Sports·The Buzzer

The Canadian division might save this NHL season

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the many things to like about the all-Canadian North Division.

Passionate fan bases + high-scoring games = fun

Toronto's Auston Matthews is a good bet to lead the NHL in goals this year. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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The Canadian division is going to be a blast

The most exciting thing about the 2021 NHL season, which opens tonight, is the all-Canadian division. For the first (and likely last) time, each of the seven Canadian-based teams are grouped together and will play only each other for the entire regular season.

The top four qualify for the playoffs and will be paired off for the first round. The winners meet in the second round to determine which team represents the North Division (its official name) against the other three division winners in the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In a way, then, these divisions are each their own league — similar to how baseball's American and National Leagues operated as separate entities who only met in the World Series before the advent of interleague play.

And the Canadian "league" should be the most fun. Besides the passionate fan bases involved in every game, the hockey itself promises to be entertaining. Every Canadian team except Winnipeg finished 15th or worse in goals-against average last season, which should make for plenty of high-scoring games.

Here's a quick look at the most interesting man on each Canadian team:

Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau. His production plummeted last season from his peak 36-goal, 99-point showing in 2018-19, and Gaudreau's name even came up in trade rumours. But he still has two years left on his contract and his numbers should rebound from a hard-luck season in which his shooting percentage cratered.

Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid. The best player in the world could be poised for a monster statistical year. He finished second in the scoring race to Leon Draisaitl last season, and you have to think McDavid's competitive juices are flowing after seeing his teammate win both the Art Ross and Hart trophies.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price. The NHL's highest-paid goalie (by annual cap hit) finished tied for 31st in save percentage last season while starting a league-high 58 games for a Montreal team that played 71. That's a lot of work for a 33-year-old, so the Habs traded for Jake Allen to back him up. But they're now devoting nearly $15 million US to their goalies.

Ottawa Senators: Tim Steutzle. Ottawa picked the German forward third overall in the 2020 draft. He had five goals and five assists in five games at the recent world junior championship, and recorded 34 points in 41 games last season against grown men in Germany's top pro league.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews. Since he entered the league four seasons ago, Matthews has scored more goals than every player except Alex Ovechkin. He potted a career-high 47 last year, finishing one behind Ovechkin and David Pastrnak in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, and tied Ovechkin for the league lead in even-strength goals with 35.

Vancouver Canucks: Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The winner and the runner-up in the last two Calder Trophy votes helped Vancouver reach the second round of the playoffs last year and nearly upset Vegas. Thatcher Demko was dynamite in that series too. If he's capable of becoming a full-time starter, Vancouver could have a young netminder, defenceman and forward to anchor the team for years to come.

Winnipeg Jets: Patrik Laine. Even counting the shortened 2019-20 season, Laine has averaged 34.5 goals in his four NHL campaigns. And he's still only 22. But the Jets don't appear interested in extending his contract beyond this year, and Laine has indicated he wants out too. His questionable conditioning and defensive indifference sometimes outweigh his scoring talent, but escaping the grind of the Central Division for the North might be the ticket to a big year.

For more on the key storylines in the Canadian division, read this piece by Vicki Hall and watch this video by Rob Pizzo:

Ranking the NHL's North division teams

Sports

5 days agoVideo
5:47
For the first time, all 7 Canadian teams will be in one division. Rob Pizzo predicts which four will make the playoffs. 5:47

Quickly...

Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino earned her first Grand Slam berth in eight years. She reached the Australian Open today by winning her third consecutive match in the women's qualifying tournament. Marino, 30, is ranked 312th in the world and, before this week, hadn't played an official match since July 2019. She was ranked as high as 38th in the world in 2011 but stepped away from the sport for almost five years between 2013 to 2017 as she battled physical and mental-health struggles. The latter, she said at the time, were exacerbated by hurtful comments directed at her on social media by people who lost money betting on her. Marino was the only one of the five Canadians attempting to qualify for the Australian Open who made it to the main event. Read more about her victory here.

Kathleen Heddle died. One of the best Canadian rowers ever, Heddle teamed with Marnie McBean to win Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996. Both women were also part of the women's eights team that won Olympic gold in '92, and the quad sculls boat that captured bronze in '96. Heddle died Monday at her home in Vancouver after a long battle with cancer. She was 55. Read more here.

Mikaela Shiffrin won a slalom race for the first time in 13 months. The 25-year-old American owns this discipline. She's won six World Cup season championships in the slalom, the last four world titles and the 2014 Olympic gold medal. Last night's victory in Austria extended Shiffrin's all-time record for women's World Cup slalom wins to 44. But it was her first one since December 2019, which was followed by the sudden death of her father last February, the pandemic and a back injury. Shiffrin remains uncommonly open about continuing to struggle with the loss of her dad. "It's hard not to want... life to be like it was before Feb. 2," she said last night. "I'm probably going to be struggling with that for a while, but I think that tonight was a pretty big step." Read more about Shiffrin's bittersweet win here.

The NBA is cracking down. With five games already postponed this week and more being threatened by coronavirus-related issues, the league and the players' association agreed to tighter restrictions on players and team staff for "at least the next two weeks." When not playing or participating in team activities, they must remain at home or, when they're on the road, in their hotel. Outside "guests" are no longer allowed in hotel rooms, and players have even been ordered to limit their socializing on the court. Those are just some of the new protocols, and you can read more about all of them here.

And finally..

Clue: This NFL quarterback is going to host an episode of Jeopardy! The correct answer: Who is Aaron Rodgers? The Green Bay Packers star took time out from his preparations for Saturday's playoff game vs. the Rams to reveal that he'll guest-host an episode this off-season. The show is using a series of fill-ins to replace Alex Trebek, who died in November, starting this week with record-breaking former contestant Ken Jennings. Rodgers won a game of Celebrity Jeopardy! in 2015 and called it "a dream come true" to appear on the show. "It's been a staple at my house here in Green Bay for the last 16 years — 6 o'clock, watching Alex and trying to get as many questions as I can," he said. "To be on there, to get to meet Alex was just such a special moment." Read more about Rodgers' upcoming turn as host here.

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