Led by the near-unbeatable Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens were the best team north of the border in 2014-15. Can they repeat the feat or have the other Canadian teams caught up to Montreal? Who will take home bragging rights as the country’s best club in 2015-16?
While there’s no award given for finishing as the best Canadian team in the NHL, it’s always a point of pride for the seven clubs north of the border.
In 2014-15, the Montreal Canadiens were practically carried by the incredible play of Carey Price, finishing atop the Atlantic Division and just three points back of capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. In addition to leading the charge in the Atlantic, though, the Canadiens also ended the campaign as the best Canadian club in the league — and, it just so happened, as the Canadian team with the best shot at capturing Canada’s first Stanley Cup since 1993.
Montreal has made some interesting additions to the lineup this off-season by acquiring struggling sniper Alexander Semin, grinder Zack Kassian and defenseman Mark Barberio. The trade deadline additions of Brian Flynn, Devante Smith-Pelly, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn will also get a full season in Montreal this time around. But in 2015-16, does Montreal finish atop the heap of Canadian teams again or does another club unseat them as the country’s best club?
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs and their faithful know how this season is going to go. It’s not one of great expectations. Rather, this is the beginning of a rebuild, something that coach Mike Babcock and the front office staff in Toronto are well aware of. Babcock has cautioned that there are going to be some hard times, but if the club sticks to the plan, there’s no reason the Maple Leafs can’t be a successful club in five years’ time.
Gone is top scorer and Tyler Bozak-wingman Phil Kessel. In his stead, Toronto has brought in Shawn Matthias, P-A Parenteau and Mark Arcobello. It’s not a star-studded bunch, but the Maple Leafs could very well surprise some people on their way to a halfway respectable season for a club on its way to starting over.
One thing Maple Leafs fans can hope for this season is a breakout year for Nazem Kadri, who is going to be given every chance to have his star-making turn this season in Toronto.
6. Vancouver Canucks
As THN’s Matt Larkin pointed out earlier in the off-season, the summer has been a puzzling one in Vancouver. The Canucks have sent Kevin Bieksa, Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, Zack Kassian and Eddie Lack packing. They lost Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson in free agency. To fill those spots, GM Jim Benning added Matt Bartkowski, Brandon Prust and Brandon Sutter.
Bo Horvat is going to have a full season in the NHL and could very well improve on his 13-goal, 25-point rookie campaign. The Sedins are still the Sedins and both should be good for more than 70 points. But there’s undeniable trouble in goal when Ryan Miller is losing his job to Lack and then Lack is losing his spot to the younger Jacob Markstrom.
Prospects Jake Virtanen and Nicklas Jensen stand out, but they’re not going to be saviors in Vancouver. After the Canucks had a surprising 100-point season in 2014-15, they could be due to fall back to earth this year.
5. Ottawa Senators
Andrew ‘Hamburglar’ Hammond’s remarkable season is a thing of the past now and Senators fans will want him to prove he can do it again. His excellence in 2014-15 led Ottawa to trade Robin Lehner to the Buffalo Sabres, so a platoon of Hammond and Craig Anderson will take the reins in the Senators’ net.
Sure, Ottawa made the post-season thanks to an incredible run late last season, but it was largely against the odds that they did so. They lost Erik Condra in the off-season, traded Eric Gryba and still haven’t found a destination to ship Colin Greening to. That’s about it as far as major moves for the Senators this off-season. By standing pat, the team hasn’t improved at all.
It’s not as simple as adding players from the AHL this time around, either. There isn’t another Mark Stone or Mike Hoffman sitting in the minors. Shane Prince led the Senators’ AHL club in scoring this past season, but he has only two NHL games under his belt. Matt Puempel probably needs one more year in with Binghamton before making the full-time NHL jump.
4. Edmonton Oilers
This has to be the year the Oilers start taking a step forward, and if it doesn’t work this year, it might seriously be time to blow the whole thing up. With Connor McDavid on his way to Edmonton this season and Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a year older, the Oilers are in line to make some serious progression. While that may not mean a playoff spot, it should see them still in playoff contention by January or February. That would be a small victory for a team that has kissed the post-season goodbye by December on a near yearly basis over the past five years.
There isn’t a single Canadian team that made as many big moves as the Oilers. They inked top unrestricted free agent blueliner Andrej Sekera, traded for sought after goaltender Cam Talbot, and also added center Mark Letestu, defenseman Eric Gryba and picked up winger Lauri Korpikoski from the Arizona Coyotes. That’s a good haul for new GM Peter Chiarelli.
Don’t look now, but the Oilers depth chart looks less like a team heading for first-overall pick territory and more like one that could make a serious jump up the standings.
3. Winnipeg Jets
You may have heard that playoff hockey returned to Winnipeg this past season. The Jets might not be as fortunate in 2015-16, however, but not because the team got worse.
By playing in arguably the toughest division in hockey, the Central Division, the Jets have to keep pace with a Blackhawks team that is coming off of a Stanley Cup, a Stars team that added Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, the always steady Predators and a Wild club that finally has a goaltender capable of an NHL workload. That’s not to mention a Blues club that, outside of dealing away T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer, hasn’t changed all that much.
The Jets got Alex Burmistrov back from the KHL, but they lost underrated depth forward Michael Frolik. However, this could be the first year for Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan, both young guns who wowed during the preseason in 2014-15 but didn’t make the Jets out of camp. That would certainly give Winnipeg some added offensive punch.
2. Calgary Flames
The Flames are incredibly young, but they’re also immensely talented. No one pulled off a bigger off-season shocker than Calgary, acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins for a handful of draft picks. The Flames immediately upgraded their top two defense pairings with the Hamilton acquisition and now boast a solid group of rearguards.
Considering they were far from possession darlings in 2014-15, there are going to be those who are waiting for the inevitable collapse. It might not come, though, especially with the improvements made on defense, the acquisition of Michael Frolik and the fact that top prospect Sam Bennett is ready for a full season of NHL action after a good first post-season.
The 1-2 punch of Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler are back for another season together and Sean Monahan continues to impress as a savvy goal scorer. The only foreseeable issue might be in goal, but that’s why the Flames are choosing to run with a tandem of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo between the pipes.
1. Montreal Canadiens
It’s hard to go against the Canadiens, especially with Carey Price in net. Price alone is good for at least five “goalie wins” per season. His 44-16-6 record, 9 shutouts, 1.96 GAA and .933 SP were no mirage in 2014-15 and it’s hard to bet against him doing it again, especially with what should be an improved defense.
The Canadiens acquired Jeff Petry at the trade deadline and locked up the blueliner to a six-year deal. The Canadiens’ top three defensemen are now perennial Norris Trophy contender P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Petry. That’s quite the top three, and the trio of Alexei Emelin, Tom Gilbert and Nathan Beaulieu that round out the blueline aren’t too poor, either.
Offensively, the Canadiens struggled with only 221 goals for this past season, which barely kept them out of the bottom third of the league. If Alexander Semin finds his stroke in Montreal, he could be an easy 20-goal guy for the Canadiens. At $1 million for the season that would be quite the deal for the Habs.
(Editor’s note: the original version of this post misidentified the Canucks GM. We apologize for the error.)