Hockey fans, rejoice! The NHL season starts Wednesday night and before it does we are going to look at an X-factor on all seven Canadian teams who will be critical to his team’s success this season.
The Montreal Canadiens’ performance in the return-to-play playoffs has given them a sense of direction. The play of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, along with Carey Price showing he is still an elite goaltender, pushed GM Marc Bergevin to make a few big time moves in the off-season.
In doing so, the Habs look like a team that could make some noise in the North Division, and possibly even win it. Their biggest X-factor will be in whether or not their young guys at the centre ice position, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, can continue to progress.
Specifically Suzuki, who tied for the team lead in both goals and points during the playoffs.
The Canadiens used the playoffs as a way to give Suzuki a chance to gain some experience while putting him in a position to show whether or not he was ready to take on a greater role. He went from playing an average of 15:59 a night in the regular season to 19:11 in playoffs.
Suzuki made his case, creating a ton of chances while driving play for his team.
Starting the season with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, Suzuki has an excellent opportunity to establish himself as a bonafide second line centre. His ability to centre a productive line could be the difference between the Canadiens being a legit contender for the North Division or a team once again on the outside looking in.
There’s a lot to talk about with the Toronto Maple Leafs after they overhauled their forward depth, but their most important move has to be the addition of TJ Brodie. Since drafting Morgan Rielly fifth overall in 2012, the Leafs have been trying to find him a responsible defence partner who would allow Rielly to flourish offensively without worrying about giving up too much at the defensive end.
Brodie looks to be a perfect fit.
As a left hand shot who can play the right side he won’t provide much in the way of offence, but he was one of the best defencemen in the league at shutting down the cycle last season. This was an area in which the Leafs struggled, ranking 25th in the league in cycle chances against.
Brodie also has a great first pass, which can only work in Toronto’s favour. The Leafs finished third in the league in goals per game last season, so getting the puck up to their talented forwards and letting them go to work will be a big key to their success.
There won’t be anything fancy to Brodie’s game, but his defensive prowess will add an element to the Leafs that’s been sorely lacking over the past few years.
The 2020-21 season will be another rebuilding year for the Ottawa Senators so their biggest concern will be the continued development of their young players. One in particular, Thomas Chabot, looks like a potential future Norris Trophy candidate, but only if he can improve on his defensive game.
While his points total took a hit last year dropping from 55 in 70 games to 39 in 71, Chabot’s offensive game is unquestionable. He’s an excellent skater and he uses that skill to make him one of the best play-driving defencemen in the league.
Looking at those numbers, one would expect Chabot to not be all that bad defensively, but that just doesn’t pan out.
No defenceman who played a minimum of 500 minutes last season had a worse While-On-Ice expected goals against than Chabot. Now, some of that is a reflection of the team he played so many minutes for, however Chabot does have plenty of room to improve in his own end as well.
Chabot is a monster offensively, but for the Senators to improve as a team they’ll need him to improve defensively. If they can turn him into a better two-way defenceman, they’ll have that coveted bonafide No. 1 blueliner.
One of the biggest stories out of Winnipeg during the pre-season was Patrik Laine’s level of contentment and whether he will remain a Winnipeg Jet. Laine is coming off a season where he was just under a point per game pace that would have seen him surpass 30 goals as he’s done in every other season of his career.
One of Laine’s biggest issues has been his relegation to the second line, but the Jets are hoping that they’ve addressed that problem with the addition of Paul Stastny.
Stastny had a down season last year where his career low shooting percentage resulted in his lowest point total since he only played 40 games in the 2012-13 season. The Jets are hoping he’ll be able to rekindle the magic he had with Laine in 2017-18 that resulted in Stastny scoring 15 points in 17 playoff games with the Jets.
The Jets’ line of Stastny, Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers were their second-most used line in those playoffs, playing 143:03 even-strength minutes together. While on the ice together at even-strength these Jets scored nine goals and only gave up six.
One part of Stastny’s game that will really help Laine is that he likes to get in on the forecheck and win puck battles. Last season, Stastny finished 46th in the league at winning puck battles in the offensive zone. This will be an important skill to his success because it allows Laine to find an opening where he can set up and look for a quick shot.
That skill was on full display in the 2017-18 playoffs when he jumped in on the forecheck in Game 2 against Minnesota and won the battle for a loose puck, which eventually resulted in a goal for Laine.
Statsny’s ability to give Laine a complementary centre will make a huge difference in whether or not the Jets are successful this season.
When COVID-19 hit and the NHL was forced to stop its regular season, the Flames held a one-point lead over Vancouver in the Pacific Division, but due to the Canucks’ game in hand they leap-frogged the Flames in the return-to-play. The Flames were then knocked out in six games by the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up, Dallas Stars.
While goaltending was an issue at times for the Flames, they addressed that need with the addition of Jacob Markstrom. The issue that hasn’t been addressed, though, was their scoring at 5-on-5. Last season at 5-on-5, Calgary ranked 20th in the league with 1.91 goals per game, which dropped to 1.50 goals per game in the playoffs. That’s a pretty big drop off from the season before that where they scored 2.28 goals per game at 5-on-5, which ranked sixth overall.
Since the Flames haven’t made any significant additions to their offence, they’ll be counting on guys like Johnny Gaudreau to rebound after a down season. Gaudreau’s 58 points were the lowest total he’s had in his career, which wasn’t helped by the lowest shooting percentage he’s had in his career as well.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect Gaudreau to jump back to scoring at the same pace he did two seasons ago when he finished with 99 points, but it would be fair to think that somewhere in between this past season and his 99-point season is realistic.
Taking a look at his underlying numbers from those two seasons, they didn’t change all that drastically.
The one point of concern is the offensive zone possession and how that fell last season. That’s been a staple in his game since he entered the league. The more Gaudreau has the puck the better chance there is that he creates a dangerous opportunity.
Gaudreau rebounding will help the Flames find that scoring touch they were missing last season and, most of all, will put them back in the hunt for the top of the North Division.
The Edmonton Oilers live and die off the play of their dynamic duo — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — but there was a bright spot last year from their supporting cast who could make a big difference for them this year: Kailer Yamamoto.
In 27 games last season, Yamamoto scored 26 points, but it should be noted that he did this with a shooting percentage of 25 per cent, so it’s unlikely he’ll continue at that pace even though he played all but 30 minutes of his 469:52 of even-strength ice time alongside Draisaitl.
A 25 per cent shooting percentage is a pretty wild number, especially when you consider that it was the third-highest percentage of anyone to have played a minimum of 10 games last season, but there’s reason to believe that while it may fall, it won’t fall off a cliff.
No player shot a higher percentage of his shots from the slot last season, so Yamamoto isn’t wasting his opportunities and he’s getting himself to those dangerous areas.
Playing with an elite player like Draisaitl, it’s imperative that Yamamoto continues to get to the net for those dangerous opportunities. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’s proven he can handle the tough stuff.
Last season the Oilers only ranked 15th in goals per game, so having Yamamoto in the lineup for a full season could add a nice spark to their offence.
The Canucks were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season. At 5-on-5, they ranked 23rd in goals against per game and had a negative goal differential, even while getting some pretty spectacular goaltending from Jacob Markstrom.
With Markstrom gone to Calgary the task falls to Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby. In the case of Demko, his playoff numbers were just incredible, which gives the Canucks some hope, but his regular season numbers left a bit to be desired.
It was a roller coaster season for Demko, but there’s reason to feel good about him as he potentially takes over the full-time starting role.
Demko will also be helped out by the veteran Holtby who struggled in his final season with the Capitals. If he’s hoping for an easier time of it this season, he’s gone to the wrong team, but that’s the beauty with goalies: you just never know what you’re going to get and sometimes a tougher workload brings out the best in them.
Holtby will be facing a larger amount of shots and more dangerous ones. He was just below average last season and life won’t be any easier behind this Canucks team.
Whether or not Demko and Holtby are up to the challenge could make it or break it for the Canucks this season.