Ranking the Playoff Chances for Canada's NHL Teams
Last week, hockey fans north of the border started fretting over a previously unimaginable possibility. Could the 2016 playoffs begin in April without a single Canadian team challenging for the Stanley Cup?
If the postseason started on Jan. 25, that's exactly what we'd be seeing. The freefall of the Montreal Canadiens has left them on the outside of the Eastern Conference race, while the Vancouver Canucks were knocked back to also-ran status on Saturday after a late-game collapse against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
According to Dan Rosen of NHL.com, it has been 46 years since no Canadian teams appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the spring of 1970, eight of 12 teams qualified for postseason action, but the Montreal Canadiens lost the East Division tiebreaker with the New York Rangers, pushing them into fifth place in the division, while the Toronto Maple Leafs finished sixth.
Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins won the 1970 Stanley Cup, then the roster of Canada's teams grew when the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL to start the 1970-71 season. Today, Canada's seven teams make up 23.3 percent of the NHL's membership.
Here's a look at each of those teams' chances of working its way into a playoff position by the end of the season—and what moves the also-rans might make if they fall far enough out of the race.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
Record: 46 GP, 17-20-9, 43 pts, seventh in Atlantic Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: 12
What They'd Need to Do: With a 1-0-2 record in their last three games, the Toronto Maple Leafs have bounced back nicely from a five-game losing streak earlier in January, but they managed to score just five goals in those three games.
Year 1 under new coach Mike Babcock was always expected to be the start of a franchise rebuild. The Leafs need to focus on selling off assets at the trade deadline and increasing their chances of earning a good pick in April's draft lottery.
According to General Fanager, Toronto has eight impending unrestricted free agents on its roster, including goaltender James Reimer. All those players should be available to the highest bidder.
The Leafs may also garner some interest in Leo Komarov, a feisty forward who's also leading their team in scoring. The 29-year-old Estonian, who competes internationally for Finland, is signed for two more years at a reasonable cap hit of $2.95 million and could be a valuable depth forward for a playoff team.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: Mathematically, it's possible but logically, it's not. Five percent, tops.
6. Edmonton Oilers
Record: 50 GP, 19-26-5, 43 pts, seventh in Pacific Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: Eight
What They'd Need to Do: The Edmonton Oilers' eight-point playoff deficit doesn't look insurmountable, but their journey is made a lot tougher by the fact that they'd probably need to climb over four other Pacific Division teams to get into third place in their division—and when division rivals play each other, points have to end up somewhere.
The Oilers will get a boost when Connor McDavid returns to the lineup after the All-Star Break, but with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins now sidelined, it's one step forward and one step back.
Three players on Edmonton's main roster will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Teddy Purcell's having a solid season with 11 goals and 29 points. He could attract interest from a playoff team as a depth forward with a decent nose for the net.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: Really, no better than Toronto's. Five percent.
5. Winnipeg Jets
Record: 48 GP, 21-24-3, 45 pts, seventh in Central Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: Nine
What They'd Need to Do: A career year for Blake Wheeler and perhaps the last season in Winnipeg Jets uniforms for captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien are being wasted. Terrible special teams have kept one of the NHL's most undisciplined teams fighting to push out of the lowest reaches of the Central Division standings.
Wheeler is signed for three more seasons, and the emergence of rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has been a godsend. The big decision for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will be whether or not to try to move Ladd and Byfuglien at the trade deadline, or if the team will take a serious shot at re-signing the duo.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: After a taste of the postseason in 2015, the Jets look more like a playoff team than the Leafs or Oilers, but the numbers are against them. The chance of a successful late-season run tops out at 10 percent.
4. Calgary Flames
Record: 46 GP, 21-22-3, 45 pts, sixth in Pacific Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: Six
What They'd Need to Do: The six points the Calgary Flames need to make up to get into a playoff spot aren't impossible to earn, especially when the Flames have games in hand on both the Arizona Coyotes (51 points in 47 games) and Vancouver Canucks (51 points in 49 games).
But Calgary's goaltending has been shaky all year, and their special teams are even worse than Winnipeg's—dead last in the league on both the power play and the penalty kill. That's not much of a recipe for making up points.
If the Flames tap out on a playoff run before the trade deadline, Jiri Hudler should be their most desirable trade chip. The 32-year-old has cooled off after his 76-point performance in 2014-15, but he was a force in last season's playoffs, with eight points in 11 games for Calgary.
Like Hudler, winger David Jones, defenseman Kris Russell and goaltenders Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo will also be unrestricted free agents at season's end.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: The Flames were unlikely playoff participants last season. There's an outside chance they'll catch lightning in a bottle again down the stretch. Fifteen percent.
3. Ottawa Senators
Record: 49 GP, 23-20-6, 52 pts, sixth in Atlantic Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: Three
What They'd Need to Do: No team allows its opponents more chances that the Ottawa Senators, who give up an average of more than 33 shots a game and, unsurprisingly, have the NHL's second-worst goals against.
But the Sens—led by Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan—can score their way out of trouble. Ottawa ranks sixth in the league offensively and continues to hang within shouting distance of a wild-card spot in the ever-shifting Eastern Conference standings.
Last season, the Senators made the playoffs despite being 10 points off the wild-card pace at the All-Star Break. This year's three-point deficit seems surmountable by comparison.
If the Montreal Canadiens slump too far before Carey Price gets back into his net, Ottawa could grab the spot that looked like it was earmarked for the Habs.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: 30 percent.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Record: 49 GP, 20-18-11, 51 pts, fourth in Pacific Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: None (Vancouver Canucks lose tiebreaker with Arizona Coyotes)
What They'd Need to Do: Five points separate second place from fifth in the Pacific Division. Those four teams will most likely be fighting it out for two playoff spots if the wild-card spaces, as expected, both go to teams in the stronger Central.
The Vancouver Canucks have played more games than the teams they're battling—the San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks. Vancouver's 16 regulation wins are also by far the fewest of the four teams, which means they'd lose any potential tiebreaker at the end of the season.
But the Canucks remain in the mix despite having already played 28 of their 41 road games, significantly more than any of their rivals. They'll be home at Rogers Arena for 20 of their remaining 33 games and will control their fate, with all but four of their games coming against Western Conference teams, including 17 games against teams from the Pacific.
Thanks to tremendous leadership from the Sedin twins and great goaltending by both Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks' strategy of blending youth and experience has worked out pretty well so far. Expect to see Vancouver make a push for the playoffs again this year.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: 55 percent.
1. Montreal Canadiens
Record: 48 GP, 24-20-4, 52 pts, fifth in Atlantic Division
Points Out of Playoff Spot: Three
What They'd Need to Do: When Carey Price last appeared in goal on Nov. 25, the Montreal Canadiens earned a 5-1 win over the New York Rangers to push their record for the season to 17-4-2—first overall in the NHL.
In the two months since that time, the Habs' record has been a bleak 7-13-2. Goaltending has been an issue but so has scoring—Montreal has been held to one goal or less in 10 of those 22 games without Price.
Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin announced on Jan. 21 that the timeline for Price's return could be another three to four weeks, which would land him back in the crease one or two weeks before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
The Canadiens will need Price to immediately resume his MVP-caliber play—and will probably also need a boost or two via trade—if the team hopes to push its way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. If Price looks like he can handle the load, expect to see Bergevin go all in to try to create a late-season surge that Montreal can ride all the way into the postseason.
Chance of Playoff Appearance: 60 percent.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games played Sunday, Jan. 24.
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