remain a priority. No, not nine or ten times like this year. But it makes sense to play your closest rivals more often than anyone else. Second, every team must play each other at least twice, once in each building.
When fans return, it’s only fair to give them an opportunity to see every star. To me, that’s the biggest reason this year’s schedule has left a bad taste in my mouth. Not getting to watch the other 24 teams at all, which equates to 77 per cent of all the players in the NHL, is a recipe for redundancy.
Sure, it will create a level of intrigue for the coming playoffs that we’ve never experienced before. How will the North division winner, for example, stack up in the Final Four against the best from the West, Central and East? Who the heck knows, since the first time they’ll face each other will be during the semifinals at some point in June.
I’ve seen plenty of hot takes suggesting the Jets, currently in a battle for first place with the Maple Leafs and Oilers, would get blown out of the building by the likes of Tampa Bay, Vegas and the New York Islanders. The theory is based on the belief we’re seeing inferior shinny in the Great White North.
I’m not sure how anyone can draw such a conclusion. Every division has a weak link or two, and I’ll note that none of the Canadian clubs have got to beat up on the three worst teams in the NHL right now (Buffalo, Anaheim and Detroit). Ottawa is the closest we have, and they’ve proven to be a tough out at times, especially lately. Just ask Calgary, who they’ve defeated FIVE times already this season.
But I digress. I’d like to think that there’s a path going forward that combines the best of the past with the present. Enough to leave you wanting more. But not so much that it makes you queasy. A real sweet spot, if you will.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.