Barring a near-impossible Ottawa miracle, every Canadian team is out of the playoffs for 2015-16. Which one has the best chance to get back in next season?
For shame, Great White North. For shame. A year after five of seven Canadian NHL teams booked tickets to the big playoff dance, 0.0 will participate in the post-season. Monday night’s results pretty much nailed the nation’s collective coffin shut. The Ottawa Senators would have to win their final six games, and the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings would have to lose out aside from their remaining head-to-head matchup. So, yeah, Ottawa won’t pull off a miracle two years in a row. It seems most fan bases and local pundits accepted that fate several weeks ago, however, as no Canadian squad was anywhere near a playoff berth. The Sens still sit 10 points back. It’s time to move on and start asking about next year. Which Canadian team, if any, has the most realistic odds of returning to the post-season in 2016-17? It’s time to rank their chances, from worst to best.
7. EDMONTON OILERS The culture was supposed to shift this year, wasn’t it? The Oilers changed so much. New GM in Peter Chiarelli. New franchise superstar in Connor McDavid. New coach in Todd McLellan. New starting goaltender in Cam Talbot. Multiple new faces on defense. And yet, on paper, the team’s statistical tendencies haven’t changed much. They remain a bottom-five team in goals against. They allow more shots per game than they did last season.
Possession-wise, their gains have been incremental, jumping from 24th in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi to 21st. Most of the ground has been gained on the offensive side of the puck with the likes of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl becoming impact players. Defensively, the Oilers were 25th last year in Corsi Against per 60 minutes at 56.5, and they sit 25th again this year at 56.3. This team is no better at preventing chances despite all the personnel changes. On the bright side, the Oilers have a fairly major excuse for their struggles this season, at least up front: man games lost. McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, among others, have missed significant time with injuries. Still, even if all those forwards return and don’t miss a game in 2016-17, offense isn’t really the problem down the road. The additions of Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian have added a long-missing physical element to the forward corps, too. The Oilers are simply miles behind their competition defensively. Griffin Reinhart has been overmatched when recalled, and Darnell Nurse remains raw. Until the Oilers overhaul their blueline, it’s tough to imagine them playing in the post-season by next year.
What has to happen: Edmonton must explore trading at least one high-end finesse forward, if not two. Nail Yakupov is the obvious name now that we know
he requested a trade. One of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle should also be in play, especially with the Oilers poised to earn a high first-round pick, which could yield yet another star forward prospect if it’s a top-three selection. The Oil need to trade for a defenseman, be it Travis Hamonic or Kevin Shattenkirk or someone else, and
with Nikita Nikitin’s $4.5-million cap hit coming off the books, they may have room to pursue a D-man in free agency on top of that.
6. VANCOUVER CANUCKS The Canucks seriously lack an identity right now. None of GM Jim Benning’s moves over the past few years seem to connect and form a cohesive message. The Canucks paid big money in summer 2014 to sign Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata, they topped 100 points in the standings the ensuing season, and they made the playoffs. In the 2015 off-season, they traded away veterans Kevin Bieksa, Eddie Lack and Nick Bonino, yet they also paid big money to re-sign Derek Dorsett, and they traded Kassian for veteran Brandon Prust. Rebuild? Veteran movement? Anyone know what’s going on? The Canucks then named teenagers Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann to their 2015-16 lineup, kept them up all year and burned the first seasons of their entry-level contracts. At the trade deadline in February, a Canucks team seemingly leaning toward the youth movement couldn’t find trades for pending UFAs Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis. Re-read that paragraph and try to understand what this franchise wants to do. I’m at a loss. The Canucks have a subpar blueline with no bona fide top-pairing players. Even when Chris Tanev and Alexander Edler are healthy – compare them to Roman Josi and Shea Weber or Victor Hedman and (healthy) Anton Stralman or Brent Burns and Paul Martin.
Those are true top pairings. The Canucks allow the third most shots on goal per game in the NHL, and their best young defense prospects, from Nikita Tryamkin to Andrey Pedan, are very much projects. Vancouver is similar to Edmonton in that Vancouver needs drastic defensive improvement to rejoin the playoff hunt, but the Canucks at least have better two-way forwards in their top nine, especially if Brandon Sutter stays healthy next year.
What has to happen: Defensemen Dan Hamhuis, Matt Bartkowski and Yannick Weber
have expiring deals, freeing up space for a trade or signing of an impact top-four blueliner. Even if Hamhuis returns, there will be room to add a body rather than forcing a youngster up to the big club before he’s ready.
5. CALGARY FLAMES I was wrong about this team. It stings. I know the Flames had weak possession numbers last season, but I was convinced the PROgression of young players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett would offset any REgression to the mean. I also figured the Michael Frolik signing and Dougie Hamilton trade would further turn the tide in possession. Instead, the Flames have been repeatedly dominated in the shot attempts department, sliding out of the post-season after a triumphant 2014-15. They have bright spots, though. Defenseman T.J. Brodie has been truly outstanding, even against stiff competition. Mikael Backlund remains an underrated two-way pivot. Johnny Gaudreau continues to blossom into not just a star left winger, but a borderline superstar. But Hamilton fell short of expectations in the first half of the season before rallying of late, and too many of the Flames have been defensive liabilities – including Monahan and Bennett. The Flames have to hope their best young players, especially their forwards, become better two-way threats if they want to leapfrog San Jose in the Pacific.
What has to happen: Calgary’s off-season goalie hunt is a hugely important storyline to watch. The best remedy for a bad possession team, aside from fixing the possession play, is a good goalie. The Flames ranked 15th in the NHL with a .911 save percentage last season and rank 30th at .892 this season. There’s your playoff miss, pinpointed. General manager Brad Treliving has to find a new starting stopper. Could he ink James Reimer? Or trade for Jimmy Howard or Brian Elliott?
4. OTTAWA SENATORS Ottawa’s magic simply ran out this time around. The Senators were buoyed by piping-hot Mark Stone and Kyle Turris and, of course, goaltender Andrew Hammond during 2014-15’s miracle run to the playoffs, in which they finished the year 23-4-4. This year, Ottawa morphed into arguably hockey’s worst defensive team. They allow more shots per game than anyone, they rank dead last in penalty killing, and only Colorado
has a worse 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. It’s alarming to see a team with Erik Karlsson on it struggling so badly to defend. He posted a 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi 6.61 percent higher than the average team score. He makes more of an impact in terms of generating attempts than preventing them, but where would the Sens be without Karlsson? Yikes. The good news is Ottawa, unlike the three Western Canadian teams listed above, has an easier path back to the playoffs playing in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, which seems to have as many bubble teams as contenders annually. Most of the Sens’ best players grade out as their best possession players, too, from Karlsson to Stone to Zack Smith to Turris, so what Ottawa needs more than anything is improved depth.
What needs to happen: The Sens’ young guns must grow into more than checking-line fodder. Curtis Lazar hasn’t yet broken through as an above-average top-nine forward. Cody Ceci will hopefully mature playing with veteran Dion Phaneuf. And maybe uber-prospect pivot Colin White makes the team if he turns pro, though that’s a long shot. Since Ottawa isn’t a deep-pocketed team and has restricted free agents Ceci and Mike Hoffman to re-sign, it isn’t likely to go wild on the free agent market. The improvements must come from within above all else.
3. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS All the underlying numbers suggest the Leafs have completely transformed their play under coach Mike Babcock. They’re a middle-of-the pack possession team now after being a laughing stock in that regard for several seasons. They’ve handed the keys to blossoming youngster Morgan Rielly on ‘D’ and may have uncovered a shutdown blueliner in Martin Marincin. They’ve been a competitive squad over the past month, to the point that they’re damaging their lottery odds, and William Nylander has looked every bit like the franchise’s next star center in a small sample size so far. What works in the Leafs’ favor also works against them. They have the worst shooting percentage and second-worst power play percentage in the NHL. In other words, they stink at tasks that require the most offensive skill. They’ve spent most of the season as the NHL’s most talent-deficient team. And if they don’t change that, they won’t climb in the standings.
What has to happen: Does anyone expect this Leaf team to lay back and tank again going forward? Highly doubtful. Burning a year of Nylander’s entry-level deal to keep him up for the rest of 2015-16 sent the message they want him cutting his teeth now and seriously helping the team as a top-six forward next year. Might we see Brendan Leipsic, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen as full-timers in 2016-17 too? James van Riemsdyk will be back healthy. There’s an outside shot Mitch Marner, last year’s fourth overall pick, makes the club as well, and he should at least get a nine-game look. If the Leafs win the draft lottery, they’ll get an NHL-ready forward in Auston Matthews. And, as a deep-pocketed club, they’ll be in hard on Steven Stamkos and Jimmy Vesey in free agency. Take a team that does the fundamental things well, add a bunch of skill, and watch it rise in the standings. Toronto is a sleeper for 2016-17.
2. WINNIPEG JETS The Jets were ahead of schedule last year. They made the playoffs on the strength of a deep blueline, a physical, well-rounded forward corps and outstanding possession play. They seemed ready for a continuous ascension given how much farm talent they had flowing onto the team. We anointed them 2019 Stanley Cup champions on our Future Watch 2015 cover. Instead, this team has regressed. Prized young D-man Jacob Trouba has endured an uneven year. The loss of Michael Frolik hurt, especially in the possession department, where Winnipeg slid to the middle of the pack this year. Captain Andrew Ladd is now a Chicago Blackhawk. Bryan Little’s season ended in February on a hit from Tampa Bay’s Anton Stralman that fractured a vertebra. The Jets have the NHL’s worst power play, too. Whatever could go wrong pretty much did, and that’s a death sentence when you play in the vicious Central Division – enough to bury the Jets in last place. Still, there are positives to take away from this season. Oh, boy, has Mark Scheifele ever sizzled in the second half. Little played his final game of the year Feb. 18, opening the door for Scheifele to become the team’s first-line center, and Scheifele has 12 goals and 23 points in 19 games since. He’s among the hottest players in the league not named Sidney Crosby. Scheifele appears ready to take the torch as the Jets’ alpha-dog center, which bodes extremely well for next year. Winnipeg still has one of the league’s most stuffed development systems, and it could yield the blindingly fast Kyle Connor should he decide to follow the Dylan Larkin route and turn pro after one scintillating season at the University of Michigan. Marko Dano, acquired in the Ladd trade, should stick for all of 2016-17 and be a disruptive physical presence in the top nine. This Jets team is still deep, and many of its best players are only getting better. Gifted left winger Nikolaj Ehlers has flashed brilliance at times and still carries franchise-forward potential.
What has to happen: Scheifele has been so good in the second half that he may bypass a bridge contract now. Trouba might not, but the pair will eat up much of
Winnipeg’s cap space regardless, though Trouba remains a trade candidate. The key to Winnipeg’s 2016-17 hopes: goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck is ready. The Jets returned him to the AHL only because Ondrej Pavelec’s injury healed and they wanted Hellebuyck getting maximum reps. Hellebuyck is the organization’s best goalie at every level, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff must find a way to get his youngster in the NHL next season, even if that means buying out Pavelec’s final year. Hellebuyck went 13-11 with a 2.34 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and two shutouts in his first taste of the NHL. He can transform Winnipeg back into a contender if he sticks.
1. MONTREAL CANADIENS Picking the No. 1 team was by far the easiest choice. Like the Sens and Leafs, the Habs play in the NHL’s weakest division, the Atlantic, which immediately ups their odds. That’s why they had to get the nod over the Jets, who still have the major problem of playing in the Central to overcome. Secondly, the Canadiens’ slide out of contention was as simple as removing the best player in the world from the equation. No Carey Price in net, no post-season. Last year, Price propped up what was a weak possession squad. Interestingly, the Habs spent much of 2015-16 as an above-average possession team only to fare worse in the standings. That highlights even further the importance of good goaltending. It can make a bad team good and a good team bad. How many games did Price steal for Montreal last season? If he stole even half as many in 2015-16, he’d tack enough wins onto the Canadiens’ record to get them within a hair of a playoff berth. Brendan Gallagher was arguably Montreal’s best forward when in the lineup and has missed about a third of the year with multiple injuries. He sat just one game in his previous two campaigns combined, so he doesn’t deserve an injury-prone label. Alex Galchenyuk finally got some extended looks at center this season and has taken another step forward, besting his career highs in goals and points for the third straight year. He should open 2016-17 as the first-line center, once and for all.
What needs to happen: Adding Price, Gallagher and injured blueliner Jeff Petry, who hasn’t played since Feb. 7, back to the lineup should do wonders next season. Barring more bad luck, the Habs should get in with relative ease.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin