It’s been a dismal year for Canada’s NHL teams. Of the seven, only the Toronto Maple Leafs are about where they believed they’d be.
The Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets all had reason to imagine they’d be in the playoffs again — or at the very least, in the playoff hunt. Edmonton? With Connor McDavid and all those past first overall picks, this had to be the year for the Big Leap Forward, right?
Wrong. And wrong on the Flames, Nucks, Sens, Habs and Jets 2.0, as well.
Of all those teams, Montreal has to be in a state of shock given their wonderful start last fall. As for the rest, you could argue the most disappointing would be the Flames.
Calgary didn’t think they’d be in this position — a lottery club hoping their numbered balls will come up first on April 30 — any more than the Leafs believed Martin Marincin would be part of their top defensive pair and Dion Phaneuf and his entire contract would be the property of the Senators.
The interesting question now is, are the Flames or the Leafs positioned better to become a consistent playoff team in the future? Seven months ago, the answer would have been Calgary by a landslide vote.
But much has happened since, with the Leafs stripped down to bare necessities while embarking on the most aggressive rebuilding effort in franchise history, and Calgary suffering through a strange and difficult losing season that included the Dennis Wideman incident, some controversial Super Bowl hangovers and a season-ending injury to the surprise winner of the team’s goalie competition, Karri Ramo.
Two players, meanwhile, who undoubtedly will have much to do with the future of their respective teams are two 19-year-old centres: Sam Bennett of the Flames and William Nylander of the Leafs, a pair of outstanding young talents separated by three picks in the 2014 NHL draft.
Bennett, ranked the No. 1 North American prospect that year, went fourth to Calgary. The Leafs, faced with a hard choice between Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, went for Nylander.
Both Bennett and Nylander are smaller, point-producing centres. Bennett comes with more grease to his game; Nylander’s a little smoother, perhaps a better skater.
Interestingly, the two clubs have taken different approaches to the development of these two players, partially because of circumstances.
Bennett was injured for the first half of last season, but so impressed Calgary in practices and one regular season game that he became a regular for two playoff rounds and has been in the NHL all of this season. In January, he became the third youngest NHLer to ever notch a four-goal game.
Nylander, meanwhile, split last year between the Swedish league and the AHL with the Marlies, then spent all of this season in the minors before being recalled 12 games ago.
The Flames have pushed Bennett a little harder to this point, and he has responded. Nylander might have been recalled earlier this season but suffered a concussion at the world junior championships, and in general the Leafs have wanted to be patient with him.
Monday night, the two rookie pivots took the opening faceoff against each other, and in one of those game-within-a-game scenarios, it was a chance to judge in one game just where they are 21 months after they were drafted.
It was a lopsided result.
Bennett, who played a shade under 12 minutes the night before in Montreal and picked up an assist, had lots of friends and family in the stands but skated less than 11 minutes for Bob Hartley and was used sparingly in the third period as the coach leaned on Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund. He was minus-2, didn’t have a shot and lost five of six faceoffs.
Nylander, meanwhile, with Swedish national team GM Peter Popovic and coach Par Marts eyeballing talent for the world championship in the press box, sparkled and was named first star with the game-winning goal and two assists for his second consecutive multi-point performance.
“The more games you play, the more confident you get,” he said with a smile.
Popovic huddled with Nylander in the hallway outside the Leafs' dressing room after the game. The Leafs, however, intend to have Nylander head back to the Marlies for a long AHL playoff run as soon as the NHL schedule concludes.
“My focus is here, then the Marlies and the playoffs,” said Nylander dutifully.
Monday night was only one game, a 5-2 Leafs win, but it was Nylander’s best outing so far. He looked doubly confident for reasons only he knows, and he showed the two-way game necessary to play centre in the NHL.
“That’s how you get ice time in this league,” said Nylander’s veteran wingman, P.A. Parenteau, who surely knows of such matters.
Babcock said he plans to keep Nylander at centre for the rest of this season, but with Tyler Bozak back for the next game against the Anaheim Ducks, it will allow him to protect his rookie against having to face one of Ryan Getzlaf or Ryan Kesler every single shift.
Against the Flames, Nazem Kadri drew the assignment against Monahan, Calgary’s No. 1 centre, leaving Nylander to face either Bennett or Backlund, and he was able to find lots of open ice all night.
He showed an extra half-second of patience to set up Parenteau for Toronto’s first goal, then won a faceoff before firing a shot that energetic Zach Hyman deflected home for the Leafs' second score.
“It speaks for itself. He’s got great poise with the puck,” said Zach Hyman, who only skated three weeks on a line with Nylander with the Marlies but looks like a perfect fit beside him in the NHL.
Early in the third, with the game tied 2-2, Nylander got open again in the high slot and fired a rocket that beat Jonas Hiller high to the glove side for his fourth NHL goal.
It was his back-checking and defensive zone play all night long, however, that had Babcock excited.
“Those things matter more to me than the other stuff. We know he has that,” said the Leafs coach. “What’s going to decide it for him is how much drive he has, how much he wants to train, to eat right, to live.”
Bennett, of course, has that spectacular four-goal outing to remember his rookie season by, and pitted against Nylander again soon, he might gain the edge. But he didn’t Monday.
When you imagine where these two teams are headed, a lot of the conversation revolves around the potential of these two special 19-year-olds, along with Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and the defence tandem of T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano for the Flames, and defenceman Morgan Rielly, Kadri and junior superstar Mitch Marner for the Leafs.
Just a year ago you would have thought Calgary could barely see the Leafs in the rear view mirror. Now, the two franchises are much closer in terms of where they are and their potential as a team.
Both are now looking to April 30 to provide another crucial piece, a position in which the Leafs wanted to be.
Calgary? Not so much.