Although the North Division was intended to be a temporary alignment only for the 2020-21 season, the all-Canadian grouping has been popular north of the border. As a result, there are a number of teams hoping that the division might stay together for a while longer.
Commissioner Gary Bettman was adamant earlier this week that the league will return to its normal divisional alignment next season, albeit with a small shift due to expansion. Yet, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that several Canadian teams are hoping to get at least another year of national competition. Ironically, this only seems likely if there continue to be restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border through the summer and into next season; the same restrictions that are making trade acquisitions difficult for Canadian teams and could prevent the North Division winner from playing at home in the semifinal and potentially the Stanley Cup Final series. However, the teams in favor of the North Division remaining intact feel that the impact could be more important than any ill effects this season.
Johnston notes that these teams can feel the excitement within the country of the reignited Canadian rivalries and want to see that expand with fans being allowed back into games, further boosting the focus on the league. However, there is a way for this to be accomplished without the North Division continuing.
Discussions earlier this season centered around the value of continuing to push the regional, non-divisional rivalries that have sprouted this season simply by changing the way scheduling is handled, rather than through realignment. Furthering the emphasis on regional play through extra contests between geographically linked teams would not only continue to fuel the rivalries created or rediscovered this season, but is also a way to save money on travel as teams continue to deal with losses this season. Perhaps this is the way to go that will make both the NHL and their Canadian contingent happy.
Here are some more notes...
- As noted, there is more downside than upside for the NHL and Canadian clubs to continued border issues. The most pressing of these problems with the trade deadline approaching is the required 14-day quarantine for anyone crossing into Canada, a major holdup in player acquisitions. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reached out to Health Canada and found that, despite a report earlier this year, there has been no formal request made by the NHL to amend the quarantine rules for trade acquisitions. However, Friedman did not sound optimistic that any such proposal would be accepted anyway. Specifically, players have wondered whether they could avoid the quarantine period if an acquired player has been vaccinated, but Health Canada stated that they do not know enough about the impact of vaccination on transmission to allow such a change. Friedman notes that lobbying efforts continue from the league to strike some sort of agreement with the Canadian government to ease quarantine restrictions, but the likelihood seems low. With the deadline now a month away and nothing formal yet in the works, Canadian contenders will likely have to account for a two-week absence of any new players acquired from their American counterparts.
- It didn’t take long for Toronto Maple Leafs forward Scott Sabourin to make his mark on this season, and not in a good way. After signing with the Leafs in Feburary, Sabourin was assigned to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to get back into game shape and made his season debut against the Laval Rocket on Friday. On Saturday, the Leafs recalled him to their taxi squad, adding a physical, gritty veteran to their group of potential substitutes. Later in the day, the AHL announced that, if and when Sabourin returns to the AHL, he will be suspended for one game. Sabourin crashed the Laval net late in Friday’s game and started an altercation with multiple opponents, and the league deemed this was worthy of a suspension. Sabourin cannot serve the suspension while on the taxi squad, so it will hang over him until he is next reassigned. With a one-game suspension, not to mention 17 penalty minutes, after just one game this year, Sabourin seems to be returning to the aggressive reputation that he has built in his AHL career rather than building on the progress he made as a more composed player with the Ottawa Senators last year.