Back in September I previewed Canada’s seven NHL teams approaching this season to determine which one stood the best chance to end the country’s 20-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought.
At that time, I believed the Ottawa Senators were the best bet, citing their goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, their solid blueline, the first line of Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan and Milan Michalek and their depth in promising young talent.
Approaching the midpoint of this season, however, the Senators are outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Anderson has struggled, the defense is porous, Michalek’s offense has gone south while the development of some of their young players (Jared Cowen, Cory Conacher, Jean-Gabriel Pageau) seems to have stalled.
The Senators remain close enough to a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference that they could qualify with a strong second half performance. If they do, however, they probably won’t get past the first round. Should their current issues persist, they can forget about clinching a post-season spot this season.
Of this season’s Canadian clubs, the Vancouver Canucks entered the final weekend of 2013 with the best record (50 points in 39 games), but in the very tough Western Conference they’re only holding onto a wild card berth.
Approaching the 40-game mark, the Canucks were among the NHL’s top defensive teams, with the fifth-fewest goals-against per game (seventh in total goals-against), the eight fewest shots-against per game and the league’s top penalty kill. Credit their solid goaltending of the once-maligned Roberto Luongo and backup Eddie Lack as well as coach John Tortorella’s aggressive defensive system.
Offensively they’re sitting 16th in goals per game while their power-play is 23rd overall. For most of this season the bulk of their offense has been provided by the Sedin Twins and Ryan Kesler. Barring serious injuries to key players, the Canucks should make the playoffs but their lack of offensive depth hampers any chance for a prolonged post-season run.
Nearing New Year’s Day, the Montreal Canadiens have the second-best record of the Canadian teams, with 49 points in 41 games.
The good news for the Habs is the outstanding performance of goalie Carey Price, ranking among the league’s best. Defenseman P.K. Subban remains a superstar on the rise, veteran blueliner Andrei Markov remains a steady presence on their defence, Max Pacioretty shook off early injuries to become a clutch scorer while sophomores Alex Galchenyk and Brendan Gallagher are blossoming as stars in their own right.
The bad news is the Canadiens are among the league’s lowest-scoring teams (entering the weekend 21st in goals-per-game and 23rd in shots-per-game), they rely too much on Price to bail them out and haven’t gotten much bang for their buck from Daniel Briere. The Habs should make the playoffs but lack consistency and scoring punch to march to a Cup title.
After ending a seven-year playoff drought last season, expectations were high for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. After a strong start, however, the Leafs have significantly tailed off and find themselves clinging to a wild card berth in the East.
Injuries to key players (Dave Bolland, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak) was one reason but the biggest issue is their sloppy defensive play. The Leafs enter this week leading the league in shots-against per game, and if not for their goalie tandem of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer would be outside the playoff picture.
Earlier in the season the Leafs could offset their poor defensive play with their offense but of late they’re struggling to score, sliding out of the top-ten teams in goals-per-game (where they were in mid-November) to 16th overall. They’re currently 27th overall in shots-per-game. If the Leafs fail to improve at both ends of the rink they’ll be booking tee times come April.
Moving to the Western Conference did little to snap the Winnipeg Jets out of their ongoing mediocrity. With 39 points in 40 games, the Jets enter this week six points out of a wild card berth, once again plagued by the maddening inconsistency which has become their hallmark since moving to Winnipeg in 2011.
The Jets are middle of the pack in goals-per-game (17th) and penalty-killing (14th). Their goaltending and defense has hurt them, giving up the eighth-most goals and the tenth-most shots-against. They also can’t get anything going on the power-play, sitting 24th overall with the man-advantage.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a team with the talent of the Jets (Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little up front; Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian on defense) shouldn’t be spinning its wheels this season. If they don’t find a solution soon (A new starting goalie? A coaching change? A major trade?) they can forget about making the playoffs this season.
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are in the midst of their respective rebuilds. Barring a second-half improvement of historical proportions, neither club has a shot at making the playoffs this season.The Oilers continue to make headlines for their unwillingness to move one of their top young forwards to address their need for a top-two defenseman, while the Flames are earning respect by making up in hard work for what they lack in talent.
Compared to the top teams (Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Jose in the West, Boston and Pittsburgh in the East), none of this year’s versions of Canada’s teams appear strong enough to win the Stanley Cup in 2014.