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Illustration by Ming wong/the globe and mail. Source photos: Billy Hurst/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports, Codie McLachlan/Getty Images, Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Jason Halstead/Getty Images

They play hockey all over the place, but they only play real hockey in Canada. We don’t say that out loud, but we know it’s true.

Everywhere else they’re still trying to figure out the offside rule, but up here we get the nuances of the game. The little things matter. It’s the big things – say, winning – that escape us.

That makes this moment, just hours before the start of the NHL season, the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the time when the ceiling of every Canadian team is theoretically limitless.

Sure, it hasn’t worked out since Diefenbaker was prime minister, but why not this year?

The Tampa Bay Lightning are proof that any team can win a Stanley Cup (if they draft exactly right, sign all their stars to under-market deals and do business in a state that believes income tax is a Communist conspiracy.)

The Montreal Canadiens were total crap for long stretches last season, and look what happened to them – they lost. But they lost with elan. On the professional Canadian hockey scene, losing in style is what passes for winning.

So who’s to say Ottawa can’t do the same thing this year? People, put your hands down and dream a little.

Unusually, as well as a ceiling, this year the Canadian teams also have a floor. They must all be better than the Seattle Kraken. Anyone who can’t beat an expansion team put together using the same template as the ball club in Major League should have their franchise revoked.

That said, a few of those listed herein are going to be a lot closer to the floor than the ceiling.

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Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson. SOURCE PHOTO BY DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

In this league, there are established organizations, rebuilding teams, basket cases and chaotic neutrals. The Canucks are the latter.

Do they have young stars? They do. Are they fun to watch? They are. Do they win games? They do not.

The parts are good, but they don’t add up to much of a whole. Unfortunately, the team is too good (on paper, at least) to tear down.

You know what that means? Three or four more years of, “You never do know with these guys. They could surprise a few people,” followed by no surprise, followed by a lot of dissimulation about chemistry, followed by too many opportunities for a panicked executive team to play craps with the roster (Braden Holtby, we barely knew ya), followed by more of the same.

The Canucks are caught in the NHL’s Twilight Zone cycle – too bad to be good; too good to be bad. It’s a sure thing.

So, obviously, they will win the Stanley Cup this year.

Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers. SOURCE PHOTO BY CODIE MCLACHLAN/GETTY IMAGES.

EDMONTON OILERS

It is beginning to feel as though the Edmonton Oilers are a vast operation involving dozens of moving parts whose only purpose is torturing Connor McDavid.

Six years on, you go back to the night the Oilers won the pick that would become McDavid and consider the ways this could have gone differently. He could be well into the midst of being tortured by the Buffalo Sabres. Or the Arizona Coyotes. Or – and this would have been a special kind of pain – the Toronto Maple Leafs.

We are past the point of wondering whether McDavid will go on suffering in mediocrity, and well into the process of weighing exactly how much suffering he will do in aggregate. It may be a Marcel Dionne level of suffering.

Despite the usual deck shuffling, the Oilers continue to be as unstable and top heavy as a melting iceberg. They have two of the best five forwards in the game and not much else. Despite how hard they work to prove they do not have that special “it,” the expectations that they do continue to rise.

At this rate, winning a single playoff round would be a triumph of the will. Considering that they have the best player in the game by some distance, it’s a sad state of affairs.

The only good news for McDavid is that he’ll get a chance to win something in Beijing in February. Which should make his return to Edmonton afterward even more disheartening.

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau. SOURCE PHOTO BY SERGEI BELSKI/USA TODAY SPORTS.

CALGARY FLAMES

Edmonton’s kid brother is a real handful.

The Flames want to be just like their older sibling. Who among us doesn’t at that age? Move the puck around a bunch, end-to-end stuff, speed kills and all that.

They’re like twins, if one of them were a lot better looking.

Every time Edmonton goes to the playoffs, Calgary kicks and screams, but it doesn’t always get to tag along. Too bad. People would be surprised at how much losing in the first round runs in the family. The resemblance is uncanny.

Whenever people see them together and get confused, it really bothers Calgary. They’re their own man. They have Johnny Hockey, for God’s sake. Does Edmonton have a nickname as good as Johnny Hockey? I think not.

But still people make the mistake. It’s infuriating.

This is why Calgary cares a lot more about beating Edmonton in the playoffs than it does about making the playoffs, full stop. It’s a brother thing.

Maybe this year Calgary will get what it really wants for its birthday: a free shot at the guy in the top bunk (who, let’s be honest, hasn’t earned his place up there).

In this sense, the Flames are the purest of all the Canadian hockey set-ups. They actually know what they want, what they have to do to get it and aren’t afraid to say it out loud.

Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets. SOURCE PHOTO BY JASON HALSTEAD/GETTY IMAGES.

WINNIPEG JETS

Remember when this team was the fresh new face of the NHL? When the Jets were untouched by the Canadian curse? Even, for just a moment, the team that might reverse the hex by harnessing the power of not knowing what you don’t know?

Yeah, that’s done.

The tipping point was getting trucked by the Montreal Canadiens in last season’s playoffs. Not just losing, but getting backed over a couple of times in Montreal’s driveway.

It was the sort of loss you expected from the Oilers or the Leafs. Meaning the Jets now are the Oilers and the Leafs. The expectations that follow being a hockey team in a hockey town had finally got into Winnipeg’s collective head. Once there, the Jets began digging out a foundation. They’re planning to stay a while.

The roster hasn’t changed much in the off-season, which tides well for the regular season. Like most Canadian hockey teams, the Jets have got the regular season figured. It’s the part of the year that matters that gives them trouble.

The good news is that with the divisions returned to their usual alignment, the Jets will likely get a few U.S. squads in the playoffs. Those teams will be shocked and awed playing in front of fans who actually know and care about hockey. Maybe that’s some advantage.

But otherwise, the Jets are like most of the teams on this list – good enough to be good, but nowhere near good enough to be great.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews. SOURCE PHOTO BY BILLY HURST/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

If Groundhog Day were a sports franchise instead of a film, it would be the Toronto Maple Leafs. But it would be more tragi- than comedy, absent redemption or redeeming life lessons.

What’s changed going into 2021-22? Nothing. Nothing has changed for years. Same core. Same problems. Same expectations. Same fears. Same unearned confidence. Same resignation.

Sports thrives on the potential for pivot points. If this thing happens, then that wonderful or awful thing will happen as a result. The Leafs don’t do pivot points. They are consistency made flesh.

Their money is sunk into four guys. Those four guys continue trying to convince people that they don’t know how to win. People will not believe them. So each year, they show them. Nothing changes and we start over again.

What happens when the Leafs find some highly creative way to blow it in the first round again? Nothing. We start over, and we keep doing that until the big contracts near their expiry dates and everyone moves cities to start over.

It is time to consider that this sense of hopelessness is the actual key to the Leafs’ enduring appeal. Life is pain. So are the Leafs. They founded a whole religion – a good one – around this idea. When you think about it like that, things are going great.

Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators. SOURCE PHOTO BY BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES.

OTTAWA SENATORS

It’s good to be the Senators.

Not good from a hockey perspective. They’re terrible at that. But good from the “save us Canadian hockey team, you’re our only hope” perspective.

Imagine you play for the Leafs or the Canucks or the Jets. How terrible would that be? People want something from you that you can’t give them, no matter how much you’d like to. They’re always up in your grill telling you how great you are, when you know you aren’t.

There is no such pressure on an Ottawa Senator. Nobody bothers him because no one expects anything from him. He’s just there, sucking up money like a nitrous Dyson and being inoffensively mediocre at his job. A bit like the city he plays in.

He doesn’t have to worry about being assailed by average Ottawans because he doesn’t play in Ottawa. Just leave via the arena’s loading dock and head toward Stittsville or Carleton Place after every loss. It’s a perfectly Zen pro athlete existence. Like Florida, if you had to tunnel out of your house between November and March.

All that must be done to continue this lovely state of affairs is have the coach go on TV every few days and say, “These are young guys. They’re still learning how to play in this league.” Tell him to leave unmentioned the fact that no one is paid like an intern.

Ottawa – it’s pro hockey nirvana. Unless you like pro hockey.

Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield. SOURCE PHOTO BY JON BLACKER/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

When you think about it, it was awfully unfair of Montreal to raise the bar on everyone else last spring.

The Canadiens are old. Their stars play in the wrong positions for the new NHL. Their young talent pool isn’t as shiny as Toronto’s or Edmonton’s. They were mediocre in the regular season.

Then they get in the playoffs and – bam! – they start to play as though they actually care. And they win. Don’t they read the previews? It wasn’t their turn. Why didn’t they just ease up a bit? For everyone else’s sake, as well as their own.

Trying. Who knew such a thing was possible? In Canada. In 2021.

Well, now we do and it’s going to be a real headache for everyone else. Some of these Canadian executives may have to start earning their paycheques. Thanks a lot, Marc Bergevin. First, being built like Mr. Universe with hair like a hedgehog at 140 years old, and now this. What other unrealistic expectations is the Habs GM planning to spring on us?

Unfortunately, that strong dose of pride in work provided by the Canadiens is unlikely to be repeated. Shea Weber is out for the year and may never return. Carey Price is a question mark as well. The whole thing seems poised on the edge of disequilibrium.

You get the disquieting feeling people may draw the wrong lesson from last year’s Canadiens – not that anything is possible if you believe, but that it’s easier not believing and putting all your real effort into bolstering the Group Sales and Ticketing departments. They are the real backbone of any viable Canadian hockey set-up.

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