Canadian NHL team grades: Oilers and Jets riding high, Canucks sideshow rages on

With the NHL about to begin its All-Star break, we take a look at the biggest surprises for each Canadian team.

For all intents and purposes, this weekend's NHL All-Star Game in Sunrise, Fla., serves as the halfway point in the regular season. Teams have already begun their bye weeks and gone their separate ways for some much needed R&R with the dog days of the NHL campaign right around the corner.

The halfway mark in the season also serves as an inflection point for teams to reevaluate their talent ahead of the trade deadline. Roster holes that seemed cavernous a few months ago may have been filled internally by vastly improved youngsters, while veterans or highly touted prospects may have failed to reach the lofty expectations placed upon them in September.

So, which player has been the biggest surprise thus far for all seven Canadian teams? We answer that question in the latest edition of our monthly grades.

Edmonton Oilers: A+

It appears as though the Edmonton Oilers have finally found that magic formula for getting results without Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl on the ice. For years, Edmonton floundered without its two superstars, regularly getting pummelled to the tune of 20 or 30 goals on the year without their dynamic duo on the ice.

Things started to turn for the better upon the arrival of Jay Woodcroft last year, and this season, for the first time since 2016-17, Edmonton has a positive goal differential with its two best players on the bench.

It speaks to how this Oilers team is built differently than past iterations, with steadier goaltending — all the way down to the EBUG ranks — and an offence that runs deeper than just two stars (though McDavid’s historic scoring pace certainly doesn’t hurt).

This past month was the best example of Edmonton’s growth, as the team ripped off six straight wins while dominating its competition to the tune of a 59.7 percent expected goals for percentage, second league-wide this month. Their 8-2-2 record in January is their high-water mark for their season, and the team that once seemed in danger of missing the postseason is suddenly just three points out of the Pacific Division’s top spot.

Biggest Surprise: Zach Hyman

Even when the stats weren’t there, Zach Hyman has served as an important piece on his team’s top lines throughout his career. Beginning in Toronto riding shotgun with Auston Matthews, Hyman’s exceptional work ethic on and off the ice made him a favourite of his coaches, as he battled down low and served as the primary puck retrieval artist for his superstar linemates.

After signing with Edmonton in 2021, his role largely remained intact, as he settled into a spot in the Oilers' top-six beside McDavid with relative success last season.

This year, however, things have gone nuclear for the 30-year-old, as Hyman has found his finishing touch and ranks 16th in the NHL in goals and 11th(!) in points with 26 and 60, respectively. Hyman was always considered to be one of the harder-working players in the league dating back to his time with Toronto, but there’s no possible way that even the most astute talent evaluator could have predicted this type of breakout.

The Oilers are the NHL's hottest Canadian team. (AP Photo/John Locher)
The Oilers are the NHL's hottest Canadian team. (AP Photo/John Locher) (AP)

Winnipeg Jets: A

Jets fans, I owe you an apology. After a poor December riddled with injuries, the Winnipeg Jets earned a miserable D grade given their early season success and new standard they were being held to. After jumping out to a lead in the Central Division, they had let their lead slip away, as the Dallas Stars roared into first place ahead of a battered and bruised Winnipeg club.

Now, one month later, the Jets are still behind Dallas, but once again look like the upper-class hockey club they had been pegged as early on. The return of significant swaths of their lineup including Blake Wheeler, Nate Schmidt, and Cole Perfetti, sent shockwaves through the team, reinvigorating the club and getting them back to their winning ways.

A 9-6-0 record on the month is soured by a recent three-game skid they snapped Monday, but it’s clear that the Jets are for real, and should most certainly expect to be in the mix as contenders come springtime.

Biggest surprise: Josh Morrissey

Josh Morrissey, or Norrissey as the fans and players in Winnipeg have taken to calling him, looks like a different animal this season. Offensively, the rearguard has taken his game to new heights, shattering his career high of 37 points and pacing at over a point per game with 53 in 52 games.

His defensive game does still leave something to be desired, but when you’re pitching in at the prolific rate Morrissey is while serving as your team’s No. 1 defenceman, it’s pretty hard to argue with the year he’s stitched together.

The 27-year-old is likely to pass Dustin Byfuglien as the team’s single season record holder for points by a defenceman within the next week, as he sits just three shy of Byfuglien’s 56 in 2013-14, and while it isn’t as likely as it was a few weeks ago, he’ll be in spitting distance of Phil Housley’s record 97 points in 1992-93 with the original Jets.

Toronto Maple Leafs: B

The Maple Leafs appear to be in a holding pattern at the moment. Their 8-4-2 record in January coupled with decent, albeit not elite, underlying numbers speaks to the team already being locked into a playoff rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning, with nothing but home ice up for grabs.

Looking for even more evidence the Maple Leafs are finding the regular season a little bit stale? How about the fact that Matthews and Co. absolutely refuse to show up against the bottom feeders of the league, rolling out a sub-.500 record against the league’s eight worst clubs compared to a pristine .750 winning percentage against everybody else.

That isn’t to say that things aren’t hectic as always at the centre of the universe. Matthews is out for a minimum of three weeks, while captain John Tavares reached his milestone 1,000th game against the Washington Capitals on Sunday, pitching in with a pair of assists on the occasion.

Biggest Surprise: Timothy Liljegren

When Jake Muzzin went down with a career-threatening neck injury earlier this season, all eyes immediately turned to a Maple Leafs blue line that looked much thinner than it had 24 hours prior. The grizzled veteran's calming presence as a defensive stalwart that played a hard-nosed game had suddenly vanished from the team’s corps, leaving a significant hole in both the top-four and the penalty kill.

Whispers of Toronto needing to find a replacement quickly emerged, with names like Joel Edmundson and Vladislav Gavrikov frequently popping up as options to step into the second pairing.

Those names continue to swirl around the team, but in a surprising turn, the Maple Leafs not only weathered the storm, but thrived in the choppy waters.

Drafted as a flashy offensive dynamo drawing Erik Karlsson comparisons, Liljegren has ironically grown into nearly the exact opposite, playing all situations for the Maple Leafs, including a brief stint on the team’s top pair, and serving as a calming presence in the absence of Toronto’s most reliable defender.

Ottawa Senators: C+

The Ottawa Senators may be headed for another year in the draft lottery, which is especially disappointing given the flashy offseason they had. However, there are still plenty of positives to take away to this point.

Most notably, Ottawa’s special teams have been as special as the name implies, as they rank third on the power play at 26.3 percent and 10th on the penalty kill at 81.2 percent. Ottawa’s 5-on-5 play has also been treading above water, which is more than the team could say in any of its previous five seasons.

On the whole, Ottawa is really just a team that is almost good, but clearly lacking in one extremely important area: Goaltending.

Ottawa’s netminders have combined for the 25th-ranked 5-on-5 save percentage, as Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg have split the net to varying degrees of success — or lack thereof. With even league-average goaltending, it’s not hard to see the Senators as a borderline playoff team, and their 8-6-0 record this month with a combined .893 save percentage (prior to their game against Ottawa on Tuesday) at 5-on-5 only furthers that hypothesis.

Biggest Surprise: Jake Sanderson

After the success he had at North Dakota, Jake Sanderson seemed like a pretty good bet to be a solid depth contributor for the Senators this season. The year the rookie defenceman has had, however, has turned the heads of even his most staunch loyalists, as he now appears destined to not only become Ottawa’s best defenceman, but potentially serve as one of the league’s premier defenders.

Sanderson’s 20 points in 49 games are one thing, but even more impressive are his strong underlying metrics as a rookie playing second-pair minutes beside a sluggish Travis Hamonic.

His exceptional start to the year does buoy his numbers a little bit — his possession numbers have fallen month-over-month as the season has worn on — but the fact that he’s not only trusted but succeeding in a tough role as a rookie should make Senators fans very excited for what the future holds with their exciting young prospect.

Jake Sanderson has been a bright spot in an underwhelming season for the Senators. (Photo by Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jake Sanderson has been a bright spot in an underwhelming season for the Senators. (Photo by Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images) (Vitor Munhoz via Getty Images)

Calgary Flames: C-

As a wholly unqualified east coast NHL watcher, I am officially declaring a state of emergency in Calgary. After winning the Pacific Division last year, Calgary was supposed to be the leaders of an otherwise pudgy and frankly underwhelming Western Conference. Adding Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri was supposed to take the Flames over the top, and somehow make a team that lost its two leading scorers even better.

That simply has not been the case at all. The metrics are still strong, but crummy goaltending and struggles against a schedule that was supposed to lighten up, have the Flames on the outside looking in heading into February.

Going 6-4-2 in January, the Flames' playoff odds now sit at a middling 65 percent, down from a much more compelling 88 percent earlier this year, according to 538. The Flames may not officially be in trouble, but a team that once seemed destined for the postseason has suddenly introduced a lot of uncertainty into its future.

Biggest Surprise: Nikita Zadorov

A perpetual favourite of head coach Darryl Sutter for his tenacity and grit, Zadorov has emerged as a legitimate option for Calgary. Not only has Zadorov had success at 5-on-5, rising up the ranks this season from depth defender to top-four option, but also as an important part of Calgary’s fifth-ranked penalty kill as well.

Boasting a strong defensive acumen and good instincts, the former first-rounder has found chemistry with Weegar, forming Calgary’s best defensive pairing this season.

Combined with a career-high eight goals so far (nobody will ever mistake him offensively for Cale Makar), you’ve got a reliable, two-way option that has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise underperforming Flames side.

Montreal Canadiens: D

The injury bug came for the Montreal Canadiens in January, as Juraj Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield saw their seasons end with lower-body and shoulder injuries, respectively.

As two parts of the roughly half-dozen compelling players to watch on a lousy Canadiens club, things are understandably pretty bleak in Montreal these days. The team continues to look droopy and lifeless on the ice, as its 5-8-1 record obfuscates a pathetic 43.3 percent expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 in January (28th in NHL) and a league-worst goals for percentage in all situations.

The Canadiens should be all in on Dishonour for Connor 2.0, but with just the seventh-best odds at landing the No. 1 pick at the moment, they’ll need to keep sucking at a pretty significant level if they want to maximize their shot at back-to-back first-overall picks.

Biggest Surprise: Samuel Montembeault

The biggest reason Montreal isn’t a basement-dweller and is instead staring at a mid-to-late top-10 pick has been goaltending revelation Samuel Montembeault.

Cast aside by the Florida Panthers at the beginning of last season, Montembeault was arguably the club’s top tank commander last year with a brutal .891 save percentage in 38 games.

This year, the hometown kid has done a complete 180, ranking seventh league-wide in goals saved above expected, sandwiched between former Vezina Trophy winners Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin.

Whether or not this can sustain itself remains to be seen, especially given the year-to-year variance goaltending is often prone to, but at the very least, the Canadiens appear to have found at least one building block as they look to return to relevancy over the next few years.

Vancouver Canucks: F

It’s one saga after another in Vancouver, as the drama simply refuses to stop with Canada’s westernmost club. Of course, there was all the noise surrounding former head coach Bruce Boudreau, who was finally let go after weeks of speculation. Then, of course, his replacement Rick Tocchet took no time getting into his own circus, finding himself booed to start his tenure, then calling his players soft the very next game.

Once that sideshow wrapped up, the team promptly shipped out fan favourite and captain Bo Horvat right before the NHL All-Star festivities for a package that nobody seems all too pleased with, including Horvat himself. And wouldn’t you know it, his New York Islanders face the Canucks in just under 10 days. Say what you will, but Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford certainly have a flair for the dramatic, for better or worse.

On the ice, the Canucks continued to struggle mightily, going 4-9-0 in a January that seemingly wouldn’t end for the disgraced organization. With murmurs of a further blowup still on the horizon, including word that Thatcher Demko could be on the way out, it’s clear the fireworks in Vancouver are only just starting to get underway.

Biggest Surprise: Andrei Kuzmenko

Inked to a two-year, $11-million deal last Thursday, the Canucks' latest Russian import has been a smashing success, finding chemistry with Elias Pettersson and tallying 43 points in 48 games.

Part of his success is buoyed by some good luck — his 24.7 shooting percentage leads the league — but other parts of his game have stood out, including his underrated playmaking capabilities that have the 26-year-old fourth on Vancouver in assists upon Horvat’s departure.

Even if that shooting percentage does regress, not every player that comes over from Russia is guaranteed to have success. For every Artemi Panarin, plenty of Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Soshnikovs litter recent NHL history.

The Canucks, however, appear to have found a “free wallet” with a fair bit of cash inside. Or, at the very least, something positive to take away from an otherwise abysmal campaign.

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