More and more it seems like there will be an all Canadian team division this season. That could be fun. Canada’s team in Canada’s division, what’s not to love? Well, there might be some stuff, like Oilers fans, Canucks fans, the second hand sadness when the Leafs need to go on the long bus ride to Winnipeg.
As a refresher, here’s how those Canadian teams finished last season:
At a first glance the main takeaway should be that none of the Canadian teams did particularly well. The Oilers put together the 9th best record in the league last season while playing in a criminally easy division. A division that the Canadian division would inherit three teams from.
Throw in the fact that the Senators were one of the worst teams in hockey, and the Habs made the cutoff for the return to play strictly for the television ratings, and we’re given a division that has maybe two legitimate playoff teams last season (that quickly underperformed in the return to play), three bubble teams, and two lottery teams. While the offseason has changed things for teams like Montreal, Winnipeg and Toronto in particular, there still isn’t a whole lot to think that this will be a powerhouse division, and the Leafs could be in a situation to run the table against the competition.
Below is a brief breakdown of how the Leafs did each of these teams last season and what has changed about those rosters. For what it’s worth, the Leafs didn’t fare particularly well against Canadian teams last year, finishing with a .500 record going strictly with wins and losses and not factoring in regulation. You can make the case the Leafs are the most improved of the Canadian teams, and that a lot of the losses fall under the Babcock era or a peak injury period for Toronto, but there’s nothing to say that injuries won’t happen again this year and in fact, we should probably assume they will.
The key additions for Ottawa are primarily draft related and while we shouldn’t lose sight of their upcoming youth movement, the additions of Dadanov and Galchenyuk as immediate help up front aren’t going to change any perceptions of the Senators, nor will bringing in Murray in goal, when he still needs to play behind a train wreck of a blueline and was determined to be the odd man out in Pittsburgh. In fact, adding Erik Gudbranson to that blueline is a huge gift to a division that will feature not only Matthews, but McDavid, and the Senators are going to have another bad time in 2021.
Laughing at Montreal is fun, and they give us a lot of reasons to, but back on planet Earth we have to consider the fact that the Habs did sweep the Leafs last year, even though Toronto pushed two of the games into extra minutes.
Adding Toffoli was a nice get, especially at the price, and swapping in Josh Anderson for Max Domi is a wash, although Anderson’s physical play might be an additional challenge for Toronto.
On paper Montreal still looks pretty bad, but that was the case last year too and it didn’t help the Leafs.
The Leafs split their series with the Jets last year, but outplayed them in both games. The bad news is that Connor Hellebucyk is still there and can do it again to the Leafs whenever he wants to.
Additional bad news is the Jets did improve by adding Paul Stastny and bringing back DeMelo was nice for their blueline that needed it, but neither of those moves really bump the Jets up into any real consideration to dominate the division, and games will still largely be dependent on how whether Hellebucyk is just good or unbeatable that night, and the Leafs tend to face unbeatable more often than not.
The Leafs swept the Canucks last year, and while the departures of Markstrom and Toffoli point to a worse Vancouver team, the ongoing improvement of players like Pettersson and Quinn Hughes could keep the Canucks in contention for a playoff spot next year.
Nate Schmidt was a nice little addition for the Canucks, but aging Braden Holtby and youthful Thatcher Demko make for a shooter friendly tandem, in theory.
Here Come the Oilers
Defense always seems to be thrown out the window when these two teams meet, and while Toronto wants to make that less of the case, the Oilers will have Oscar Klefbom on the injured reserve for most of the season and instead will be giving his ice time to Tyson Barrie. What could possibly go wrong with that?
The Oilers seem to be banking on the idea that Kyle Turris just needs his third change of scenery to get back on track and that Jesse Puljujarvi is ready to play for them as their key offseason moves, in addition to adding Tyson Barrie.
If we are treated to a Kris Russell-Tyson Barrie pairing against the Leafs we could see Auston Matthews take a run at Darryl Sittler’s record, especially if Mike Smith is in net.
The Leafs had a lot of trouble against Calgary last year, so they went and took away one of their defensemen that was part of that. I don’t think that means the problem is solved, and Markstrom being an upgrade in net might offset the loss of Brodie for Calgary, as will Tanev, assuming he can stay healthy.
The Flames also adding Josh Leivo was good business, as former Leafs are always good for a goal against Toronto.
While understandably there seems to be a lot of confidence about the Leafs in this division considering how much they are believed to have underperformed last year, had an excessively difficult year on the injury front, and have fully freed themselves from Mike Babcock, it’s far from a lock that the Leafs will run over this division.
What will be fun is that every night the Leafs will be facing a team who’s fanbase seems to hate Toronto more than they like their own team, and that will make for an intense season, no matter how many games of it we get.