It’s Boxing Day in Canada, so I’m feeling patriotic here in Toronto. I’ve decided to grade the seven Canadian teams at the holiday break. Enjoy!
Toronto Maple Leafs
To be fair, this team hasn’t had its complete lineup together for one game this season. Having said that, like Ottawa showed last season when its lineup was totally depleted, good teams find a way to overcome adversity and injuries. Toronto hasn’t been able to do that on a consistent basis. The goaltending duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer has been the bright spot, but otherwise there have been disappointing efforts both up front and on defense. The Leafs are a team that simply gives up too many scoring chances and gets outshot way too often. This team needs to tighten up and redefine its identity in the second half to have any chance to make the playoffs.
Many people had Montreal slipping back out of the playoffs this season, so to be sitting in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic at the Christmas break is a solid achievement. Carey Price has answered the questions of his late-season meltdown from 2012-13; he’s been Vezina-like all year long -- which also bodes well for Team Canada in Sochi. The return of Alexei Emelin has stabilized the blue line. The Canadiens are just not the same without his physical presence. However, the team struggles to score goals on many nights; Montreal’s 2.47 goals per game average is 22nd in the NHL and lowest of the seven Canadian teams. The Habs are too reliant on their power play to win games. They need better five-on-five production in the second half to remain a playoff team.
This is perhaps the most disappointing Canadian team, at least in terms of the expectations many people had for them. (I picked them to challenge Boston for the Atlantic.) It’s been a total regression among several of the Senators' young players, such as Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba, etc. It’s absolutely unforgivable that this team is 26th in the league in goals against per game (3.10). This was a defensive juggernaut a year ago (second in the NHL, 2.08 goals allowed per game). Craig Anderson takes some of the blame for a so-so season, but the defense in front of him hasn’t been very good either. Meanwhile, up front, the whole point of trading for Bobby Ryan -- a bright light for Ottawa with a team-high 17 goals -- was to pair him with Jason Spezza, and that lasted only a few weeks early in the season. After a couple years of defying expectations, it’s as if the Senators struggled to handle loftier expectations this season. After some struggles in the opening two months, former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson looks like his old self, which bodes well for the second half. This is still a very good team, led by a great coach in Paul MacLean, that opens the post-Christmas break just four points behind Toronto, so a playoff spot remains possible.
The John Tortorella hire was either going to be a colossal mistake or a stroke of genius. Take a bow, GM Mike Gillis. The Canucks have responded to Torts, playing some of the best defensive hockey they have played in a few years. The healthy return of Ryan Kesler hasn’t hurt either. The Canucks will tell you that, when he’s healthy, he is their engine, and this season is the best he’s looked in two years, having recovered finally from hip, wrist and shoulder surgeries. It’s tough sledding in the mighty Pacific Division with the three California teams all Cup-worthy opponents, but I believe the heightened competition is helping this team raise its game after years of loafing in the old Northwest Division, which the Canucks would sew up by early March most years. The Canucks aren’t the surefire Cup contenders of before, but they’re playoff worthy, which frankly was in doubt before the season.
An absolute nightmare by any measure in Northern Alberta. Last in the NHL at 3.44 goals against per game, this team has shown no clue in terms of defensive awareness; horrid goaltending, yes, but the defensive coverage has been just as abysmal. No evidence by some of the young forward stars on this team that they’re willing to play a 200-foot game. Can’t put into words how disappointing a season this is for the Oilers. I still like the hire of Dallas Eakins as head coach. He’s a sharp dude, but he has his work cut out for him in terms of winning the battle of wills with some of his young players. Oilers fans deserve better than yet another year out of the playoffs.
The Flames are near the basement in the standings, but I’m giving them a decent grade because they deserve credit for the work ethic they’ve displayed night in and night out in a season where everyone knows they had no chance to win. That’s a credit to coach Bob Hartley. You may beat the Flames, but you’re going to pay a price in doing so. Calgary’s emotion in its comeback win over St. Louis before the Christmas break was a perfect summary of how the Flames are battling this season despite their talent limitations. Why does it matter to not just "tank" a season when you have no expectations? Young players like Sean Monahan grow up in a better environment and understand that losing isn’t acceptable.
I picked the Jets to finish last in the Central Division before the season, so I’m not surprised by their struggles. They’re 18th in goals for and 23rd in goals against, all of which spells mediocrity. Just not enough secondary scoring on this team, and the goaltending hasn’t been up to snuff either. There are some bright spots, though, such as rookie stud blueliner Jacob Trouba; man is he going to be a player in this league. He’s already playing more than 21 minutes a game. I also like what I’ve seen from 20-year-old center Mark Scheifele over the past month. I don’t think this team is that far away from being a playoff team, but I just didn’t feel like the Jets were ready to take that step this season in the tougher Western Conference.