A long-time Maple Leaf fan might be tempted to sit back and enjoy the current misery of the Montreal Canadiens.
But that same fan would then have to sit back and think about the problems of all the Canadian teams in the NHL. Only one of them currently holds a playoff spot — Montreal. But if the Habs continue to trend downward, Canadian hockey fans see a real chance the NHL could hold the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring without a single Canadian entry.
It’s only happened once before, 1969-70, and the world carried on. But the league changed the divisions the next season.
Last season, five Canadian teams made the playoffs last year, with only the Oilers and Leafs missing out.
This season, each of the Canadian teams has issues, and Montreal’s are the biggest. It’s hard not to notice when a team is crashing — dare we say like a semi going off a cliff — with just five wins since Nov. 28.
It’s a bad day for the coach when the media is speculating about possible replacements (memo to Benoit Groulx and Guy Boucher . . . stay by your phone). Montreal unwittingly drew itself into the John Scott all-star controversy, then there’s the domestic abuse charge against Alex Galchenyuk’s girlfriend stemming from an incident at a party Galchenyuk was hosting.
And it took us this long to mention that goaltender Carey Price is still injured. Habs GM Marc Bergevin, hailed in many quarters for assembling this team, now must consider his team is only as good as his goalie. If the goalie is a healthy Price, then all is well. Any other goalie, not so much.
“With their start (9-0-0), they ramped the bar up higher than it should have been,” said Brian Lawton, an analyst with NHL Network. “I don’t think they’re a top-5 team in the NHL. But they’re better than a playoff bubble team like they are now.”
The Habs have 50 points in 46 games and hold the last wild-card spot in the East.
If there’s a Canadian team that could supplant the Habs, it’s the Ottawa Senators.
Heading into Monday’s games, they were two points back with a game in hand. The Senators are the team that seems to punch above its weight during the stretch to the playoffs. The goaltending seems strong, but penalty killing is the second-worst in the league and the team is routinely outshot. They have three wins in their last nine games. Kyle Turris hasn’t scored in 14 games and has only five assists in that time.
Given their strong finish last year, more was expected.
“Their inconsistency has surprised me,” said Lawton.
In the Western Conference, none of the Canadian teams sit in a playoff spot, although the Vancouver Canucks are knocking on the door. The offence continues to rely on the 35-year-old Sedin twins as the team tries inject some youth (Bo Horvat, Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen). Their goals-for per game average of 2.33 is among the lowest in the league.
The Calgary Flames might be the biggest disappointment after making it to the second round of the playoffs last year. They sit second-last in the West, albeit with games in hand. The defence, which added Dougie Hamilton last summer, hasn’t been as good as hoped. The goaltending is questionable, allowing 3.00 goals against per game, second-worst in the league. The power play (13.9 per cent) and penalty kill (74.3 per cent) are the worst in the league. But it’s a young core that management believes in, but it might take another seven-game winning streak like the one they had in December to overcome their woes.
The most enigmatic team is the Winnipeg Jets, who seem caught betwixt and between themselves. Their two best players — Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien — are unrestricted free agents. Confusion and concern about their future and the direction of the team seems to have knocked the organization off balance.
Then, of course, there’s the Edmonton Oilers.
No team has been as hurt by injuries as the Oilers, losing Connor McDavid and Nail Yakupov at roughly the same time. The Oilers just aren’t deep enough to survive that.
That said, Yakupov is back and McDavid will be soon, which should give the offence a much-needed boost. The Oilers have played eight one-goal games in a row (3-3-2) and were outscored 15-12 in the process.
However, the West is no longer what it once was — there are weaklings across the board. Nashville holds down the second wild card with 48 points. The Oilers are last in the West but only seven points out.
Around the league
Trades on hold: The St. Louis Blues are supposed to be the front-runner in all trade talk regarding Tampa’s unhappy sniper, Jonathan Drouin. The price tag for the former third-overall pick is said to be set very high by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. The Blues, however, are believed ready to move all-star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, which has Yzerman’s attention. But Blues GM Doug Armstrong says he’s not willing to make a deal with so many Blues injured.
“It’s easier to trade when you know what you have,” Armstrong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Right now it’s very difficult to tell with six and seven guys out, what you need, because you’re just treading water.”
Back to back-to-backs: While some coaches, like the Leafs’ Mike Babcock, complain about the number of back-to-back games on the schedule this season, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella almost seems to welcome them.
“Back-to-backs are part of the NHL schedule,” said Tortorella. “Quite honestly, I think sometimes in the season you want to get back playing. (If you lose a lop-sided game), you want to get back on the ice and play. We play a lot of back-to-backs. That’s part of the league. That’s part of being an NHL player.”
The Jackets have more back-to-back series — 18 — than any other team; the Leafs have 16.
Mighty Hawks: Take a moment to consider the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. They go for a team-record 12th win in a row on Tuesday against Nashville and have taken over first place in the Western Conference. Just think how good they might be if they didn’t have to keep breaking up Stanley Cup championship teams for salary cap purposes. Ex-Hawks playing big roles elsewhere: Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy. You could throw in Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell for that matter, as well as goalie Antti Niemi.
Sabre rattling: The Buffalo Sabres aren’t doing nearly as well as predicted, given the hopes that were associated with the trade for Ryan O’Reilly and the drafting of Jack Eichel second overall. But part of the reason they were struggling was the loss of No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner, who returned to action last week after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the season opener.
Bruins coach Claude Julien, however, says the Sabres will benefit long-term from the hard knocks they’ve taken.
“They have a lot of good young players. Those guys are growing and getting better all the time. A lot of those players learned the hard way last year, they were put into situations where they had to play a lot. They’re benefiting from that right now. They grew a lot quicker than they probably would have in normal situations.”
Record pace: Roy Somner played just three NHL games, all for the Edmonton Oilers, but he’s about to do something remarkable in the American Hockey League.
The 58-year-old is on the cusp of being the all-time winningest coach in AHL history. Going into Monday’s game where his San Jose Barracuda will face the Bakersfield Condors, Somner sat at 635 wins in 1,370 games. That’s one victory behind Fred “Bun” Cook, who coached 1,171 games between 1937 and 1956.
Puck tracker: The Penguins acquired Carl Hagelin from Anaheim to help boost the Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel combo. New Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, formerly an assistant with the Rangers, knows Hagelin from their New York days.
“I think he’s going to track pucks down,” said Sullivan. “He’s going to help those guys keep the puck longer. He’s going to force turnovers, put teams in vulnerable circumstances. He’s got good enough hockey sense that he can play with those guys that think the game at that level.”
500 club: Steve Stamkos has his eye on joining the NHL’s exclusive 500-club: Players with 500 goals, most recently joined by Alex Ovechkin.
“You hope to get there one day, for sure,” Stamkos told the Tampa Tribune. “You hope you can play in this league for a lot more years and have some success. I think when you think about the best goal scorers in the game, 500 is a pretty exclusive club. That’s definitely a special number.”
Chicago’s Marian Hossa should get there next; he has 494 goals. San Jose’s Patrick Marleau is at 470.
Stamkos is well back at 296 goal but has plenty of time.
King Henrik: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has 20 wins this season. That marks 11 seasons in a row with at least 20, second only to Tony Esposito and Martin Brodeur (12 each). Lundqvist has allowed two goals or fewer in six of his last nine appearances, including four of his last five appearances and each of his last three. The rest of the league be warned: He says he feels he’s getting closer to playoff mode.
Quick hits: The Kings’ Anze Kopitar got a no-movement clause for the first four years of his eight-year extension. It becomes a seven-team trade list for the remaining four. His cap hit is $10 million a season . . . Blues goalie Brian Elliott recently wore a mask with “Cujo” on it and donned blue pads in honour of his childhood hero, Curtis Joseph. “It’s a nice tribute and it’s very humbling for me,” said Joseph . . . Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo appeared in his 900th regular-season game this past weekend and is just the seventh goalie to do so . . . Pavel Datsyuk has been in on each of Detroit’s last six regulation goals (one goal, five assists) and scored their lone shootout goal in that time . . . David Perron scored in his debut with the Ducks . . . Former Leaf Richard Panik scored in his debut with the Blackhawks . . . After this space wrote about the Florida Panthers’ 12-game winning streak in our Over The Boards debut, the Panthers promptly lost three in a row.
Let’s hope it’s not the beginning of some kind of OTB jinx.