By David Song, March 21 2018 —
The 2017–18 National Hockey League’s regular season finale is approaching. While some Canadian teams are playoff bound, others must confront difficult obstacles and make much-needed changes in an uncertain offseason. Here’s a summary of how our country’s teams have performed so far.
The Flames burned bright at times this season, but questionable coaching and woefully inconsistent play has six points out of a wild-card spot as of March 21. Excellent performances by star forwards Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau haven’t been enough to elevate the Flames into playoff contention.
While head coach Glen Gulutzan is often criticized for being dispassionate and unable to make in-game adjustments, the organization needs to reconsider how best to utilize their talented roster. Veteran goalie Mike Smith turns 36 on March 22 and a pricey defence corps featuring Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic must collectively heighten their game next October.
The Oilers started the season as potential Cup contenders. Now, they sit fourth-last in the Pacific division and their playoff dream is dead. Generational centre Connor McDavid is one of the Oiler’s lone shining players, on pace to finish with around 100 points this year. But his high output hasn’t been enough to drag his team up the standings.
Two recent Oilers trades have faced significant criticism. Top-line left-winger Taylor Hall went to the New Jersey Devils in 2016 and had a breakout season with 77 points made to date. Right-wing Jordan Eberle has produced top-six numbers with the New York Islanders, while his replacement, Ryan Strome, has struggled to be more than a third-line pivot in Edmonton. The Oilers’ power play also sits last in the NHL with a mere 14.3 per cent conversion rate.
The Habs, sitting fourth-last in Atlantic division, tend to rely heavily on franchise goaltender Carey Price. Unfortunately, the B.C. native has played like a shell of his former self this year, perhaps due to accumulating strain of carrying his team over the years. Price sports a 2.98 goals against average and a .904 save percentage — both well below his career average.
Worse still, number-one defenceman Shea Weber has been limited to 26 games this season by injury. Like the Oilers, the Habs may be experiencing buyer’s remorse as P.K. Subban, the blueliner traded for Weber, continues to play a top-four role for the league-leading Nashville Predators.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Last year, the Senators came within one goal of vanquishing the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. This year, they’re fifth in the Atlantic and lost the magic that took them on a deep playoff run in 2016–17.
Speedy centre Matt Duchene was the Senators’ high-profile acquisition this year, arriving in the nation’s capital in a blockbuster trade that sent Kyle Turris to Colorado. Though Duchene has played adequately, he hasn’t been the game-breaker the Senators hoped for.
Toronto Maple Leafs:
The Maple Leafs are widely ridiculed within the hockey community for not winning a Stanley Cup since 1967. However, that pattern appears to be rapidly changing. The Maple Leafs comfortably occupy the third spot in the Atlantic, nine points ahead of the wild-card New Jersey Devils.
Superstar pivot Auston Matthews did his part well but has been limited to 53 games by injury. But the Maple Leafs are lush with other talented forwards, such as Mitch Marner, William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk. Their defence is also much-improved. Jake Gardiner has turned from a liability in his own zone into a valuable offensive blueliner and Morgan Reilly is a dynamic two-way threat. While the jokes will probably stick, the Maple Leafs are ascendant.
The Jets have finally pulled it together, shaping their high-potential roster into a powerhouse. Mark Scheifele is one of the best young centres in the league next to McDavid and Matthews. Scheifele alongside veteran power winger Blake Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connor constitutes one of the NHL’s strongest top lines.
The Jets also boast excellent support from sophomore sniper Patrik Laine and talented two-way defenceman Jacob Trouba. Connor Hellebuyck is a force in the net with a 2.34 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. This has elevated the team to a second-place berth in the Central division and a comfortable ride into the playoffs.
The Canucks run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final feels impossible to recreate, as they sit second-last in the Pacific and may drop even further by the season’s end. Aging icons Henrik and Daniel Sedin are no longer top-line scorers and their decline mirrors that of the entire team.
However, the Canucks’ future is promising. Sophomore right-winger Brock Boeser scored 55 points in 62 games before being sidelined with a back injury. Bo Horvat has evolved into a solid two-way centre. Unfortunately, the Canucks have been plagued with an overall lack of depth and tremendous inconsistency in net — neither Jacob Markstrom nor Anders Nilsson have played as a number-one goalie should.
There’s not much playoff drama for any of Canada’s teams, all of whom are either in a comfortable spot or are solidly out of contention. Winnipeg and Toronto fans will look forward to April’s playoff hockey. As for the rest, at least there’s a draft lottery.