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The Oil Rig Canadian Power Rankings 2023–24: The unexpected first month of the season

In the early months of the 2023–24 NHL regular season, before American Thanksgiving, the small sample size of games has the standings in a chaotic state. How much do we come off of our priors? How much can we trust a hot start? How long until panic sets in? Ultimately, we will try to sort out the contenders from the pretenders as we check in on the NHL’s seven Canadian teams in the November 2023 edition of our power rankings.

7. Calgary Flames

In an effort to move on from the Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau era while remaining competitive, the Calgary Flames have left themselves in a precarious position. Even still, with key free agents Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm left unsigned, the Flames find themselves an older team, tied up in cap dollars, and falling out of playoff contention. There is still plenty of time for the team to rebound, but to what avail? For now it seems like the Flames lack the upside to win a Stanley Cup, leaving many Flames fans in favour of a more focused rebuild.

To rebuild is an arduous path, and the Flames have a lot of potential assets to manage. This comes in the form of useful players, be they veterans with name brand recognition or players in their primes, who might fetch a rich return. The Flames also boast a prospect pool with several interesting players, though perhaps lacking in elite talent.

We have already seen some members of this youth movement coming into their own, and the Flames should have a continued infusion over the next season or two, turning the roster over to the likes of Connor Zary, Matthew Coronato, Jakob Pelletier, Jeremie Poirier, and Dustin Wolf. Still, to build an elite program the Flames will need to add a lot more future capital to their pipeline.

The Flames are a proud group of players, too fierce to go down without a fight. The balance of a rebuild, or retool, comes in keeping enough infrastructure for incoming prospects to be supported, and keeping this spirit alive is paramount to this. It won’t be easy, but management will need to sort out the Flames future in the coming months. In all likelihood the team will play well enough to make the choice difficult.

6. Ottawa Senators

The Ottawa Senators’ record isn’t terrible, and there have been some bright spots, but there has been enough off ice turmoil to spoil the mood. Losing a first-round pick as punishment, and subsequently with GM Pierre Dorion being let go, adding to a suspension for Shane Pinto, there has been a gathering unease. Fans clearly sense the seat of Coach DJ Smith getting hotter, though some might say the coach provides some much needed stability in the storm of uncertainty circling the team.

Tumult might have reached a boiling point with captain Brady Tkachuk offering a juicy quote towards the fans. At the very least, Tkachuk’s message was one meant to bring his team and fanbase together. The blueline is quite strong on paper, and the forward group does look deeper with Vladimir Tarasenko in fold, yet a playoff point pace remains elusive in a competitive conference and division.

The most positive surprise might be the play of Ridly Greig, who has taken advantage of Pinto’s absence. Greig has acquitted himself nicely in the Sens top nine, playing well on a line between Tarasenko and Mathieu Joseph before being injured. Injuries are currently hampering the team, with five regulars out of the lineup including Thomas Chabot.

The Sens have a lot of key pieces and are justifiably earnest in their playoff belief, yet once again they have stumbled early. While there has been a lot of change recently, we should expect more to be en route if the team continues with these results. The team’s talent on paper makes the worthy of such expectations, though the current core has yet to prove so with results over a long enough period.

5. Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens stand out as the only true rebuilding team in the country, and so their place in the power rankings is graded a bit differently. The Habs have sprinted out to a decent record thanks to timely scoring and strong goaltending, though flow of play cast doubt on their sustainability. Regardless of their record, the Habs are seeing strong play from many of their key young players, casting a bright future onto the team’s horizon.

True contention might not come until blue chip blueliners Lane Hutson and David Reinbacher come into their own as NHLers over the next season or two. For now Kaiden Guhle looks to be a nice building block, while the opportunity for minutes and a potential role going forward have stayed open for the likes of Johnathan Kovacevic and Arber Xhekaj. Mike Matheson has played some of the best hockey of his career, the veteran flourishing in a big role.

This trend is reflected in the forward group. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are leading the charge, while Sean Monahan is having a productive bounce back. While there is some debate surrounding Juraj Slafkovsky and where he should be playing, or should have been playing, the Habs have a number of prospects worth keeping an eye on, including Joshua Roy who is having a monstrous season in the AHL.

The best place for Slafkovsky to be might be on a team coached by Martin St. Louis. The Habs coach has been something of a revelation, seemingly getting the most out of all his players. The regime of GM Kent Hughes and President Jeff Gorton has had its share of contentious moments, but for now nearly every aspect of the organisation seems to be trending in a positive direction.

The Habs have accumulated enough futures and young NHL talent that openly tanking might be in the past. While selling off an expiring contract or two at the deadline might still end up being an option, the team will be focusing on the growth of their talent crop as opposed to the scorching of earth. A major injury to Kirby Dach does put a damper on things, and the young centre has missed significant time already in his career, but the added opportunity might ultimately help some on the team earn experience for next season.

4. Winnipeg Jets

Having re-signed both Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele in the past month, the Winnipeg Jets did well in securing the future of two of their franchise’s most iconic players. Big waves came across due to diminished attendance numbers, perhaps indicative of some fatigue in the fan base. The Jets are maintaining their usual status quo of hanging around the playoff bubble, but how far can the roster go?

The Jets are a deeper team up front than they have been of late, but a number of young players have shown strong to start the season. On the roster Cole Perfetti seems to be taking steps towards his potential, as he seems to be having a greater effect on the flow of play. Recent top picks in Brad Lambert and Nikita Chibrikov have had strong starts in the AHL, potentially able to bolster the Jets skill over the next year or so.

On the roster the mood has dimmed with Gabe Vilardi’s absence. While the skilled forward seemed to be fitting in nicely, Vilardi’s issues have always revolved around availability more than they have ability. Adam Lowry seems to be wearing the mantle of captain well, and forwards Vlad Namestnikov, Nino Niederreiter, and Alex Iafallo have been providing stability in the lineup.

Still, for now the Jets lack some dynamic qualities on the blueline behind Josh Morrissey. The Jets do have a number of veterans and can play a sound, heavy game. While the team tends towards another tight playoff race this season, there is some reason to worry they might be stuck in no man’s land from a longer perspective.

3. Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers are reeling, off to a dreadful record. The overall results have not been good enough, yet the team’s play itself has its share of bright spots. That being said, the bright lights are on and frustration is seeping into the team’s psyche as individuals and a collective.

There are some very tangible shortcomings. The goaltending has not been anywhere close to good enough. The team’s defence has shown some signs of strength, but allowing a number of high danger rush chances and a dreadful penalty kill have torpedoed any optimism, however justifiable. It does not help that the team has seemingly had some poor shooting luck despite generating chances, though perhaps this might have to do with a likely injured Connor McDavid showing rare signs of mortality.

To their credit, the Oilers front office has been willing to concede on certain issues, reevaluating their team harshly amid the recent woes. Connor Brown might not reach his games played bonus after all. Jack Campbell has been waived, and the future in net is destined for further change. The Oilers will have to be bold in finding solutions, yet the cap dollars that might be freed up by these moves might represent new opportunities.

At the risk of being proved wrong, the Oilers have shown enough that they deserve some credit on this type of power ranking. After all, back-to-back season of at least 100 points and one playoff series win is nothing to scoff at, and the reasons that many picked the Oilers as a true contender are still applicable.

Truth be told, the Oilers have not had a good start in either of the past two seasons, often seeming lost until January. This season’s team has gotten themselves into a deeper hole, their need for a steep incline of quality even more pressing.

As goaltending is an inherently volatile position, there will be opportunities available to the Oilers that could pay off. Those critical of GM Ken Holland’s roster construction will cite that last season might have been entirely lost if not for a breakout performance from Stuart Skinner. Even if Skinner is able to regain his form once more, the Oilers will still need to make a move to upgrade the position.

Perhaps some of the youth can be part of the solution, though none of the Oilers young players have surpassed expectations this season. The Oilers have been reluctant, or at least cautious, in entrusting these players with unearned icetime as of yet. Perhaps in the right usage, and at the right time, one of Dylan Holloway, Raphael Lavoie, or Philip Broberg might be able to assert themselves beyond their current influence.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

TheToronto Maple Leafs have had a middling start to the season, though their star players have delivered. Auston Matthews sits at a goal a game, John Tavares is playing well, and William Nylander is continuing to increase his dominance. Some young players are pushing their way up the lineup, with Joseph Woll in net and Matthew Knies up front becoming prominent figures on the team. Morgan Rielly is off to a fine start, perhaps even one of his best seasons as a Leaf.

Somehow, all these positives have not been enough to keep pace with the league’s top teams. While the Leafs have consistently had lukewarm performances in October in years past, the team will have to prove itself once more. For the time being, a number of injuries on the blueline have converged, leading to a look at a number of defencemen who started the season in the AHL. While former Oiler William Lagesson continues to improve as an NHLer, this isn’t ideal for a team that already had its share of doubters in regards to the blueline.

Most of all, the honeymoon phase for Brad Treliving is over. Leafs Nation is reeling after a lack of action when Brad Marchand tripped and injured Timothy Liljegren. Meanwhile, Treleving’s expensive offseason signings have not looked good. The team clearly isn’t any tougher or more belligerent with Ryan Reaves. Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi might be better suited for playoff action. Domi and John Klingberg might be useful under the right conditions. Already the Reaves deal and the extension to David Kampf seem problematic, in both dollars and term.

Still, the Leafs have shown enough this season and in years past to have earned the expectation of being in a playoff spot throughout the entire season.

1. Vancouver Canucks

While most of the Canadian teams have barely reached or even fallen short of expectations, save perhaps the future focused Montreal Canadiens, the Vancouver Canucks stand alone as deserving of the top spot in our power rankings. While some might point to certain stats to argue the results are not sustainable, the truth is that the Canucks are full value as a threat in the Western Conference.

Though the team has underperformed the past several seasons, a turbulent roller coaster of coaches, bad contracts, and drama, the truth remains that the Canucks have elite top end talent. New captain Quinn Hughes belongs in the upper echelon of perennial Norris contenders entering their primes alongside Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and others. Elias Pettersson is right there in the race for the franchise’s most valuable player, alongside Thatcher Demko in net.

The issue has been about filling out the team around the stars. At this point the forward group is quite deep, with mid level contracts strewn across all four lines. Nearly every winger on the roster has the potential of a 20-goal season, save for worker bees who might be even more valuable to the team’s identity such as Dakota Joshua and Phil Di Giuseppe. Even with former captain Bo Horvat gone, the Canucks have a lot to work with up front.

For the first time in a while the Canucks seem to have figured out their blueline. Filip Hronek has been a revelation, taking on almost as many minutes as Hughes, and playing the best hockey of his career. Carson Soucy is a great option who has lived up to his billing as a stabilizing force, while Ian Cole has provided some of the same. It’s been enough to move the needle for the club, allowing their talented forwards and goaltender to shine.

While Coach Rick Tocchet is receiving a healthy dose of praise for his role in crafting a more focused team, the roles of President Jim Rutherford, GM Patrik Allvin, and the rest of Canucks management deserve their share. The path to reach this point, where the Canucks are serving their talent with a strong enough team to compete, was a narrow one that required some bold manoeuvring.

Though not many picked the Canucks to emerge as a threat this season, there have been those who picked the team over the past three seasons. Though their new persona is emerging before our eyes, the Canucks have the pedigree, and at least some relevant playoff experience, to be worthy of belief.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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