Opinion

As I sat in my home office this week, with Just For Laughs playing in the background on TV and a Tim Hortons coffee at my side, I gazed out the window at the snowy backyard scene and looked up to see a flock of geese heading south.

Cool story, eh? Yeah, no. But it was during that little slice of Canadiana that a simple thought crossed my rather simple mind, one surely to get the maple syrup flowing among hardcore sports fans here in the Great White North. 

Who can lay claim right now to having this country’s top hockey team and be our best hope to bring Lord Stanley back to the land of poutine, beavers and back bacon for the first time since 1993?

Thanks to COVID-19, we may soon have a legitimate way to find out. There is growing chatter of an all-Canadian division for the 2020-21 NHL season as a means of stickhandling around the ongoing global pandemic and the various travel restrictions in place.

Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was the first league executive to speak publicly about the issue earlier this week, but I was already hearing plenty of whispers while attending the Stanley Cup final last month in the hub city of Edmonton, which I wrote about at the time.

With the puck not dropping until Jan. 1, at the earliest, a full 82-game season is unlikely as the league tries to get its calendar back on track. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants to be done by late July, when the Summer Olympics begin and push hockey to the backburner. That would also allow the NHL to start the 2021-22 campaign on time, when the Seattle Kraken make their debut and players are slated to skate in the Winter Olympics later that year.

So a shortened season, like we saw during the 2012-13 lockout, is more realistic. That would involve a heavy slate of divisional games to save time, reduce travel and allow for better health and safety protocols. 

The Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens could play the majority of their schedule without having to leave the country, while the other 24 clubs remain south of the border. That would help solve the kind of problem the Toronto Blue Jays ran into when the federal government wouldn’t allow them to welcome American visitors without the required 14-day quarantine.

It would be a lot of fun, the kind of fantasy scenario puck fans have often dreamed about.

But with plenty more dark hockey days on the horizon, why wait until it actually happens to handicap the field?

With the draft in the rear-view mirror and big-name hunting already done in free agency, we can now take stock of where every team stands and come to some cold, hard conclusions. 

Behold, my Canadian power rankings. Let the debate begin. Just promise to remain polite and play nice. We have a reputation to uphold, after all. 

 

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (2019-20 record: 36-25-9, T-13th overall, lost to Columbus in qualifying round)

I’m holding my nose as I type this — like many of you, my distaste for the Maple Leafs runs deep — but I like what they have done this off-season.

T.J. Brodie is an upgrade on the blue line over Tyson Barrie, and the additions of three long-in-the-tooth veterans in Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian can help Toronto’s young core navigate the choppy waters of an NHL season. No, that trio is unlikely to produce a whole lot on the scoresheet, but the Leafs have more than enough firepower from the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

What they haven’t had in the past is much "bite" when the going gets tough, but general manager Kyle Dubas has taken steps to address it. They also improved their backup goaltending situation late last season by bringing in Jack Campbell as insurance for Frederik Andersen, which will be important in a condensed schedule where both netminders should see plenty of action.

They are the Canadian team to beat right now. Legitimate Stanley Cup favourites? Whoa, let’s not get too crazy. They ARE still the Leafs after all. But I’m sure they’d be thrilled to escape a division with Tampa Bay and Boston, even if just for one season.

HELLO:  F Joe Thornton, F Wayne Simmonds, F Travis Boyd, F Jimmy Vesey, D T.J. Brodie, D Zach Bogosian

GOODBYE: F Kasperi Kapanen, F Andreas Johnsson, F Frederik Gauthier, F Kyle Clifford, D Tyson Barrie, D Cody Ceci

 

2. Edmonton Oilers (2019-20 record: 37-25-9, 12th in NHL, lost to Chicago in qualifying round)

Doubling down on the same goaltending duo that wasn’t good enough last season is some kind of strategy.

But general manager Ken Holland apparently believes in Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, even though there were plenty of big-name netminders playing musical chairs on the open market.

In that sense, I’m not truly sold on the Oilers. But their spot on this list is due to having the best player in the world (Connor McDavid) and the reigning Hart Trophy winner (Leon Draisaitl) to carry the team, which didn’t really lose anything of significance since last season ended. 

Their three main signings are intriguing, but come with questions. Can Kyle Turris revive his career after being bought out by Nashville and improve Edmonton’s secondary scoring woes? Is Tyson Barrie as bad as he looked last season with Toronto? And can Jesse Puljujarvi make the most of his second chance with the organization?

Those answers, along with their ability to keep pucks out of their own net, will go a long way in determining Edmonton’s fate.

HELLO: F Kyle Turris, F Jesse Puljujarvi, D Tyson Barrie

GOODBYE: F Andreas Athanasiou, F Markus Granlund, F Riley Sheahan, D Mike Green, D Matt Benning

 

3. Montreal Canadiens (2019-20 record: 31-31-9, 24th in NHL, beat Pittsburgh in qualifying round, lost to Philadelphia in 1st round)

One of the big off-season winners in my eyes.

Adding Jake Allen came with a price, but if the end result is giving Carey Price a few extra nights off to maximize his performance, I believe their overall goaltending situation is vastly improved, as good (and expensive) a one-two punch as you’ll find.

Swapping underachieving skater Max Domi for power forward Josh Anderson and signing Tyler Toffoli makes the Habs a much tougher team to play against. And I like the Joel Edmundson acquisition for an already solid blue line led by star Shea Weber.

Add it all up and this is a team definitely headed in the right direction, especially with young forward talent such as Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi just barely scratching the surface of what they can do at this level, but showing big glimpses in their surprising playoff run. 

HELLO: G Jake Allen, F Josh Anderson, F Tyler Toffoli, D Joel Edmundson

GOODBYE: F Max Domi, F Nate Thompson, D Karl Alzner

 

4. Vancouver Canucks (2019-20 record: 36-27-6, T-15th in NHL, beat Minnesota in qualifying round, beat St. Louis in 1st round, lost to Vegas in 2nd round)

Life moves fast, and Vancouver went from a feel-good playoff story to an ugly off-season to potentially salvaging it in the blink of an eye.

After coming painfully close to reaching the Western Conference final, general manager Jim Benning saw numerous key contributors walk in free agency due to a salary cap crunch. The biggest was No. 1 netminder Jacob Markstrom, who was replaced by UFA Braden Holtby to work in tandem with Thatcher Demko.

The saving grace may have been landing top-tier defenceman Nate Schmidt for a song due to a Vegas money dump needed to sign Alex Pietrangelo.

One of the more intriguing teams in the NHL, with a terrific young core including Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and rookie-of-the-year runner-up Quinn Hughes, should once again be a squad to watch closely.

HELLO: G Braden Holtby, F Jayce Hawryluk, D Nate Schmidt

GOODBYE: G Jacob Markstrom, F Tyler Toffoli, F Josh Leivo, D Chris Tanev, D Troy Stecher, D Oscar Fantenberg

 

5. Winnipeg Jets (2019-20 record: 37-28-6, 20th in NHL, lost to Calgary in qualifying round)

The fact they are down this far remains an indictment of their blue line, which better hope that one or both of Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola are ready to play significant roles. Otherwise, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has replaced Dmitry Kulikov with Derek Forbort, while also getting Dylan DeMelo for a full season.

Is that really enough to turn the tide for a team that gave up more high-danger chances than any other team last season, and would have been much, much worse if not for a Vezina Trophy-winning performance from Connor Hellebuyck? I certainly wouldn’t bank on it. 

I like the Paul Stastny addition up front to complement what should be a pretty potent offence, and you wonder if 10th-overall draft pick Cole Perfetti could force himself into the mix right away as well.

But you also get the lingering feeling that what you see right now from the Jets is not what we’re ultimately going to get. The Patrik Laine trade rumours aren’t going away and Jack Roslovic and Sami Niku are available on the market, so there could be changes to come.

In that sense, consider this ranking tentative and subject to further review.

HELLO: F Paul Stastny, F Nate Thompson, F Dominic Toninato, F Cole Perfetti, D Derek Forbort, D Dylan Samberg

GOODBYE: F Cody Eakin, F Nick Shore, F Gabriel Bourque, F Logan Shaw, D Dmitry Kulikov, D Anthony Bitetto

 

6. Calgary Flames (2019-20 reason: 36-27-7, T-18th in NHL, beat Winnipeg in qualifying round, lost to Dallas in 1st round)

This seems to be a team spinning its wheels. Sure, they added Markstrom, but they better hope the 30-year-old can maintain his Vancouver form considering the US$36 million cost over the next six years to acquire him. 

And Markstrom may be busy, considering the deletions to their blue line. T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Erik Gustafsson, Forbort and Michael Stone have all left in free agency. Captain Mark Giordano still has plenty of game while Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are among the young blue-liners still emerging, but I’m not sure of the value in signing Chris Tanev, who is also 30 and will cost them US$18 million over four years. 

A big bounce-back season from Johnny Gaudreau, who has been the subject of trade rumours, and fellow forward Sean Monahan would be a big help.

HELLO: G Jacob Markstrom, F Dominik Simon, F Joakim Nordstrom, D Chris Tanev

GOODBYE: G Cam Talbot, F Mark Jankowski, F Tobias Rieder, F Austin Czarnik, D Travis Hamonic, D T.J. Brodie, D Erik Gustafsson, D Michael Stone, D Derek Forbort

 

7. Ottawa Senators (2019-20 record: 25-34-12, 30th in NHL, missed playoffs)

Don’t get used to seeing them this low for long. The Senators are definitely a team on the rise, and they will be anything but a pushover as early as next season.

The additions of Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Matt Murray, defencemen Josh Brown and Erik Gudbranson and forwards Evgeni Dadonov and Austin Watson should mean help in areas of concern, but the real haul came at the draft.

Forward Tim Stüetzle (third-overall) and defenceman Jake Sanderson (fifth-overall) are the latest additions to an impressive pipeline of prospects who will form the next core of the Senators, along with the likes of established young players such as forward Brady Tkachuk and defenceman Thomas Chabot.

All that losing is bound to eventually pay off, and Ottawa is poised to start making some noise very soon. 

HELLO: G Matt Murray, F Evgeni Dadonov, F Austin Watson, F Tim Stüetzle, D Erik Gudbranson, D Josh Brown, D Jake Sanderson

GOODBYE: G Craig Anderson, F Anthony Duclair, F Mikkel Boedker, F Bobby Ryan, F Jayce Hawryluk, D Ron Hainsey, D Mark Borowiecki

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Mike McIntyre’s email newsletter, On Sports