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Rick Zamperin: 2021 could be the year the Stanley Cup comes back to Canada

Oddsmakers have listed the Toronto Maple Leafs among the favourites to win the Stanley Cup this season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

When the puck drops on the 2020-21 National Hockey League season Wednesday night it will mark the start of a campaign that will almost guarantee a spot for a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup final.

The NHL has not only realigned its four divisions, which includes an all-Canadian group, but come playoff time the winner of the North Division will move on to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Due to the regionalized division format, set up to limit the spread of COVID-19, there isn’t an Eastern and Western Conference this season so the four division winners will be seeded No. 1 to No. 4 based on regular-season points, with the top team playing the fourth seed in one semifinal while No. 2 faces No. 3.

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Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving discusses the 2021 NHL season – Jan 11, 2021

So now that the path to the Stanley Cup has been created, which teams are among the frontrunners to have their names carved onto the most iconic trophy in all of sports?

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Most sportsbooks have listed the Colorado Avalanche as the favourite to win it all, followed by the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

The top five make sense because most NHL pundits expect either Colorado or Vegas to win the West Division, Tampa Bay is favoured to claim the Central, Toronto is expected to win the North and Boston is the favourite to take the East.

Now that doesn’t mean four of these teams will be in the NHL’s final four — that’s why they play the games — but oddsmakers are playing the percentages and believe the likelihood of these teams reaching is the greatest.

Read more: Bettman says NHL must be ready to adapt as league prepares to open season during pandemic

Looking for a bit of a longshot to win it all?

The Montreal Canadiens are ranked in the middle of the pack, but as we saw in the summer playoff bubble, if goaltender Carey Price is healthy and playing his best, the Habs employ a system that is playoff-ready and they will be a tough out.

It is very difficult to pick a Stanley Cup winner at the best of times these days, now throw in a global pandemic and it becomes a little tougher given that the coronavirus could sideline a superstar player at any moment and derail any team’s championship aspirations.

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Read more: Rick Zamperin — Coronavirus already impacts upcoming NHL season

The Maple Leafs are the most talented team, top to bottom, on paper in the North Division but until Toronto shows it can win in the post-season, can they be trusted to go all the way? Who knows, these are strange times that we are living in, and 2021 could be the year that the Leafs go all the way.

To be honest, you can make a case for any Canadian team, with the exception of the rebuilding Ottawa Senators, to represent our country in the league semifinals, but each one also has its own warts that could be exposed in a best-of-seven series.

I think the team that is best suited to win the cup heading into this season is Vegas, a roster that is loaded with skill, experience, toughness and grit, and great goaltending, and is well-coached.

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The Golden Knights have been close before — losing in the final in their inaugural season in 2017-18 and falling in the conference finals last year — and if a couple of bounces go their way, this will be their year.

Rick Zamperin’s 2020-21 NHL division predictions:

West Division
1-Colorado Avalanche
2-Vegas Golden Knights
3-St. Louis Blues
4-Minnesota Wild
5-San Jose Sharks
6-Anaheim Ducks
7-Arizona Coyotes
8-Los Angeles Kings

Central Division
1-Tampa Bay Lightning
2-Carolina Hurricanes
3-Dallas Stars
4-Columbus Blue Jackets
5-Nashville Predators
6-Florida Panthers
7-Chicago Blackhawks
8-Detroit Red Wings

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East Division
1-Washington Capitals
2-Boston Bruins
3-Philadelphia Flyers
4-Pittsburgh Penguins
5-New York Islanders
6-New York Rangers
7-Buffalo Sabres
8-New Jersey Devils

North Division
1-Toronto Maple Leafs
2-Calgary Flames
3-Edmonton Oilers
4-Montreal Canadiens
5-Winnipeg Jets
6-Vancouver Canucks
7-Ottawa Senators

Read more: Canucks say potential COVID-19 exposure that halted training camp was false positive

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Stanley Cup semifinals
Vegas vs. Toronto, Tampa Bay vs. Washington

Stanley Cup final
Vegas vs. Tampa Bay

Stanley Cup champion
Vegas Golden Knights

Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.