A nearly five months off hockey is upon us, and we have six Canadian teams in the mix. Despite the excessive parity in the NHL, each team is relatively unique, so let’s look at the season that was 2019-20 and see where each Canadian team could find its success or trip itself up.
To start with, we’ll look at each of the Western Canadian teams, before circling back to the Eastern teams to finish up. We’ll look at how teams performed specifically since the calendar turned to 2020 in order to focus on more recent data.
Before we get into the specifics, let’s take a general look at how the Western Canadian teams stack up in terms of controlling play at 5-on-5.
Overall, the outlook from this perspective is not so hot for three of the four teams.
The Oilers hover around even, and manage to get by due to playing a low-volume game, and counting on their star forwards to outscore opponents when chances are about even. It’s a decent strategy when your depth is suspect and your team has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but can it work in the playoffs when the quality of opponents is higher?
The Canucks had a brutal second half, masked by brilliance from their power play, Jacob Markstrom, Quinn Hughes, and a dynamite top line. Outside of their standout players, though, you could argue that Vancouver was the worst 5-on-5 team in the league. Even when you include those players the Canucks were run over off the rush, giving up more chances than anyone else and not creating much on the counter attack. Can their star power hold it together?
An up and down season for the Flames was trending in the right direction before the season was paused. The Flames weren’t the even strength powerhouse they were during last year’s regular season and they’re still struggling in rush chances, an area where the Avalanche ate them alive in the playoffs. But overall they’re controlling quality chances better than most teams are. The question for them is whether they can put it all together at the right time for once.
The Jets are the team that seems to be the biggest wildcard entering these playoffs. By the numbers they never should have even made the playoffs this season and they’ve been one of the worst defensive teams in the league. However, Connor Hellebuyck was downright heroic all season long, so can he steal a series or two?
Let’s start things off with the weaknesses that opponents will be looking to exploit so we can end on a positive note.
The Oilers’ biggest weaknesses are scattered across each zone, with the second-highest turnover rate in the neutral zone in the league making them vulnerable to quick transition rush chances against.
Their biggest weakness relative to the league is puck battle wins in the offensive zone, where they ranked 31st, which does hurt their chances of creating long possessions and breaking down opposing teams off the forecheck or cycle. But the Oilers rely more on their stars to do the work on dynamic plays off the rush than most teams do, so it isn’t as big a deal for them to be the worst team in the league here as you may think.
Defensively, the Oilers have actually been skated into shape by Dave Tippett and his coaching staff, and while many may believe they’re exploitable there, they keep everything pretty tight in their own end, except off the forecheck. Only a handful of teams give up more off the forecheck than the Oilers do, so high pressure forechecking teams could break them down.
The Canucks, as mentioned before, are a terrible team at defending off the rush, and that links up well with them giving up the second-most controlled entries against in the league.
A bit more surprising is that the Canucks, who position themselves as a cycling and forechecking team, only produce more offensive zone possession time than one team: the Ottawa Senators. The Canucks can create some brilliant offensive zone possessions, especially that top line, but outside of that, not much gets done at evens.
As previously mentioned, the Flames are still porous off the rush, and part of the reason might be the wide berth they give opponents. No team gives opponents a wider gap on their average shot attempt than the Flames. That conservative approach might be to give their goalies clearer views, or to take away passing lanes, but it hasn’t helped in the inner slot.
No team has seen their goalies stop a lower percentage of shots on net from the inner slot than the Flames, so stepping up and forcing shots from further out might be paramount to their potential success.
The Jets give up more chances than any team in the league, and a big reason for that is they’re so sloppy with the puck under their own control.
In the defensive and neutral zones they’re among the worst teams for turning the puck over, which puts a lot of pressure on their goaltenders to make reactionary saves on broken plays. Luckily, Hellebuyck has been up to the task all year long.
On to the good stuff.
As you might expect for a team built around McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers are incredible at attacking the opposing blue line, succeeding on their attempted entries more than anyone in the league. Once they gain the zone, they’re very effective at maintaining control of the puck, committing the second-fewest offensive zone turnovers in the league.
In their own zone, part of what has helped the Oilers look better defensively has been the diligent work of their goaltenders at controlling rebounds. Giving fewer chances for opponents to recover pucks and get second chance opportunities goes a long way towards holding leads in tight games.
The only team that commits fewer offensive zone turnovers than the Oilers is one province away – this skill helps the Canucks make the most of their fewer offensive zone possessions than the average team. Clearly the preferred method of attack for Vancouver is to cycle the puck, as they’re a top-five team in the NHL at creating those chances.
Defensively, the Canucks are by no means “good” in their own end, but one thing that helps them out is their ability to win a huge number of faceoffs, which should in theory lead to more quick exits and fewer dangerous shots against, but that hasn’t been the case overall.
For the Flames, breaking out quickly is the number one reason why they are strong defensively. They have strength in an ability to break opposing cycling games and immediately move the puck out of the defensive zone with control.
The Flames have been a very good defensive team at even strength this season, but a middling offence has held them back. Just don’t give them power play time.
Only one team has managed to create a more dangerous power play in terms of expected goals per minute, and things really picked up for the Flames in the second half, where they scored on over a quarter of their power play opportunities. The crazy thing is, they were still a little unlucky. If they catch lightning in a bottle on the power play, watch out.
The only team that put up a higher expected goals number on the power play in the second half of the season is also from Canada, and it was a team that desperately needed that offence. The Jets’ best attribute in the second half was their incredible playmaking with the extra man, and like the Flames, they shot below expected over that time.
At even strength, the Jets weren’t able to create as many slot passes as in years past, and relied more on getting screens in front of their shots to create dangerous looks.
One thing opponents will need to be wary of as they out-possess the Jets is Winnipeg’s ability to flip the script and counterattack; the Jets were one of the best teams in the league at creating odd-man rushes. Is struggling in your own zone and relying on your goaltender to save the day, only to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake, a long-term model for success? No. But can it result in a huge upset or two in the playoffs? Of course. Just ask the 2010 Montreal Canadiens.