Canada’s teams rise up
Led by young guns Matthews, McDavid, Leafs and Oilers on ascent
It was just two seasons ago that, for the first time in 46 years, not a single Canadian team qualified for the National Hockey League playoffs.
Now, not only are nearly all of the NHL’s seven Canadian squads decent bets to crack the post-season, a few might even be viable Stanley Cup contenders.
From Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers to Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs, here’s a look at the potential fortunes of Canada’s seven teams for the coming season:
Ottawa Senators Playoff likelihood: Bubble
The Senators survived close margins to come within a goal of their first Stanley Cup final in a decade, but what comes next?
The only playoff team with a negative goal differential last season, the Sens were also weak in puck possession with below-average special teams — all of which suggests good fortune that might be difficult to replicate.
Ottawa can count on Erik Karlsson’s brilliance and dependable play from the likes of Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Derick Brassard. But who steps in for the departed Marc Methot alongside Karlsson, and what can veteran defenceman Dion Phaneuf deliver as time keeps catching up?
Craig Anderson was sensational in goal despite challenging circumstances last year, but his numbers have bounced to some degree from year to year. What happens to the Senators if the 36-year-old is merely ordinary?
Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff likelihood: Strong
The Leafs were powered by youth last season and nearly toppled the President’s Trophy winning-Washington Capitals in the first round. Expectations that were once minimal are rising fast and with that comes a new, added pressure on a team that shouldn’t surprise anyone any longer.
Playoffs are now the expectation, not some treat at the end of a storybook year. How will a team that’s still quite young respond? What will sophomore seasons look like for Calder Memorial Trophy winner Auston Matthews and any number of the rookies that took the league by storm last year?
The club only tinkered in the summer, adding 38-year-old former Sharks star Patrick Marleau, veteran Ron Hainsey to play in a top-four role on defence and Dominic Moore to stabilize the fourth-line centre spot.
Montreal Canadiens Playoff likelihood: Strong
Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin had another big summer, but will it finally pay dividends with a deep playoff run?
The Habs landed intriguing 22-yearold Jonathan Drouin, signed Karl Alzner for five years and extended franchise cornerstone Carey Price for eight.
The effect of Drouin, who hails from Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., is worth watching. He has star potential and the ability to replace lost firepower from Alex Radulov, who left for Dallas.
With Price, the Canadiens have a chance to make noise in a relatively punchless East.
Winnipeg Jets Playoff likelihood: Bubble
It’s hard to win without consistent goaltending, and the Jets are betting on Steve Mason to solve those woes this year behind a talented group that includes Calder trophy runner-up Patrik Laine, emerging first-line centre Mark Scheifele and fun 21-year-old Dane Nikolaj Ehlers.
But what can Mason actually deliver? Last year was a lost one for the 29-year-old, but in three seasons previous the Oakville, Ont., native was stable if not spectacular. The Jets will take plain old stability after years of the opposite.
The Jets will look for Laine soar to as a sophomore and hope hidden talents such as Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic make the leap.
Edmonton Oilers Playoff likelihood: Strong
The Oilers locked up their two biggest talents in the summer, signing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to eight-year deals with McDavid’s getting underway in 2018.
The captain is already a sure thing at age 20 — maybe the best player in the world — but there’s still a certain curiosity with Draisaitl and his ability to reach elite heights without McDavid. A stellar playoff showing temporarily eased those concerns, but now expectations have risen for both player and franchise.
Edmonton reached their first playoff in more than a decade and nearly toppled the Ducks en route to the Western Conference final, but whether they can jump another rung likely depends on the contributions of those such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic and the newly added Ryan Strome.
Above all, the Oilers need Cam Talbot to offer another stellar year between the pipes.
Calgary Flames Playoff likelihood: Strong
GM Brad Treliving continues to tinker with the roster, this time with another attempted upgrade in goal and further bolstering on defence.
Mike Smith is the latest hopeful for the Flames crease, with the 35-year-old arriving by trade one year after Calgary landed Brian Elliott to do the same. Smith probably isn’t the guy who finished fourth in Vezina trophy voting in 2012, but he should bring stability behind an already sturdy defence that added Travis Hamonic to top-four stalwarts Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie.
Vancouver Canucks Playoffs: Unlikely
The hiring of new head coach Travis Green seems to suggest some realization that the Canucks, as currently assembled, are a ways from playoff contention. Getting back there means moving the needle with young talent, a task Green will now oversee.
The 46-year-old, who won a championship with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, will be counted on to ignite a stuffy offence while bringing along the likes of Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Olli Juolevi.
A bigger storyline likely to linger: the future of the Sedins, who are now in the final year of their respective contracts. GM Jim Benning says he won’t trade Daniel or Henrik unless they ask and the twins seem content on staying.
It was just two seasons ago that, for the first time in 46 years, not a single Canadian team qualified for the NHL playoffs. That won’t happen in 2017-18.