NHL playoff picture looking good for many Canadian teams
Canadiens players mob defenceman P.K. Subban after he score the overtime winner against the Predators during NHL action in Montreal on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency)
Nine months ago, as the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs were about to open, a collective sigh of “No Canada” could be heard across the Great White North.
For the first time in four decades, only one Canadian-based team had qualified for the tournament to capture hockey’s Holy Grail, a sobering slap in the face to the psyche of a country that still likes to call the sport its own.
While the Habs made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, the arrival of the 2014-15 season didn’t bring much more optimism with it for the other six Canadian teams.
The Canucks were trying to wipe away mmemories of the disaster that was the ill-fated Mike Gillis-John Tortorella coalition.
The Leafs were, well, the Leafs.
THe Jets, strapped with a limited payroll, made minimal changes and faced the same dilemma as always -- an inability to score.
The Flames and Senators were both young teams, with management of both preaching patience to their respective loyal fan bases.
And the Oilers, well, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse ...
Yet, here we are, at the 2015 all-star break, and Canadian content is refreshingly alive and well in the overall playoff picture. In fact, if the playoffs started today, four teams -- Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg -- would be in the Stanley Cup dance.
Here’s a look at where the seven Canadian teams stand heading into the post all-star stretch.
MONTREAL CANADIENS (61 points): Haven’t really missed a beat since last season’s impressive playoff run ... Young Alexander Galchenyuk continues to show flashes of impending stardom ... Core players such as Max Pacioretty, Carey Price and P.K. Subban have come as advertised ... Trade deadline targets: a goal scorer and, perhaps, a physical winger. Pulling off another coup like the Thomas Vanek deal last March would be ideal for GM Marc Bergevin.
WINNIPEG JETS (60 points): For the first time since the NHL returned to Winnipeg, rabid Jets fans have a realistic goal of spring hockey ... Along with the Flames and the Predators, the Jets are one of the feel-good stories of the season ... Despite seeing his team ravaged by injuries, coach Paul Maurice has worked wonders ... His decision to move beefy Dustin Byfuglien back to the blueline has been a key factor ... Trade deadline targets: Scoring help, although Jets management has been reluctant to sacrifice blue-chip prospects or draft picks to make that so-called blockbuster.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS (55 points): Despite a mid-season hiccup, free agent acquisition Ryan Miller has helped the locals forget about the Roberto Luongo-Corey Schneider era ... Incoming president Trevor Lindon, GM Jim Benning and coach Willie Desjardins have done an outstanding job of limiting the controversy surrounding a franchise that not-so-long ago was mired in it ... Trade deadline targets: A second line forward and defensive depth.
CALGARY FLAMES (53 points): No one expected them to be this good, this fast ... Their ability to produce comebacks has been admirable ... The work ethic of this team must make fans of the underachieving Leafs drool with envy ... Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dennis Wideman have proven to be the top offensive trio of blueliners in the league ... Somehow coach Bob Hartley has found a way for his team to squeeze out enough goals, thanks in part to the emergence of Johnny Gaudreau AKA Johnny Hockey ... Young goalie Joni Ortio has been one of the Cinderella stories of the season ... Trade deadline targets: goals, goals, goals.
OTTAWA SENATORS (47 points): Owner Eugene Melnyk’s limited budget has left Sens management with little wiggle room ... Young forward Mike Hoffman and his 16 goals are a pleasant surprise ... Pretty much where they expected to be in the standings, given the youth kick that is changing the face of the franchise ... Trade deadline targets: Difference-makers up front -- so long as the cost isn’t too high.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (47 points): As mentioned earlier, this has been an underachieving bunch ... A 14-loss-in-17-game skid has made once-promising playoff dreams pretty much evaporate ... Management must decide if the core of this team finally needs to be torn apart, something it says here is a long time coming ... Trade deadline targets: What kind of return can they get for Dion Phaneuf and his seven-year, $49 million contract?
EDMONTON OILERS (33 points): Once again, they’re among the biggest disappointments in the league ... After years of high draft picks, they still are among the bottom-feeders of the NHL ... An elite goaltender has been on the wish list for almost a decade ... Trade deadline targets: A lucrative return for one of the big three -- Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or, most likely, Jordan Eberle.
The NHL and NHLPA reportedly are hoping to have computer chips placed in the jerseys of each player -- plus the puck -- during the All-Star game, thereby having a better way to track what is going on out on the ice ... As reported by Sun Media last week, expect the NHL to officially announce the details of the 2016 World Cup this weekend, including the presence of a North American Young Guns team team comprised of kids 23 and under; and a European all-star team comprised of players not from Finland, Sweden, Russia and Czech Republic.