The off-season is winding down and rosters are rounding out. Between now and puck drop on the 2022-23 season come questions about the work each team put in this summer.
So let’s get a vibe check of all seven Canadian teams by analyzing one question each one faces heading into the 2022-23 season.
Ottawa: Are the Senators' off-season additions enough to make them competitive?
The Senators were one of the busiest teams this summer, adding Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux, and Cam Talbot via free agency and trades.
Up front, the additions of DeBrincat and Giroux are huge. The former Blackhawk is a frequent shooter who drives to the quality areas, and has the finishing talent to match. He’s coming off a 41-goal season where he met expectations thanks to his quality shooting. The winger can add some playmaking to that line as well. In Giroux, the Senators add a versatile two-way forward who can play centre or wing, set up or shoot, and bring defensive support. The two should slot well alongside playmaker Tim Stützle to give Ottawa a really strong top-six.
The addition of Talbot adds some stability in net alongside Anton Forsberg, especially since he doesn’t have the same injury history as Matt Murray.
Is it enough, though?
The Atlantic Division is one of the toughest in the league, so there’s quite the hill to climb even to get a wild card seed. The competition isn’t all that stands in Ottawa’s way; their defence does. The Senators were one of the worst teams in the league, allowing 2.83 expected goals against in 2021-22. And the personnel isn’t different enough going into this year. While having possession more thanks to their offensive improvements should help, adding another defenceman and adjusting some strategies seems crucial.
Montreal: Will Cole Caufield build on his second half?
It really doesn’t matter if Montreal is among the worst teams in the league this season. That’s pretty much the expectation after much of this roster has been stripped down, and more NHL-calibre players are expected to be on the move at the deadline. It matters that head coach Marty St. Louis can keep the vibes up and that the young core can keep progressing. That includes Caufield, who really found his footing under the fellow short king.
Post-coaching change, the winger’s ice time jumped up and his play certainly warranted it. What also changed was his shot locations, with a much heavier concentration in the slot starting in mid-February. The goal scoring followed. That’s what has to continue for Caufield to keep developing this upcoming season, in what the Canadiens are likely hoping is a more stable season at the NHL level.
The challenge is to not get bogged down by the team around him if the losses keep piling up. But with a core of Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and possibly first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, there’s potential for the building blocks of this retooling process.
Winnipeg: Have the Jets done enough to move past mediocrity?
The roster isn’t that much different from where the Jets left off in 2021-22. What is different is the coaching staff. Rick Bowness has a reputation for defensive structure, even though his teams tend to be a bit more on the boring side. And that does fit what the Jets need; at five-on-five Winnipeg ranked poorly in the number of shots they conceded, scoring chances, and quality passes. It’s not solely on their blue line, either. Their forwards at the top, like Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor, add to their defensive weaknesses. So the coaching staff has its work cut out for them to help work on play back in their own zone without it weighing on their offensive creation.
Still, even with their best offensive weapons clicking and improved team defence to give Connor Hellebuyck some support, the Jets may need reinforcements to have a chance at going up against Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis, Nashville, and Dallas all in their own division.
Edmonton: Is Jack Campbell the answer between the pipes?
The Oilers have two of the best forwards in the league in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have productive secondary players as well in Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, among others. And there’s even some progress on the backend, with Evan Bouchard’s emergence along with some important coaching changes.
The unreliable aspect of their team in 2021-22 was goaltending. While Mike Smith performed better than projected, saving almost five goals above expected in the regular season, there’s always a level of unpredictability with his game. Mikko Koskinen struggled, too.
Now, Smith is out for the year while Koskinen departed as a free agent. So Edmonton’s going in with a mostly new-look crease. Third-stringer from last year, Stuart Skinner, returns and should be a serviceable backup. But the big ticket add this summer was Campbell, formerly of the Maple Leafs.
There’s a level of unpredictability with his game as well. After getting off to a strong start, Campbell's game absolutely collapsed mid-way through the year dragging his GSAx just into the negatives. He had defensive support in Toronto, and if the Oilers pick up where they left off with Jay Woodcroft’s coaching adjustments, Campbell shouldn’t be hung out to dry with his new club. But whether he can outperform expectations to the point that their elite forwards will have the backend support they need is the pressing question.
Vancouver: What direction do the Canucks take?
The Canucks are an interesting one with quite a few questions. Will the Bruce Boudreau effect help this team progress some more? Will Elias Pettersson hit his star potential? Will Quinn Hughes take his play up another level to jump out as one of the best defencemen in the league? What happens with J.T. Miller? Can Thatcher Demko continue to be the Canucks' backbone? Can Ilya Mikheyev give the penalty kill a much needed two-way spark?
If the answer is yes to everything besides the Miller question, it may actually answer what happens with Miller. The Canucks should be in the playoff race and may want to keep one of their best players for that push.
If the answer is no to a couple of these, however, how does this team proceed? Are there roster changes, including the likes of Miller, Conor Garland, or Brock Boeser?
For now, what we do know is: Boudreau has had a positive impact on the Canucks. Pettersson struggled in 2021-22, but started to turn it around later in the season. Hughes has progressed and is becoming the difference-maker he’s expected to be. Demko was essential in Vancouver, but his play did slide very late in the season. And Mikheyev’s disruptive play can punch up a penalty kill.
The question is how it comes together, and how that effects the Miller situation and more. And, how quickly management reacts to whatever start this team has.
Calgary: Can Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri make up for the losses of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk?
After a very dramatic and eventful off-season, the Flames roster seems close to completion. Huberdeau’s an excellent passer. His puck movement isn’t at the level of Gaudreau’s, who rated out as the best passer in 2021-22, but should help Calgary stay at the top of their division. The Flames’ defensive structure should help hide some of his weaknesses there as well.
Kadri for Tkachuk, on the other hand, isn’t near a one-for-one replacement — not in terms of position or similar playing style. So Calgary’s first line probably won’t match last season’s dominance, where they generated over 66 per cent of the expected goals share at 5-on-5.
Their second line, however, should have an even more offensive spark thanks to Kadri’s shot volume and his playmaking abilities (and Mikael Backlund’s subsequent shift to the third line). The Flames should anticipate a different type of production from the top of the lineup moving forward — more offence from the top-six versus from one all-star line alone, and overall a stronger top-nine down the middle.
Toronto: Is the goaltending tandem strong enough for this team to progress from 2021-22?
If a team is stacked up front and strong enough on the back end, they can get by with average goaltending. The Avalanche showed that’s possible in their playoff run after Darcy Kuemper’s level dropped. And the Maple Leafs showed last year that they could be fine as long as Campbell wasn’t dreadful.
But this year they’re taking a bit of a risk with their goalie tandem. There’s Matt Murray whose value has slid since his tenure in Pittsburgh. While there were some flashes of that same player last year — one that led him to saving 3.2 goals above expected at the NHL level behind a terrible defence in 20 games — there’s a reason his season was just 20 games long. Injuries are the wild card here, more than level of play, honestly.
That’s where the backup situation comes in. The Capitals had high hopes for Ilya Samsonov, but have moved on from the 25-year-old. His level of play and injuries caused him to lose the starter’s net for stretches to Vitek Vanecek. Overall, Samsonov is coming off a season where he conceded 12.7 goals above expected over 44 games, which is far from ideal.
So the Maple Leafs are gambling on these two goaltenders to 1) be healthy enough to make it through the season 2) play at least at an average level. While both should have the support in front of the blue, this is still a tall ask. And this may be the deciding factor on whether they can outperform last season; if Toronto can outscore its problems at a higher rate than last year, when finishing was a problem at times, they’ll be fine.
But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ for a team that should be maximizing these next two years.
Data via Sportlogiq