It seems a bit foolish to dig too far deep into the speculation with so many unknowns at this point in the offseason, but of all the proposed ideas and hypothetical scenarios that have been kicked around, the All-Canadian Division seems to have the most basis behind it.
There are solutions, concessions and/or work-arounds for just about everything, but it is semi-literally a no-fly zone when it comes to the border as long as travel restrictions are in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless the Canadian government eases its stance on travel and entry, the seven franchises north of the border have no choice but to operate independent from the rest of the league.
It’s hard to say whether or not this is a more significant issue to the NHL when compared to other leagues. On one hand, the NHL does not have to temporarily re-locate any of its franchises, and can operate merely with only a simple realignment. But from a business standpoint, how desirable will it be to have the seven Canadian teams competing against each other exclusively — even if it helps to re-energize the fan bases north of the border?
Thankfully, it won’t be the fans that will have to begrudgingly accept the consequences tied to separating teams based on national affiliation. Instead, they will be treated to a nonstop slate of marquee games in maybe the most exciting hockey schedule ever laid out.
With that in mind, let’s size up the Canadian outfits. Here’s the situation for each entering, possibly, the fascinating world where they only play each other — beginning with the three teams from the Eastern time zone.
If there was a common theme amongst the teams in the hypothetical division operating north of the border that would include some of the high-powered teams in the league, the Canadiens seem to run counter to it. Marc Bergevin doubled down this fall on the things that worked for Montreal in its unexpected postseason soiree, spending on more goaltending and more muscle, on both forward and defence. The result was what appears to be a formidable postseason opponent. The question is: how easily will it be for Montreal to get there?
This time without the benefit of a seriously-expanded postseason format, the Canadiens will have to make significant improvements in regular season play to make it back. They scored far too few goals last year while Carey Price failed to deliver the results that befit his hefty price tag. With Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson added to the fold, and Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi continuing to develop, Montreal should have far more to offer from an offensive perspective, but the biggest improvements could potentially come with keeping goals out. With the expensive addition of new backup Jake Allen, not only do the Canadiens stand to improve on the ugly numbers from Charlie Lindgren and Keith Kinkaid, but now they can, in theory, more effectively manage and optimize the performance of Price.
Montreal will act as a change-up for teams in a division that should be a track meet on most nights. The Canadiens could have great success if they can routinely put their game into practice, and if the goaltending meets its potential across a (likely) 48-game season.
While it’s been an undoubtedly positive offseason for the Senators, it might be as though they have been strung up like a heavy bag if forced to compete exclusively against the Canadian teams a little farther along in their processes each and every night.
However, the one mitigating factor for the Senators is that the Canadian teams are more dangerous and potent than they are elite. For that reason, Ottawa should be able to remain largely competitive — though still out-gunned — against a collection of opponents that are missing the polish that tends to punish teams on the low-end of the totem pole.
It could be slightly beneficial from a developmental perspective, the exposure to many elite talents in an All-Canadian Division. But under any re-organization, including this proposed one, it’s still extremely unlikely that the Senators are suddenly competing for a postseason spot.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs have fancied themselves as legitimate contenders for the top of the division for a few seasons now. It may only be now where that’s realized.
Shaking loose from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins is an incredible opportunity for the Maple Leafs to earn and play from a front-running position in the regular season. It’s possible that an All-Canadian Division is, top to bottom, more talented than the Atlantic Division would have been in 2020-21, but the path to a top seed is certainly more attainable with the two recurring Stanley Cup contenders likely out of the way.
Though the style we might expect likely favours the Leafs, who might have the vastest collection of top-end skill among all Canadian teams, they will have to have made considerable improvements in order to take advantage of any realignment.
Toronto was a deeply flawed team in all areas associated to keeping the puck out of its own net last season, and management has now gone out of its way to address that — and some. With T.J. Brodie coming in to help anchor a defence core that suddenly runs reasonably deep, and plus netminders at both the second and third string, the Leafs should be in a better position to overcome the issues that inevitably pop up throughout the course of the season.
Addressing other needs without taking from the very top of the lineup, the Leafs are in the best position to be who they have envisioned themselves as all along.
And that might be enough to be the class of Canada in 2020-21.
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