This isn’t something that will come as a surprise to anybody here, of that I’m sure. There have been rumours of a temporary Canadian Division floating around for weeks now. Due to the very real and very serious COVID-19 pandemic, travel between the United States and Canada has been suspended. This means that any play between two teams from those countries would be near impossible. So, a Canadian Division makes sense, nothing new here. The only real news is that Gary Bettman has said it himself.
The assumption here is that the Leafs won’t play any US team at all until the playoffs, at the earliest. So that could mean playing Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Winnipeg 9 times each, while playing Ottawa and Montreal 10 times this year. This is a great way to develop rivalries, but it could make games a little repetitive as well. Either way, I can’t wait!!
So, what will this look like for the Leafs and how will they fare in a division against the rest of the Canadian teams?
Let’s run through the matchups alphabetically.
The Calgary Flames:
The Leafs went 0-1-1 against Calgary last year, garnering just a single point in two games. The first of those games, a 4-2 loss in Calgary, saw the Leafs surrender a 2-1 lead early in the third period by way of giving up 3 goals in a span of 2:30. A very Leafy loss to say the least. The second game, a 2-1 shootout loss in Toronto a month later, was a better defensive effort by the Leafs, but as is always the way with this team, if they are defending well they find it tough to score goals.
The Leafs went 1/7 on the PP, while their PK shut down the Flames on all 4 of their attempts with the man advantage. We can chock up a win for the special teams.
While the Flames lost T.J. Brodie to the Leafs via free agency, they replaced him with Chris Tanev and bolstered their starting goaltender position by allowing Cam Talbot to walk and signing Jacob Markstrom to a 6 year, 36 million dollar contract.
At the end of the day I would say they’re a better team, if for no other reason than my belief that Markstrom is a better goaltender than Rittich. With that said Rittich absolutely owned the Leafs in last years games. He posted a 0.957SV% and a 1.44GAA in the two games mentioned above. Compare that to Jacob Markstrom, who, with the Vancouver Canucks, has posted a 0.888SV% and a 3.29GAA over the past two seasons against Toronto, while going 1-2 in 3 games played. He hasn’t had the Leafs number lately.
Calgary will be a tough opponent, make no mistake, but the Leafs can compete with them.
Prediction: A close series, 4-4-1
The Edmonton Oilers:
In their two games against the Oilers last season the Leafs went 1-1. A 4-1 win in Edmonton in mid December was countered by the Oilers, as they beat the Leafs 6-4 just a few weeks later in Toronto. You’re looking at two teams that have a lot in common. Their top end offensive pieces are the stars of the show, while their defense is lacking in star power. It’s the goaltending that you have to hope gives Toronto the edge.
The Leafs sported a 40% success rate with the man advantage in those two games, going 2/5 on the powerplay. Meanwhile, they allowed 2 goals on 7 powerplays against, which makes for a 71.4% success rate on the penalty kill. I’d call the specialty teams a mixed bag. I would strongly recommend both teams to stay out of the box when they play one another.
Additions for the Oilers in the offseason include forwards Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, the return of Jesse Puljujarvi and defender Tyson Barrie. Going into the offseason it was said that they needed to address two main concerns, forward depth and goaltending. They certainly added strong forward depth, as all three of their forward additions bring great potential. However, they are returning this season with the same goaltenders as last year, Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, and considering the abundance of goalies that hit the market this has to feel like a major fail for Oilers fans. Also, if Tyson Barrie plays the same way for the Oilers as he did for the Leafs they are certainly not getting any help there (yes, I’m holding a grudge). It’s well documented that I believe Barrie to be the most heartless of players I’ve ever witnessed don the Maple Leafs blue and white. I’ve never held any ill will towards the Oilers, as there has never been a true rivalry there, but them having Barrie on their roster is enough for me to want to see the entire team crash and burn.
Anyway, moving on.
Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen each started a game against the Leafs last year, and while Koskinen had the (slightly) better numbers, it’s Smith that got the 6-4 win for the Oilers. Meanwhile, Andersen started both games against the Oilers, but only finished one of those. He played well in their 4-1 win in December, but allowed 3 goals on 19 shots before being replaced by Michael Hutchinson in the 2nd period. They were a victim of Connor McDavid that day, who tallied 1 goal and 4 points.
Prediction: Another series that you’ll have to take seriously, but if the Leafs can give McDavid a little bit of trouble breaking through they’ll win this series, 5-3-1
Last season saw the Leafs go without a win against Montreal. When you go 0-2-1 against a storied rival the fans, naturally, feel the need to blame somebody
It feels weak but I’d point my finger towards the NHL schedule maker and Toronto Maple Leafs GM, Kyle Dubas.
Why the schedule maker? Because all three of those games came on the second half of a back-to-back against a rested Montreal team. I’m not digging too far into it but based on my (terrible) memory alone, I believe more of their matchups were meant to be under the same scenario. That’s tough and should never happen in either teams favour. Have more respect for this matchup Schedule Guy!! Both fan bases deserve that!!
Why Kyle Dubas? Because it’s Dubas that, after a series of missteps revolving around the backup goalie position, walked into the season with Michael Hutchinson at the position. It’s Michael Hutchinson that allowed 10 goals on 80 shots in two games and finished with a 4.81GAA and 0.875SV% against the Habs. Jack Campbell played the third and final game of the year against Montreal, carried the team to OT and finished with a 1.95GAA and 0.933SV%. Kyle finally broke and found a solid backup for Frederik Andersen, but that was too late, the Leafs had already lost 3 of a possible 4pts and, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t a team that can afford to drop too many points because of poor goaltending.
As far as the special teams go Montreal won the matchup. They went 2/7 on the powerplay and their penalty killers held the Leafs to a single goal on 8 opportunities. It’s not a landslide win, but it certainly helped.
Additions in the offseason include Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen, and Josh Anderson, who was obtained in a trade in exchange for Max Domi. Many believe that they lost the Anderson/Domi trade, but I am (was) a big fan of Anderson and know that even if he doesn’t score as much as Domi can, he can still wreak havoc on the Leafs soft top-6 forwards and smaller defensive group through his physical play. Alex Romanov is also expected to play a role on the Habs blueline this year and a lot is expected from him. In short, they are deeper on the blueline and have a good backup goaltender, while their forwards could be better based on the growth of players such as Jesper Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, who played well in the playoffs over the summer.
All of this while having to face Carey Price and Jake Allen will see the Leafs in for a tough matchup each time they face Les Habitants.
Prediction: A hopeful 5-3-2
Some are predicting a jump in the standings for the Senators, but I’m predicting the Canadian Division to be the worst (or best, if you are a fan and want another high draft pick) possible scenario for them. They won’t get a change to play around the league against other re-building teams. Instead they’ll face Canadian teams which are normally playoff bound or playoff hopeful. This could mean being under constant attack and having some broken confidence moving forward. On the flip side it would make the team compete harder to try to stay in games, which could result in some players’ development jumping ahead quicker than expected, but the true result is likely a mix of the two.
The Leafs took the season series last year by winning all three of their games. The first game of the year the Leafs won 5-3, and while the score was only 2 goals apart it was a more dominant win than that. The second was a 2-1 win in overtime, courtesy of a Mitch Marner powerplay goal. Craig Anderson was tough to beat and Michael Hutchinson had a (rare) good game. The third and final game, a 4-2 win, saw the Leafs go up 3-0 before surrendering two goals to the Sens, before Mitch Marner scored an empty net goal to seal the win.
The special teams battle was a clear win for the boys in blue. With 3 goals on 9 powerplay opportunities, they made the Sens regret the penalties they took. Meanwhile, their penalty killers went 9/9, shutting out the Senators scorers with ease.
Additions for Ottawa are huge. Evgeni Dadonov and Alex Galchenyuk will add a little skill up front, while Matt Murray gives them a legitimate starting goaltender with two Stanley Cup rings. It’s their young guns that could steal the show though. Prospects such as Tim Stutzle (unsigned), Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, Josh Norris, and others are primed to take full time spots on the roster. Maybe it’s that fact that made the Senators take the direction they did this offseason. With the addition of Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown on the blueline, as well as Austin Watson up front, the Senators certainly added a lot of protection for their young guns this year.
Considering getting “grittier” was Torontos second biggest concern, after adding a legit top 4 defender to play the right side, it’s ironic that both of their closest geographical rivals, the Senators and Canadians, didn’t just bulk up as well, but added more grit to their lineups.
Prediction: 6-3-1 (and Toronto loses some players to injury after being beaten around the ice)
Another series sweep by the Leafs last year as they went 2-0 against Vancouver. Frederik Andersen recorded both wins by way of a 1.50GAA and 0.955SV%. He was definitely “on” during both games, while Thatcher Demko and Jacob Markstrom dropped the ball. Neither team held an edge on special teams, as both went 0-for-all on the powerplay with Vancouver getting 4 opportunities and Toronto six.
To be honest there’s little to report on the games. Toronto won 4-1 in December and 4-2 in February. There’s little to no animosity between the two clubs and I’d be surprised if that were to change. Neither team plays a rough game, so it will be a battle of depth and skill. That’s boring and the way a lot of fans want it to be (apparently).
Additions for the ‘Nucks include Braden Holtby and Nate Schmidt. They lost Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom, but I don’t see a ton of difference here. This is a team that simply didn’t take a step forward through their additions, and if they did take a step back it would be in goal, where Holtby needs to redeem himself after a couple of rough years in Washington. The rest of the changes were depth pieces, such as Josh Leivo and Troy Stecher. Every team needs good depth to win, but these losses shouldn’t break a team that will continue to rely on players such as Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson to win. They are bringing back 10/10 of their top scorers from last season and, really, their only crime is that they failed to add to that group at all. The only reason I mention any of this is because they were labeled such a huge failure after the offseason started to cool down.
Prediction: Much like last year, I predict the Leafs will win the series, 5-4-0
Last seasons series had the Leafs taking 3 of a possible 4pts, with a record of 1-0-1. They beat the Jets 6-3 in their own barn, before dropping a 4-3 shootout decision less than a week later at home. The second game saw Auston Matthews tie the game with just 14 seconds remaining to send it to overtime. Matthews has quietly become a late-game-clutch player for the team.
Special teams were, once again, a split. Both teams scored a single powerplay goal with Winnipeg doing it on 4 chances and Toronto on 6 opportunities (with such small sample sizes it’s tough to give either team a clear win on special teams, this has been true throughout this article).
The only major addition for the Jets is centre Paul Stastny. He returned to the team, via trade, after a two year hiatus. He’s a good fit behind Mark Scheifele as a good 2-way, 2nd line centre. He had a bit of a down year last season, which has people asking if age is starting to catch up to the 34 year old or if he did, simply, have an off season and can turn it around. I, for one, wouldn’t bet against one of the steadiest veterans in the game today.
Adding just one player may not seem like much of an offseason, but when you have a goalie that just won the Vezina trophy, a deep, talented crop of forwards that boast a great mix of size and skill, as well as a steady, if unspectacular group on the blueline, then adding a 2nd line centre might be all you really need. The Jets, like many teams, are pushed towards the top of the cap, so they took the shot they felt addressed the teams biggest concerns first, and it’s undeniable that a 2C was a big hole that needed to be filled.
If my predictions are right (they aren’t) it will see the Leafs end the season with a record of 28-21-7. That would be good for 63pts over a 56 game schedule (92pts if the season were 82 games long). I think that’s reasonable considering the quality of the Canadian Division. Outside of The Ottawa Senators (who always seem to show up to play against the Leafs) every team could have found themselves in the playoffs if this were a normal year. Giving the Leafs the edge in their matchups is a little brazen to say the least, but I do believe they have the depth and skill to win most (if not all) of those matchups. Their 63pts should be enough to make the post season and it’s there that they’ll have to prove themselves once and for all. Because if they don’t you have to believe that big changes are ahead.
Authors Note: I started writing this when Gary Bettman confirmed that a Canadian Division is likely. Apologies that it took so long, life is busy and fun right now so I don’t always get the time to write. With that said we will be looking for writers to cover game days articles if anybody is interested. You can catch me here, in the comments section most days, or on Twitter @4evrb1ue or @puckinleafs.