By: Constantine Maragos
As another NHL regular season has passed, teams across the league are either preparing to make deep playoff runs, or making plans for the offseason ahead. North of the US border, we have three teams preparing for the post-season. The Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, and Toronto Maple Leafs are each looking to prove doubters wrong and run deep into the playoffs. In this article, QSAO will look into each Canadian teams’ performance this season, and what their chances are going forward.
Calgary Flames (50-25-7), 1st in Pacific Division
The Calgary Flames had themselves quite an impressive 2018-19 season. With 50 wins and 107 points, the Flames finished 1st in the Western Conference and 2nd in the NHL behind only the historically good Tampa Bay Lightning. With home-ice advantage secured, the Flames are looking to make a strong push for the Cup. Part of the Flames’ success this season can be attributed to their acquisition of Noah Hanifin & Elias Lindholm, who have made a huge impact on Calgary’s season.
As a reminder, at the 2018 NHL Draft, Calgary acquired Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin for defenseman Dougie Hamilton, pending UFA Michael Ferland, and prospect Adam Fox. The Flames then signed Hanifin & Lindholm both to six-year $29.1 million and $29.7 million contracts respectively. The trade has paid immediate dividends. Elias Lindholm has solidified himself as a reliable scoring option on a talented Flames forward roster. Lindholm has scored 27 goals, and 78 points, ranking him fourth in goals and third in points on the team. In addition, Lindholm’s all-shot/all-situation shooting percentage ranks 3rd among Flames forwards at 8.7%. In addition, Lindholm lined up for the highest d-zone starts and second highest o-zone starts among forwards. Noah Hanifin has also contributed to the Flames’ success this season, ranking fourth in Flames ice time at 20:46. Offensively, he contributed 5 goals and 33 points, ranking him third in Flames D-scoring and only 1 point behind TJ Brodie. Additionally, Hanifin finished third among Flames defensemen in even strength xGoals/60. Hanifin and Lindholm have fit in nicely in their new homes, and the trade as a whole looks to be a home run from the Flames' perspective.
On the contrary, Brad Treliving's other summer move was signing James Neal to a 5-year/$5.75 million contract. The initial plan for Neal was to slot straight into the Flames’ top six, however, his production of 7 goals in 63 games is a major drop from his 25-goal season with Vegas, effectively placing him in a bottom six role. To demonstrate, despite ranking 5th in 5v5 o-zone starts (16.3%) among forwards and 6th in TOI (14:57), Neal is ranked last among forwards (2nd last on the team) in relative even strength xGoals (-4.7%). With a less-than-stellar defensive game, Neal will need to somehow find his game to recuperate some of his contract’s value.
A big contributor to the Flames’ dominance this season has been the play of their defence, led by Norris candidate and captain Mark Giordano. The Flames’ defense as a whole played exceptionally. On the offensive end, they had three defenders place in the top 50 in scoring among defensemen (Giordano, Brodie, Hanifin), while Giordano placed second in scoring among defensemen with 17 goal and 74 points. In addition, their entire d-corps (10 skaters) place 3rd in cumulative scoring with 198 points, behind only San Jose (221p among 9 skaters) and Tampa Bay (207p among 10 skaters). As a whole, the Flames played relatively well defensively, finishing tied for 7th in xGoals Against (1.88), as well as 10th in High Danger Scoring Chances against (351) on the season.
For the Flames, the biggest question mark, as it has always been, is surrounding their goaltending situation. David Rittich and Mike Smith split time between the pipes season, with Rittich emerging as a more reliable option as Smith has had his struggles this year. However, Rittich still has not been overly impressive, finishing the season with a 2.61 GAA (19th with >25 GP) and a .911 SV%, (29th with >25 GP). In addition, Rittich’s play down the stretch has not been spectacular whereas Smith has picked up his game. Since February 1st, Rittich has posted a 0.898 SV% despite going 8-5-1, whereas Smith has posted a 0.912 SV% along with a 9-7-1 record. If the Flames are to play deep into spring, the Flames will need a step up in play from their goaltenders.
Looking forward, the Flames are gearing up for a deep playoff run and have the tools to do so. Beyond the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano, the Flames are stocked with depth that can lead them far into the post-season. Matchup-wise, the Flames stack up well against their first-round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche. The Flames posted a 3-0 record against the Avs, along with 10 different goal-scorers, 15 different point scorers, and 7 players scoring 3 points or more. Captain Mark Giordano leads the way with 1 goal and 7 points against the Avs, and winger Elias Lindholm has scored a goal in each meeting as well. Looking past the first round, the Flames have been fairly even against their Pacific Division opponents in the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, posting a 2-2 record against each, as well as a 16-16 and 14-9 goal differential against each team respectively. With this in mind, the Flames look like they can become serious contenders come this spring, and for years to come.
Projected Playoff Finish: Western Conference Final
Toronto Maple Leafs (46-28-8), 3rd in Atlantic Division
After making headlines this summer by signing All-Star centre John Tavares, the Toronto Maple Leafs rode into the 2018-19 season with tremendously high expectations. Although the expectations of Leafs fans and media will never be satisfied, the Leafs had a solid regular season. The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the season with 46 wins and 100 points, placing them 3rd in the Atlantic Division and 7th in the NHL. Led by their talented core of Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and blueliner Morgan Rielly, the Leafs are riding into their third-straight playoff berth.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, there was no shortage of offense on the Leafs roster. The Leafs had ten double-digit goal scorers, paired with seven 20-goal scorers. The Leafs also ranked fourth in goals for and finished the season with a 21.8% success rate on the powerplay, good for 8th in the league. Individually, Mitch Marner finished with 94 points placing him 11th in the league, while also finishing fourth in assists (68). John Tavares also had a career year, scoring a career high in goals (47) and points (88). Tavares also broke multiple records this season, including most goals scored by a Leafs centreman, most goals as a first-year Leaf, as well as most goals by an unrestricted free agent signing. As linemates, Tavares and Marner have torn up the league, and together are looking to lead the Leafs deep into the post-season.
Frederik Andersen has beared the burden of being the Leafs starting goaltender for three seasons now and has been leaned on heavily to perform well for a Leafs team that has never been very defensively minded. Andersen finished the season with a record of 36-16-7 in 60 starts, posting a 0.917 SV% and 2.77 GAA. However, with the structure of this current Leafs team, it is hard to analyze the importance of Andersen’s play through these statistics. Andersen also led goalies in Quality starts with 38, tied with Devan Dubnyk, while also sharing the league-lead in Goalie Point-Share of 12.5 with Carey Price. With pressure from the front office, and even more so the fans, to bring playoff success to Toronto at an all-time high, Andersen is going to have to continue to play at a high level and make key saves for the Leafs going into the playoffs more than ever before.
There has been no shortage of talk for the past few years by fans and analysts alike that the Leafs lack a talented right-handed defenseman. Although Morgan Rielly was more reliable than ever for the Leafs, having Ron Hainsey as your top right-side defenseman is not the most ideal scenario. Despite not being able to acquire a reliable righty this year, Kyle Dubas was able to acquire the best defenseman on the trade market in Jake Muzzin. On January 28th, the Leafs sent forward Carl Grundstrom, defense prospect Sean Durzi, and their 2019 first-round selection. Having not given up any core pieces for Muzzin such as defense prospect Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs have received a solid return so far on a cost-controlled Muzzin. Despite being left-handed, Muzzin did play games on the right-side for the Leafs, and overall has been a solid pickup for the team. Since joining the Leafs, Muzzin has posted 5 goals and 16 points in 30 games, while also playing at a 53.9 CF%, ranking third among Leafs defensemen. In addition, Muzzin’s relative xGoals/60 of 2.91% ranks second among defensemen and fifth on the roster. In addition, the true value of Muzzin’s deal will shine through in the face of the Leaf’s impending cap-crunch this summer. Having a reliable minute-munching defenseman on a $4-million contract will certainly help the Leafs if not for just the short-term. Going into the playoffs, Muzzin’s extensive playoff experience with the Kings will bring needed stability on a relatively inexperienced blueline.
Looking forward, the Leafs are squaring up against a familiar foe; the Boston Bruins. The Leafs are in for a tough challenge in this series, as they are looking to redeem themselves after their performance in game seven in last year’s playoffs. The Bruins have the edge this season, as the Leafs lost out on the season series at one game to three. However, the biggest question mark the Leafs face is whether or not they are able to shut down sniper David Pastrnak. Pastrnak has had the Leafs’ number this season, scoring six goals in four games against the Leafs, including a hat trick in November. Furthermore, the Bruins’ top-line of Patric Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak as a whole have been hard to stop this season. In their four games against the Leafs this season, the trio has collected 19 points, whereas Marner, Tavares, and Matthews only totalled 9 points collectively. However, this may be a testament to the Bruins’ defensive game, as they tied for 3rd in goals against with Nashville at 212. In addition, the Bruins allow the 4th lowest High Danger Shots Against per game at 1.34. However, 30% of the Bruins’ goals against came on the penalty kill, where their 79% success rate ranks 16th overall. This is where the Leafs could potentially take advantage. The Leafs scored a power-play goal in three of their four games against the Bruins. With that being said, the Leafs have an opportunity to advance past the first round for the first time since 2004 but will be met by President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be tough to stop.
Projected Playoff Finish: 2nd Round Exit
Winnipeg Jets (47-30-5), 2nd in Central Division
The Winnipeg Jets began the 2018-19 season coming off a Western Conference Final appearance and their first taste of playoff success since 1996 with the Jets/Coyotes franchise. This season, the Winnipeg Jets stumbled to the finish line, losing the Central Division to the Nashville Predators on the last day of the season. The Jets won 47 games and finished with 99 points, placing them second in the Central Division and 10th in the NHL. Although the Jets are still a strong team in the West, their second half of the season should raise some questions.
The biggest story out of Winnipeg this season is the apparent slump that winger Patrik Laine is currently in. Although he finished the year with 30 goals, Patrik Laine only scored 6 goals in the last 43 games of the season. An unprecedented slump for the third year winger, as he went as long as 15 games without a goal, ending his streak in on February 22nd with 4 goals in 3 games to end the month. As a whole the Jets performed far below expectations. Since February 1st, the Jets posted a 14-16-3 record, where their team Corsi dipped below 50% as well, and only six players finished above the 50% mark individually. To their credit, the Jets were faced with various injuries to key players throughout the year. Nikolaj Ehlers missed time in the middle of the season, where he was scoring at a 0.675 PPG pace (27 points in 40 games). Upon his return on February 22nd, Ehlers only managed to score 10 points in 22 games, however, Ehlers may have been a victim of the already slumping Jets. Additionally, defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey missed extensive time due to injury, with the former missing 40 games in various stretches, and the latter missing the final 23 games on the year (however he is slated to return for Game 1 against the Blues). With the magnitude of injuries mired in a second-half slump, a heavy burden was placed on the shoulders of Jacob Trouba to perform. In the second half of the season, Trouba logged sub-20 minutes a night only three times, as he took 36.2% of ice time among defensemen throughout the course of the year. Trouba also put up solid numbers throughout the year, scoring 8 goals and 50 points on the season. Additionally, throughout the Jets’ slump, Trouba was consistently at 50% Corsi or higher. Trouba’s consistent play throughout the year, and going into the playoffs will be imperative to the Jets’ success this postseason
Amid the Jets’ mid-season slump, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff went to work at the Trade Deadline, making six separate trades. The biggest splash being the acquisition of big centre Kevin Hayes for the Jets’ 2019 1st round pick, Brendan Lemieux, and a 2022 conditional 4th round pick (contingent on Winnipeg winning the Stanley Cup this year). Trading for Hayes was praised as an excellent acquisition, as Hayes' use of his size was set to fit straight into the Jets style of play. So far, Kevin Hayes has scored 5 goals and 13 points with the team after slotting into the top six. Hayes’ relative xGoals of 7.24% leads all Jets skaters, and his 49.5% Corsi is second only behind linemate Nikolaj Ehlers of the Jets' top six forwards.
Looking forward, if the Jets are going to match (or surpass) last season’s performance, they need to step up their game tremendously. Looking at their match-up with first-round opponents the St. Louis Blues, they appear to stack up nicely. However, the Jets’ season series with the Blues ended on December 7th, when their record was well below .500. Since then, the Blues went 36-15-5, and are one of the hottest teams in the league right now. Led by red-hot goalie Jordan Binnington, the St. Louis Blues could pose serious problems for the Jets. However, if the Jets are able to regain their form, and Patrik Laine is able to find his confidence, there is absolutely potential for the Jets to go deep in the playoffs.
Projected Playoff Finish: 2nd Round Exit
Looking at the current landscape of the NHL heading into the post-season, the Eastern Conference boasts many tough competitors built for playoff success, including the Atlantic Division powerhouse Boston Bruins (49-24-9) and President’s Trophy recipient Tampa Bay Lightning (62-16-4), in addition to the reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals (48-26-8). In the Western Conference, the door appears to be wide open, with several teams poised to make deep runs into the later rounds, including the Vegas Golden Knights, who will look to repeat last year’s run to the Finals in their inaugural season, as well as the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, who both added key pieces prior to the NHL trade deadline. Nonetheless, for fans of the three playoff-bound Canadian teams, this year’s playoffs should make for a very exciting spring.