With a week left in the 2013-14 campaign, only the Montreal Canadiens are a reasonable bet to make the postseason, which means this will likely go down as the first time since 1973 that only one Canadian team makes the NHL playoffs.
Here is a look at the state of the seven Canadian franchises as the regular season draws to a close.
What’s working: Not much. On paper, the Canucks have some top-tier names, the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, but this season has been one giant sinkhole. What should be working, but isn’t, is perfectly encapsulated by a single number: one. That’s the number of goals scored by Daniel Sedin in 27 games in 2014.
What’s not: Pretty much everything. The best players are underperformers and a lack of depth means the likes of journeyman Shawn Matthias – arrived as part of the Roberto Luongo trade to Florida – is a suddenly a second-line centre. Injuries have hurt. The Canucks are hardly the worst off in the league but have been unable to absorb the loss of important players. It adds up to one of the worst records in the entire league in the season’s second half.
Front office status: Stressed. The hiring of coach John Tortorella last year, a collective decision of owner Francesco Aquilini and team president Mike Gillis, is a failed experiment and the coach is the likeliest to pay the cost. But failure stains everyone. Gillis may hold on to his job but the pressure to salvage the situation is intense. And a decade-plus string of sellouts is in jeopardy, as fans lose interest. Still, the Canucks are a money-making machine and one of the most valuable teams in hockey.
What’s next: The departure of the coach appears certain, most pundits agree. Who can fill the breech, and solve the problems, is unclear. The Sedins turns 34 in September and start a new four-year contract, coming off basically their worst season ever. A trade of Ryan Kesler will be a primary off-season story. There is good news, however. With Luongo’s contract gone, and the salary cap rising, the Canucks will have a lot of money to play with, at least $10-million, if not a bunch more, so there is fiscal elbow room to quickly remake the team.
What’s working: Hardly anything. After finally inching out of the NHL cellar last year, the Oilers dropped back to the bottom of the Western Conference again – for the third time in five years. Among their promising young talent, Taylor Hall is showing signs of evolving into a front-line NHL player and was averaging more than a point-per-game for the second year in a row.
What’s not: So many of the young players identified as the Oilers’ core group faltered, beginning with second-year pro Nail Yakupov, who led the team in goals with 17 during the lockout-shortened 48-game season, but became a marginal player under new coach Dallas Eakins. No. 1 centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was coming off off-season shoulder surgery and never really got it going. No. 2 centre Sam Gagner missed the first month recovering from a fractured jaw and started slowly as well. Defensively, the Oilers were young and mistake-prone all over the ice and their goaltending early on (Devan Dubnyk, Jason LaBarbera) was a disaster.
Front-office status: Coach Eakins didn’t provide any immediate answers, after replacing Ralph Krueger, who replaced Tom Renney, who replaced Pat Quinn, who replaced Craig MacTavish, all in the past five seasons. That record of coaching instability suggests the Oilers dare not make another change in the offseason, meaning Eakins will almost certainly return next year.
What’s next: Last September, the Oilers spoke optimistically that a turnaround might be at hand after all that patient rebuilding – and it wasn’t. If anything, they were worse, not better. Sooner or later, their young talent will mature into prime-time NHL players. If they can develop defensive depth and get more consistent goaltending from newcomers Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, a playoff spot is within reach in a year or two.
What’s working: Expectations were significantly lowered for the Calgary Flames this season, after last year’s purge that saw Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Tanguay traded away and veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff retire. It was a transitional season for Calgary that went relatively well. Defenceman Mark Giordano, named captain to replace Iginla, broke into the upper echelon of NHL defencemen and Calgary’s long-standing inability to develop a centre with size may have been corrected when they drafted Sean Monahan sixth overall. Monahan became the first teenage centre since Dan Quinn to score 20 goals for the Flames before his 20th birthday.
What’s not: Goaltending remains a question mark, though the hope is that U.S. college prospect Jon Gillies may one day morph into a genuine No. 1. In the interim, they will test out of a pair of Europeans again, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio, after trading away Reto Berra at the deadline.
Front office status: The Flames brought in Brian Burke as director of hockey operations and mid-year, Burke fired general manager Jay Feaster and assistant John Weisbrod. Burke is currently looking to bring in a full-time GM in the off-season. Calgary may be two or more years away from turning the corner, but they did a lot of good things under coach Bob Hartley, who seemed to earn another year behind the bench by providing the right atmosphere for the team’s youngsters to develop in.What’s next: Turnarounds don’t happen overnight, so the small incremental steps in the rebound just need to continue. Mikael Backlund, a former first-rounder, showed signs of becoming a solid two-way centre, probably best suited to a third-line role, and their defence corps, beyond Giordano, is young, mobile and slowly improving.
What’s working: Speedy Blake Wheeler is evolving into one of the more dynamic players in the game, while both Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd had good consistent seasons again. The Jets appear to have hit home runs at the draft table with a pair of first-rounders, defenceman Jacob Trouba, and centre Mark Scheifele, both of whom dealt with injury issues this year, but were effective players when healthy. Dustin Byfuglien made the switch from defence to forward in the second half and looks like a real weapon up-front, with his big-bodied presence.
What’s not: Their goaltending has been up-and-down, with starter Ondrej Pavelec's GAA inching over 3.00 per game. It is unclear how that can be immediately remedied, given he is signed for another three years at a $3.9-million cap hit. Evander Kane, who has been playing mostly on the third line recently after scoring 30 goals in what looked to be a breakout year two seasons ago, hasn’t been able to duplicate those numbers.
Front office status: Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel behind the bench mid-season and he will need to decide whether he wants to make the interim position permanent. Otherwise, the Jets – a model of organizational stability – will stay with the crew that they have, led by general manager Kevin Chevaldayoff, who has overseen some quality draft classes in the past couple of years.What’s next: Winnipeg is never likely to be a destination for premium free agents and after a lot of wasted drafts from their years in Atlanta, the Jets need time to build an organization, knowing that homegrown prospects are their best hope to annually make the playoffs. But the real pressing issue is to find the greater start-to-finish consistency needed to win in today’s NHL.
What’s working: Not much. A year ago the “Pesky Sens” advanced farther than any team in the playoffs (two rounds) and this year they stand four slots out of the last spot. The five-year rebuilding plan is stalled. Plusses are a hard scratch, but Craig Anderson, at 32, remains a top goaltender even if not as good as last season. Centre Kyle Turris, 24, has been the team’s best forward, winger Clarke MacArthur second best. Defenceman Erik Karlsson, 23, recovered from Achilles tendon surgery to lead all NHL defencemen in scoring. Rookie blueliner Cody Ceci, 20, shows promise. Trading deadline pickup Ales Hemsky may be the winger captain Jason Spezza has lacked.
What’s not: 300-plus penalties. The third worst goal total in the league. Much-heralded young defenceman Jared Cowen, 23, had a rough season. Last summer’s big trade brought in Bobby Ryan, who had moments but fizzled until surgery was required for a sports hernia. The team put together precious few 60-minute games.
What’s Next: Selling hope. Sometimes it’s firing a coach, sometimes a top pick – but the Senators lost theirs in the Ryan deal. A tough sell coming.
Toronto Maple Leafs
What’s working: The Leafs talents are obvious. They’ve got strong goaltending, a very good power play and two of the game’s top 20 goal scorers in Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, both of whom are 26 or under. They’re a high event team, quick, dangerous and unpredictable when over their own blueline, which means they can capitalize on mistakes and quickly get the puck up the ice for odd-man rush situations.
What’s not: The part when they’re not over their own blueline. The Leafs have two glaring systemic issues, with their play in their own zone one of them and their play with leads the other. Toronto is dead last in the league with 2,800 shots allowed this season, a near-record pace that speaks to just how poor their possession and defensive game has become. Some of this is personnel, but a lot rests with the coaching staff, who have been unable to reverse the trend all season.
Front office status: The Leafs management team has essentially been entirely held over from Brian Burke’s unsuccessful tenure with the team. GM Dave Nonis has been on staff since 2008, Dave Poulin since 2009 and Claude Loiselle since 2010, and their first off-season without Burke wasn’t promising. While they added netminder Jonathan Bernier and some decent value buys, they were capped out in large part due to signing free agent David Clarkson, who has been an unmitigated bust. Rumours that they’ll now throw a ton of money at Dave Bolland and part with young players like Nazem Kadri are also very concerning.
What’s next: Toronto’s playoff hopes hang by a thread as they hope Columbus stumbles to close the year, but the most likely outcome is the Leafs narrowly miss a playoff berth. While they have some nice young pieces like Morgan Rielly, their prospect base is not very deep and they continue to allocate too many dollars to players moving out of their prime. Even if Bernier continues to shine, they seem to be settling into mediocrity.
What’s working: It can be boiled down to one word. Goaltending. Carey Price is as good a goalie as there is in the NHL, and his play has often kept this team afloat. There’s some good young veteran talent, led by all-world defenceman P.K. Subban and 30-goal winger Max Pacioretty. They’ve also got some enticing up-and-coming talent up front in Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, and blue-line prospects Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu. There are also several strong prospects in the pipeline as well, Swedish teenager Jacob de la Rose is perhaps the most NHL-ready, Finnish forward Artturi Lehkonen and home-grown forward Charles Hudon are dynamic offensive players.
What’s not: The blueline is the clear weak point with this team, the Habs don’t really have anyone who can keep up with Subban – reuniting him with Andrei Markov is tough because of the lack of depth. The problem can be described thusly: they have two legit top-pairing defencemen, and then a bunch of fourth and fifth d-men. They are also saddled with some unproductive veterans (Rene Bourque to name one) and there is a sense the progression of the younger players is stagnating. When it isn’t regressing, that is.
Front office status: Marc Bergevin is finishing his second season at the helm, and has managed to retain all the front office personnel he came in with, the most important of them likely Rick Dudley, the eminence grise of the group. Bergevin has three years to go on his contract, and has demonstrated top-level trade deadline nous and canniness at the negotiating table. Whether he’s as effective a judge of talent is still up for debate.
What’s next: The Habs are a team in transition, but they should be able to contend for the Stanley Cup in fairly short order if the front office plays it right. To do that will likely require dealing or buying out Bourque, letting captain Brian Gionta walk when he becomes a free agent in summer, and clearing out the deadwood on defence – don’t expect to see Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon in Montreal next year. Then it’s a question of developing their youngsters and adding a piece or two on the blue line. Subban is due a big payday this summer, and the Habs also have a decision to make on centre Lars Eller. Galchenyuk, Gallagher, Tinordi and Beaulieu will all hit restricted free agency in 2015, each will expect a raise.