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The NHL’s New Canada-Only Division Gives a Crumbling Empire a Leg Up

After a pandemic-related reshuffling, Canadian hockey clubs now have a greater opportunity to end their collective 27-year Stanley Cup drought

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NHL’s 2021 season, which is set to start Wednesday night, will feature a very unusual schedule. Because of last season’s tardy conclusion, this year’s slate of games will kick off two months late and include just 56 games per club, down from the usual 82. In order to reduce the amount of travel and contact between teams, the league removed all interdivisional play from the schedule. And it reshuffled and renamed the four divisions.

Under ordinary circumstances, the NHL’s teams are sorted east to west (more or less), and three of the four divisions feature teams from both the United States and Canada. This season, however, will herald the debut of the North division, which will house the league’s seven Canadian clubs and those seven Canadian clubs only.

This temporary measure is as obvious as it is necessary. Travel between the U.S. and Canada is usually a matter of showing one’s passport at a border crossing and lying to a government functionary about what’s in the trunk of your car. Very little changes, except the money and the road signs. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, both countries have temporarily restricted nonessential cross-border travel in an effort to mitigate the spread of the disease. (The concept of “closing the border” was unknown to Canadians as recently as 1813, when Oliver Hazard Perry routed the Anglo-Canadian fleet at the Battle of Put-in-Bay. Good to see they’re learning.)

Because of this, it would be nearly impossible to keep up a normal sports schedule while facilitating travel between the countries. We’ve already seen the only two Canadian teams in North America’s other three biggest sports leagues—the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays—move south to play their home games in the U.S. until circumstances change. So if there’s going to be an NHL season, it makes sense that the Canadian teams would have to be cordoned off.

But sneaking in behind in this emergency reform is an absolute gift for the sport’s motherland: a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.

Canada hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens’ triumph in 1993. That win is so far in the past it entitled Jean Béliveau to put his name on the Cup once more. Here are a few things that didn’t exist yet when a Canadian team last won the title: Google; the Spice Girls; the Budweiser frogs; eight-year NHL veteran Jonas Brodin; and the Atlanta Thrashers, whose franchise charter was granted four years after the Canadiens lifted the cup, and who relocated to Winnipeg nine and a half years ago.

Despite fielding as many as eight teams at a time in the 26 seasons since, Canada has continued to come up short. There have been a few close calls—Vancouverites have set fire to their own city twice after Cup final heartbreak—but since the Canucks’ agonizing loss to Boston in 2011, no Canadian franchise has even reached the Cup final.

The North division, however, presents the seven Canadian teams with their best opportunity in decades. The 2021 NHL playoffs will feature four teams from each division, and intradivisional play will continue through the first two rounds of the postseason. This guarantees that a Canadian team will at least reach the league semifinal, and that none of the Canadian teams will play an American team before that point.

That’s important news because the Canadian division will have as many playoff berths as each of its American brothers, despite having fewer teams. And more to the point, it’s important because those Canadian teams are dogshit.

The class of the North division is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are either a legitimately good team or a team that everyone assumes is good because they have two and a half outstanding forward lines and a GM who gets enough good press that everyone’s agreed to overlook their appalling lack of defensive depth and increasingly shaky goaltending. Even the most charitable view of the Leafs reveals a team that, when mixed in with American squads, hasn’t finished higher than third in its division or won a playoff round since before the 2004-05 lockout.

The Leafs have made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons and gone the distance in the first round, only to capitulate in the decisive game. They could have a reputation for choking in the playoffs, but honestly it’s barely even choking when it happens that early.

The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, are different from the Maples Leafs only in geography, uniform colors, and the fact that the Flames have turned their own exceptional group of high-scoring forwards into one playoff series win since the lockout, rather than zero. Just two years ago, the Flames were the toast of the Western Conference before they no-showed against the underdog Colorado Avalanche in the first round. Since then, they’ve shed defensive depth like a molting duckling, leaving talismanic defenseman Mark Giordano more exposed than ever as he enters his age-37 season.

The Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs in each of their first 13 NHL seasons behind what might be the best collection of talent in the NHL’s expansion era: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, and the like. After a fallow couple of decades, the Oilers won the draft lottery four times between 2010 and 2015 and looked like they were ascending again. Since 2010, the Oilers have drafted and developed three future Hart Trophy winners, including Connor McDavid, the consensus best hockey player alive. But in the past 10 seasons, they’ve gone through eight coaches, finished last in their division four times, and made the playoffs once. Twice, if you count their qualifying-round exit to Chicago last season. Losing to that Chicago team is more embarrassing than missing the playoffs, so it’s understandable if you don’t want to count it.

Even more embarrassing than that, though, is the fact that the Oilers have failed to build even a mediocre team around two world-class stars—McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And in a few years, we’ll probably be saying the same thing about the Canucks, who have Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and way too much money invested in their fourth line. Exceptional goaltending from Jacob Markstrom put Vancouver in the playoffs last season, so naturally the team let Markstrom walk this fall and handed the reins over to the inexperienced Thatcher Demko and the quite possibly cooked Braden Holtby.

Last season, Montreal was the no. 12 seed in the East and made it to the playoffs proper by upsetting a Penguins team that looked like it would rather have been in purgatory than the Toronto bubble. Emboldened by this success, Habs GM Marc Bergevin looked at his roster—which included a couple of very good defensemen and a forward group full of guys who are … fine, I guess?—and decided to invest in backup goalie Jake Allen and checking line winger Josh Anderson, whose injury-shortened four-point campaign in 2019-20 apparently merited a seven-year contract worth $5.5 million a year.

The Winnipeg Jets were awful last season, but made the playoffs anyway thanks to Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina Trophy–winning goaltending. The less said about the rest of the team, the better.

And the Ottawa Senators are one of the worst teams in all of hockey, having finished in the bottom two in the leaguewide standings in each of the past three seasons. That run of ineptitude has allowed them to bank some exciting young players through the draft, like defenseman Thomas Chabot, winger Brady Tkachuk, and electric German rookie Tim Stuetzle. But owner Eugene Melnyk operates the team in such a way that combines the implacable bargain basement hopelessness of the Pittsburgh Pirates with the embarrassing, meddling ownership of the New York Knicks.

Last season, these seven teams finished 12th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 20th, 24th, and 30th in the league in points percentage. And now they’re in their own division and are guaranteed four playoff berths. Meanwhile, realignment dumped the poor Buffalo Sabres in the East division, which now features four of the Eastern Conference’s top five teams from last season. The Sabres are going to get absolutely keelhauled in that division, but if they rowed across the Niagara River under cover of darkness and showed up in Ontario eating all-dressed potato chips and chucking the letter U around willy-nilly, they’d be a near-lock for the playoffs.

Maybe that’s a fluke of geography, or maybe it’s a symptom of broader Canadian hockey malaise. An astute Canadian observer—hell, anyone with two neurons to rub together under their toque—might point out that player distribution in the NHL is more or less random, and that the best player on most American-based teams carries a Tragically Hip LP in lieu of a passport. And that’s an important point.

But the best players on the Flames, Leafs, and Jets are American. And the Canucks had three Americans (J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, and Hughes, a defenseman) produce more points per game than their highest-scoring Canadian player last season. The talent transfer goes both ways.

That’s because Canadian dominance of the country’s national sport is waning. Last week, Team USA won the IIHF U20 championship by beating Canada 2-0 in the gold medal game. That gives the U.S. four junior titles to Canada’s three in the past 11 years, with three of those victories coming at Canada’s expense in the final.

In best-on-best men’s Olympic play in the past decade, Canada crows over its two gold medals. But in that time, the U.S. has beaten Canada once, lost once in regulation, and lost once far enough into overtime that the game would’ve gone to a shootout in the NHL. The two teams had an even goal differential in those games. And in women’s hockey, the ice is tilted even further—the thrilling, razor’s edge Olympic rivalry between the U.S. and Canada in the 2010s obscures the extent to which Team USA has dominated international competition in recent years. Since 2015, the United States has won every single best-on-best competition it’s entered. Between the World Championships, Olympics, and Four Nations Cup: nine entries, nine gold medals.

We haven’t been able to see what the best American players can do at the senior international level, however, thanks in large part to the NHL’s interference. The NHL skipped the 2018 Olympics, and because of an unusual eight-team format in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, it relegated all 23-and-under players from North America to a de facto junior team to make up the numbers. Team North America, with its striking black-and-orange color scheme and no-holds-barred firewagon style of play, was the darling of the tournament and will go down in hockey history as a universally beloved curiosity. But it also featured only one player—McDavid—who would’ve cracked Canada’s senior roster.

Meanwhile, Team North America featured numerous Americans—Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Seth Jones, Brandon Saad, and Shayne Gostisbehere (he was good back then)—who would’ve made a Team USA roster that ended up being heavy on old dudes and third liners. To this day, none of those TNA players have suited up for Team USA at a best-on-best international tournament. Nor have Hellebuyck or Hughes.

By chance, the NHL has shielded Canada from having to acknowledge its status as a hockey empire in decline. Such acknowledgement, if and when it comes, will likely be painful. Canada is the arrogant, exceptionalist power in a sport where its two main rivals are the U.S. and Russia, which is saying something. Now, the Canadian teams will get to exist in a vacuum with a guaranteed shot at the Cup final for whichever gussied-up also-ran the North division burps out. Another opportunity for self-delusion from a crumbling giant.