By rough math, teams in the NHL’s North Division have played a little over a quarter of their games, which means the standings are moving from a state of complete fluidity to a more crystallized, tiered order.
Those tiers look something like: Toronto and Montreal -- Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver -- Ottawa.
There will be quibbles about that middle group of four (should Vancouver be in it?), and maybe some Jets or Oilers or Flames fans think they belong in that top tier, but that’s how they sit in my brain through 25 per cent of the season.
It feels like a fitting time to take a quick snapshot of where teams are at right now, so when things inevitably get straight-up weird on us over the next couple months we can say “Do you remember when we foolishly thought [things I’m about to write] about that team?”
We’ll go alphabetical here, starting with the…
The pantheon of memorable coaching rants in the media undeniably includes Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green snapping “They are who we thought they were” into a podium microphone, and that comes to mind here.
We thought they’d have one of the better defensive groups in the division with quality goaltending, which, check and check. Only Montreal has given up fewer goals in the North than the Flames, and it’s a difference of a whopping one. Calgary has also given up the second-fewest high danger shots against at 5-on-5 so far in the division, so, they defend fairly well.
I was concerned about their ability to score, though, as they lack the elite top-end talent of many other teams in the divisions, which … check? They generate the least shots and shot attempts per game of any team in the division, and they’re only outscoring Ottawa by raw goals. Only Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm are at a point-per-game pace, then it falls of drastically. Sean Monahan has scored twice in 15 games, Matthew Tkachuk sits at 10 points in 15 games, and the depth scoring behind them has been non-existant.
In this high-flying division, it’s an advantage to be able to defend. But you’ve gotta be able to score some to keep pace in the North.
So take the above, almost exactly … but the opposite. They are who we thought they were, in that the Oilers can score but not defend. There’s a strong likelihood that the fourth and final playoff spot in this division is going to come down to the Battle of Alberta, with one team relying on D and the other relying on O, and … how has that battle historically ended in hockey? Not many people claiming “offence wins championships” out there, is there?
The bummer part (for Edmonton) is that they’re actually in the good half of the league in some defensive categories (like high danger chances against), but they’re just getting no goaltending. At 5-on-5 only five teams have a worse team save percentage (including Vancouver and Ottawa).
The thing with the Oilers is you can see a path out for them where it works. If a goalie gets hot or they acquire a new one, they can score enough to win games handily. If a few support players for the Hart Brothers get hot, or they find a rotation with all their good D gets solidified (last I checked they’ve got about nine NHL defencemen they’re toggling between), they can be a tough team to beat on a nightly basis.
I picked Edmonton to finish second in the division, and while I no longer think they will, I’m not ready to write off that possibility yet. With their superstars they’re never far from a run of wins.
Before this season I was on Hockey Central making the claim that I didn’t quite see what everyone else apparently saw in the Canadiens. Many had them as favourites to win the division by the time the season started, and they’re still right there, with the No. 1 seed still a very possible outcome for them.
My concerns were simple: Could they score enough? They were 19th in goals-per-game the year before. They made the Max Domi-for-Josh Anderson deal, which I saw as a small offensive improvement, they added Tyler Toffoli who would help, and then … I dunno, I guess I thought that would get them to being a mid-pack offensive team. Given they were also 19th in goals-against last year and added Joel Edmundson (Alexander Romanov, too, but I didn’t know how good he’d be), maybe they’d be a bit better than average, I guessed?
Where I’m at now is that I’m not sure a hot start has changed my perspective all that much. They’re as deep as any team in the NHL, of that I have no doubt. Through four lines and three pairs, there’s no real weakness, no glaring trouble spot. That makes them a tough team to beat every single night.
But things get tight down the stretch and in playoffs, and everyone defends a bit better. With that and goals getting harder to score, I’m not sure I’m sold this Habs team has the game-breakers. Over their past five games they’ve scored 2, 2, 2, 0 and 2 goals. Outside a few Canucks routs they haven’t looked overly dangerous.
I see a solid team that’s going to methodically extract points from a weaker division all year. I’m not convinced they’re more than that yet, but I won’t close my mind to the possibility.
The reason I was more bullish on the Leafs was the opposite of what I just said of the Canadiens, in that they’re loaded with game-breakers. They’re not as solid through four lines -- if you could even parse out what the bottom lines are, given the team’s use of 18 forwards and soon to be 19 -- but I thought the competition for bottom spots would inspire decent enough play for those top dogs to outscore their problems. They largely have.
I’m not sure the division is good enough to really tell what the Leafs are yet, which in a way is a compliment to what they are -- pretty clearly the best team of the seven. Their defence is vastly improved, with the addition of TJ Brodie offering some consistency and quality play that they’ve often lacked past Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. The emergence of Justin Holl has been a bright spot, and they’ve received quality play on their bottom pair, too.
If Freddy Andersen can look about league average, which he has so far, the biggest question marks remain at the bottom of their forward group. Jimmy Vesey has been generic and beige, Alex Kerfoot has yet to find clear value, and they still don’t have any sort of defensive, "grindy" presence at the bottom of their forward group, where most teams love to keep some.
They’re very good, but can Toronto roll four lines against the Bruins, against the Golden Knights, or the Lightning if they get that far in the playoffs? We’re nowhere near being able to answer that question.
This is saying something after a massive come-from-behind win against the first place team in the division, and given pre-season expectations were so low, but … might the Senators be worse than we expected? I say yes.
After a decent early-season showing against the Leafs, we did a “Great Canadian Debate” panel on Sportsnet, with one of the questions being “Will the Senators surprise teams this season.” I believe all four of us (myself, Cassie Campbell, Colby Armstrong and Eric Engels) said yes, with some mentions of them not finishing seventh as a possibility.
That uh … that’s not gonna happen.
The biggest failing is goaltending, which I’ll get to in a minute. But it also seems a miss that the off-season commitment was apparently to getting heavier and harder to play against. The thinking seemed to be that the kids needed support, and you didn’t want them to lose and get pushed around. The Sens didn’t want those kids to feel uncomfortable.
Well, losing all the time is uncomfortable too. What they could’ve done is focused more on skill and less on grit. Their young players are exciting, and finally they have some top-end skill that makes multi-goal comebacks possible. But it’s not nearly enough.
With Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg combining for the worst save percentage in hockey, those young guys don’t have a chance most nights. They can’t get a save, they can’t get help making plays … welcome to the NHL fellas. The Sens future is brighter (presuming they figure out their crease), just not the immediate, next-three-month future.
The Canucks are easily the most frustrating team in the division given their elite top-end talent, the quality on the roster in general, and how they’re just brutally eroded by holes in other places on the roster. Some nights their flaws don’t show and the stars shine and you get glimpses of how it could be without overpaying a few underachievers, but that’s not something we’re likely to see enough of this season.
When Jacob Markstrom was in the crease their defensive deficiencies often got papered over. With Markstrom gone and Chris Tanev too, every error seems to be exposed on the scoreboard right now. They’re getting bottom-five goaltending in the league. You can’t win like that, as talented as you may be in other places.
The Canucks are well-coached to my eye, and have enough skill to win games this season. You can’t sleep on them. I can even see them and their fans feeling like they’re “in the playoff hunt” down the stretch. But this seems like a season they’re destined to fall short, with changes coming. Frustration, frustration, frustration for a fanbase that historically handles that, ahem, with some difficulty.
I can’t believe we had to wait all the way until the bottom here to talk about the biggest wildcard of the bunch, the Jets. The Jets are deep, the Jets have top-end talent, the Jets have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner … and the Jets have a capital-B Bad NHL D-corps. What a mix! Tune in to see what will happen tonight, it could be literally anything!
Jokes aside, I think this is a team that’s going to take shape and go by the events of the season more than any other. Their range is huge, and so they need a positive run of games here to push things towards the good side. If they can find some positivity out of early-season hardships and find some chemistry, I think they’ve got more than enough to win most nights, and I could see them taking home the three seed with the two seed not out of the question either. They could start feeling good, become very tough to beat, and have a fun year. (One note: through 15 games they’ve only played Toronto and Montreal a combined once. Some of this positivity might be a bit much.)
I also think things feel slightly flammable there this year -- from Paul Maurice and Blake Wheeler to the Laine/Dubois trade and beyond -- and if they get on some negative bent they could fall all the way to sixth. Nothing they do will surprise me.
As a gambler, I’m basically never going to bet on them when they’re favourites in a game, and will always throw money on them as underdogs. They can win every night, I’m just never confident enough to say they will. Here’s to hoping they stay healthy, and stay interesting.