Oh Canada: Predicting the NHL’s North – Part 2

Part one of this two-part series featured the Canadiens, Flames, Senators and Jets, respectively, as the top-four front runners of Canada’s NHL representation.

The final three teams on my list of predictions arrived here from living in the past (Canucks), failing for years before getting lucky (Oilers), and not really having a clear sense of direction for far too long (Maple Leafs). Check out the the sub-polar cast of Canada’s teams for this season.

5. Vancouver Canucks

Bo Horvat. (Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports)
Bo Horvat. (Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports)

The Canucks surpassed a lot of expectations last season with their 101-point finish. While the team has made some moves to shake up their roster this summer, on the whole their core of top players remains the same. This begs the question that, in a much-improved Pacific Division, will their aging core hold up?

Henrik and Daniel Sedin will be expected to produce at nearly a point-per-game rate, and Radim Vrbata is likely their only elite goal-scoring threat. The Sedins are 35-years old and Vrbata is 34. Vancouver may get decent production out of depth forwards, but no one outside of the Canucks’ big three is in a position to carry the load offensively.

The Canucks have a handful of young players who are on the verge of making the jump to pro hockey, including Jake Virtanen, Cole Cassels, Jared McCann, Brendan Gaunce and Ben Hutton. But as it stands, the Canucks aren’t trending up the standings with their current group of players. They may pick up one of the bottom playoff spots in the Western Conference, but could just easily be on the outside looking in.

6. Edmonton Oilers

Ryan Nugent- Hopkins (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports).
Ryan Nugent- Hopkins (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports).

The 2014-15 Oilers were bottom-dwellers in the Pacific Division once again, finishing with 24 wins and 62 points.

Edmonton hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final, and have had quite a run of humiliating seasons since then. They’ve picked in the top-10 of the NHL Draft for seven straight seasons, which included three straight first overall selections in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

But this year projects to be much brighter for the Oilers, thanks to the additions of an established coach and general manager, as well as a number of key players headlined by phenom Connor McDavid.

GM Peter Chiarelli has been a Stanley Cup winner in Boston, and head coach Todd McLellan has had a number of winning seasons in San Jose. The resumes that these two bring to Edmonton provide a much-needed winning presence for budding stars like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. Key additions this offseason, such as defensemen Andrej Sekera and Griffin Reinhart and goalie Cam Talbot, give them stability in areas that were lacking last season.

Despite how miserable hockey has been in the NHL’s most northern city for the past decade, the Oilers finally may be out of the cellar in 2015-16. Edmonton could fight for a playoff spot if their top offensive talents produce and their defense holds up, but this may be far fetched, even with a new hope named McDavid. Let’s not forget, the Penguins still finished last in the Eastern Conference the year after selecting generational-player Sidney Crosby first overall.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs

Dion Phaneuf (Andy Martin Jr) .
Dion Phaneuf (Andy Martin Jr) .

Led by the guidance of new coach Mike Babcock and new GM Lou Lamiorello, the Maple Leafs aren’t yet out of the woods but appear to at least be trending on a pattern to success.

Toronto cleared an elephant in the room by dealing away superstar Phil Kessel, but addressed some depth issues with the acquisitions of Shawn Matthias, Michael Grabner, Brad Boyes and P.A. Parenteau. While all of these players may be temporary fixes, the Leafs have a number of prospects who aren’t far away, including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown.

With the absence of Kessel, the Leafs top forwards of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul will need to produce much better than last season. They have an exceptional blue line led by Dion Phaneuf that also features Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner and Roman Polak, but this group of players likely won’t intimidate many opponents this season. And while in net, both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer will continue to compete for the No. 1 job, each goalie will need to be more consistent to give the Leafs a chance to win.

Even in hockey season, it’s often hard to avoid the heat in Toronto. The Leafs will play under a lot of pressure and scrutiny, like any other year, but with some foundation pieces in place they should improve from the mere 30 wins and 68 points they amassed a season ago.