We’ve seen talk of the Habs being shifted to an all-Canadian division for next season as a result of the pandemic. Is that better than staying in the Atlantic? Our writers offer up their thoughts.
Allan Katz: The absolutely best call for the Habs would be to take part in an all-Canadian division. No matter how you do the math, the weakest division of all possible combinations will be the Canadian Division and that will give the team the time needed to flourish, build confidence and move up in contention with the big boys. The younger players on the team need space to flourish. Jesperi Kotkaniemi needs to learn to shoot, not how to shoot, he has a potential rifle, but just to shoot more. Alexander Romanov needs to adapt to the NHL game. Nick Suzuki needs to move up to the next level and score 60 points. Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling have to prove they’re NHL ready. Victor Mete and the young defensemen need to establish where they deserve to be. Even Josh Anderson needs to get his act together after practically a year off due to injuries. The Canadian Division is filled with good teams and some great players, but they don’t have any elite teams. By taking on solid teams that are trying to get their act together too, the opportunity to gel is there. This team will need some time and the Canadian Division will give them that.
Brian La Rose: I know a lot of people seem to want the all-Canadian one if for no other reason than it’s never going to happen under normal circumstances. I am not one of those people. I actually think the path to the playoffs is easier if things stay the way they are.
Tampa Bay is about to get weaker one way or another and Boston already has (with some of their top players potentially missing the start of the season as well). They’ll still be battling for the top but the gap between them and everyone else has shrunk. Florida’s offseason hasn’t been pretty as what was once a strong forward group now looks decidedly mediocre. Buffalo got Taylor Hall which was a nice pickup for them but they still have no goaltending. Detroit is better but still nowhere near playoff-relevant. Toronto is going to be in the mix in either division and Ottawa’s improved but probably not ready for the playoffs yet. That’s four teams that can basically be written off without much thinking.
In a Canadian Division, there’s Ottawa that can be written off and…well, that’s about it. Vancouver is a bit weaker but still good enough to challenge. Edmonton didn’t fix their goaltending but have made some nice moves to bolster their depth and will definitely be in the mix as well. Calgary now has a goalie so I expect them to make a big push. Winnipeg isn’t a contender but they’re far from a pretender either. I know Montreal has improved this offseason but I’m not about to call them a contender in this potential division. They’re still a bubble team and putting them against a bunch of other bubble teams could result in all sorts of different outcomes from winning the division to finishing sixth and I can make a plausible case for both of those options happening.
Making the playoffs isn’t easy like it once was when there were far fewer teams in the league and as much as Marc Bergevin is panned for his comments about simply getting there and then seeing how things go, he’s not entirely wrong. Give me the path of least resistance to get there. With four teams unlikely to contend in the Atlantic versus just one in an all-Canadian division, that path is the status quo.
Kevin Leveille: The irony in the question being posed is that while I’m going to select the Canadian Division as being beneficial to the Habs, I also believe that it will be far more unpredictable than the teams in the Atlantic Division. The only logical way to really explain this is to compare the teams the Habs would play against in each scenario. This starts by removing both the Leafs and Sens of one such comparison. In either scenario, I believe that the Habs finish ahead of the Sens and behind the Leafs in regular season play. I would pick the Habs to win a playoff series against the Leafs, but not to get ahead in the regular season.
The five other teams in the Atlantic are Detroit, Buffalo, Florida, Boston, and Tampa Bay. While the Lightning will lose some important players before the start of the next season, until they falter, the defending champs get placed at the head of the division. I expect the Habs to be better than the Red Wings despite improvements by GM Steve Yzerman (much like Ottawa). The Sabres have added, but not enough to get over the Habs. The Panthers have lost far more than they’ve gained, so I think the Habs get past them. This leaves the Habs and Bruins to fight for the third divisional playoff position, and I like Boston’s championship pedigree over the Flames’ or Habs’ recent history. There’s always a Wild Card spot, but then we’d have to analyze the entire Metro division.
The four other teams in a Canadian Division would be the Jets, Canucks, Flames, and Oilers. Much like the Habs, these are bigger squads that have, for the most part, seen a significant amount of movement over the offseason. I believe the Oilers had a quiet but effective offseason. If their goaltending holds up, they’ll be a force, if not, then there’s still Connor McDavid. Much like the Leafs, their issues might be more difficult to overcome at playoff time. I think the Canucks lost too much on the blueline for their young and old goaltending tandem to overcome. Winnipeg’s back end will need another all-world season from Connor Hellebuyck for the Jets to remain relevant. He’ll be good but can he be great again? In the cases of both the Canucks and Jets, a division as tough as this supposed Canadian Division might be too much for their issues to not become glaring needs over the course of a long gruelling season that will require crazy consistency. In my mind, The Habs battle the Flames for the final divisional playoff position here (unless the league goes with four playoff spots per division with no Wild Card which would make sense too). Either way, I prefer this than battling a proven Bruins team for a playoff position.
Having said all of this, I truly believe that the length of the season will be a bigger deal for the Habs than the division they play in. With so many news bodies, they will likely need some time to gel at the start of the season, as seen in Dallas a few years ago and more prominently in New Jersey last year. This could be catastrophic should the season be shortened. Further to that, the Habs are now a big team, which means they likely get stronger as the season progresses, not to mention that as all teams face injuries, their depth should shine as the season wears on. So ideally for the Habs, next season is a full 82 games in the Canadian Division.
Norm Szcyrek: It’s interesting to consider which division would be better for the Habs next season. The unofficial pandemic-based one featuring all Canadian teams does offer some nationalistic charm to it. That division may even build up those rivalries since Montreal would face the Canadian teams much more often than in the past, except for Atlantic Division rivals Ottawa and Toronto. However, all of those teams except Ottawa finished the last season with more points than the Habs. Some of them such as Vancouver and Edmonton may even surpass their standings when normalizing the shortened season for a full 82-game season. Teams like Calgary and Winnipeg should also do well and would be a challenge to Montreal.
When it comes to the Atlantic Division, both Detroit and Ottawa expected to be weak teams next season. Despite the Canadiens’ unexpected struggles against the Red Wings, they should fare much better against them, and similarly against the Senators. Tampa, Boston and Toronto will again ice strong teams and should end up ahead of the Habs in the standings. Florida and Buffalo could also surprise many experts by improving on last season. So, in the end, I am looking forward to watching the Habs play in an all-Canadian division, where they may have a slightly better chance at earning points than against stronger teams in the Atlantic.