Canadian NHL team vibe check: What’s gone right, and wrong, so far

The Hockey Central panel switches things up and instead of giving midseason report cards, the crew breaks down who they believe should be awarded with the NHL hardware at the quarter mark of the season.

With all teams now approaching or passing the quarter-marker of the season, let’s take a closer look at the former North Division and check the vibes for all seven Canadian teams.

Toronto: Main Character Energy

It was only a matter of time for the Maple Leafs. To start the 2021-22 season, they were a key story because nothing was going their way. As well as they played below the surface, they ultimately weren’t finishing and couldn’t find results. So, of course, every aspect of their play, team construction, or overall vibes, was inspected — as is expected for Toronto.

Then the team found its footing and hasn’t looked back.

The Maple Leafs were expected to be a contender this year, and rightfully so given some of the skill (and yes, cap hits) on this team. Now, they’re playing like it.

The highlight of this team is its offensive creation. That starts with a zone entry. Toronto is fifth in carry-ins at 5-on-5 and are the second-best team in the league at generating a scoring chance after carrying the puck into the offensive zone.

Toronto’s one of the most frequent shooting teams, but it’s not just a matter of shot volume — they create quality shots. No team gets to the slot, or inner slot, more at 5-on-5. But what adds to the ‘danger’ of their attempts is the pre-shot movement. So far, Toronto has the second-highest rate of pass attempts and success to the slot. Together, that all culminates to an expected goal rate of 3.30 per 60 that leads the league. Then factor in the team’s shooting ability.

While their defensive play hasn’t been perfect to start the year, their netminder has backed them up. Jack Campbell’s been Toronto’s backbone so far, saving 16.4 goals above expected of the shots that have reached the net in all situations.

So whether this team is good or bad, you’re going to hear a lot about them — because at the end of the day, the question remains how anything affects the Leafs. But at the rate they’re playing, coming off a sweep of the California teams, some opponents really need to game plan how this team is going to affect them.

Calgary: The Vibes Are Impeccable

At the quarter-mark of the season, the Flames are the best in the West with 41 points (though, they have two more games played than the next-best team, their division opponent Oilers). They got 10 of a possible 14 points on a recent seven-game East Coast swing. Quite the improvement from a team that finished fifth in the North last year and missed the post-season.

What’s driving Calgary’s start?

The top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk has been particularly strong, as the team’s generated about 71 per cent of the 5-on-5 expected goal share with them on the ice and outscored their opponent 15-2.

A lot of focus has rightfully been on Gaudreau. While he took a step back in 2019-20, he rebounded below the surface last year. But this season, he’s thriving at the right time ahead of his contract expiring next summer. While his shooting has boosted this team, his shifty skating and puck-moving abilities have really stood out — he’s among the league’s best forwards, as the chart below helps show.

He’s not the only Flame standing out, though. Andrew Mangiapane, who has been a positive force below the surface these past few seasons, is seeing well-earned results. With his scoring slanting towards goals, he’s putting in the work by getting to the dangerous areas of the ice — he’s second in the league with slot shot attempts at a rate of 12.8 per 60.

Along with support from the blue line, thanks to players like Noah Hanifin and Oliver Kylington stepping up, Calgary’s become a really well-rounded team. Along with some offensive firepower, they’re defensively stingy; they don’t allow too many shots or quality chances against, culminating to the second-lowest expected goals rate against of 1.69 per 60. Plus, their well-insulated goaltending tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar has backed them up quite well.

All in all, the Flames have started the season by building a solid foundation that looks promising moving forward.

Edmonton: Understood the Assignment

We all knew the Oilers had potential — any team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should, right? Well… not if the expectation was to solely rely on that duo for any chance of success. So, management finally understood what they needed to do up front and added legitimate forward depth with acquisitions including Zach Hyman and Warren Foegele.

The Hyman contract isn’t perfect, especially in the long-term. Still, he’s making quite an impact to start his tenure in Edmonton in some of the more dangerous areas of the ice. About 64 per cent of his 5-on-5 shots come from the slot area and many of those shots are concentrated to the inner slot. The only player to generate a higher rate of inner slot shots than Hyman to start the year is Julien Gauthier of the New York Rangers.

Ideally, having players like Hyman and Foegele will help keep McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines (hello, coaches, is this thing on?) to have a more dimensional offence.

While there are flaws on Edmonton’s back end still — from the blue line construction to the goaltending tandem — the netminders have understood the assignment by giving their elite forwards some support. Mikko Koskinen has saved 1.52 more goals than expected on the shots put on net, while Stuart Skinner has stopped 5.32. We’re both surprised and impressed. Sustainability is the giant question mark, which is why this exact goaltending duo wasn’t (and still isn’t) ideal — but we commend their efforts so far.

Winnipeg: Complicated

The Winnipeg Jets addressed some weaknesses this past off-season to push past their last couple of mediocre regular seasons with some player acquisitions and other adds by subtraction. Their defence, on paper, is more serviceable than before — but it’s far from perfect. While the Jets don’t allow the highest rate of shots against, about 38.5 per cent of the shots they do concede are from the slot — and that’s the worst percentage in the league.

Ahead of that defence is a skilled offensive group. Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor both can carry the puck in with ease, and generate quality offence. Pierre-Luc Dubois is helping contribute closer to expectations, too. Those players, at least, should counter what they allow. While they create shots and get some from the slot, they’re actually in the bottom half of the league in inner-slot shots, which shows how they’re just not getting to that area of the ice consistently enough.

Behind the blue line, there’s an elite goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck.

But for some reason, the Jets make things so complicated. After ending a five-game losing streak, they somehow got goalie’d by the Arizona Coyotes despite a strong effort and lost 1-0. While they’re currently third in the Central by points, a quick switch to points percentage shifts Winnipeg to sixth.

Ottawa: Nothing New (Taylor’s Version)

The Senators’ weaknesses show through in all aspects of their game. Offensively, they’re in the bottom half of the league in shot volume and quantity. Ottawa doesn’t move the puck in the offensive zone either, ranking 31st in pass attempts and success. Digging further, we can see they’re a bottom-10 team in distributing the puck to the slot and moving the puck on the rush. This team just doesn’t generate many successful plays after zone entries.

On the other end of the ice, they don’t deny their opponents entry into the zone well enough. At 5-on-5, they allow the highest rate of shot attempts against. It’s not just volume that’s a problem; it’s open season in the slot and inner slot, too. That all contributes to their league-high expected goal rate against of 3.19 per 60.

While their goaltending hasn’t been perfect (Matt Murray was just put on waivers, after all), this isn’t a team that just needs a few saves to be successful. Their problems run a lot deeper than that. Clearly, they need to find some teeth in their game — no, not literally.

Does this sound new? It probably shouldn’t because we’ve heard it all before — we shouldn’t be surprised by the process, or the ultimate conclusion. As much as the Senators kicked off a new season in 2021-22, they’re basically a re-release of last year’s iteration. But unlike some who re-release the hits, Ottawa rightfully isn’t seeing the same fanfare.

Montreal: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

While we honestly didn’t expect much out of Senators, the Canadiens probably expected more of themselves to open the 2021-22 season. Some of it was out of their control with a few key players missing time.

Still, they probably didn’t expect to be this bad or have such a fall from grace.

At 5-on-5, Montreal’s offensive generation of 2.55 expected goals for per 60 puts them 17th in the league. What stands out about their shot creation, in particular, is their passing — or lack thereof. This is a team that just hasn’t moved the puck much in the offensive zone; they’re 29th in their rate of pass attempts and 28th in successful tries. And it’s not a matter of picking quality over quantity either — their pass rate to the slot only shifts them to 27th in the league.

What’s obviously even more problematic is that the team allows more than it creates — the Canadiens have conceded the second-highest rate of expected goals against (2.98 per 60) to only the Ottawa Senators. It’s been tough sledding for goaltenders Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault behind that.

While this team made it through qualifiers in the bubble and exceeded all expectations on their path to the Stanley Cup Final last year, it may have given a false sense of what they’re actually capable of. And now, especially with some pivotal absences, they’re getting a tough look at what they’ve become to start the season. Thus, the front office shake up, and possibly a new direction.

Vancouver: The Sky is Falling

At least the Canadiens are looking from within to make drastic changes. That… hasn’t quite been the case in Vancouver. Everyone seems to recognize that change is needed…except those able to make change.

As general manager Jim Benning pointed out, the penalty kill is bad. That much is true. What Benning didn’t delve into is how bad the rest of their game is.

Some of their best players, including Elias Pettersson, are underperforming. But what’s clear is that these players are putting in the efforts, especially as of late, even if they ultimately fall short. The problem is, as their game against Boston showed, a few moments of weakness can completely change the outcome. That’s the difference between a team with elite talent clicking, and one that’s coming apart at the seams.

The Canucks need more than just a look at the numbers or even the video to break down what’s going wrong. That’s why they fall to the bottom of these rankings, and not the two teams right above them — including the one they beat Monday night. The vibes are bad in Vancouver, and it’s trickling down and affecting the players. The only question is how much longer this lasts, because it seems inevitable that change has to come.

Data via Sportlogiq

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