The Oil Rig Canadian Power Rankings 2023–24: Predictions for the season

With most of the offseason’s roster movement in the books, teams around the league are feeling refreshed and ready to take on the 2023–24 NHL season. With that, let us take a look at the Canadian teams and where they stand in the return edition of our monthly Canadian Power Rankings. There are three fairly clear tiers that we can group these seven teams into, although their relative positions in said tiers might be a more contentious debate.

Tier 1: Cup Contenders

Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers are deserving of the top spot, boasting a lineup that is strong on paper that has now produced back-to-back seasons of 100+ points and at least one playoff series victory. Over the season and a half that Coach Jay Woodcroft has been at the helm, the Oilers have continued to forge a defensive identity as a team, a maturity to the style of play, a growing understanding of how the game must be played.

Though the Oilers ended last season as one of the top 10 defensive teams by expected goals against at even strength, the application of which was still not even enough last season. This was encapsulated by a three minute lapse that cost the Oilers dearly in a pivotal game against the Vegas Golden Knights in their playoff series.

While the Oilers have proved themselves worthy of being true perennial contenders, their transformation is still new, their steel still forging. If their positive trajectory as a team continues the job will be made easier, if not possible, for goalies Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell. At the very least, both have shown the ability to carry the net with strong stretches of play lasting a few months. Sound team defence, an improved penalty kill, and perhaps a more symbiotic share of stars are some of the reasons that offer some optimism. The Oilers goaltending is far from the best league wide, but it is not an outlier among many of the best teams in the NHL.

Naturally, all of this is possible thanks to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but the Oilers have been transforming into a strong team around them. This is in stark contrast to the earlier portions of their careers. The Oilers also boast a number of younger players, giving their lineup some latent upward mobility. With Evan Bouchard emerging as a defenceman, Skinner showing promise as a long term starter, some potential steps forward for Ryan McLeod or Vincent Desharnais, and even Raphael Lavoie as a long shot as a scoring winger, the Oilers have a lot to work with. Most interesting of all might be if Philip Broberg or Dylan Holloway are able to take their games up a notch. If either or both are able to truly take ownership of a key lineup spot the Oilers ceiling as a team will be raised considerably.

The season ahead will undoubtedly hold a great deal of adversity, but the Oilers have been one of the league’s best teams, and look to be continuing the trend. Although as fans we should take a moment to appreciate how rare and fleeting a team of this calibre can be in the grand scheme of things, the Oilers have a full team reporting for Captain’s Skates. After their playoff loss to the Golden Knights, coach Woodcroft noted that the team ought to use their devastation of defeat as motivational fuel to strive further. All hands appear to be pulling together, driven, and focused.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Leafs find themselves in a strange situation, filled with contradictions. Despite finally winning a playoff round the bitter taste of defeat lingers just the same after a loss to the Florida Panthers that was less than inspiring. Despite a GM change, the offseason roster moves were fairly congruent to years past. The core players remained intact, while a number of players were brought in on short term, mercenary contracts. Veterans to graft intangibles onto the roster, high upside reclamation projects. Despite being a top ten team in goals against and expected goals against at even strength, the blueline is having something of an existential crisis across the fan base. Despite re-signing what might be their best player in franchise history, the term is less and the dollars are more for Auston Matthews than to his contemporaries.

Despite all the drama there are still a lot of reasons for optimism in Leaf Nation. While the Leafs have had more success than the Oilers have had in the last decade of regular seasons, the Oilers have had more playoff success. Now, with both teams having had at least a small taste of success in both areas, it is simply that the Oilers have been a bit more convincing in their successes. The Leafs are hopeful that some younger players can inject themselves into key roles, as Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll are all but written on the lineup in ink.

Although the infinite mass of the Leafs media coverage can and will despair endlessly, it would be a significant positive for the team to build off of last season’s successes. Winning at least one playoff round, and of course at least putting together a more prolific performance beyond that, would be a much needed endorsement of the core players. It will take time, but over the next season or two we will be able to see new GM Brad Treleving’s vision shape the team more tangibly.

For now the Leafs return as one of the top teams in the league, though discernibly with more questions than the Oilers. The Leafs added a combination of offensive flair and rowdy behaviour in a quartet of additions, Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, John Klingberg, and Ryan Reaves. Bertuzzi is a quality top-six forward, full stop, while the other players have more circumstantial successes, at least at this point of their careers. Still, with a strong team that should reside near the top of the NHL standings the additions being a nice fit will be crucial to any steps forward.

Of note, the Leafs blueline is quite talented, even defensively. However, it is a blueline that relies on brains more than it does brawn. With the Golden Knights joining the long list of Stanley Cup champions with a wealth of physical talent, giant defenders with reach and strength, to go along with their high level of play. T.J. Brodie and Jake McCabe are both strong contributors to team defence; they are by no means physically imposing. Morgan Rielly, of course, is more of a high flying offensive player, as are John Klingberg and Conor Timmins, the tallest of the group. Mark Giordano is hardly the all areas contributor he was as a Norris winner, especially in terms of sheer physicality, though his savvy is still much appreciated.

Timothy Liljegren might still have more upside, and might yet develop into the most complete defenceman of this group. For some reason, Liljegren’s development has always been a bit uneven, but he continues to improve. Still, the blueline is the biggest contradiction of all, a strong and capable unit that is still the biggest obscurity in their path to success.


Tier 2: Playoff Contenders

Tier two contains a quartet of mercurial teams, all with a number of strengths balanced with a number of concerns. All four believe themselves to be playoff bound, while public opinion has a near even split of those who agree and those who disagree.

Ottawa Senators

Especially in this offseason addition of our Canadian Power Rankings there is room for narrative to inform our order. Out of these four teams, the trajectory is most clearly upwards for the Ottawa Senators, both on and off the ice. Under new ownership the Sens are venturing into a new reality of operations, with a new arena getting momentum, the off-ice positivity is reflected into a roster that is taking strides forward.

Though the team hasn’t been playoff relevant since the days of Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson, there have been some amazing steps forward by several young Senators. Tim Stutzle appears to be headed towards being an elite centre, if he is not already. A 100-point season is by no means out of the question. There are some ifs and maybes surrounding the rest of the lineups top-nine forwards, but the group seems deeper than it has in past years, at least while healthy.

Brady Tkachuk is of course a great player in his own right, while veterans Claude Giroux and Vladimir Tarasenko still should be able to help produce. Josh Norris, when he’s healthy, and Drake Batherson are quality top-six forwards, as well. Dominik Kubalik and Mathieu Joseph are intriguing enough as potential third line wingers, meaning the Sens will need the likes of Shane Pinto and Ridly Greig to continue taking steps forward for the group to have enough firepower to be taken seriously.

The strength of the team is likely the blueline, especially off the fresh eight-year, $8.05M per year contract signed by Jake Sanderson. Sanderson doesn’t have as much flash as some of the other top young defencemen, but he is able to contribute in all areas, even taking over top defensive assignments towards the end of last season. Joining Thomas Chabot, Artyom Zub, and Jakob Chychrun, the emergence of Sanderson gives the Sens a top four that is among the league’s best. With Erik Brannstrom, Travis Hamonic, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Tyler Kleven, and Lassi Thomson all looking to earn roster spots out of training camp, Ottawa boast depth and youth beyond the top four as well.

Although the decision to move on from Filip Gustavsson in the offseason prior to the 2022–23 season is still questionable, the club did well to upgrade to Joonas Korpisalo this offseason. Although some might be weary of his contract, the Senators could afford his cost and have improved their goaltending on paper.

In any case the Sens have a chance to push for a playoff spot in earnest, especially considering the talent drain from the ageing cores of the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Nothing will be handed to them, but the Senators are continuing to build a strong core on which to have a foundation for success.

Calgary Flames

Since losing to the Oilers in the 2021–22 playoffs, the Calgary Flames have encountered their share of turmoil. This was epitomised by the Flames missing the playoffs by a mere two points after going 7–0–17 in extra time. On top of their arena situation in discord, the Flames have both a new head coach and a new GM as Ryan Huska and Craig Conroy take over. There are several rumours surrounding key players on the Flames, from pending UFAs like Elias Lindholm to players who have expressed a trade desire like Noah Hanifin.

Despite this, there is hope that a regime change could be the breaking of a new dawn, breathing new life into the Flames. The foundations of a strong defensive team are still present, in particular with the blueline which is still the strength of the team. Without a true Norris favourite, the Flames blueline owes its strength to depth, with Rasmus Andersson, MacKenzie Weegar, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev representing a stout top four. This group might be further bolstered by an ascendant Jeremie Poirier, who had a fantastic season with the AHL Calgary Wranglers last season.

Behind a strong blueline, the Flames goalies should have a chance to thrive. This will undoubtedly be a boon for veteran Jacob Markstrom after a less than stellar 2021–22 season. Perhaps Markstrom’s best days are behind him, sliding away from elite status with age, though some vintage seasons might still lie ahead with strong play in front of him. The Flames have some hope here as well, as prospect Dustin Wolf seems to have earned a look in the NHL after dominating the AHL for much of the past two seasons.

The biggest problem might be the forward group, though it should be noted that the Flames lack of a true top offensive blueliner might exacerbate the issue. Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau had disappointing first seasons as Flames and will surely have to return to form if the team should hope to contend. Along with Elias Lindholm, Kadri and Huberdeau will be expected to be top line players for the team. There are a number of quality role players, in Andrew Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund, as well as a reliable checker in Blake Coleman. The promise of new life might fall to younger players, as the Flames could use an infusion of talent to reignite their offence. In this respect, the trio of Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Coronato, and Connor Zary offers some hope of immediate impact.

The Flames are in a precarious position, banking on a bunch of ifs and buts going in their favour to make the playoffs again. Is that enough to strive for? With a number of key players in their 30s many onlookers would suggest a retooling of some sorts, moving our current assets for futures, hoping to load up on younger talent. No matter which direction the Flames decide to go in the future, the margin of error is quite thin.

Winnipeg Jets

The Winnipeg Jets lost their first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights last season. Towards their bitter end, returning Coach Rick Bowness did not shy away from making harsh criticisms of the core. Since then both former captain Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois have left the team. Though this represents significant movement for a regime that has been nothing if not patient. The question now will be whether enough change has been made or if more is required.

That being said, the Jets should have a deeper, more balanced forward group than in recent years, perhaps harkening back to the Conference Finals appearance that fades into memory. Having added Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and Rasmus Kupari from the Los Angeles Kings might be enough to help solidify a lineup in flux. Of course, the trio of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers remain top line producers, a significant flare of skill atop the lineup. While some growth from Vilardi and Kupari might still be expected, the Jets have some notable young forward talent, like Cole Perfetti and Brad Lambert. If and when this new generation of Jets are ready to make an impact a highly flying offence might be in the cards once more. Until then, the Jets will have to rely on sound team defence to earn their keep.

Speaking of the blueline, Josh Morrissey had an outstanding season. While reaching such a high quality is possible, it is a lot to ask of Morrissey, especially given his cast of teammates. Between Neal Pionk, Brenden Dillon, Nate Schmidt, and Dylan DeMelo, the Jets have some capable defenders, but lack an earnest running mate to challenge Morrissey as the team’s best defenceman. Younger defencemen, Logan Stanley and Ville Heinola, haven’t been able to step into the shoes either, or at least they haven’t yet.

In net lies the strength of the team, and one of the best goalies in the league, Connor Hellebuyck. A pending UFA, Hellebuyck’s future with the Jets is up in the air, and the goalie is widely expected to be prioritising a chance to win. If the Jets falter, might we see them move Hellebuyck at the deadline? Have they already waited too long to get full value? Or perhaps, should Winnipeg try to keep Hellebuyck at all costs, refusing to take themselves out of the running for signing the goalie to his next deal.

The Jets might well be doomed to reprise their role as the barometer of playoff teams in the Western Conference. Their best bet at improving as a team to something beyond first round playoff fodder is extract some scoring synergy from the forwards, perhaps sprinkling their top talent throughout the lineup more than we are used to seeing.

In other words, the Jets need to support Vilardi and Perfitti in hopes that both might blossom into true top-six producers, restoring the offensive firepower of the team. Meanwhile, the Jets seem to have a physical defensive style, a savvy group capable of consistent play, and a higher floor than some of the other teams in this tier. While other teams might present more upside, they might lack the steel that saw the Jets eke out a playoff berth after free falling from first place in the central division halfway through last season.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have toiled and underperformed, declining for a few seasons now. The current management had a lot of work to do in navigating a blockage of fat veteran contracts that hollowed out the Canucks depth. Through these years a parade of coaches have tried to squeeze blood from a stone, or a playoff berth out of a flawed but talented roster. An early season train wreck followed by a scrappy moral victory of a strong finish, and the bitter aftertaste of less valuable draft picks. Perhaps this time, with new Coach Rick Tocchet, the Canucks are moving in the right direction.

Perhaps, enough has been done to fill out the team and support the elite talent in the lineup. This is most evident on the blueline, an area that has held the Canucks back for some time. This is at no fault to Quinn Hughes, who might be the best defenceman on a Canadian team. The offensive talent is obvious, but Hughes has been posting strong defensive results with sub-optimal partners since Chris Tanev left for Calgary. Joining him will be Filip Hronek, a right shot who had an uneven stint with the Detroit Red Wings, showing some promise before falling out of favour. The duo is aided by some stable defenders in newcomers Carson Soucy and Ian Cole. Some synergy is still required, but this has a chance to be a better blueline than we’ve been seeing from the Canucks.

The forward group is quite strong, led by one of the league’s premier centres in Elias Pettersson. Like Hughes, Pettersson’s offensive skills and slight frame should not be mistaken for a lack of defensive prowess. Between J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser there is some high end talent, though both are coming off difficult seasons. The same can’t be said of Andrei Kuzmenko, who seems to be a great fit on Pettersson’s wing, as was Anthony Beauvillier down the stretch of last season. The Canucks boast a great deal of depth, especially on the wings, including Ilya Mikheyev and Connor Garland, easing or perhaps crowding the ascension of younger players like Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin.

Since their Stanley Cup Final loss in 2011–12, the Canucks have had a string of strong netminders, at least on paper. Somehow, the marriage never lasts long, yet another quality netminder arrives en lieu. Thatcher Demko has all the makings of a long term solution, though the past few seasons have been turbulent. Arturs Silovs played some fantastic hockey down the stretch of last season, a small but promising sample. Though talented, the Canucks goalies will need more help from the team in front of them, especially in improving a penalty kill that was dreadfully poor last season.

While the Canucks have taken strides in improving their team, underlining the defence group, it might not be enough for meaningful improvement. With a new contract looming for Pettersson, the Canucks are at risk of endangering the faith of their best players, whose early careers have been spent adrift in a cycle of mediocrity.

Without a prospect pool brimming with talent, thanks in part to aggressive trades involving ugh draft picks in years past, the Canucks seemed to have placed their faith in buying low on younger roster players. This gamble is exemplified by the additions of Hronek and Beauvillier, both of whom will need to play up to and beyond their best hockey for the Canucks to achieve better results. This is a difficult proposition to negotiate, stressing their evaluations of players who have fallen out of favour elsewhere and chemistry with their new positions on Vancouver’s roster.


Tier 3: Rebuilders

Montreal Canadiens

The one Canadian team that is truly rebuilding is the Montreal Canadiens, stockpiling a number of young prospects whom future success might be built upon. For Habs fans, pushing for a playoff spot is less important than the development of their top prospects, either in the NHL or outside of it.

Until then, Montreal will ice a number of veteran stopgaps, players who might be moved in the near future or might help insulate and mentor the bright future. Most notably is the depth up front, as the Canadiens boast some useful veterans who might have another vintage season in the tank. Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher, and even Sean Monahan still have something to offer, especially with in-tight scoring, a trait that deadline buyers might cover. These are of course secondary to the main plot, a young core group of forwards that give the Habs a lot to work with.

Nick Suzuki leads the group as captain and top centre, while Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach lend support as high end forwards looking to continue their growth. Down the line the Habs have former first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky and two-way centre Owen Beck, as well as some longer shots like Jan Mysak, Sean Farrell, and Josh Roy. Not all of these prospects will pan out, but if two or three are able to assert themselves into the core alongside Suzuki, Caulfield, and Dach, Montreal will have a strong group.

There are other young forwards the Habs are trying out, reclamation projects in former first-round draft picks. Time will tell if Alex Newhook is able to replicate the resurgence of Dach as a Canadien. Of note Rafael Harvey-Pinard will look to continue his NHL success.

The Habs blueline is a bit further from a finished product, though clearly the team has been stockpiling prospects in years past. A glut of young talent looks to be on the horizon in the coming years. Mike Matheson and David Savard are the veterans of the group, though they too might be flipped in the near future. Older prospects Johnathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris both emerged with a lot of playing time last season, though Kovacevic appears to have a more convincing future with the team. Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj both acquitted themselves nicely in their rookie years, a pair of physically imposing players who represent the first wave of the future.

David Reinbacher was their 2023 first-round pick, adding his right shot and size to the future outlook of the blueline, though Reinbacher has a quality of skating and puck moving that neither Guhle nor Xhekaj possess. Topping it all off is the electric talent of Lane Hutson, an offensive force matched by few prospects outside the NHL, dominating the NCAA at a level similar to Cale Makar. Of course, the Habs have a number of other notable prospects, but adding Reinbacher and Hutson to Guhle, Xhekaj, and Kovacevic in the next season or two should mark the beginning of the Habs rise out of rebuilding status.

Carey Price might well have played his last NHL game, but Sam Montembeault had an impressive season behind an overmatched Canadiens team in 2022–23. Backup Jake Allen provides reasonable security, but for now Montreal will be invested in figuring out if Montembeault can repeat his performance and be thought of as a true NHL starter.

The Habs have accumulated enough prospects, and have enough core pieces on their roster to start prioritising a winning culture. Though a higher draft pick is always nice, having their top players develop with good habits and a positive atmosphere is important to avoid their spoiling. Although another top forward prospect, particularly at centre, might be ideal, any hope for the Canadiens relies on getting the best out of the key players already on the roster, and an impact player can be drafted at ninth or 12th overall as they can be drafted at fourth or fifth. So too might the draft lottery fall in the Canadiens favour. The fleeting resource of time, the season before us in all its opportunity, is too precious a resource to waste.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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