It's a dream scenario for hungry Canadian hockey fans. An all-you-can eat buffet of action, played entirely north of the border, involving all seven Canadian NHL clubs.
Starting next week, we'll get to feast on 196 single-anthem contests in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. If that's not enough to fill your belly, there's the added treat of two rounds of playoffs involving the top four teams, with a guaranteed trip to the Stanley Cup semifinal on the line.
"The message boards alone are gonna be awesome. I don’t read ’em but you guys should cause they’re gonna be funny as hell. Everybody is gonna get wound up," Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice said earlier this week of the coast-to-coast bragging rights that will be on the line every time the puck drops this winter.
"We’ve had the entire country locked down for a year, it’s an all-Canadian hockey division. It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s such a terrible thing with the pandemic that this is the result of it but you couldn’t dream of anything better than this, the spectacle of it. It’s gonna be awesome. Somewhere between two and five of the coaches are getting fired, guaranteed. It’s gonna be great."
The Canadiens visit the Maple Leafs, and the Oilers host the Canucks, as part of Wednesday's opening night across the league. The Jets will entertain the Flames at Bell MTS Place on Thursday to get their seasons going, while the Senators face their Ontario rivals for the first time on Friday.
To help set the table and whet your appetite for what's to come, we've checked in this week on training camps from coast to coast, looking at the new faces and storylines involving the six squads Winnipeg will face a total of 56 times.
Dig in, folks. You might want to keep a bottle of Tums nearby.
2019-20 record: 36-27-6 (third in Pacific Division)
New faces: G Braden Holtby, D Nate Schmidt, D Travis Hamonic
Key storylines and training camp developments: It's been all about Nils — as in Nils Hoglander, the 2019 second-round draft pick being given every shot at cracking the lineup and starting in a prominent role. The 20-year-old small but speedy winger is skating on the second line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, with plenty of glowing reviews coming in.
Vancouver has one of the best young core groups in the game, with No. 1 centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes leading the way after a stellar rookie season. Pettersson is in his familiar first-line role with Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller, while Hughes has been paired with St. Malo, Man., product Hamonic, who is on a pro tryout but expected to sign a contract prior to opening night.
Schmidt, acquired in a salary dump by the Vegas Golden Knights, rounds out a solid top four with veteran Alex Edler. The Canucks lost Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher in the off-season, but seem to have found a pair of more-than-capable replacements.
The big question is in net, and whether Thatcher Demko can take over the No. 1 role after the departure of Jacob Markstrom, who signed with the Calgary Flames. If he can't, the Canucks will turn to Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby, who was brought in as an impressive insurance policy.
Soundbite: "I hope the guys aren’t too sensitive about me being too loud and goofy sometimes in the locker room. I guess that’s what I’m most afraid of."
— Schmidt, on bringing some levity and humour to his new team.
First of nine games vs Jets: Jan. 30.
2019-20 record: 36-27-7 (fourth in Pacific Division)
New faces: G Jacob Markstrom, D Chris Tanev, LW Dominik Simon, RW Josh Leivo
Key storylines and training camp developments: Flames general manager Brad Treliving inked goaltender Jacob Markstrom to a monster six-year contract, making him the team’s undisputed starter and bumping David Rittich to the role of backup. The 30-year-old Swede was terrific in Vancouver but needs to solidify his standing as an upper-echelon netminder in Calgary.
There’s talk Elias Lindholm, who led the club with 29 goals last season while playing on the right wing with centre Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, could be a fit at centre. Head coach Geoff Ward has used him up the middle in camp with Dillon Dube and newcomer Leivo. Sam Bennett, a beast against the Jets in their first-round playoff series in the Edmonton bubble, is also spending some time at centre.
The team is looking for Johnny Gaudreau to have a bounce-back season. The diminutive forward scored 18 goals and provided 40 assists, the lowest offensive output of his six-year NHL career after a brilliant stint at Boston College. He’s been a fixture beside centre Sean Monahan, while newcomers Leivo and Simon have auditioned with them in camp.
The defensive corps has been overhauled in Calgary. Gone from the scene are T.J. Brodie and Hamonic, while Tanev and young Finnish blue-liner Juuso Valimaki are in. The young Finn, selected 16th overall in the 2017 NHL draft, has battled a number of injuries the last two seasons but was loaned to Ilves of the Finnish elite league in the fall and registered 19 points in 19 games. Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin and Oliver Kylington comprise the rest of the D unit.
Soundbite: "We were a team that depended and counted on all four lines stepping up at different times. You look back at that 2010-11 season, it was me and (David) Krejci who led the team in scoring with 62 points. We didn’t have that 80- or 90- or 100-point guy on our team. We were a team that had depth and relied on everyone at different times. (This Calgary team) definitely remind me of that. We’re going to need everyone to step up at different times and different moments throughout the year to have success."
— Milan Lucic, on the similarities between the Flames and the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins of 2011.
First of nine games vs Jets: Jan. 14.
2019-20 record: 37-25-9 (second in Pacific Division)
New faces: C Kyle Turris, LW Dominik Kahun, D Tyson Barrie
Key storylines and training camp developments: Edmonton boasts two of the best players on the planet in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but require production and consistency from the supporting cast. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been lined up on the left side of McDavid in camp and could have a monster season, while bruiser Zach Kassian has been on right wing.
This could finally be the coming-out party for Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft. By all accounts, the 6-4 210-pound winger has looked sensational in camp while skating on a line with Turris and left-winger Josh Archibald.
The squad’s finest defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, is expected to miss the season with a shoulder injury. Veteran winger James Neill is also on the shelf, and head coach Dave Tippett didn’t sound optimistic earlier this week about a quick return.
Soundbite: "I think that’s the feeling among the whole group right now. We’ve been able to do some five-on-five skates together and the pace has been really high, a lot of plays being made. Just by seeing that, it gives you a lot of confidence. Seeing the guys that we brought in and knowing what they’re capable of, it’s exciting. I think you’re bang on, this is as deep a group as we’ve ever had here."
— Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the Oilers' depth.
First of nine games vs Jets: Jan. 24
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2019-20 record: 36-25-9 (third in Atlantic Division)
New faces: F Joe Thornton, F Wayne Simmonds, F Jimmy Vesey, D T.J. Brodie, D Zach Bogosian
Key storylines and training camp developments: He may be 41 and slower than molasses, but apparently head coach Sheldon Keefe thinks Joe Thornton can still be a first-line player. And so there was plenty of buzz when he lined up on Day 1 beside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. How long it lasts remains to be seen.
Jimmy Vesey has also been thrust into a top-six role, skating on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander, while the other big new forward, Wayne Simmonds, has started on the fourth line with Jason Spezza and Alexander Barabanov.
Depth scoring has been an issue in the past for Toronto, so whether they can strike a bit more balance in their lineup is something to watch. So, too, has been their inability to keep pucks out of their own net. Keefe wants his star-studded forwards to do a better job defending, and he's even using Matthews as a penalty killer during camp.
On the blue line, Brodie has stepped into the top pairing with Morgan Rielly, while Stanley Cup champion (and former Jets blue-liner) Bogosian is on the third pair with Mikko Lehtonen.
There's no question the Maple Leafs are under the most pressure of all Canadian teams, with an expensive and top-heavy forward group that has repeatedly come up short when it mattered most. Anything short of a prolonged playoff run will be viewed as a failure in the centre of the hockey universe.
Soundbite: "For us, with regards to what would show growth, that would be how we're able to go through the regular season and do we go through it with the mindset of being at our best every day, can we quickly put a stop to any bouts of poor form and gather ourselves and roll ahead?"
— Keefe, on how he wants his group to approach the regular season and take nothing for granted.
First of 10 games vs Jets: Jan. 18
2019-20 record: 25-34-12 (seventh in Atlantic Division)
New faces: C Alex Galchenyuk, F Evgenii Dadonov, F Austin Watson, D Erik Gudbranson, D Josh Brown, G Matt Murray, C Tim Stuetzle, D Jake Sanderson
Key storylines: Of all the uncertainty that comes with this unique 2021 season, what pundits and observers alike seem to agree on is that the Senators will finish last in the All-Canadian Division. The Senators were among the worst teams in the NHL in 2019-20, finishing second last in the Eastern Conference behind only the lowly Detroit Red Wings. It was the third straight season Ottawa has been among the bottom-two teams in league standings.
But as bad as the Senators have been — and project to be this season — they do have a number of exciting young players that suggests they won't be a free spot on the bingo card. Brady Tkachuk paced Ottawa with a measly 44 points in 71 games in 2019-20, but he figures to take a giant step in his third year in the NHL. Ottawa hopes the additions of Alex Galchenyuk and Evgenii Dadonov will help in the scoring department.
While he wasn't able to claim a medal for his country at the recent World Junior Hockey Championship, few dazzled as well in the tournament as much as German centre Tim Stuetzle. The Senators selected Stuetzle third overall in the 2020 NHL draft. The 18-year-old was named the top forward of the tournament, finishing with five goals and five assists in five games.
Another notable addition is that of goalie and two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray. Murray signed a four-year deal, replacing Craig Anderson between the pipes.
Soundbite: "It's been really nice to get in here and get after it. It's been really competitive. I think that's the biggest thing. There's a ton of talent with this group but the competition level and work ethic out of these guys early has been amazing. It's great to be a part of."
— F Austin Watson, who signed with the Senators in the off-season, on what he sees from his new team.
First of 10 games vs Jets: Jan. 19
2019-20 record: 31-31-9 (fifth in Atlantic Division)
New faces: F Tyler Toffoli, G Jake Allen, D Joel Edmundson, F Josh Anderson
Key storylines: The Canadiens were one of the more surprising stories to come out of the NHL's playoffs last season. Had it not been for the shutdown of the league owing to COVID-19, resulting in an expanded field of competition from 16 to 24 teams, they never would have even been invited. But after making a notable mark in the Stanley Cup tournament as the No. 12 seed — knocking off the No. 3 Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying series and then outplaying the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round but still losing — many are high on the Canadiens to compete for a playoff spot this season.
Just how far Montreal will go this season will ultimately be decided by the play of No. 1 goaltender Carey Price. Price is among the elite netminders in the game and will be leaned on heavily to counteract the lack of scoring talent on the Canadiens. Price, who is 33, will have a reliable backup in Jake Allen, which should help alleviate some pressure and allow him to get the proper rest throughout the season.
Look for youngster Nick Suzuki to have a strong season. The 21-year-old centre is coming off a rookie season where he collected 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points in 71 games. He looked particularly strong in the playoffs, putting up seven points (four goals, three assists) in 10 games.
"The guys have been practising hard. They're really focused, they work hard, they're serious but they're also having fun together. I think there's good respect between all of them. It will only get better when we start the season. It's fun for a coach because it gives me a lot of options and tools to work with."
— Canadiens head Claude Julien on what he's seen so far in training camp.
First of nine games vs Jets: Feb. 25
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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.