Two teams in the playoffs. That’s your deal, Canada. A lousy pair.
Oh how we loved the plucky Ottawa Senators and those high-flying, Las Vegas-favoured Edmonton Oilers back in October, a win away from the Stanley Cup and the Western Conference Final, respectively, last spring. Today they are lottery teams, living in the low-rent district and playing out the string alongside woeful Vancouver and the soul-sucking Montreal Canadiens.
We had some hopes for Calgary and their “best Top 4 defenceman in the NHL,” didn’t we? In the end, that disappointing blue line won’t play any more games than Arizona’s D-corps this season, after a revealing stretch run that left everyone in Cowtown wondering just exactly what they have on this roster, one that so many of us believed in last fall.
So we get two teams in the National Hockey League playoffs. Not five, like last year. But hey — it’s better than the zero that qualified in 2016.
So, with (hopefully) a few rounds of Canadian content on tap beginning in a few weeks, let’s take a look at what we have. It’s an interesting dichotomy: Canada’s marquee club, Toronto, a Hockey Night in Canada staple; and the team whose time zone doesn’t work for anyone, arguably the least sexy market in the NHL in Winnipeg.
A Canadian hockey fan can’t avoid the Maple Leafs even if they tried — but why would you? Toronto is perhaps the most entertaining team we have this season, with a budding superstar in Auston Mathews, enough offence to keep the lamp lit, and just loose enough defensively that Frederik Andersen (when healthy) is one of the three stars whenever Toronto wins.
And the Jets, that club you’ve been hearing about all winter and have no doubt been meaning to watch, with a sniper in Patrik Laine who is on his way to becoming a generational goal scorer. Now that your club is toast — we’re talking to you Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal — do yourself a favour and see what a proper, slow and successful build is supposed to look like.
It was only a year ago when we wondered aloud, “Why on earth would Jets ownership extend general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice?” The coach hadn’t accomplished a darned thing in Winnipeg, and the GM could barely muster a trade to speed up one of hockey’s most deliberate rebuilds.
A year later we can only hope that neither guy is underpaid. The coach is going to squeeze more than 105 points out of an injury-plagued roster, and the GM has one of the deepest teams in the NHL with young stars aplenty, tons of size, skill, and a goalie in Connor Hellebuyck who can truly carry a team somewhere.
Let’s start with Laine, who tragically limped out of Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime win over Los Angeles after blocking a shot. If he’s seriously injured, stuff changes. But with Laine working that left wing dot on the Jets power play, Winnipeg has an elite sniper whose name you can speak — through his first two seasons, anyhow — alongside any of the great scorers in NHL history.
Blake Wheeler has evolved into one of the true leaders in the game, having once been dealt by Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli for Rich Peverley and a handful of magic beans. Today, Wheeler is the veteran conscience of the Jets, a slow-to-evolve, big-body forward having a career season with 62 assists at age 31. He plays like a Canadian, even if he comes from just over the border in Minnesota.
Mark Scheifele would be an anointed superstar if he played for the Leafs or Habs. He is as slick as he is strong, a pedigree of player who will play internationally for Canada for years to come, as players like Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron pass the torch.
Adam Lowry is a wrecking ball, a bottom-six centre whose game you can hear as well as see. Kyle Connor, just 21, is a fantastic young winger, closing in on 30 goals in his first NHL season. They don’t come any more trusty than Bryan Little, a guy who could walk down Toronto’s Bay St. without ever being asked for an autograph. Mathieu Perreault? Think a younger, faster Antoine Vermette.
Then there’s the Jets blue line: Big Dustin Byfuglien? High-skilled Jacob Trouba, who comes in at six-foot-three and 202 lbs? Tyler Myers, who somehow wasn’t good enough for Buffalo? Josh Morrissey, the perfect example of how a patient, proper organization brings a player along?
Guess it turns out Calgary didn’t have the best defence corps after all.