For just over two decades, there’s been one big question that comes up around this time every season: is this the year a Canadian team brings home the Stanley Cup?
If no team does it this season, it’ll be 24 long years since the last team to do it, the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. There has been times where Canadian teams have come close, like the 2011 Vancouver Canucks, but more often than not Canadian teams have been far off, such as the post-lockout Leafs and the post-2007 Oilers.
It’s been a rough decade for Canadian hockey fans and that frustration peaked last season when not a single team made it to the post-season. Not one. It saw the end to that annoying nationalistic question that gets asked every April, just not for the reason most people would have hoped.
However, if last season was rock bottom for Canada’s NHL teams, this year represents a renaissance of sorts. Unless something catastrophic happens, it’s looking like there will be five Canadian teams in the post-season this year. A bit of a step-up from last season.
But while there’s a great quantity of teams making the dance, I’m not sure the quality is there for these teams to be Cup contenders and I doubt that’s much of a hot take either. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering three of the teams were in the bottom five last season and they’re probably just happy to make the playoffs. Now that they have, though, anything can happen.
It’s not very likely, but each Canadian team has a chance – some bigger than others. Here’s how each qualified Canadian team stacks up to the rest and how great their chance of winning the Cup is based on the current projected playoff bracket.
5. Ottawa Senators
Likely Opponent: vs. Toronto
Out in First Round Chance: 54.9%
Cup Chance: 1.9%
5-on-5 Expected Goals: 48.7%
Goal Difference: -4
Expected Win Percentage: 0.482
The third highest point total of any Canadian team and a club with home ice advantage (for now) over another Canadian team comes in as the least likely to win. That might be shocking to some, but it shouldn’t be: this Senators team has played way over their heads all season and may be the worst team to suit up in the playoffs. This isn’t even an advanced stats based take – they’re legitimately the only team currently in a spot with a negative goal differential. Does a team that gets outscored on the season sound like a playoff team to you? It doesn’t to me. The question is how they got this far while being out-scored and the answer is because they’ve been dominant in close games. That’s not something that tends to be a repeatable skill and there seems to be nothing Ottawa does that looks all that impressive. Whether it’s shots or goals or special teams, the Senators look decidedly average to below average. That’s not to say they don’t have great players. Erik Kalrsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Craig Anderson are all terrific, but as a whole it’s hard to see the team as much of a threat compared to the other 15. It’s worked for the Senators so far, but given their results this year and their strength relative to the field, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a short playoffs for Ottawa, though playing in a weak bracket definitely helps their chances.
4. Calgary Flames
Likely Opponent: at Anaheim
Out in First Round Chance: 55.1%
Cup Chance: 2.7%
5-on-5 Expected Goals: 48.7%
Goal Difference: +2
Expected Win Percentage: 0.502
The Flames caught fire midway through the season and haven’t looked back since. In 2017, they’ve been one of the league’s hottest teams with a 23-13-2 record while sporting a slightly above average expected goals rate of 50.2 percent, an over three percent increase from the 47 percent they were running with in 2016. That jump has helped, as has the resurgence of Brian Elliott, who is starting to look like the goalie Calgary had thought they traded for. Calgary is probably a slightly above average team at this point, but that likely won’t get them far, especially against the Ducks who have been surging lately, too. The pieces are there at the top of the lineup as they’ve been carried by guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and the 3M line up front and Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton on the backend for most of the year, but the bottom of the lineup might prove to be too weak to do any damage in the playoffs. This could be a legitimately terrifying team once the depth is ironed out — they’re still a pretty scary team with all that talent at the top — but they’re just not there yet to be taken seriously as a Cup threat.
3. Edmonton Oilers
Likely Opponent: vs. San Jose
Out in First Round Chance: 56.2%
Cup Chance: 2.8%
5-on-5 Expected Goals: 49.4%
Goal Difference: +31
Expected Win Percentage: 0.497
If anyone expected the Oilers to make the playoffs this year, give them a pat on the back. If they expected them to be the third likeliest to win the Cup and to have 100 points this season give them a medal. This has been a crazy jump back to relevance for the Oilers and it’s especially wild after the much derided Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson trade. Things look like they’re working out for the better, but that has a lot more to do with the Oilers’ Big Three then it does the trade. Connor McDavid has taken a big step and looks like the best player in the world on most nights, and Leon Draisaitl has been incredible, too. The Oilers are a bit sketchy when McDavid is off the ice (46.5% xG, 47.3% goals), but they’re dynamite when he’s on (55.7% xG, 61.8% goals) and that’ll be tough to contain for any team. The big story might be Cam Talbot, though. He has series-stealing potential with his current .921 save percentage, but there is concern about Edmonton running him into the ground given his massive workload.
This is a good team, and getting home-ice will be huge. It’s what makes them more likely to win the Cup than Calgary, who might be a little better. But Edmonton looks to be on a crash course for San Jose in round one and last year’s Cup finalists are hardly an ideal matchup for anyone, no matter how wonky they’ve looked of late. Think back to Sidney Crosby’s first season in the playoffs for a decent barometer for what could happen here. It was a quick five-game exit against a more experienced and deeper team. But it was a learning experience none-the-less, and the Penguins made it to the Cup final the next season after surrounding Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with talent. The Oilers could follow that same trajectory once they find some more help for McDavid and Draisaitl, just don’t expect too much this year. It’s not their time yet.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
Likely Opponent: at Ottawa
Out in First Round Chance: 45.1%
Cup Chance: 3.7%
5-on-5 Expected Goals: 51.8%
Goal Difference: +18
Expected Win Percentage: 0.511
This might be the most shocking revelation, but it has everything to do with the bracket. The Leafs are probably just the sixth- or seventh-best playoff team in the East, but playing against the worst one in the first round should pay dividends, even if it’s on the road. Home-ice advantage will make things tighter against Ottawa, but the Leafs should still be favourites. They have them beat in nearly every number imaginable, but are a touch lower in the standings because of a terrible record in one-goal games and shootouts, the latter of which they won’t have to deal with in the post-season. If the Leafs slip to the wild-card to face the Caps, you can push Toronto down to fourth or fifth spot.
This has been a crazy year for the actually good Leafs, something very few predicted at the start of the year. But it wasn’t too hard to see considering they added three young stars, some solid depth and better goaltending to a decent foundation that had a positive shot rate last season despite a last-place finish. They’re led by their three star rookies, who have been even better than advertised, but vets like Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have been great, too. The top nine is downright scary and few teams can match the Leafs up front, but it’s their backend that’s still a bit troublesome. Their defense has been much better lately, but it’s hard to see them going much farther than the first round with that group unless both the offense and Frederik Andersen are lights out.
Their odds of going all the way are still slim, but they’ve got a better chance than most might suspect, mostly thanks to a soft bracket. There’s likely going to be no parades this season, but given how the core looks right now, it shouldn’t be much longer until a parade route finally gets planned.
1. Montreal Canadiens
Likely Opponent: vs. Rangers
Out in First Round Chance: 37.3%
Cup Chance: 7.5%
5-on-5 Expected Goals: 52.9%
Goal Difference: +23
Expected Win Percentage: 0.545
Believe in Carey Price. He’s still likely the best goalie in the world. As long as the Habs have him, they’ve got legitimate Cup chances and are the clear front-runner of the five Canadian teams. They shouldn’t have much trouble against the Rangers or either of the Ontario-based teams in the second round, so Montreal’s path to the conference final looks pretty good. They’ll be in tough once they have to face one of the juggernauts in the Metro, but those teams are built on incredible offense and Price is the ultimate trump card.
Make no mistake, though: unlike other years, this team is not all Price. Their expected goals rates is one of the league’s highest meaning they’ve got a good system in front of Price to ease his burden. The defence looks deeper than ever with eight capable NHL ready D-men and three legit first pairing guys in Shea Weber, Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry. With Claude Julien’s system in place, that talent on defense, and Price in net, scoring will prove to be very difficult for the opposition.
Montreal still has a lot of talent up front with a top nine led by underrated superstar Max Pacioretty, who may be one of the league’s best wingers. There is one Achilles heel for this team, though, and it’s a self-inflicted one: their fourth line. While other teams have proven that four lines that can play is the way to success, Montreal doubled down on an archaic philosophy and traded for three negative-value players at the deadline. They’ll be “tougher” to play against but not to score against. That’s the issue.
That line won’t end up playing that much, so it’s not like it’ll be the Canadiens’ downfall, but it makes them a weaker foe and more susceptible to an upset in the first two rounds. Despite their flaws, this might still be the best Montreal team we’ve seen in a few years and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in the final four or even winning the Cup.
(Data via corsica.hockey)