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At the NHL all-star break, the Montreal Canadiens are 11th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, with the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting 15th. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
At the NHL all-star break, the Montreal Canadiens are 11th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, with the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting 15th. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Canada’s struggling NHL teams on pace for historically awful season Add to ...

NHL teams treat the all-star break as a new beginning, a chance to refresh and reset heading into a go-go stretch drive.

Naturally, the amount of refreshing and resetting that are required wholly depends upon teams’ places in the standings. The Washington Capitals, runaway leaders in the Eastern Conference standings, are mostly concerned with staying the course and keeping their momentum going.

It’s a completely different story for the NHL’s seven Canadian-based teams, which limped into the break on the outside of the playoff picture. (Cue the tears over at Rogers Sportsnet, the television rights-holder, which relies on Canadian content to boost playoff ratings and ad revenue once the postseason comes around.)

The current doom and gloom represents a sharp contrast to a season ago, when five of the Canadian teams made the playoffs, and two – the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames – advanced to the second round.

An there was plenty of optimism bubbling around northern precincts back in October. Connor McDavid had landed in Edmonton with the Oilers. Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Stone had been rookie-of-the-year finalists for the Flames and Ottawa Senators, respectively. Ottawa had staged a miracle, 11th-hour run to the postseason, and Carey Price was expanding his trophy case to accommodate a quartet of major awards he won playing brilliant goal for the Montreal Canadiens. Even in Toronto, where management promised pain at the start of a roster rebuild, there were murmurs of interest in the Maple Leafs’ front-office changes.

Now, that fresh hope has given way to the glum possibility that, for only the second season in NHL history (the other was 1969-70), no Canadian team will qualify for the playoffs.

It’s not out of the question: At the break, the four Canadian teams in the Western Conference were at the absolute bottom of the standings – the Vancouver Canucks were 11th, Winnipeg 12th, Calgary 13th and Edmonton 14th. In the 16-team Eastern Conference, Montreal was 11th, Ottawa 12th and Toronto 15th.

“We’re in a situation where we have to shock the hockey world,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said, who could have been speaking for any of his Canadian counterparts.

But while the goals are the same, statistically the races in the two conferences differ markedly. In the West, the top three teams in the Central Division – the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues – have pretty much sewn up playoff spots. The Los Angeles Kings have also put some distance between themselves and the pack in the Pacific.

It means the remaining Western clubs are effectively chasing three playoff spots – two wild-card berths plus third place in the Pacific.

At the current pace, that would require a comparatively paltry 89 points by season’s end, so it’s within reach of Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. The Canucks are in the best position to reel in third place in the Pacific, a spot currently occupied by the surprising Arizona Coyotes. More problematic may be the fact that the Canucks are tied with the Anaheim Ducks, who hold three games in hand and look as if they are starting to find their way after an unexpectedly poor start.

After Washington, the Eastern playoff race is wide open – the gap between third and 13th place is only nine points. With the teams so closely bunched, the final Eastern wild-card berth currently projects out at 94 points, meaning both Montreal and Ottawa would have to earn a little more than 65 per cent of their remaining possible points to reach that threshold.

Ottawa’s 23-4-4 finish last year proved anything is possible, but coming from that far off the pace is rare – teams have to string together a lot of wins, stay healthy and hope that one or more of the teams they’re pursuing falters badly.

In Montreal, the Canadiens were humming along just fine until Price was injured; it’s been all downhill ever since. Ottawa has been erratic defensively, while offensively, centre Kyle Turris is in the midst of a dreadful scoring slump and Stone has been unable to match the impact he made last year. Only Toronto is where it was expected to be – jockeying with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres for last place, anticipating the draft lottery.

The most disappointing team in the West is probably Winnipeg, given how the Jets made the playoffs last season against long odds in the toughest division in hockey. Rookie goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been excellent in his 22 appearances, but neither of the starters in goal, Ondrej Pavelec or Michael Hutchinson, have performed nearly well enough so far. Apart from Blake Wheeler, the Jets’ offence has been inconsistent and special teams have been bad (28th on the power play, 27th in penalty killing).

The Flames, however, have been even worse on special teams – dead last in both categories for most of the season. Calgary has been further undermined by the fact that players who had breakthrough seasons a year ago – from Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan to Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell – have not been as good this season.

What you see in Calgary is also what you get in Edmonton – a team that’s still rebuilding and enduring the growing pains normally associated with turning the reins over to a collection of young players. Though they are lowest in the standings, the Oilers might be the most interesting team to watch down the stretch, because they haven’t had their full lineup healthy at any point this season. Their trade-deadline strategy could be influenced by how McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov – who have all missed significant time – look when they are in the lineup together.

That may be the next month’s most significant storyline among the seven Canadian teams, if all their playoff hopes continue to fade. Do they buy or sell at the trading deadline, and what sort of a return can you get if you dangle intriguing assets such as Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg), or Hudler and Russell as trade bait? Let the wheeling and dealing begin.

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