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The Biggest Problem Facing Each of Canada's NHL Teams

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

The Biggest Problem Facing Each of Canada's NHL Teams

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    As Rogers Communications prepares to launch its new Canadian broadcast deal with the NHL in the fall of 2014, current rights-holders at CBC and TSN are facing the unenviable possibility of tracking just one Canadian team when the playoffs begin on April 16. With 10 days remaining in the regular-season schedule, only the Montreal Canadiens have clinched a playoff berth.

    Canadian hockey fans are notoriously regionalized with their loyalties, so the best-case scenario for broadcasters north of the border is to show games from teams representing as many different pockets of the country as possible.

    They were thrilled when four of seven Canadian teams made it to the dance in 2013, but if only the Habs advance this year, it will mark the first time since 1973—when there were only three Canadian teams—that just one team from Canada has appeared in the playoffs.

    Even with its relative success compared to its countrymen, Montreal has also regressed this year and has issues of its own.

    Here's a look at the biggest problem facing each Canadian team as it stumbles toward the 2013-14 finish line.

     

    All stats current through April 2, courtesy of NHL.com.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Scott Audette/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 93 points, 1.21 points per game, third in Atlantic Division, in playoffs

    Last Season's Results: finished second in Eastern Conference with 1.31 points per game, eliminated in first round by Ottawa Senators

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    As the only Canadian team to have clinched a 2014 playoff spot with just a few games left in the season, the Montreal Canadiens are sitting pretty.

    Montreal's biggest problem will be trying to erase the memory of last season's playoff drubbing at the hands of the Ottawa Senators when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning this year.

    The season series between the two teams was evenly matched: Three of the four games were decided in extra time, with Montreal ultimately posting a 1-1-2 record. The one outright loss came earlier this week, when the Lightning snapped Montreal's five-game winning streak.

    Tampa Bay doesn't play the same aggressive physical style that Ottawa did last season, but it does share one significant trait with last year's Sens: a group of young upstarts with big dreams. Ex-Senator Ben Bishop will lead the way for the Lightning in net, while Steven Stamkos is once again contributing at his usual high level.  

    Tampa Bay is poised to present a stiff challenge to Montreal's hopes of bettering its playoff performance from last year.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 82 points, 1.06 points per game, fifth in Atlantic Division, one point out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished fifth in Eastern Conference with 1.19 points per game, eliminated in first round by Boston Bruins

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    Living down to expectations.

    With their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on March 13, the Toronto Maple Leafs had an 89.68 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to SportsClubStats.com. After eight straight losses, the odds had dwindled to just 4.64 percent by March 31.

    A spectacular collapse like the Leafs have endured leaves plenty of room for blame.

    The Leafs' biggest problem still appears to be confidence.

    They've shown that they have the personnel to win games despite the dire assessments of the advanced stat analysts, but this year's crash looks a lot like a more drawn-out version of their Game 7 swoon against the Boston Bruins in last year's playoffs. That night, they took their foot off the gas with a 4-1 lead, then were helpless in pushing back against a Bruins team that wasn't willing to quit.

    Battle-tested playoff veterans Dave Bolland and David Clarkson were signed by Toronto as free agents last summer to add some leadership to an emotionally fragile bunch. They may be the ones who will need to guide the ship as Toronto's fight to get back in the race goes down to the wire.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 79 points, 1.03 points per game, fifth in Pacific Division, six points out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished third in Western Conference with 1.23 points per game, eliminated in first round by San Jose Sharks

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    Injuries have been an issue for Vancouver this year, but they're not the biggest problem.

    The team has been on a downward slide ever since reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. John Tortorella's coaching style seems to have accelerated the decline this year.

    Torts preached an aggressive style of play when he arrived in Vancouver, with more emphasis on a zone style of defense. The result has been a huge drop-off in scoring, with the team perilously close to setting a new franchise record for fewest goals scored in a season. Canucks players will need to score at least eight in their last five games to avoid that dubious honour.

    With the season all but lost, general manager Mike Gillis spoke on the radio on April 3 about a desire to return to the Canucks' old high-tempo, puck-possession game (per Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun). It's unclear at this point if this can happen with Tortorella still holding the reins, or whether a now-older Vancouver core can execute that style.

    The idea is certainly a step in the right direction.

Ottawa Senators

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 78 points, 1.03 points per game, sixth in Atlantic Division, five points out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished seventh in Eastern Conference with 1.17 points per game, eliminated in second round by Pittsburgh Penguins

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    Ummm...not enough injuries?

    The Ottawa Senators were the Cinderella team of 2012-13, filling their injury-depleted lineup with a plucky group of AHLers from Binghamton and charging farther into the playoffs than any other team from Canada.

    With key players like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson back in the lineup full time this year, Ottawa has been unable to duplicate that success. It looks like they'll be back to finishing outside the playoff picture for the first time in three years.

    The biggest problem for the Senators this season has been goaltending. Between Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, the team surrendered an average of 2.17 goals per game in 2012-13, second-best in the league.

    This season, while Bishop shines with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Anderson and Lehner are more than a goal per game worse than last year. Averaging 3.32 goals allowed, Ottawa is currently 28th in the league in goals-against, ahead of only the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers.

    Anderson will need to get back to his league-leading levels from 2012-13 if Ottawa hopes to climb back into the playoff picture next season.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 78 points, 1.02 points per game, sixth in Central Division, six points out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished ninth in Eastern Conference with 1.07 points per game, missed playoffs

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    Deep down, they're still the Atlanta Thrashers. Three seasons after the franchise's relocation, the Jets have yet to make any appreciable move up the standings or make the playoffs.

    There have been some promising signs.

    Rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba had solid debut campaigns, while veterans Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little took their play to the next level. The Jets still haven't been able to maximize the potential of Evander Kane, who regressed this year, or Zach Bogosian, who remains inconsistent on the blue line. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is also trending backward and is signed at $3.9 million a year for three more seasons.

    The Jets management made a decision to keep its young core together and pay its players like stars, even if they're not quite there yet. Winnipeg fans have moved past the honeymoon stage with their team and are now expecting to see results.

    Coach Claude Noel was the first casualty when he was fired in January; more changes might need to follow if the Jets organization wants to introduce a winning culture into the franchise for the first time in its history.

Calgary Flames

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 69 points, 0.91 points per game, sixth in Pacific Division, 16 points out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished 13th in Western Conference with 0.88 points per game, missed playoffs

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    Time can't move fast enough.

    With the team gutted following the departures of Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester and Miikka Kiprusoff last season, the Flames have established themselves as a hard-working group that comes to play every night. Their young players are getting plenty of ice time to learn their craft, while new captain Mark Giordano has filled Iginla's leadership void impressively, putting up his best-ever NHL numbers in the process.

    The Flames are generating more points-per-game this year than they did in 2012-13—the only Canadian team to actually show improvement this season.

    With their savvy mix of youngsters and role players and a team that's committed to playing for each other, the first building blocks of the next Flames era appear to be in place. Another year of development should help players like Sean Monahan and Karri Ramo continue to grow their games.

Edmonton Oilers

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 61 points, 0.83 points per game, seventh in Pacific Division, 24 points out of wild card

    Last Season's Results: finished 12th in Western Conference with 0.94 points per game, missed playoffs

     

    What's the Biggest Problem?

    The defense. Still.

    Dating back to Sam Gagner in 2007, the Oilers have drafted a crop of skilled forwards—picking high after missing the playoffs every year. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov also remain with the team, while 2010 first-rounder Magnus Paajarvi was flipped—effectively—for David Perron during the summer of 2013.

    The Oilers now have a reliable goaltending duo in Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, who have shown they're capable of stealing games. But Edmonton's defending is worse than ever: They're last in the league in goals-against.

    Youngsters Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom have been brought in to start learning the NHL game and 2013 first-rounder Darnell Nurse is waiting in the wings, but this batch of youngsters will need some time to develop. One or two solid, big-bodied veterans are still needed on the back end to help change the culture and show this group how to stop the puck.

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