Ranking each Canadian team’s forward corps ahead of the 2023-24 NHL season

Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers is bumped by Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Getty)

A week from now, the new NHL season will officially arrive. The promise and potential of pre-season hockey will give way to the real thing, all the off-season predictions confirmed and upended one by one as 2023-24’s history is written.

For the league’s Canadian teams, it’ll be a year of expectation, again. Of Stanley Cup dreams for some, redemption for others, meaningful progress for all of them. And of highlight-reel brilliance.

In a league now dominated, more than anything else, by dynamic offensive displays, the Canadian clubs were all well-represented on that front last season. A third of the top 15 scorers in the game made their magic wearing Canadian team sweaters, led by the best pure scorer the sport’s ever seen, continuing to drop jaws while in blue and orange.

It’s that concentration of scoring prowess up north that makes the rivalries between the country’s seven NHL factions so potent at the moment, each club boasting its own core of young game-breakers on the cusp of greatness, if not already there.

That being the case, days away from the start of another 82-game chapter in that story, we took a look at where each Canadian forward corps ranks heading into 2023-24.

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1. Edmonton Oilers

If the Oilers had only No. 97 and nothing else, they might still sit atop this list. Such is the absurd dominance of Connor McDavid

At 26 years old, less than a decade into his big-league career, the Oilers captain has already amassed five scoring titles, 850 points — only three times has McDavid set foot on NHL ice during a season and not won the Art Ross by the time it had wrapped. Only twice has he begun a season that didn’t end with a century mark in points.

But he pulls the Oilers into the No. 1 spot for his past three seasons alone.

In 2020-21, the Oilers talisman did the ridiculous in that pandemic-shortened 56-game season, topping 100 points even in the shortened run. The next season, back to a full slate, he raised his level again, putting up 123 points, joining the small handful of players to have topped 120 in the past two decades. And then there was last season — still unsatisfied in his dogged pursuit of greatness, he came back and put on a performance for the ages, a 153-point spectacle, piling up the heftiest sum since Mario Lemieux three decades earlier.

Which leads us to this point, a new season and a hockey world left wondering, what’s next? 

“I mean, I didn’t think 150 was going to be in the cards for him, but he found a way to get there,” Sidney Crosby said of McDavid’s annual antics, to NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger. “I don’t think anything is out of the question for him as far as numbers are concerned. He just finds a way to find another level, time and time again. So, I would never bet against him.”

There is no legitimate ranking of NHL scorers that doesn’t have No. 97 on the throne. And yet, in assessing the best overall Canadian forward corps, he’s only one part of a dominant offensive machine. There’s also the Messier to his Gretzky, Leon Draisaitl — a four-time 100-point scorer himself, coming off a season in which his 128 points ranked as the most collected by anyone not named McDavid. And behind him, there’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins too, fresh off the first 100-point effort of his own career.

All told, the trio posted a wild 385 points last season. Add in the 83-point effort from Zach Hyman, and the Oilers’ overall dominance on the scoresheet — their 3.96 goals-per-game mark paced the league by a fair margin, and their 32.4-per cent power play finished as the most prolific all-time — and they’re the clear No. 1.

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2. Toronto Maple Leafs

Given the seemingly unending conversation around whether the Maple Leafs are too top-heavy, too geared toward offensive creativity, to win the games that matter most, you had to imagine they’d be among the leaders here, too. The blue and white’s Core Four take them to No. 2 on our list.

Despite a step back last season — a “down year” that still netted 40 goals and 85 points — Auston Matthews remains a top-five talent in the league. One of the best pure goal-scorers in the league, he looked for a moment like the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin when he broke down the 60-goal door, joining the Capitals captain and Steven Stamkos as the only players to hit that mark since the ‘90s. 

The moment’s shine was dulled some by McDavid and David Pastrnak both doing it the very next year. Even so, there’s no denying Toronto’s leading man is among elite company in the game.

Like McDavid, No. 34 is far from the only one carrying the mail for his club. Over the past two seasons, Mitch Marner’s emerged as one of the premier playmakers in the league, twice finishing a hair shy of 100 points, and this past season adding a Selke nomination to his resumé as well. Marner’s two-way emergence wasn’t the only positive development among the Leafs’ forward corps in 2022-23, though — it was also the year William Nylander finally showed the full weight of his potential.

“He’s a special player,” new Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving said of Nylander recently, speaking with The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel. “He’s got special talent. And he’s driven. He’s driven to be great. Everybody doesn’t get to see that. The work he does and the drive he’s got. Those are the things you get (to see) when you spend some time with him.”

That drive netted Nylander a career-best 40 goals and 87 points last season, and hinted at the possibility of more. Then there was the veteran captain, John Tavares, who quietly had the second-best season of his Leafs tenure in 2022-23 with an 80-spot himself to round out the Core Four’s showing. 

If the Nylander and Tavares can continue that run of form again in 2023-24, if Matthews and Marner continue to touch their ceiling, the blue-and-white’s offence figures to rank among the league’s best once more.

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3. Ottawa Senators

Where the above clubs were a few years ago, that’s where you’ll find the Senators’ current position on the arc of an emergence.

After years spent talking about promise and potential and the long road ahead, the point totals started stacking for Ottawa’s forwards last season. Leading the way was young Tim Stutzle, who’s looked every bit the phenomenon he seemed he’d be when the Sens tabbed him third overall in 2020.

It took Matthews six seasons to reach the 90-point plateau; it took Stutzle’s countryman Draisaitl four. The Sens’ leading man did it in his third NHL try. And at only 21 years old, with the team around him continuing to improve, the road seems to go up from here.

Back when he was still on the cusp of his big-league career, I spoke with Stutzle and his teammates in Mannheim for a piece on the decades-long effort to build Germany’s golden generation. I recall a conversation with Ben Smith about his young teammate then, and the comparisons that had been made between Stutzle, Marner and Patrick Kane. 

Said Smith, who’s played with all three, of Stutzle: “He has that unique ability just to change a game in a flash — he just needs the puck and he can make something happen. That’s how I would see him similar to Kaner or Mitchy, those kind of players. 

“Every time he’s on the ice, he’s a threat.”

The step forward in 2022-23 came in part because of the growth of the pieces around him. It was a career year, too, for rugged captain Brady Tkachuk, one of the most dominant power forwards in the league, who came up with 35 goals and 83 points on the season. Just behind him in the team scoring race was veteran Claude Giroux, who went home to Ottawa to lend some of his vintage playmaking ability to the young squad, and finished with 35 goals and nearly 80 points himself.

Though the club lost scorer Alex DeBrincat in the off-season, the addition of another veteran talent in Vladimir Tarasenko — only a year removed from a resurgent 34-goal, 82-point effort — leaves them on track to keep their offensive momentum building in 2023-24.

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4. Vancouver Canucks

If we were to rank only the leading men, the offensive focal points, from each of these clubs, the Canucks would find themselves in a higher position after a 2022-23 season that saw Elias Pettersson finally put it all together.

The Swedish dynamo has always seemed a step or two from greatness, a rare blend of elite hands, brilliant vision and a game-breaking shot. After four years of showing some portion of that potential, the 24-year-old officially joined the league’s upper echelon last season, posting a career-best 39 goals and 102 points, and earning Selke votes to boot.

The emergence came as no surprise to those who saw the seeds of his dominance early on in Sweden who’ve simply been waiting for him to fully unleash his skill in North America. Speaking with The Athletic’s Harman Dayal after Pettersson became the first Canuck in more than a decade to reach the century mark, Minnesota Wild pivot Joel Eriksson Ek drew a weighty comparison for No. 40. 

“If you watch his skills, they’re unbelievable. He looks like Pavel Datsyuk out there when he’s playing,” he told Dayal. “The time that he’s able to create for himself on the ice is pretty rare.”

None other than the Great One cited an even heftier comparison still, telling Sportsnet 650 during Pettersson’s rookie year that the young Swede reminded him of someone else — himself.

“From my point of view, he’s got a lot of my similarities,” Wayne Gretzky said then. “His hockey sense and his playmaking ability is as good as anybody right now.”

For the past two seasons, J.T. Miller has taken over as the club’s other key offensive weapon, the veteran collecting 181 points over those two seasons. Last season saw another name added to the mix too, as rookie Andrei Kuzmenko debuted with 39 goals and 74 points right off the hop. 

In terms of elite forwards, though, the options appear limited in Vancouver past that trio. Perhaps Brock Boeser moves up into that group, but seven years of hovering around the 20-goal, 50-point mark seem to leave him a tier below for now, and leaves the Canucks without the depth of the above three teams.

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5. Calgary Flames

That the Flames sit below their West Coast rivals should illustrate just how dismally the 2022-23 season played out within the Saddledome walls.

If we’re talking pure offensive dominance, the Flames were simply a step behind last season, the flaming C not adorning anyone who could do with the puck what McDavid, Matthews, Stutzle or Pettersson could. A second straight off-season of Calgary losing its leading scorer — veteran Tyler Toffoli this time around, the high-flying pair of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk a year prior — doesn’t make matters better heading into 2023-24.

Still, as Calgary begins its redemption season, a much-needed coaching change now in the rear-view, it’s clear where the potential for improvement lies. 

Though his first go-round in Calgary was as a mess of chaos, doubt and disappointment, the hockey world knows what Jonathan Huberdeau is. The veteran is only a year removed from a 115-point season that had him just a handful away from an Art Ross, that had him earning Hart Trophy votes. The team’s other big-money acquisition is in something of a similar boat — a year ago, Nazem Kadri was a Stanley Cup champion, fresh off a near-90-point effort, before he donned Flames colours and took a step back amid the tumult. 

If either can recover the form they showed in the past, Calgary’s offence should look unrecognizable this season. Aside from one constant: the Flames’ true top talent up front, Elias Lindholm.

Though the 2022-23 mess set the 28-year-old back too, Lindholm remains one of the premier defensive-minded forwards in the game. Rewind back before this recent spiral, and Lindholm was riding high a year ago, a 42-goal, 82-point line to his name, along with a Selke nomination that saw him finish second in voting to perennial winner Patrice Bergeron.

Even former head coach Darryl Sutter, ever the curmudgeon, was heaping praise on Lindholm’s name at the time: “He’s one of the best all-around centremen in the NHL,” Sutter told reporters, per Flames beat writer Julian McKenzie. “I’ve coached some good ones but he’s as close to a (Anze) Kopitar-type player as there is.”

As long as No. 28 is still in the mix, the Flames have a chance at progress. The task now, of course, is convincing the two-way talent to stay.

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6. Winnipeg Jets

Like the Flames, the Jets’ slide down these rankings reflects the club’s overall trajectory of late. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Winnipeg’s forward corps looked well-stocked, a blend of dangerous pieces. Turn the clock back a half-decade and they were fighting for a division title with veteran Blake Wheeler topping 90 points, and a young, hungry trio of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine not far behind.

After a few off-seasons of change, only Scheifele and Connor remain, Wheeler moving on to sign with the New York Rangers, Laine shipped off to Columbus years ago, and his replacement, Pierre-Luc Dubois, traded away to Los Angeles in June. 

Even with Wheeler and Dubois, the Jets finished sixth among all Canadian teams in goals-per-game last season, their 3.00 mark besting only Montreal, and ranking 21st league-wide. They have young talent on the rise, and brought some quality pieces back in the Dubois trade, but the road ahead doesn’t seem any easier when it comes to getting their offence clicking.

That said, the two core pieces that remain are still elite. Scheifele comes off a 2022-23 that saw him amass a career-high 42 goals, tied with Nathan MacKinnon for ninth across the league. And in Connor — who led the Jets in scoring with 80 points last season after a breakout 47-goal, 93-point effort a year prior — Winnipeg houses one of the most underrated offensive talents in the game.

“A lot of the things he does offensively, they don’t pop,” former teammate Sam Gagner said of Connor, to the Score’s John Matisz. “You see the high-end speed and how he creates off the rush, of course — everyone does — but a lot of the offence he creates in the O-zone is actually really subtle. He does a great job of creating these little pockets of ice for himself, where he can get loose to create a chance for someone, or score himself.”

Still arguably under-appreciated by the hockey world — even after that 90-point clinic — Connor figures to continue going about his business and impressing, regardless of the complexion of the team around him. But overall, the Jets offence is craving a 2023-24 breakout from its young talent, and some clarity regarding the future of the remaining stars.

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7. Montreal Canadiens

All the Canadiens need is time.

Fast-forward a few years, and perhaps we’re witnessing the full effect of Nick Suzuki’s ascent. Perhaps Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky have blossomed into what they could be, and the Habs offence looks more like the top half of this list than the latter half.

But in the here and now, they simply haven’t yet reached that point. 

Suzuki has shown glimpses of elite quality in each of his four years wearing the Canadiens sweater, but to this point, the 24-year-old has yet to eclipse 26 goals or 66 points in the big leagues. There’s little doubt he will, the young captain having already developed a reputation as one of the most deceptive, intelligent offensive talents in the league. Caufield seems primed for a quicker ascent, but thus far injuries have limited his ability to show all he can do. 

The promise is there. Caufield’s 26 goals and 36 points through 46 games last season translate to a 46-goal, 64-point pace over a full 82-game season. And those around the game know just how high his ceiling could be.

“To see him in practice, a lot about it to me is his confidence with the puck on his stick,” teammate Jake Allen told the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan, offering a goalie’s perspective on the young scorer. “That’s a big deal. He has confidence where he can score. Other guys can shoot maybe better or harder, but don’t have that confidence and that swagger in their shot. 

“He knows he can score. I think that’s a big difference.”

With Caufield healthy and back on the ice, maybe 2023-24 is when it all comes together for him, for Suzuki, as it did for Stutzle and Pettersson last season. Perhaps Slafkovsky and 22-year-old Kirby Dach take a step, too, and the addition of Alex Newhook sparks something.

But right now, it still seems early. And with Montreal ranking last among this group of clubs in goals per game and shots per game last season, it may take more than a Caufield breakout to move them up this list by the year’s end.

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