The playoff landscape for Canadian teams is set following the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 3-2 shootout win the New York Rangers on Friday night. The Montreal Canadiens are eliminated, while the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames remain in the picture, seeking to each become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the 1992-93 Canadiens won 10 straight overtimes to capture an unlikely 24th Stanley Cup for the franchise against Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings.
All three teams look strong on the surface, with the Flames posting the second-best record in the NHL, the Maple Leafs posting the sixth-best and the Jets in a dogfight to win the Central Division. But which team has the best chance to break that 25 year Cup drought for Canadian franchises?
In order to answer that question, you have to look at a wide array of data. Not all of the information can be compared apples to apples on a graph, so what makes sense to me is to break down a ton of statistics based on where each team ranks league-wide.
We’ll split everything up between statistics that measure plays with the puck in the team’s possession, and those that occur with the puck in the opposing team’s possession.
Not every statistic is of equal importance, but taking a wide view of a team’s overall rankings in a multitude of areas can tell us a lot about them.
It’s a lot to take in, but let’s go through these three teams in detail.
The Jets are a strong transition team whose offence relies on pre-shot movement through East-West passing and beating players one-on-one with dekes. Winnipeg does struggle to get shots off from dangerous areas, though, relying more on the talent of their shooters and making goalies move than on shot location, or even shot volume.
They don’t produce many chances off the rush, though that ranking isn’t wholly representative of the current team, as Nikolaj Ehlers has missed significant time with injury and Kevin Hayes is a machine at creating chances off the rush. The chances they do make are particularly dangerous because they’re adept at completing passes off the rush, but overall, the Jets are the least inspiring offensive team of the three.
The Maple Leafs are shot volume and shot quality machines at 5-vs-5, second in the league in high danger chances and scoring chances overall, and fourth in shots on goal. Toronto is also the NHL’s second-best team at generating chances off the rush, third-best in creating odd man rushes, a top-five team in controlled entries, the fourth-best team in beating opponents one-on-one with dekes, and sixth-best at completing passes to the slot.
The Leafs are a thoroughly dangerous and versatile offensive team that generates chances off the rush, cycle, and forecheck in high volumes. They’re willing to take risks to create those chances, which is why they rank 29th in the league in offensive zone turnovers — the Leafs lose the puck a lot.
In the defensive zone, Toronto buckles down a bit more and is much safer with the puck, giving up the eighth-fewest turnovers in the league. However, they’re fairly haphazard in the neutral zone, where they rank 21st.
Regardless, with the puck on their sticks, the Leafs are a team to be reckoned with.
The Flames meanwhile, put the field to shame here. Of the 20 metrics that measure performance while in control of the puck, Calgary ranks top-five in the league in twelve of them, and rank within the top-10 in another three.
The only area where the Flames rank as a below average team is in getting scoring chances on rebounds, and they’re still the top ranked of the three Canadian playoff teams.
They’re the most efficient team when moving the puck in all three zones, make the best choices at both blue lines, and no team creates as many odd man rushes as they do.
If you’re looking hard for a critique, we could say that Calgary could generate more shot volume. But considering all the things that they’re doing well, it looks like the Flames are content to wait for higher quality shots, and they’re still above league average in volume.
Like I mentioned earlier, not all statistics are equal, but if we average out the rankings for a ball general view, the Jets average rank is 14.2, the Leafs’ average is 10.3, and the Flames’ average is 6.6. Advantage Flames, for now.
Let’s look at how these teams perform without the puck.
Okay, well there isn’t much suspense to be had here; the Flames are simply superior to the Jets and Leafs without the puck on a massive scale. Calgary is a top-five team in 11 metrics without the puck, and top-10 in another four.
No team in the NHL forces turnovers by opponents as often as the Flames do in the neutral and opposing defensive zones, which allows them to capitalize on broken plays where the opposing team’s defensive structure is either not in place or out of sorts completely. That isn’t just excellent for scoring in general, but makes them particularly strong at forging comeback wins.
If you ever wondered what a deep defensive group does for you in the NHL, look at the gap between Calgary’s ability to shrug off forechecks and cycle plays compared to Toronto’s. It’s night and day.
All three Canadian teams are good at forcing opponents into dump outs instead of controlled exits, and the Leafs are actually the top neutral zone defensive team, limiting odd man rushes and chances off the rush in general more effectively than the Flames or Jets. That being said, Toronto falls apart once its zone is gained, wilting under forechecking pressure and getting caught running around chasing the cycle.
Goaltending and shooting talent are both tough to account for in statistics, but there’s huge variability in how they translate in short sample sizes. Looking at how each of these teams attack, defend, and transition the puck between zones, it seems to me that the Flames boast superior structure in coaching, and maybe even a more balanced, or at least more effective, roster construction for success this season.
When you combine that with the fact Toronto draws Boston again in the first round and would likely face Tampa Bay in the second, as well as that Winnipeg needs to go through one or both of Nashville and St. Louis, Calgary has to be the odds on favourite to make it the furthest.