U.S.-Canada border restrictions forced temporary realignment for the 2021 season, and the result is all seven teams north of the 49th parallel grouped together in the North Division: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver will play each other at least nine times over the 56-game regular season with just four playoff spots at stake.
”This is such a unique opportunity for something that can be really special,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. ”With what the game means and all these teams mean to their cities and their communities, the amount of battles that are going to be happening and then obviously the competition in the playoffs is going to be something pretty remarkable.”
Six of these teams made the expanded playoffs last season and the other, Ottawa, added two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray among other moves. Almost everyone improved with outside additions, from Toronto signing Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds to Calgary shoring up its net situation with Jacob Markstrom.
Canada hasn’t had a Stanley Cup champion since 1993, and while there’s no guarantee that drought ends, the divisional play extending through the first two rounds of the playoffs means one will at least be in the semifinals. Which team is anyone’s guess.
”It’s an interesting division because just about anyone can win,” McDavid said. ”An all-Canadian division’s exciting. It’s never happened before. You look at some of the rivalries, some of the matchups, I think it can make for a pretty exciting division.”
Exciting for everyone maybe but the coaches. Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice thinks the ”spectacle” of the division is the fun part, even if missing the playoffs won’t be.
”Somewhere between two and five of the coaches are getting fired, guaranteed,” Maurice said. ”It’s going to be great.”
Skaters may have the advantage knowing they only have to face roughly 12 goaltenders this season, but some of the game’s best are in the North.
Montreal’s Carey Price is annually voted the best by his peers, Murray won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, new Canucks goalie Braden Holtby won with Washington in 2018, Markstrom makes the Flames better and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
What makes the Jets even tougher than their top nine forwards?
”Having the Vezina winner in net is always a good place to start,” forward Andrew Copp said.
NEW OLD FACES
Thornton brings his big grey beard to the Maple Leafs, who haven’t been able to get past the first round of the playoffs with this core group. The 41-year-old said ”I got no stress, man,” and hopes the whole team plays like that.
”Whatever happened in the past really don’t matter to me,” Thornton said. ”It’s a new season, new slate, but just bring energy every day, be excited and play with no fear.”
Perry is coming off a trip to the final with Dallas and is now with fellow 2014 Olympic gold medal-winning teammates Price and Shea Weber and coach Claude Julien in Montreal. Perry won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and hopes to do it again with the team he grew up rooting for.
The North Division is the only one this season to feature teams in four different time zones. That’s an advantage for those on the East Coast who get to see more McDavid, Patrik Laine and the revamped Canucks before bedtime but adds to the travel for teams.
”There will be some interesting dynamics there,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”Certainly crossing time zones for us from a division standpoint is different than the other divisions in the game.”
It all starts Jan. 13 with Canadiens-Maple Leafs and Canucks-Oilers, with some weird quirks to follow.
Because of their proximity across the Quebec-Ontario border, Montreal and Ottawa play four times in two rinks from March 28-April 3. The Canucks as the westernmost team have a lot of three-game ”series” and even a couple of four-game sets to compensate for their location.
Montreal and Toronto play each other the final three games of the regular season. If somehow they meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1979, that series will have quite the contempt level.
DON’T MISS IT
Mark the calendar: Jan. 20, 22, 28 and 30, Feb. 27 and March 1, 3, 27 and 29 for Connor McDavid and the Oilers vs. Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafes. Oh, and Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl for Edmonton and Tavares, Mitch Marner and Co. for Toronto.