NHL Season Preview: The rise of the Canadian Teams

By Braydon Holmyard

It’s finally here. Hockey season is upon us and for the first time in what feels like an eternity, several Canadian teams are carrying high expectations. Five of the seven reached playoffs last year, and with a number of young superstars leading the way, this year could be even better.

From Quebec to the West Coast, here’s what to keep an eye on this season.

Calgary Flames

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

You could say it was a tale of two seasons last year for the Calgary Flames. They stumbled out of the gate in the first half of the season under the watch of new coach Glen Gulutzan.

One of the main problems, an ongoing issue for Calgary since Miikka Kiprusoff’s nine-year tenure came to an end in 2013, was a lack of reliable goaltending.

The Jonas Hiller experiment never worked out. Brian Elliot didn’t do the trick last year. Now, the Flames hope they’ve found the answer in veteran Mike Smith, who was acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes.

If Smith can provide stability behind a rock-solid defence that now includes Travis Hamonic, the Flames could be looking at another playoff run. They finished with the eighth-most wins in the second-half of the last season to crack a wild-card berth.

They should make the playoffs again this year, but can’t afford to be swept this time. Having Jaromir Jagr around might help with that. And so will the superstar potential of Johnny Gaudreau.

Edmonton Oilers

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

A year removed from finishing dead last in the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers hopped on Connor McDavid’s back en-route to the second round of the playoffs last season.

At just 20 years old, McDavid led the league in scoring, piling up 100 points, and taking home the prestigious Hart Trophy. To some, he has already leap-frogged Sidney Crosby as the world’s best player.

But the Oilers and their captain still have a lot to prove. Coming into the new campaign, expectations may be at its highest since “The Great One” donned blue and orange.

A thrilling seven-game series loss at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks spoiled an otherwise remarkable year. But with the league’s top scorer pocketing another year of NHL experience, Cam Talbot manning the pipes, and a new centre in Ryan Strome, it’s conference finals or bust this year for the Oilers.

Montreal Canadiens

Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens

Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens

There might not be a bigger question mark heading into this NHL season than the Montreal Canadiens along with the job stability of general manager Marc Bergevin.

Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov head out the door, while Jonathan Drouin and Karl Alzner enter. They were a playoff team last year for the fourth time in the last five seasons, but for passionate Montreal fans, a playoff appearance just won’t cut it anymore.

The Canadiens had a busy off-season that made Carey Price the richest goalie in the league, with an eight-year contract extension. They also welcomed the hometown kid Drouin, who is expected to join Max Pacioretty in leading the offence.

Drouin will be one of the most important players for the team this season. While the Canadiens have the best goaltender in the world, they’ve lacked the scoring punch to make a serious run in past seasons. Time will tell if Drouin’s offensive gifts will be enough to change that.

Ottawa Senators

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

They may have been the NHL’s biggest surprise last season. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who had the Ottawa Senators pegged to compete in the Eastern Conference finals against the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. But they did just that.

Having the best defenceman in the world – who held onto that title despite playing on a broken foot – helped with that playoff run. But it was the Senators’ suffocating team-defence and the magic of goaltender Craig Anderson that helped them outlast their opponents.

Under the guidance of Guy Boucher, the Sens played smart, conservative hockey and continued to drown out the opposition. They played to their strengths. It was the kind of hockey many fans can’t stand to watch – but it worked.

With a similar group returning this season, and a young core of forwards returning, the sky is the limit for the pesky Sens.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach Hyman, Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach Hyman, Toronto Maple Leafs

It’s been quite some time since the Toronto Maple Leafs were relevant. Years of mediocrity had become all too familiar to Leafs Nation. The disappointments continued to pile up — until an 18-year-old kid from Scottsdale, Arizona fell into their lap.

Auston Matthews, last season’s rookie of the year, lifted the franchise to a stunning turnaround and a playoff meeting with the Washington Capitals. While many thought the young Leafs would be run over by the superior Caps, it turned out to be an exciting and lengthy series.

Playing on a line with fellow-youngsters William Nylander and Zach Hyman, Matthews headlines a Maple Leafs front end that has become one of the most potent in the league.

Will the Leafs be able to bypass the infamous sophomore slump? Will they sustain the amazingly clean bill of health they had last season? Can the newly added Patrick Marleau help take this team to the next level?

Many questions remain in Leafs land, but the tone in which they are being asked is quite different from recent years.

Vancouver Canucks

Jake Virtanen, Vancouver Canucks

Jake Virtanen, Vancouver Canucks

Unlike their six Canadian counterparts, the Vancouver Canucks enter the 2017-18 season with limited expectations and a playoff spot that seems like a pipe dream.

While the ageless Sedin twins return for another year, Vancouver management will surely be focused on the development of its younger players.

Bo Horvat looked brilliant at times last season and will have a chance to take hold of the offensive reins. Alongside him is newly-signed rookie Brock Boeser, who enters this campaign as the most intriguing player to watch. Rounding out the trio is Jake Virtanen, who will try to prove once more that he can be a productive scorer at the NHL level.

Any sort of consistent plan or direction would be welcome news for Canucks fans, who have been lost in limbo ever since the heartbreaking Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

Winnipeg Jets

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Since they returned to the league in 2011, the Winnipeg Jets have tempered expectations and left fans looking forward to the future. The time has come for them to deliver on their promises.

Everything seems to have fallen into place in Winnipeg. The general manager and head coach have been rewarded with multi-year extensions. A top-ten scorer in Mark Scheifele, a 19-year-old walking highlight reel in Patrik Laine, and a supremely underrated captain in Blake Wheeler leading the way. Add big Dustin Byfuglien on the blue-line and an improved tandem in goal, and you’ve got a team looking beyond just a playoff appearance.

The stars are aligning in Winnipeg this year, the Jets just have to stay on track and hope it’s a smooth ride.