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The Calgary Flames seem destined to take part in an all-Canadian division this season, which could be as little as six weeks away.
With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to take stock of how each Canadian team is shaping up with the majority of their off-season work in the rearview mirror.
The Flames were simply mediocre last season. Even when able to string together a few wins, there was never a time where they really put it all together and looked like the 2018-19 version.
An up and down regular season, coupled with a disappointing playoff ending, only fed already rampant speculation the Flames would make big changes this off-season and, well, they did.
They let a ton of players walk in free agency – T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Erik Gustafsson, Mark Jankowski and Cam Talbot, among others, moved on – and replaced them with a batch of Canuc...UFAs.
Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon headlined a list of five NHL free agents brought in by new GM Brad Treliving.
He didn’t make core changes like some expected – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Noah Hanifin, in particular, had their names brought up a lot – but it’s fair to say the Flames would have been selling low on many of their big names, which *usually* doesn’t work out.
Instead of moving out high profile players, the Flames changed everything around them. While I don’t love all the moves made, they found a new starting goaltender, added a notable defender to try and plug some of the minutes lost, and picked up a few forwards to try and fix the team’s depth issues.
I don’t see the Flames as contenders, however, it is fair to expect better years from some of their stars (like Gaudreau). Markstrom should provide more consistent goaltending, and their forward depth looks improved.
If that is the case, the Flames could be one of the better teams in the division.
I like most of what the Oilers did this off-season. They brought Jesse Puljujarvi back into the mix while signing Dominik Kahun, Kyle Turris, and Tyson Barrie in free agency. None of those moves will address the team’s defensive issues, however, they should really boost the team’s secondary scoring.
I am still a believer Puljujarvi can be a top-6 forward and I’m a big fan of Kahun as a middle-6 finisher. I don’t think much of Turris – particularly defensively – but he might be able to provide some pop in the 3C role. Barrie, for all his faults, should boost an already lethal top power play unit.
Their goaltending tandem is clearly subpar, which is far from ideal behind a team that gives up a lot of chances.
In saying that, the Oilers’ stars are as good as anybody in the league offensively and they’re finally surrounded with a bunch of capable complimentary pieces.
The Oilers are going to be electric offensively and one of my favorite teams to watch this season.
I think playoffs are in the cards but I don’t see them contending with Toronto for the division title.
For years the Canadiens have been one of the best chance generating teams in the league. Due to a lack of finishing ability, the goals haven’t always followed.
They took some steps towards addressing that in acquiring Josh Anderson and signing Tyler Toffoli.
I believe they overpaid for Anderson – in terms of the cost of acquisition and the contract they gave him – but he’ll provide some goal scoring and physicality.
Toffoli, to me, is one of the more underrated wingers in the game. The Habs did very well getting him at the price/term they did.
On defense, Joel Edmundson was the ‘prized’ pick-up. He gets touted as a very good defender but the results don’t exactly align with the perception. His teams always give up shots, chances, expected goals, etc. at a higher rate with him on the ice; even when playing lower in the lineup. I don’t see him moving the needle – at all – and believe the $3.5M could’ve been much better spent elsewhere.
In goal, things look pretty stable with a Carey Price and Jake Allen tandem. Price looked like his old self in the playoffs and Allen is coming off a nice bounce-back season. If Allen can replicate that, the Habs will have two goaltenders they can rely on. That’s important as we look to be heading into a condensed season.
For me, how much the Canadiens can accomplish comes down to the progression of their young players. If Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alexander Romanov, among others, can make meaningful contributions, the Habs will be very deep.
I see playoffs but I’d be surprised if they win the division.
While Matt Murray should be an upgrade in goal, and Evgenii Dadonov will provide some much-needed firepower in the top-6, I still don’t see nearly enough talent on this team to even sniff a playoff spot.
I mean, Colin White and Chris Tierney are their top centers and Nikita Zaitsev will serve as RD1. Not ideal!
Newcomers like Austin Watson, Alex Galchenyuk, and Erik Gudbranson also appear destined for some important minutes. I don’t see any of them being able to tread water in said minutes, let alone actually excel.
Young stars like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and, potentially, Tim Stuetzle will make the Sens an eventful watch, but I see another lottery pick in their future.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas has had a nice off-season.
He managed to meaningfully upgrade his defense – T.J. Brodie ranks 47th among all defensemen in Goals Above Replacement over the last three seasons – and add all the intangibles everyone has clamored for without moving any of the big names up front.
Toronto still possesses one of the best 1-2 punches down the middle, they still have stars on the wing, they have depth, and the defense actually looks competent now.
Brodie has more than held his own playing top pairing minutes for years. Jake Muzzin is a very solid two-way defender. Morgan Rielly is one of the better puck movers and offensive blueliners in the league. They form a good top-3.
Justin Holl has, at times, looked capable of being a complimentary piece on the 2nd pairing. If that proves to be too much, the Leafs have developing youngsters like Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin they could try as a No. 4. That fails too? Perhaps KHL star Mikko Lehtonen can handle it. He can’t? Well, I’m not a Zach Bogosian fan but there were nights he played important minutes for the Stanley Cup winner. Maybe he can stop-gap for a bit.
The Leafs don’t have all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. They have a few kicks at the can for the No. 4 spot and only need one to work out. If they get that one, I think the Leafs could be top-15 in several key defensive metrics.
Combine that with a high-end attack, and quality goaltending (Andersen’s save percentage has been above league average every year), and I think we have a division winner.
I don’t like the off-season Vancouver has put together.
They lost Jacob Markstrom, the team MVP over the last two years, and replaced him with Braden Holtby. That may not sound bad on paper but you’re going from a .918 SV% to a .897 SV%. You’re going from a .838 SV% vs high danger shots (8th best) to a .780 SV% vs HD shots (53rd). Quite the drop.
Even if Holtby bounces back a little bit, the Canucks figure to be worse off in goal. They’re also worse up front, having let Tyler Toffoli go after parting with promising prospect Tyler Madden, and a 2nd round pick, to get him months prior.
I really like the Nate Schmidt addition and think he will be a big upgrade over Tanev at this point in his career. Hats off to the Canucks for that.
But, all told, I think they’re a worse team now than they were in the playoffs. They haven’t properly surrounded Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and it’s only going to get more difficult when they get new deals after the season.
I love the high-end talent on the Canucks. I just don’t see enough of a supporting cast for them to be a playoff team. I think they take a step back and miss out this season.
The Jets were one of the worst 5v5 teams in the league last season. The only reason they even sniffed a playoff spot was because of Vezina-worthy goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.
The Paul Stastny trade should help solidify their top-6 but I don’t think he is going to cure all their problems. Neither is signing depth defenseman Derek Forbort.
They lack play-drivers, I don’t envision their bottom-6 scoring much, and their defense just isn’t good enough. Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk posted GARs below 1 last season and a 4-7 grouping of Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa, Tucker Poolman and Forbort seems unlikely to be good.
While Winnipeg’s stars should allow them to hang around in the playoff race, I am not optimistic they’ll get in.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Evolving-Hockey.com
Grading the Flames’ off-season moves
Flames make another smart, low-risk gamble with Josh Leivo
Flames make smart gamble on Dominik Simon
Flames sign Andrew Mangiapane to two-year bridge deal
Flames make risky bet on Chris Tanev
Flames sign Jacob Markstrom to long-term deal
Are the Flames ready to move on from Noah Hanifin?