The level of uncertainty in the air is palpable in the NHL these days. Ironically, rumors flying around of a potential Canadian division are one of the few things the Montreal Canadiens and their fans can hold onto, in a bid to bring an end to a relatively dubious distinction.
Obviously, the chances of suddenly ending a streak of 10,000 days of futility since a Canadian team last won the Stanley Cup are low. It would nevertheless be ironic in its own right, were it to happen next season of all seasons, when a Canadian division could maybe be formed to mitigate the need to travel to and from the United States.
Canadiens Versus Maple Leafs
Even in such an instance, based on the current setup, it would really just guarantee a single Canadian team makes it to Round 2. There’s nevertheless good reason it could be the Canadiens, especially considering the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a single round since two lockouts ago (when Jesperi Kotkaniemi wasn’t even four yet).
Jokes aside, obviously specifics would have to be worked out… and that can only come after this idea of a Canadian division evolves into anything other than a comment in passing from Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley. Nevertheless, officially speaking, the Canadiens were one of the three best teams in the Atlantic Division this past season after actually reaching the playoffs.
Granted, the Canadiens did finish 24th in the regular-season standings prior to the postseason. There are some caveats, though. First off, take the powerhouse Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins and Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, two teams against whom the Habs went 1-7 last season, out of the equation, and the Canadiens have a very real chance at a top seed.
Secondly, taking into account the Canadiens’ impressive showings against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, they were undeniably a better team after five months of rest. More to the point, they were undeniably a better team playing in front of Carey Price after five months of rest, with the goalie posting an elite .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average in 10 postseason games.
Canadiens Have Successful Offseason
It’s an admittedly small sample size, but the Habs also made moves this offseason to help stretch out Price’s effectiveness. In fact, according to Mark Seidel at The Sudbury Star, the Canadiens arguably had the best offseason of all the Canadian teams (from ‘Deep Thoughts with Mark Seidel: Rating the performance of Canadian NHL teams in the draft, trades, free agency’, The Sudbury Star – 10/23/20).
Of course, according to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, those offseason moves won’t necessarily translate into significant gains in the win column. However, it’s again Price, who was already under contract, who would be key to them making waves.
Luszczyszyn himself clarified in the thread how the above model doesn’t take into consideration how the teams’ incumbent players progress year over year. So, in addition to more offense provided by offseason acquisitions like Tyler Toffoli, opponents should also take into consideration centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi progressing as well.
Allen Sets Stage for Price Resurgence
Furthermore, even if Price is now 33, new defenseman Joel Edmundson should help insulate him to a greater degree. That’s saying nothing of the under-the-radar acquisition of backup Jake Allen. Even if Allen will only appear in 30-35 of the Habs’ games, he’ll factor into many more, enabling Price to rest more. In fact, Allen is arguably the first 1B goalie the Canadiens have had since Jaroslav Halak in 2010.
That one move in and of itself has the propensity to turn back the clocks at least a tad. Price may never regain his Hart Memorial Trophy form, as he’s realistically already peaked. However, Price can still be a difference-maker, as 2016-17 showed, when, a season after sustaining a serious injury and playing only 12 games, he went 37-20-5 with a .923 save percentage and 2.23 GAA.
The Canadiens infamously won the Atlantic Division that 2016-17 season, only to lose in the first round against the New York Rangers. Round 2 is one story. The playoffs in general are another. Of course the landscape has changed a great deal since then. The balance of power north of the border has shifted to favor the likes of the Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers on paper, but, all due respect to both of those squads, they’re not the Lightning or the Bruins.
Case in point, the Canadiens went 3-0 against the Leafs (0-2 versus the Oilers) and 10-3-2 against Canadian teams overall last season, in spite of their overall struggles before the hiatus. The Habs may not be the team to beat in the Atlantic in 2020-21, but, based on their improvements, they would be a projected wild-card team at least. In contrast, in an all-Canadian division, they’d be that much more of a threat.
Of course, much of this is speculation, but the Canadiens atop a Canadian division? Suffice it to say, weirder stories have slid into the sports pages. Nothing is pre-ordained, least of all a Canadian division actually taking shape, but the Habs have good reason to be optimistic if one does. They’re already expecting to make the playoffs under the worst of circumstances. Leveling the playing field can only push them over the edge.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.