It’s fair to say the first two-plus months of the NHL season have been tumultuous for Canada’s seven NHL teams.
There’s been a lot of good. Both Vancouver and Edmonton have led the Pacific Division at one point or another; the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl combo is 1-2 in NHL scoring; the Jets have been on an absolute tear of late; Ottawa has shown positive signs and holds non-playoff San Jose’s first-rounder; and at one point Montreal was making a case as Canada’s best.
There’s been a lot of bad as well. The unfolding Bill Peters story in Calgary; Toronto’s struggling backup situation and the fact they’ve been chasing a playoff spot all year, resulting in a coaching change; lack of depth being exposed in Edmonton; Montreal’s recent eight-game losing skid; Vancouver slowing from a positive start.
In Sportsnet’s NHL newsletter, we have twice ranked Canada’s NHL teams this year, first on Nov. 7 and then again this Thursday and it’s become clear how much can change in one month. Where the Jets ranked sixth in early-November, their amazing stretch since then — as most others have been inconsistent — suddenly makes Winnipeg look like one of Canada’s best bets for a Stanley Cup again.
But, still, we’ve got more than half a season in front of us.
Here is our current ranking of Canada’s NHL teams, taking into consideration their play over the past month and the general overall outlook moving forward.
1. Winnipeg Jets
Record since Nov. 7: 11-4-1
Previous ranking: 6
Thursday’s loss to Detroit, which snapped a 12-game losing streak for Wings, was a bad look but the Jets have been Canada’s most successful team over the past month record-wise by far. It didn’t start so well. After having their blue line decimated by off-season departures, the Jets won six of their first 13 games and it seemed as though their window had quickly slammed shut. And, maybe, it has because those departures have certainly been felt — even through this good run.
Two years ago, Winnipeg allowed the third-fewest high danger chances at 5-on-5 in the league. Last year, they were middle of the pack. So far this season they’ve allowed the third-most, better than only the Rangers and Blackhawks. And in their last 16 games? Winnipeg’s still allowed the eighth-most high-danger chances at 5-on-5. They don’t generate a ton for themselves either, so their 41.09 high danger chances for percentage ranks dead last since Nov. 7.
This is why Connor Hellebuyck is making a strong case for Vezina consideration. He really is the only reason why Winnipeg has been able to stay so high up in the standings. As Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds told us on the Tape to Tape Podcast this week, it seems like the Jets give up clearcut breakaways every game.
There have been some other, positive changes. Blake Wheeler’s playing centre and that’s worked very well. Patrik Laine got the promotion to Line 1 he wanted and, curiously, has 12 more assists than goals. The Jets aren’t doing it the same way they have in recent seasons, but you can’t argue with the results.
2. Calgary Flames
Record since Nov. 7: 9-5-2
Previous ranking: 5
Considering all this team has gone through over the past month, it’s incredible how the players have responded. Early in November they went on a six-game losing streak and, shortly after that was snapped, the accusations against Bill Peters became public and he coached his last game for the team on Nov. 27. But now the Flames have won eight of their past nine games, interim head coach Geoff Ward is undefeated and the team has been much more loose since the change was made.
Sean Monahan scored a goal in four straight games. Johnny Gaudreau has started scoring as the lines have been shuffled, and his two goals against Toronto on Thursday led the comeback. David Rittich has yet to show any signs that he is not capable of being a solid No. 1 goalie.
And then there’s the unforeseen goodness. Sandpaper players Zac Rinaldo and Milan Lucic have been providing recent offence.
There are only three “minus” players since Peters left the team — Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Elias Lindholm — and they’re all just minus-two. Calgary was one of the best third period teams last season and again are tied for the league lead in wins when trailing after the second period.
3. Montreal Canadiens
Record since Nov. 7: 7-6-4
Previous ranking: 4
The Habs lost eight in a row at one point — three of which were in extra time. That had some wondering if head coach Claude Julien was on the hot seat, or if GM Marc Bergevin would spring into action and try to improve things via trade. But as we explored on Sportsnet.ca this week, in-season trades aren’t exactly how Bergevin conducts business. And things have gotten rosier again without a major move.
Montreal has won four of its past five now, including wins over the Islanders and Penguins. Shea Weber has been dominant of late and Phillip Danault continues to have a career year that will maybe garner some Selke attention. But it all comes back to Carey Price with this team — and he has a .942 save percentage in December so far.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
Record since Nov. 7: 7-9-1
Previous ranking: 2
The Leafs have gone through their own coaching change since we ranked Canada’s teams in November, switching from Mike Babcock to Sheldon Keefe on Nov. 20. And since then, we have seen marked change in Toronto including Frederik Andersen in both games of a back-to-back situation — something Babcock never would have done. There have been new line combinations and defence pairs, and generally more creativity. The team has generated more high danger chances than before, but also given up more. The most obvious difference, though, can be seen on special teams. Under Babcock this season, Toronto’s power play ranked 19th and penalty kill 31st. But since the change, the Leafs have the No. 4-ranked PP (29.4 per cent) and No. 1-ranked PK (91.3 per cent).
In Thursday’s newsletter, the Leafs ranked ahead of Montreal, but the follow-up loss to Calgary was yet another concerning one. While there have been some positive trends since Keefe became head coach, the one carry-over from Babcock’s time has been Toronto’s inability to play a full 60 minutes consistently. Under Babcock, the team received a lot of heat for its slow starts. Under Keefe, there have been some late-game concerns. Against Calgary, the Leafs played two solid periods and then allowed three goals in under three minutes at the start of the third. That was the difference. Earlier in the week in a 4-1 win over Vancouver, they had another bad third period in which they were outshot by a 2:1 rate. Sure, you could say that was the result of playing with a lead and being a mid-week game on the opposite coast, but given this has been an ongoing problem for the team, excuses shouldn’t be allowed to get explained away so easily any more.
Under Keefe, Toronto has won six of its 10 games. That’s not bad at all, but it’s also not fantastic. Continuing on like that may not be enough to get to the playoffs.
5. Edmonton Oilers
Record since Nov. 7: 8-7-2
Previous ranking: 3
It may seem odd to have a team that held its division lead on Thursday morning all the way down to fifth in these rankings, but we’re starting to see some cracks in the Oilers that could spell trouble. First of all, the secondary scoring that has been a problem for the entire season has become even more so with James Neal’s production drying up after his quick start. He has just four goals in his past 20 games, and only one of those came at 5-on-5. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, has just three 5-on-5 points in his past 11 games.
Even more worrisome is that despite Leon Draisaitl scoring eight points in his past nine games, he’s also managed to be a minus-10 in that stretch. Since Nov. 7, Edmonton has the league’s sixth-worst shots for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.77) and the sixth-worst goals for percentage at 5-on-5, being outscored by 12.
The Oilers don’t have an easy upcoming schedule, facing Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Montreal in the next week. They are right now in their first slump of the season, so the next eight days will show us exactly what this year’s Oilers are all about. Will they sink into an extended losing streak, the kind of which we’ve gotten used to seeing? Or will they pick themselves up by the bootstraps and nip this thing in the bud?
6. Vancouver Canucks
Record since Nov. 7: 7-9-1
Previous ranking: 1
It was tempting to rank the Canucks ahead of the Oilers here. While they’ve gone through a difficult stretch of their own, they’ve also dealt with a bunch of injuries and been without starter Jacob Markstrom, who took time away from the team following the death of his father. And positive signs are there. Would you believe that since Nov. 7 J.T. Miller has more points than Elias Pettersson, and Tanner Pearson is tied with the reigning rookie of the year? And it’s not as though the Swede has been slacking with 14 points in 17 games. The fact is that while players such as Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland and Brandon Sutter won’t ever offer eye-popping offensive totals, they do provide a certain physical, tough style the Canucks want to complement their skill with. And when that’s ripped out of the lineup, there will be a bigger hole left behind than it would seem.
The Miller trade this past off-season defined a window in which Vancouver needed to get back to the playoffs — if they don’t get there either this season or next, Tampa Bay will walk into a lottery pick. GM Jim Benning told Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre this week that, if the price is right, he’s in the market to add another top-six winger who can score.
They’ll play a back-to-back road series in San Jose and Vegas this weekend and then will play seven of eight games at home over the holiday season. That should provide a soft landing.
7. Ottawa Senators
Record since Nov. 7: 9-8-1
Previous ranking: 7
With a .500 winning percentage in this stretch, the Senators have been surprisingly good of late and are one of only three Canadian teams that has won at least half their games since Nov. 7. They won seven of nine games in mid-November, but that was a relatively light stretch that included games (and wins) over New Jersey, Los Angeles, Detroit and the Rangers — all but one of those teams sit behind Ottawa in the season-long standings.
Ultimately, tough decisions will need to be made by GM Pierre Dorion as to who gets moved at the deadline, and who stays to be part of the future. The name at the top of that list is Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a 27-year-old pending UFA who has a team-leading 16 goals — already just three shy of his career high. The other silver lining for Ottawa? They hold San Jose’s first-round pick from the Erik Karlsson trade, and that team is 24th in the league, outside of a playoff spot, and just fired their coach.
The Senators have not been a bad on-ice story this season. Expectations were already low, but there have been positive developments and their record isn’t all that atrocious. But they’re still seventh because, really, they’re the only team here that doesn’t have a shot at the post-season.