The last time we had zero Canadian teams qualify for the playoffs in the same season was back in 1970 when the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were the only two Canadian teams in the National Hockey League. Today, there are seven teams and heading into Tuesday night’s action, all of them are on the outside looking in as they currently occupy seven out of the 11 bottom positions in the league standings. As we review team by team, we will look at some factors on why they’re on the outside looking in, the focus moving forward, and ending with a prediction on whether or not these teams will make the playoffs.
Calgary Flames – After making the playoffs last season with 97 points in the Pacific Division and defeating the Vancouver Canucks in the first round before losing to the Anaheim Ducks in five games, the Calgary Flames were expected to continue their upward trend and contend for one of the top few spots again in the Pacific. However, it’s been a tough road thus far. The Flames currently sit eight points out of a playoff spot heading into Tuesday night’s action and are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. While Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett are playing well right now, I expect a move or two to be made with the trade deadline looming to help increase some opportunities on offense to try and get their goal differential of minus-20 closer to even. If that happens you’ll start to see Calgary creep back up in the standings in a division that is pretty close right now, with the exception of the first-place Los Angeles Kings. Karri Ramo has seen a majority of the action in the blue paint this season, starting 34 games with a 16-17-1 record, 2.62 goal against average, and a .910 save percentage. Although Jonas Hiller has only started 12 games, it might be time to give him a chance to bounce back or perhaps have a situation where they ride whichever goaltender has the hot hand. I fully expect five teams to come out of the Central Division this year to make the playoffs, so if you’re not in the top three in the Pacific, you’re out.
Prediction: Fourth place finish in the Pacific Division, missing the playoffs.
Edmonton Oilers – I don’t think anyone had the Edmonton Oilers making the playoffs this year out of the gate but perhaps like me, you may have had them finishing anywhere but last in the Pacific Division or in the entire league for that matter, right? Well as of Tuesday evening, the Oilers are 29th in the league with 43 points. Their 19 wins are tied with Columbus, but because the Blue Jackets have played one more game than the Oilers, they currently the occupy 30th spot. Everyone was looking forward to seeing what this team was capable of with the addition of Connor McDavid from this past summer’s draft, but he has only played 13 games this season due to a shoulder injury he suffered back in November against the Philadelphia Flyers. The second half of the season begins with McDavid back in the lineup in hopes of getting this team on the right track before we reach the end of the regular season. The adjusted goal for the 2015-16 season is to get Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and McDavid finding their stride and elevating this team while remaining focused in the defensive end. The Edmonton Oilers have lost by no more than two goals a total of 27 times this season which speaks volumes of their current goaltenders, Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson. Talbot joined Edmonton this summer after backing up Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers last season, and even though his record is under .500 at 9-15-3, his 2.60 goal against average has helped keep the games close. Nilsson is getting a little more goal support as he currently holds a 10-11-2 record, but is allowing an average of three goals a game.
Prediction: 26th place finish in the league ahead of Buffalo, Toronto, Columbus and Winnipeg
Montreal Canadiens – The Canadiens started the season with nine straight wins before suffering their first loss of the season on October 27th against the Vancouver Canucks. That didn’t slow them down, and neither did losing goaltender Carey Price to injury in late October, as Mike Condon was between the pipes until November 20th. Montreal kept things rolling with a 15-4-2 record, had a nine point cushion ahead of the Ottawa Senators, and were tied with a league-leading 32 points with the Dallas Stars. Price returned from injury and appeared in three games, helping lead his team to victory in all three of those games before suffering yet another injury. Since being out of the lineup for a second time beginning on November 25th, the Canadiens have since gone 7-18-2, causing them to slip to fifth in the Atlantic Division. Now that we are past the All-Star break, Price is still expected to miss about another three to four weeks before returning in March, but will it be too late to make a run? Yes, Price is a very important piece but this is the Montreal Canadiens, a team that scored 221 goals last season and played well in front of Price, only allowing 189 goals. However, If they cannot pick up the energy and get things headed in the right direction (after suffering another loss Tuesday night to the Flyers) while helping out their current goaltending situation until Price returns, then they’ll need to finish the season the way they started; in a situation where they have to win out. It will be interesting to see where this team is in a few weeks when the trade deadline arrives, but I’d expect them to stand pat regardless. Out of the seven teams in Canada, the Canadiens are still the least likely to miss the playoffs.
Prediction: Finish third in Atlantic and will play the second place Florida Panthers in the first round.
Ottawa Senators – Ottawa currently has me on the fence, but they’re currently tied with the Montreal Canadiens with 52 points so perhaps they have the same chance at making the playoffs, right? The Senators are the type of team that kind of flies under the radar and makes a move when you least expect it. After seeing Andrew Hammond take charge between the pipes down the stretch and into the playoffs for Ottawa when Craig Anderson went down last season, Anderson has regained the heavy workload, posting a 20-15-4 record, 2.81 goal against average, .915 save percentage and three shutouts. If the Senators want to make a move, look for Anderson to continue this trend of playing in 80% of the final 32 games and seeing Hammond provide some rest every once in a while. However, if the Senators are not able to make a move in the standings, we could see that percentage adjusted and utilized to further evaluate the goaltenders moving forward. On the offensive side of things, Ottawa has six players that have at least 30 points and they will need to continue on their pace as one of the top 10 teams in goals for per game. Both the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions are capable of supplying five out of the eight playoff spots, especially with the Carolina Hurricanes making a move, as they are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.
Prediction: I just cannot imagine the playoffs without Montreal and Pittsburgh, so I have Ottawa missing the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs – When I watch the Toronto Maple Leafs on two different nights or over the course of a week, it’s like night and day. When this team is playing simple and within their system under head coach Mike Babcock, this team can put up a fight with just about any team in this league. But when they make mistakes, don’t move the puck effectively, and turn the puck over in their own zone, they become so frustrated it haunts them for 75% of the game. Toronto is sixth in shots for per game, making the opposing goaltenders earn their saves, but they’re also fifth in shots against. If James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier aren’t on their game, it becomes very difficult for this team to compete in a high-scoring shootout when they’re only averaging 2.29 goals a game, which is ranked 26th in the league. Leo Komarov is the leading scorer on this team with 31 points, and seven other players behind him have at least 20 points, which means the lineup is producing and they’re not having to count on two or three players to carry the load. But they need more, and Babcock and Lou Lamoriello will need to re-evaluate these current players or bring in players that fit the mold of the system in order to compete.
Prediction: No Playoffs this year for Toronto but count them in next season.
Vancouver Canucks – The Pacific Division is different every year seeing teams go from the top three positons down to the bottom four, then back up without much change happening to these rosters. Vancouver finished second in the Pacific last season with 101 points and made an early exit in the first round after falling to the Calgary Flames and I honestly thought I was going to see a bit of the same this year, but unfortunately for them, there has been a bit of a drop off. The Sedin twins are leading the way on offense with a combined 81 points, but we have seen a dip in production from Radim Vrbata, who in his second season with the Canucks has 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) but is a minus-22. Even though Bo Horvat is a minus-24, he’s produced 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists), and at the age of 20, could provide some promise for the future. At the other end of the ice, with Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom both averaging fewer than three goals against, they have been providing some pretty solid goaltending. This is another situation even though they have the 35-year-old Miller, who has has one year remaining on his contract following the 2015-16 season, the goaltending will need to be evaluated while the team currently continues to develop their younger players with the goal of getting this team back into a playoff spot.
Predicition: Vancouver will miss the playoffs.
Winnipeg Jets – Sell. Sell. Sell. Is that the mentality in Winnipeg down the stretch for the Jets? Winnipeg is currently 11 points out of a playoff spot and with pending unrestricted free agents Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, they’re likely to explore options in moving them before the trade deadline in order to get something in return from a team looking to add a rental in preparation for the playoffs so they don’t lose them for nothing. Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little will be joined by some of these younger players in the system moving up, and having a player like Nikolaj Elhers with his first full season in the NHL under his belt can be built around. The Jets will have a great opportunity to draft in the top five this summer as well as any picks they may acquire in a deal involving Ladd or Byfuglien. In net, we’ve seen a trio of goaltenders throughout the season with Connor Hellebuyck playing in 22 games, Michael Hutchinson appearing in 17 and Ondrej Pavelec with 15 games played. Each of the goaltenders have supported the back end well, allowing fewer than three goals against and it has been quite an impressive year for Hellebuyck, 22, who is 12-9-1 with a 2.10 goals against average and .927 save percentage. Head coach Paul Maurice will have a decision heading into the 2016-17 campaign on who will end up with the bulk of the work.
Prediction: Jets miss playoffs.
Final Thoughts: Do not get used to seeing only one Canadian team make the playoffs as I have predicted this year with the Montreal Canadiens. I would fully expect more out of Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa next season.
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