The Oil Rig Canadian NHL Power Rankings: the Edmonton Oilers make their way to the top

As the season winds down, teams across the league find themselves in vastly different situations. Some teams are dreaming of offseason changes, or a draft lottery victory, some teams are dreading their middling stagnancy, projecting with hope or dread the months ahead; some teams are clinging to each available point, counting games played from teams fighting for seeding.

Meanwhile, the top teams are looking beyond the regular season, instead counting playoff victories to measure success. Naturally, these colours are represented across the NHL’s seven Canadian teams, as we’ll see in our monthly Canadian Power Rankings.

1. Edmonton Oilers

This marks the first time since last season’s playoffs that the Edmonton Oilers are firmly leading our unofficial national power rankings. Throughout the season the Oilers have improved their level of play to the point where they have galvanised into one of the league’s best at controlling the flow of play. The additions of Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bjugstad have gone a long way towards solidifying the defence, with Ekholm standing out as perhaps the best deadline addition league-wide.

Though the Oilers aren’t without questions, in particular in net and on the penalty kill, the Oilers have proven that they are a perennial contender. Their final four appearance from last season, combined with this level of play, leaves the Oilers with a single meaningful piece missing from their ledger, the Stanley Cup itself. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl hitting career highs, the team around them has finally given the star duo a stable platform of elite play.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs did nothing to drop from their long held top spot here, in fact things have been proceeding nicely in some ways. Most importantly, Auston Matthews has clearly returned to form as a legitimate candidate for the best non-McDavid NHL player. His season hasn’t been anywhere near his best, but like the Oilers season overall, it doesn’t quite matter what December was like, so long as you’re hitting your stride come playoff time.

The Leafs have been a top team all season despite Matthews relative underperformance, let alone the absence of recently acquired Ryan O’Reilly. Performing well in most areas, the Leafs don’t have any glaring weaknesses. Still, without playoff success the winds of change might blow through the Leafs future. The only metric that will be used to evaluate the Leafs season is their playoff performance, rightly or wrongly.

3. Ottawa Senators

Though they won’t be making the playoffs this season, things are trending very positively for the Ottawa Senators. Tim Stutzle has clearly arrived as a top centre, and Jake Sanderson as a legitimate top four defenceman. Considering the addition of Jakob Chychrun, the blueline is dramatically improved from the start of the season.

Though the injured Anton Forsberg has played well, and young Mads Sogaard looks promising, the Sens probably miss Filip Gustavsson, granted the Minnesota Wild defence has made many goalies look amazing over the years. If a young forward or two can make a jump next season, the Senators should be making another step towards a playoff berth next season.

Pending the sale of the team and a new arena, a new dawn is rising in the nation’s capital. With a number of defence prospects pushing for bigger roles, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Tyler Kleven to name a few, the Sens have a key area of the team in outstanding shape in both the short and long term.

4. Winnipeg Jets

In a sense the Winnipeg Jets’ season has been opposite from the Oilers, and that’s not a good thing. Despite outstanding goaltending and a hot start to the season, the magic is wearing thin. The team’s on-ice results have fallen off as the season has gotten tougher, and as the noise surrounding the Jets locker room situation off the ice has only increased. The Jets now find themselves hanging precariously on to the final wild card spot, seemingly at the mercy of the Nashville Predators, a team that sold the Jets Nino Niederreiter at the trade deadline.

The good news for the Jets, from a longer term perspective, is that both Cole Perfetti and Brad Lambert seem to be on their way to becoming top six level contributors over the next season or two.

The bad news is that a retooling seems necessary, to what extent should changes be made. Perhaps similarly to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars, the Jets path to success lies within pushing those players down the lineup. Given the precarious relationship with Pierre-Luc Dubois, some uncertainty surrounding top prospects like Ville Heinola and Logan Stanley, and Nikolaj Ehlers’ continued lack of icetime, there are a lot of tight situations to be navigated in improving the roster on the fly.

Given that situations of this ilk haven’t always ended in the Jets’ favour in the past, it might be worth looking into deeper philosophical pursuits, General Manager and beyond. Perhaps it is unfair, or was never meant to be in the cards, but when the Jets were courting Barry Trotz to be their next coach they should have been aiming higher.

5. Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames find themselves flicking on the outside of the playoff race, operating under a cloud of potential discord. Alleged rifts between the chain of ownership, GM, and coach seem to have crystallised into the team’s on ice play, often appearing disjointed, fighting themselves. With some tough goaltending, an all time terrible overtime record, and the core of their franchise, Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan, completely revamped in the offseason, there might be reasons that pile onto the Flames’ lack of heat.

With Jonathan Huberdeau struggling, young players having a difficult time garnering any traction, notoriously as Jusso Valimaki thrives in the desert, and the frustration of time running out on the season, something afoot is rotten. GM Brad Treliving has overseen steady oscillations in Calgary for some time now, but is in the final year of his deal. The Flames do have some options up front that might be NHL ready in the near future, and an AHL coach with a meteoric resume in Mitch Love.

Despite the dreary present there might be a future where the Flames turn things around quickly. If the call of support is coming from inside the house, be it potential GM Craig Conroy, potential coach Mitch Love, and beyond. The potential for forwards like Connor Zary or Matthew Coronato making the jump to the NHL, or Jakob Pelletier continuing to prove himself, not to mention a bounce back from Huberdeau, might be enough to improve the forwards. Jeremie Poirier is having an outstanding rookie season in the AHL. Dustin Wolf has proven he is beyond a doubt ready for an extended audition in the NHL.

6. Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Canucks fans are likely begrudging the team’s improved play of late. Though a lottery win of the first overall pick in this year’s draft would change the fortune of any franchise, the Canucks possess a lot of top end talent that deserve support. At the very least the Canucks have Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko, elite talents that are the rarest to come by.

Ethan Bear and Filip Hronek represent an effort to jumpstart a lacklustre blueline. We are left to wonder how complete the “major surgery” that was promised is or not. With captain Bo Horvat traded there has certainly been a substantial change. The Canucks will have a slim margin of error in tinkering the team over the offseason, but the theoretical path to a playoff spot next season exists. If the blueline can be improved with the waning effectiveness of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Meyers still in fold, the Canucks might be able to make a push, though the cap space freed from either might be of greater value.

Regardless, the Canucks will have a chance to select a great player in this year’s entry draft, and no matter when they pick, the Canucks need to hit. There is an aura of dysfunction that follows the Canucks to an extent, swelling up some times more than others, but certainly not unique across the league.

7. Montreal Canadiens

Montreal is firmly rebuilding, the only Canadian team that can claim such at the moment. With an injury riddled roster the Montreal Canadiens have had a lot of different players in and out of the lineup. Naturally this has led to some interesting discoveries, namely the emergence of Raphael Harvey-Pinard.

The husk of the GM Bergeron-era, Habs are still on full display, in positive and negative ways. There are a number of forwards signed to long term deals that they can no longer live up to. That being said, there is also an over abundance of defence prospects. At some point some decisions will have to be made to this effect as there are only a certain amount of spots in the organisation available. Surely the Canadiens will have some interesting leverage in trade negotiations going forwards. The group is headlined by a more recent draft pick in Lane Hutson, who is starring in his freshman NCAA season to levels matched only by the likes of Cale Makar and Brian Leetch.

It seems more common than ever that NHL teams are trying to force top five draft picks into the NHL at 18 years old. Jack Hughes has arrived as one of the elite players in the world, an undeniable talent that was evident since his draft year. Even he was rushed, though ultimately he has reached this point. From Alexis Lafreniere to Kaapo Kakko, to both Juraj Slafkovsky and Shane Wright this season, even the Canadiens own Kirby Dach, most of the time these young players are better served with at least another season honing their craft and dominating a lower level.

Of course this year Connor Bedard is a bit different than even Jack Hughes, likely to lead his NHL team in scoring as a rookie. Matvei Michkov, Adam Fantilli, and even Lucas Carlsson might well be ready to contribute in the NHL next season, though another year at their current levels might be ideal. Sometimes could and should are different things, as was the case with Slafkovsky this season. Slafkovsky showed definite signs of effectiveness, but it’s hard not to look at the seasons of fellow top picks Logan Cooley and Wright and feel like more games outside the NHL wouldn’t have been a better option.

In all there is a lot to feel good about for Montreal, though there is a long way to go. With the Florida Panthers likely to miss the playoffs, the Habs will have two high picks that could even move up. With a strong draft the Habs will set themselves up to be turning the corner towards playoff contention sooner rather than later.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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