There were low expectations for Canadian hockey teams heading into the 2014-15 season. Only one of the seven Canadian teams made the playoffs in 2013-14, the first time that happened since 1973.
That feat was quite astonishing considering the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs, and the Canucks were the only Canadian teams in the league during that season. At least the Montreal Canadiens made it count by winning the Stanley Cup.
Despite low expectations, some of the Canadian teams have performed better than expected. Going into the All-Star Break, four of the seven Canadian teams are sitting in a playoff spot.
While a few teams have been able to quench the negativity surrounding the lack of Canadian content in the postseason last year, there are a couple of squads who have dropped below expectations.
1. Winnipeg Jets
They were suppose to be among the basement-dwellers of the Central Division. Instead they are right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture with the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, and the surprising Nashville Predators.
The biggest surprise might be that they have had success with their goaltending tandem, which looked like a laughable combination entering the season. Ondrej Pavelec had continuously under-performed, while Michael Hutchinson was an unproven 24-year-old rookie.
However they have combined to give the Jets one of the best goaltending combinations in the league. Pavelec is having his best season since the team relocated to Winnipeg. Hutchinson has been nothing short of fantastic. His .935 save percentage is best in the league for goalies who have played over 1000 minutes.
Winnipeg’s defence has played well in front of their goalies for the majority of the season, even through a stretch of play without their top four defencemen. However having Dustin Byfuglien in their line-up to move back to the blue line helped to continue their strong defensive play.
He has been a force since moving back to the blue line. Byfuglien has registered 20 points in 22 games since his move. Even with all of their defenders healthy, head coach Paul Maurice has no choice but to keep him there.
2. Calgary Flames
Most expected Calgary to be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes this season, however they are in a battle for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. At the halfway point in the season, they are ahead of the Los Angeles Kings in the for the final wild card spot in the West.
They have already exceeded expectations on the season since they aren’t basement dwellers in the Western Conference. They are winning tough hockey games despite the fancy stats working against them. The Flames have the third-worst team Corsi in the league at 44.4%, combined with a PDO of 101.0.
Despite the signs that scream regression, the Flames have continuously battled to remain in a payoff spot. Their goaltending has improved since last season, and their young guns such as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau have made an impact. However their best performances have come from the blue line.
Mark Giordano leads all NHL defenceman in points with 40. Dennis Wideman is tied for the league lead in goals from the blue line with 12. T.J. Brodie leads all NHL defencemen with a plus/minus of +23. All of this combined with a solid season from Kris Russell gives the Flames a formidable top four from the back-end.
1. Montreal Canadiens
The only Canadian team to make the playoffs last season has built off of their playoff success. They currently sit one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Atlantic Division.
One of the main reasons for their playoff success last season and their strong record this year, is because of goalie Carey Price. He is having an all-star calibre season for the Canadiens.
Usually when the Canadiens score, they don’t give up the lead. They have the best record in the league when scoring first this season. It helps to have P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov anchoring the blue line.
There is a good mix of youth and veterans in Montreal’s top six, but the standout has to be Max Pacioretty. He has already hit the 20-goal mark this season, and leads his team by a mile with a +22.
Alex Galchenyuk is coming along nicely in his development. In his third NHL season, the 20-year-old has already matched his career high point total with 31 points through 45 games. It took him 65 games to reach the same total last season.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if the Canadiens back at the top of the standings by the end of season. Who knows where the Canadiens would have gone if Carey Price wasn’t injured in the Conference Final last year.
2. Vancouver Canucks
After a steady run of continuously making the playoffs, the Canucks fell off the map last season. It cost both Mike Gillis and John Tortorella their jobs, and the Canucks brought in new management, a new partner for the Sedins’, a new second line centre, and a new number one goaltender.
So far it seems like the changes have paid off. Jim Benning’s overhaul of the roster left the Canucks with four lines that can play hockey. The Sedins’ have played better hockey than last year, in large part thanks to Radim Vrbata.
Vrbata could arguably be the Canucks MVP this season. He leads the team in goals and has predictably found success playing with the Twins. He was the lone Canuck to be named to the All Star Game.
Another solid addition has been Ryan Miller. After a rocky start he seems to have found his game over the past month. He led the Canucks to three straight wins in over 200 minutes of shutout hockey.
So after going from Best in the West to near the bottom of the Conference, the Canucks have predictably ended up somewhere in the middle this season. They have gone through some struggles, but are still on pace to put up 100 points. Realistically, that would put them in a playoff spot.
3. Ottawa Senators
Bryan Murray put it best when he said ” I don’t think when you trade a player of Jason’s calibre that you ever win. I know that.”
There is no doubt that trading Jason Spezza hurt this team in the short-term. There was no viable replacement for a number one centre, despite the best efforts of Kyle Turris.
Turris has 29 points in 45 games thus far. Those are respectable numbers but below what you would except for a number one centre. There are some solid young centres on their team in Mika Zibanejad and Curtis Lazar, but neither is ready to fulfill Spezza’s role.
So, Senators fans, is this your part of the future look at centre? Turris, Zibanejad, Pageau, Lazar……#sens
— Ken Warren (@Citizenkwarren) January 21, 2015
There is a lot to be positive about in Ottawa. They have many good young players, a legitimate number one defenceman in Erik Karlsson, and a solid goaltending tandem with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. However, the team likely doesn’t have the depth to make the playoffs.
It would be a successful season if the Ottawa Senators crept back into the playoff race, but they are currently nine points out of a playoff spot currently held down by the Boston Bruins. With the roster assembled in the capital, there about right where they should be.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
It has gone from bad to worse in Toronto. Fresh off of firing Randy Carlyle, the team now can’t seem to score or keep the puck out of their net.
Since Peter Horacek took over as head coach, the Maple Leafs have gone 1-7. They are 1-9 overall in their last ten games. Hard to wonder why there is a sour taste in the mouths of Leaf fans.
Even though negativity is swarming the team, there have been some positives in Toronto this season. They have scored more goals-per-game than any other Canadian team. Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are both in the top 25 leaders for points.
Phil Kessel has 44 points through 48 games, but his frustration is mounting as shown by his media presence.
Even Alex Ovechkin feels bad for the American sniper.
The struggles around the Maple Leafs are mainly because of their bad possession and weak defence. They have the fourth-worst team Corsi in the 45.5%, and they allow 33.3 shots per game, the third-worst in the league. Some of their supposed best defencemen like Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner, have not played up to their potential.
Putting the puck in the net hasn’t been enough for Toronto. For a team that was supposed to be in the playoff hunt, they are fading out even faster than last year. For that reason they are underachieving so far this season.
2. Edmonton Oilers
It’s almost hard to call the Edmonton Oilers underachiever’s after years of hanging around the bottom of the standings, but the team has once again found new ways to suck.
In each of the last few season the question is thrown around: “Is this the year Edmonton breaks out?”
The answer has been a loud and resounding “No” every time. Just by taking a quick look at its roster it’s not hard to see why they have floundered.
They don’t have a number one goalie, or a top two defenceman. They have some promising forwards but no first-line centre. Nugent-Hopkins might be getting closer but he is still only 21-years-old.
In terms of positives? Well at least Derek Roy has been a nice addition. The Oilers haven’t sucked as much since Todd Nelson took over by himself at the end of December. They are 5-4-2 with victories over the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks in that time span.
Also, they are in a pretty good position to land either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Maybe they should just keep underachieving.