Another month closer to the end of the regular season, let us examine the power structure of the now defunct North Division, or the Canadian teams in the NHL. There is a decent cross section of teams across the board here, with playoff bound contenders, teams on the bubble of the wildcard sludge, and rebuilders alike. Some teams have taken steps forward since last season, like the Winnipeg Jets and perhaps the Ottawa Senators, while others have gone down in shambles, namely the Vancouver Canucks.
Before we get into the power ranking, let us examine this table of selected stats that might help us see how these teams stack up against each other.
|Team||GP||PTS||Win %||PP%||PK%||gf/g||ga/g||5 on 5 xg%||Last 10|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||59||80||0.678||25.4||81.3||3.42||2.64||54.9||6-4-0|
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
A huge weight lies at the head of GM Kyle Dubas. In the final year of his contract, in a stacked division and conference, and without a playoff series win in the cap era, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Toronto Maple Leafs were aggressive in procuring Ryan O’Reilly. It should be said that O’Reilly did have to agree to go to Toronto, for those Edmonton Oilers fans lamenting that Oilers GM Ken Holland did not make the very same move.
The Leafs are a deep and complete team, as evidenced by their strong performance in all of our selected stats above. O’Reilly is a 200 foot player, who should be able to help the Leafs in all facets of the game, strengthening the loaded offence as well as the team’s defence.
Despite Auston Matthews falling off his MVP level of last season, the Leafs attack has been just as potent. In large part, the once polarising William Nylander has delivered his best play, a dominant two way force. What was once widely, and wrongly, seen as Dubas’ biggest misstep, the extended Nylander contract negotiations, now looks like a fantastic move. At the time, the general opinion was that Dubas lost that negotiation, and that the loss would pave the way for him to lose every other negotiation going forward. Surely there is a lesson in letting sensationalised narratives run wild somewhere in there.
Even though the Leafs other top contracts are not the most efficient when it comes to cap dollars on their own, the market, franchise, strength of the team, and Dubas’ vision have allowed them to sign a number of key veterans to low cost deals, like Mark Giordano. Time will tell if Dubas is able, or even afforded the opportunity to try to keep O’Reilly at a discount, or what other players might do so in the future.
The Leafs aren’t without issues, and rumours of another defenceman being added still exist, but there are answers at each position. Behind the mercurial tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov the Leafs have Joseph Woll and even Erik Kallgren. We will see if the team can ultimately pull off the impossible—win a playoff series—but Dubas has proven he is a good GM time and time again.
2. Edmonton Oilers
Despite some uneven play, punctuated by some losses to weak teams of late, the Oilers find themselves headed in the right direction towards the trade deadline. Connor McDavid continues to find new heights to his game, not only as a goal scorer but also as a penalty killer. Leading the way up front, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman have had productive seasons of their own to give the Oilers a depth of scoring talent, leading the country in many offensive results.
It is fair to think that we might see more from forwards deeper in the lineup, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto in particular, as neither have been able to contribute with as much consistency as they are capable of. The continued poor injury luck of Evander Kane continues, though his absence weakens the team it does offer opportunities for the players in the Oilers lineup to step up, as it might offer the team some salary relief to make deadline additions elsewhere on the roster.
The biggest reasons for optimism come on the blueline, where the young pairing of Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard continues to excel. Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, and Vincent Desharnais have been fantastic in defensive roles, filling out the gaps in a defence group that leans heavily towards an offensive style of play.
Jack Campbell’s play has once again waned after a month where he handled a large workload. Stuart Skinner has continued to play well, but throwing the responsibility of carrying a team with hopes of contending is a bit much for a rookie.
The Oilers have it in them to play a defensive game strong enough to make them contenders, though it has been inconsistent in the past month, just as it has been in the past year. To make their goalies’ lives easier, and to have any hopes of making noise in the playoffs, the Oilers will need to deliver on that promise with more consistency. With any degree of defensive prowess the Oilers become a uniquely dangerous team.
The path to achieving these results is in the building, and it might need to be with the Oilers in a tight cap situation. Consensus among fans seems to be that GM Holland must spend as wildly as possible to buy any sort of upgrade, though based on the GM’s track record, and the cumbersome nature of a lineup that is full to the brim in many ways might indicate that fans should be ready to accept that a big move might not be in the cards.
That might be ok, as the chemistry of the Oilers blueline is strong, and there are a number of forwards who could perceivably make an impact on the roster in the coming months—Raphael Lavoie and Dylan Holloway in particular. Would trading Kulak and a first for Vladislav Gavrikov really improve the team? In a vacuum Gavrikov is better than Kulak, yet Kulak clearly has synergy with Tyson Barrie. Would Gavrikov be able to achieve and surpass that in the final weeks of the season?
Moreover, how and when assets are spent can be interesting. The Oilers used last year’s first round pick to offload Zack Kassian’s contract, a move that gave the Oilers room to improve their team in the summer. Broberg was often included in mock trades to improve the team over the past few years, yet his low cost contributions right now, not to mention the long road ahead, are more valuable than a rental at the past couple deadlines would have been. In all it is a bit reductive to look at the Oilers draft capital and lack of trades as Holland not trying to upgrade his roster or help McDavid win in his prime.
3. Winnipeg Jets
Under coach Rick Bowness the Winnipeg Jets are flying high, making up for a tough season in 2021–22. The Jets are still fueled by the outstanding play of Connor Hellebuyck and a strong cast of scoring talent. In some ways they are quite opposite from the Calgary Flames, finding ways to come out ahead on the scoreboard that counts despite not being able to control play at a high rate. Hellebuyck is largely responsible for the Jets posting the best defensive results in the country, though the Jets have a stout defensive mindset and a degree of physicality that enable these results.
Things aren’t exactly the same with this season’s Jets. The defence in general, especially the penalty kill, has been much improved under Bowness. Logan Stanley has missed time, Ville Heinola has yet to make the jump to NHL regular, Dylan Samberg has held down a depth spot well, but the real story on the back end is Josh Morrissey, who continues to take on more minutes as the season progresses. There are several left shot defenders who take on giant roles for their Canadian clubs, Morrissey joins the likes of Thomas Chabot, Darnell Nurse, and Quinn Hughes.
There have been some minor changes up front. As Blake Wheeler gets a bit longer in the tooth the Jets have some younger players on the cusp of coming into their own. Cole Perfetti held up well in his rookie season, though will now miss at least eight weeks. 2022 first-round pick Brad Lambert looked close to NHL readiness, which would certainly be a boost in the future.
For now the Jets will turn to new acquisition Nino Niederreiter to give them a bit more up front. Niederreiter is a big body who consistently has a positive effect on controlling play. There is more than enough talent for Niederreiter to hold down a middle six scoring role, as he will for the Jets, representing a deadline buy that makes a lot of sense and has a degree of stylistic cohesion with the Jets established makeup.
4. Calgary Flames
Woes are in full swing, where the Calgary Flames are staring down the prospect of missing the playoffs altogether. Despite controlling play at a strong rate the Flames have been burned by poor shooting and save percentages.
From a long term perspective the Flames have occupied this state yo-yoing from year to year for most of GM Brad Treleving’s tenure. Though names like Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, and Johnny Gaudreau the team still boasts some prowess on paper.
The scope of this season is a bit different, Flames fans now frustrated with the very Sutter-isms that brought them so much success, not to mention a Jack Adams coach of the year win for Darryl Sutter. The Flames still boast an incredible blueline, though Oliver Kylington is missed, but younger players seem barred from entering the lineup.
Jacob Pelletier, for example, is ready for top nine forwards minutes, more than worthy and capable of having a chance to ignite a struggling offence. In the near future, one or two prospects up front, be it Connor Zary and Matt Coronato or Matthew Phillips and Connor Duher, could add the perfect zest to help the Flames capitalise on more of their opportunities. Even in net Dustin Wolf might deserve a shot amidst some struggles in the crease from a tandem from which more is expected.
It does not help Sutter’s case that Pelletier seemed to get some of the same public treatment as Matthew Philips, in the AHL, and Jusso Valimaki, who did not clear waivers, much to the chagrin of Flames fans. Any added help will have to come from the next wave of Flames, just as any hope that coach Sutter might too come from a willingness to trust the youth.
In all, there is a good team within the raging fires of the Flames, but this season it seems more and more likely that the will not be able to.
5. Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators have been on a strong run in their past month, and some of the outline of a brighter future is coming more clearly into focus. The duo (Erik Karlsson trade) of top five picks in the 2020 NHL draft are truly coming into their own as elite players, Tim Stutzle and Jake Sanderson. Yes, we still need to see both continue this level of play for a longer stretch, but these developments are paramount to a future where the Senators are contenders, perhaps even more than qualifying for the postseason this year.
For the past month or so Stutzle has been capturing more of his most electric moments, influencing play enough to be considered a top line scoring centre. The top of the forward group is quite strong as a whole, even considering that Claude Giroux won’t play as well as he has this season forever, Josh Norris has had a rough season of injuries, and some questions surrounding Alex DeBrincat’s upcoming contract have started to gather. Drake Batherson and Brady Tkachuk are continuing to improve as well. It is not long that more and more people will start to wonder if Stutzle is not the standout of the whole group, a strong foundation to build around.
Sanderson is a smooth skating, modern defensive defenceman, akin perhaps to K’Andre Miller of the New York Rangers. Sanderson has the skating, range, length, and physicality to be an effective defender in every situation on the ice. Sanderson might never be the Sens top power play option, but he has enough puck skills and hockey sense to be a positive contributor on offence.
Sanderson has been playing the second most minutes on the Senators’ blueline, behind fellow lefty Thomas Chabot, and posting strong results. Erik Brannstrom, another left shot, is playing his best hockey as well. The right side of the blueline will need some answers going forward, either by UFA or trade help, or by internal improvements, with Lassi Thompson or Jacob Bernard-Docker prospectively grabbing a spot.
It’s great to see Mads Sogaard faring well in some action, as he is now. In all likelihood Sogaard is the endgame for the Sens future in net, but having the right support to bridge the gap of the next couple seasons will be key. Alex Forsberg and Cam Talbot have not been the Senators main issue this season, though their being part of the future is more tenuous.
The Senators are continuing to take steps forward in expected goals percentage (xG%), controlling play more often. The special teams have both been strong as well. With the team continuing to battle through the attrition of the season, and finding better results along the way, it does paint a picture that coach D.J. Smith has the room.
6. Montreal Canadiens
Firmly rebuilders, the positivity continues under coach Martin St. Louis, who has seen a number of young players post strong results for the Canadiens. Unfortunately, many of the top young players are out with injury, including Kirby Dach, Cole Caulfield, Kaiden Guhle, and Arber Xhekaj, all of whom have surpassed expectations under the coach known as MSL.
With two first-round picks, including that of the wildcard bubble Florida Panthers, the Habs have a lot of capital in futures. Almost every veteran on the team has been attached to trade rumours, Sean Monahan, Josh Anderson, Mike Hoffman, David Savard, Joel Edmundson, and even Mike Matheson.
Despite all this, Habs fans should feel good about some of the younger players who have seized the opportunity before them. Raphael Harvey-Pinard and Jordan Harris have played quite well recently as players that can be NHL level contributors going forward. With a great deal of talent en route, including a bevy of defence prospects and former first overall selection Juraj Slafkovsky, it might not be long before a much stronger Habs roster takes shape.
7. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks, amidst another disappointing season, are openly in an existential dilemma, the famed “major surgery” beginning with the trading of their captain Bo Horvat. That being said, the power vacuum or mental restart of a new coach, Rick Tocchet, has resulted in some positive momentum.
In particular, former Oiler Ethan Bear has been a huge bright spot for the Canucks after being moved up to the top pair alongside Quinn Hughes. It hasn’t been an easy road for Bear to get such an assignment since leaving Edmonton, but he has shown the ability to have fantastic chemistry with an elite partner before, as he did with Darnell Nurse. Considering that Luke Schenn, a fine depth defender, had been in the spot with Hughes the bar for Bear to surpass might’ve been low, but the Canucks need answers on the blueline, and Bear has been more than they could’ve hoped for.
Both up front and in net the Canucks have elite pieces to build around. Recently these situations improved as well, the Canucks adding Vitali Kravtsov from the Rangers. Shortly, figuring out a way to improve the blueline is the first three steps to any plan to fix the Canucks. With a duo of big money veterans unable to contribute much, and a prospect system light of defencemen in general, the Canucks are in a tight spot. Luckily Quinn Hughes is an elite talent, and that several effective young defencemen have been claimed off of waivers this season.
It is borderline irresponsible not to upgrade the blueline heading into next season, in both the long and short term. The talent that is on the roster, Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Thatcher Demko, are not being put in positions to succeed.
In the past few weeks the Canucks have started to improve their xG%, and Bear has been a large part of that. The Canucks will need another smart move or two to have a fighting chance in the near future.