Monday, November 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Which team represents Canada’s best hope to end the Stanley Cup drought?

Did you know that a team from Canada hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993? It’s a little-known fact that almost never gets brought up. If you’re a Canadian, you probably haven’t heard anyone mention it in minutes, maybe even hours. (Squeezes bottle of maple syrup so tightly it shatters in his hand.) Yeah, we really enjoy hearing that little fun fact. Sure do.

Since we’re already just a wee bit on edge up here these days, let’s steer into the skid. A quarter of the way into the season, which Canadian team looks like they have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup?

That’s a fitting query for this column since the Cup question is the big one we’re trying to answer each week. So far this season, only one Canadian team has appeared in the top five. That was way back in week one, and it’s fair to say that team isn’t going to be invited back anytime soon. But even if Canadian teams aren’t showing up here often, some of them have to be at least quasi-contenders, right?

Well, maybe. We’ve got seven teams to work through, and it feels like we should mention all of them, just for the sake of completeness. So … the Ottawa Senators. They’re a team. So far, even a slightly better one that we may have been expecting. But they’re not winning the Cup. Next.

If we keep working our way up the standings, we get to the middle-of-the-pack before we run into a four-team Canadian traffic jam. (For American readers, a Canadian traffic jam is a lot like one of yours, only with more apologizing, moose and Zambonis.) All four teams are within three points of each other, hanging right around the wildcard race. That isn’t the worst place to be, but doesn’t exactly scream “Cup favorite.”

Of those teams, two are probably right about where we’d have expected. The Canucks were one of those early-season surprises that have been coming back to earth, hitting a November speed wobble after a very strong October. There’s a general sense of optimism coming out of Vancouver these days, and rightly so, as the future looks bright. But that future isn’t here yet, though, and a Cup run this year still seems like a longshot.

The Jets are heading in the opposite direction; a recent contender that now feels like a borderline playoff team at best. We know the blue line situation by now, and it certainly doesn’t sound like Dustin Byfuglien is walking through that door any time soon. But it’s also fair to say that the total disaster some of us saw coming hasn’t happened. The Jets are a perfectly decent team so far, albeit one with flaws. And we know from 2018 that this core is capable of a long run if they can heat up at the right time. They won’t be anybody’s playoff favorites, and they still have a tough fight just to make it that far, but if they ever did … I mean, you never know. But it feels unlikely.

We also have to mention (deep sigh) the Maple Leafs. They’re probably the most hyper-analyzed team in the league right now, partly because there are so many Leaf fans and partly because everyone else loves a good train wreck 18-wheeler cliff dive. They’re a mess right now, coughing up a winnable game with the slumping Bruins on Friday and then getting their teeth kicked in by the Penguins on Saturday. They’re a team built to play one way with a coach who wants another, with frail psychology and too many injuries and no backup goalie and a long road trip that still has five games to go. Panic time? It might be.

The Leafs are getting most of the attention these days, as per Canadian law. But they aren’t the country’s only supposed Cup contender that’s underperforming; the Flames were a 107-point team last year, and they’re on pace to fall well short of that. A few weeks ago on the podcast, I described the Flames as a team where almost everyone was performing just 10 percent worse than you’d expect, and it was all adding up to an ugly start. That’s overly simplistic, but they’re still giving off that underachiever’s vibe. It’s a mixed message in terms of optimism; on the one hand, there are no glaring problems here that can’t be solved, but on the other hand, there’s also no easy scapegoat who can be shipped out and replaced in an easy fix. One thing worth remembering: as Eric Duhatschek points out, their record at this point last year was pretty much the same as it is now. They haven’t impressed so far, but I’m not taking them off the contender’s list yet.

Next up are the Canadiens, who had one of those statement games in Friday’s win over the Capitals and then lost a weird one to the Devils in which we learned you can’t kick a puck with your hip. They haven’t been getting much Cup talk outside of Montreal, and even a few weeks ago I had them pegged as just about the prototypical stuck-in-the-middle team. But the buzz is building, and rightly so. The Habs aren’t dominating, but they’re banking points, and staking a solid claim to one of the Atlantic’s top three spots. The schedule gets tough now, and we’ve seen hot starts disintegrate in Montreal in recent years. But right now, Montreal is the first Canadian team that’s playing like a legitimate contender.

And that brings us to the country’s best team, at least according to the standings. The Oilers are still camped out on top of the Pacific, with few signs that the inevitable plunge back to earth is coming. They had a weird week, losing to the lowly Sharks, beating the Avalanche and then dropping an OT decision to the Stars. The story is still Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; they’re unstoppable, and so are the Oilers when they’re on the ice, but when they’re not this team is pretty ordinary. Can you win a Cup with two forwards carrying the team? Probably not, although you can bank enough early-season points to get a firm grip on a playoff spot while you figure the rest of it out.

Back to our original question: Which team is the most likely to end that Canadian drought? The unfortunate answer is that nobody jumps out as an obvious choice, although we can make a few cases. For all their problems, the Leafs certainly have the talent, and probably more than any team in the country. The Flames and (maybe) Jets are in that boat too, looking like teams that aren’t especially dangerous right now but could be by the end of the season. The Canucks are feisty, and young teams sometimes make sudden leaps that we don’t see coming. And while the Oilers might have too much recent baggage for anyone to feel confident, they’re playing great and will eventually have to be taken seriously.

But out of everyone, I think the answer might be the Canadiens. They look good, they have a goaltender we know can catch fire and Shea Weber might be a ninja. They don’t feel anything like favorites right now. But at 26 years and counting up here, we may have to take what we can get.

So after all of that, did Montreal make this week’s top five? They did not. Let’s go figure out who did …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

It’s Hall of Fame induction night in Toronto tonight. Congratulations to all the honorees – yes, even Guy Carbonneau – on their big night. Be sure to check out our recent features on Vaclav Nedomansky, Jerry York, Sergei Zubov and Hayley Wickenheiser.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (9-6-2, +4 true goals differential*) – They had a chance to come into the weekend rankings on a four-game win streak and make my life easier, so of course they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets on home ice. Come on guys, let’s work together here.

By the way, I thought Justin Bourne’s take on the Lightning was insightful, although it may not make Tampa fans feel especially optimistic.

4. New York Islanders (14-3-1, +14) – I guess they didn’t like their last ten-game win streak and have decided to start over with a better one.

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