Canadian NHL team grades: Oilers catch fire, Maple Leafs fall off in March

Western teams including the Oilers and Canucks thrived in March, while it was a completely different story for Canada's easternmost squads.

Spring has finally sprung and, as much of the northern hemisphere emerges from its months-long hibernation, playoff hockey is right around the corner.

Before we get there, however, most teams will be riding out the final half-dozen games left on their docket in preparation for the playoffs or an early offseason, while others are still battling for their postseason lives. Let's take a look across the seven Canadian markets and see how their months of March graded out and where Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto stand heading down the stretch.

1) Edmonton Oilers (A+)

It’s hard to earn anything other than an A+ grade when you’ve just completed the best month in your franchise's history. Edmonton caught fire in March, going 12-2-1 and pacing the entire NHL in points percentage. The team was dominant on the possession front, controlling 56% of the expected goals, while Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl led the NHL with 29 and 28 points, respectively.

On top of the dominance from their stars, the complementary pieces pulled their weight and then some as well. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the month of his life, picking up 24 points in 14 games to rocket his season total to a career-high 96 points.

The explosive Oilers are peaking at exactly the right time. (Getty)
The explosive Oilers are peaking at exactly the right time. (Getty)

Combined with Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard finding instant chemistry as a suffocating pair with offensive gifts, and Stuart Skinner earning Rookie of the Month honours, it’s hard to say anything went wrong for the Oilers, who are currently Canada’s best team with the playoffs looming.

The autopsy report:

For as rocky a road as it's been at times during the Connor McDavid era, this past year may have been the smoothest one yet thanks in large part to the dominance of their captain.

The Oilers shot out of the gate with tenacity, with Stuart Skinner quickly establishing himself as a bonafide NHL goaltender amidst Jack Campbell’s struggles to acclimate. That goaltending continued to be the story of the Oilers season throughout the early weeks until Connor McDavid single-handedly took control of Edmonton’s campaign and refused to let go.

By December, McDavid was doing Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux things, as Edmonton’s explosive offence took centre stage and became must-watch hockey. As the goaltending slowly caught up to league average level, the Oilers rocketed up the standings, then augmented their core with a savvy deadline to push them firmly into Stanley Cup contender status.

2) Vancouver Canucks (A-)

In an astonishing turn of events, the Vancouver Canucks are heading down the stretch as one of the best teams north of the border, playing to a pristine 120-point pace with a 10-3-2 record in March.

It’s pretty hard to believe given the state of the team under Bruce Boudreau, as they continuously found themselves on the wrong end of lopsided score sheets with a dysfunctional front office and a cast of disgruntled stars.

With new coach Rick Tocchet beginning to settle in, however, the Canucks looked as good as they have all season, even finishing with an above-water expected goals for percentage (50.4%) for the first time in 2022-23.

The only reason Vancouver doesn’t earn themselves a straight-A grade is that their miracle month has firmly elevated them from the NHL’s basement. By earning points in eight of their last ten games, visions of Connor Bedard lacing up his skates with an orca across his chest have all but vanished as their odds to select the hometown hero are now firmly in the one percent range. Ouch.

The autopsy report:

Where to begin? Even before the season got rolling, the Canucks were drowning in turmoil, with off-ice circumstances clouding over a team with plenty of on-ice question marks as well. Things started poorly on the Pacific coast and only got worse, as jersey tosses turned to losing streaks which turned into a months-long will-they-won’t-they with their head coach.

The Canucks' recent stretch obfuscates one of the most frustrating seasons in recent memory for Vancouver. Coming off a 92-point campaign in 2021-22, expectations lay somewhere between playoff bubble and Pacific Division threat, particularly given how wide-open things looked back in October.

As the early season losses piled up, however, eventually giving way to Bruce Boudreau’s firing and the circus that surrounded it, it became evident that this group just didn’t have the legs. Exacerbated by a revolving door in net due to injuries and performance, this year’s Canucks were just not meant to be, late-season surge be damned.

3) Calgary Flames (B-)

Like the Undertaker in his most famous gif, reports of the Calgary Flames’ demise — despite what was said last month — have been greatly exaggerated. An all-important 8-5-2 month, punctuated on Friday night with a massive come-from-behind win over the Vancouver Canucks, kept Calgary in the hunt, just two points back of Winnipeg with six games remaining.

The Flames are still behind the eight ball, but the semi-reemergence of Jacob Markstrom, who scrounged together a pedestrian .898 sv% nearly forty points higher than his February mark, allowed them to hang around just long enough to coincide with other teams slipping down the stretch.

The odds remain long for Calgary despite their recent winning ways, evidenced by their slim 31.5% shot at making the playoffs, per Moneypuck, but it’s a step in the right direction for a team that was barreling into the abyss just a few short weeks ago.

The autopsy report:

It feels like forever ago, but the Calgary Flames came out of the gate as Presidents Trophy contenders and did not disappoint. Their 5-2-0 record earned them early season praise, but things turned sour shortly thereafter.

Jonathan Huberdeau’s highly anticipated arrival failed to meet expectations for most of the season, picking up just 12 points through his first two months in Cowtown. Combined with the team falling apart in November on the goaltending front, the prognosis quickly became dire for Darryl Sutter’s club.

Consistently outshooting their opponents but failing to find a timely goal or save, Calgary sank in the standings into the mushy middle, piling up one-goal losses along the way.

Even if the final month of their season does miraculously conclude with them facing the Western Conference’s number-one seed, the Flames fell far short of their lofty preseason expectations, making it difficult to assess their campaign as anything short of a failure. That is, of course, pending some playoff astonishment.

4) Winnipeg Jets (C)

Winnipeg may have compiled a .500 record in March, but based on the narratives surrounding the team and their plummet from Central leader to wild-card hopeful, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

The Jets have been underwhelming of late — their 7-7-1 record in March only further underscoring the state of affairs in Manitoba’s capital. As is often the case, goaltending has been a big culprit for the downslide, as Connor Hellebuyck's .899 save percentage last month was his lowest since February 2022.

Others, such as Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, have also struggled, notching just nine and eight points respectively over the Jets' 15-game stretch. Wheeler, particularly, has been struggling mightily as he wraps up his age-36 season, scoring just one goal in March.

The autopsy report:

The Winnipeg Jets were many things this past season, but one thing they certainly were not was consistent. Month to month, it’s hard to argue that any other Canadian team had the swings the Jets had.

From the highs of their dominant November run led by a Josh Morrissey breakout to an injury-plagued December that saw the club cede the division to Dallas, to an exceptional January that helped them recapture their early-season magic, every month has been a new challenge for the Jets.

It’s that exact inconsistency that makes the Jets season to this point so hard to adequately assess. Whether this team is the well-oiled early-season machine or the discombobulated March version is impossible to tell, and will undoubtedly be the million-dollar question come playoffs. That is, of course, if they can right the ship in time and avoid dropping out of the picture entirely in favour of a surging Flames side.

5) Toronto Maple Leafs (D+)

As it turns out, it’s hard to adjust on the fly when trading away huge swaths of your core and introducing almost half a dozen new faces. The Maple Leafs had their weakest month since their abysmal start to the season, going 7-5-2 while picking up bad losses on multiple occasions.

Worse yet, the team doesn't appear to be gelling whatsoever, with their 48.6% expected goals share marking the first instance the club has dipped below the 50% mark over a full month this season.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been positives. Auston Matthews appears to be extremely back, but the supporting cast that was supposed to stabilize the team and turn them into a playoff-style juggernaut has done the exact opposite, seeping the club of its defensive structure, resulting in a barrage of high-danger chances against.

It’s a concerning trend with the playoffs mere weeks away and will require a fix on a tight turnaround given the club’s upcoming date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The autopsy report:

The Maple Leafs season has featured mostly outstanding play, sandwiched between two horrific months in October and March. Opening the year cold, the Maple Leafs looked downright horrific relative to their expectations in October, with the stars failing to convert and the team losing to far inferior opponents.

That flipped on its head in November, however, as the team put together an 11-1-2 run for the best single month in their franchise history, despite a laundry list of injuries on the back end.

As the strong play continued through December and into the new year, signs of a club with the legs to make a run were evident, cueing a mid-February trade flurry in hopes of bolstering the club’s defensive acumen.

Toronto has struggled to gel with significant new pieces in the fold since their busy stretch ahead of the deadline, but with their playoff matchup locked in, the only real question is whether or not their moves are enough to get them past the first round for the first time since 2004.

6) Montreal Canadiens (D-)

The tank is alive and well in Montreal, so there’s little to be surprised about the Canadiens finishing with a dreadful 4-9-2 record in March while getting pummelled in the process.

There are no two ways about it, the Montreal Canadiens, with a laundry list of injuries and limited talent on the ice, have one job: lose games for more lottery balls. By picking up just a third of their possible points last month, good for 28th in the league in points percentage, they’ve mostly maximized their odds at securing a top-end talent come June’s entry draft.

The only real concern worth considering is the culture that all this losing may foster, but given the aforementioned attrition faced by the Habs this season, not to mention the greater good that bringing a top prospect would do for this organization, it’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

The autopsy report:

It’s hard to remember, but the Canadiens came out of the gates relatively hot, going a 11-10-1 through the end of November.

That facade of a competent hockey team faded extraordinarily quickly in December, however, after the defence and goaltending collapsed, with Montreal surrendering the most goals in the entire league to conclude 2022. Offensive slides from Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield also proved to be a harbinger of bad things to come, as one-half of the dynamic duo would see their season end prematurely a month later. Alongside first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky’s underwhelming freshman campaign ending with a similar thud, the tank accelerated quickly for the Canadiens.

Despite all the losses, some bright spots have given the Canadiens hope that will carry into next season. Sam Montembeault has emerged as a legitimate number-one option in net, while others like Mike Matheson and Kirby Dach — well, before Dach also hit the shelf — have had wonderful bounce-back seasons, and look like part of the solution going forward.

7) Ottawa Senators (F)

Well Ottawa, it was fun while it lasted. From roughly mid-January to the end of February, the Ottawa Senators looked unstoppable, compiling one of the strongest records in the league over that timeframe. Pierre Dorion took a big swing for Jakob Chychrun on the first day of March and…it all went sideways.

The Senators stunk up the joint in March, going .500 and slipping firmly out of the playoff race by the month’s conclusion. Even worse, Chychrun’s much-anticipated arrival, for all its wholesome moments, has been a dud in its early stages, with Chychrun getting injured in late March after a mostly underwhelming first impression in the nation’s capital.

On the bright side, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Senators fans. Tim Stutzle’s 21 points in 15 games last month solidifies his place as an emerging superstar in the NHL, while the team’s carousel of goaltenders has provided one of the league’s best stories this year with Dylan Ferguson’s first career start.

The autopsy report:

The Senators season can safely be divided into two parts. There are the pre-New Year Senators, and the post-New Year Senators.

The pre-New Year Senators were, in a word, underwhelming. The youth had arrived in Ottawa and had immediately found success with the likes of Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson showing glimpses of the promise they’d demonstrate through the rest of the Sens campaign.

On the other hand, as a team expected to take a step, Ottawa had decidedly not done so, toiling near the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings for the better part of two months, only briefly elevating themselves out of the basement when the Canadiens crumbled at the seams.

Post-New Year, however, was a completely different story. A roaring hot January and February gave way to an aggressive deadline and renewed optimism at a wild-card berth, especially given the struggles of teams like the Florida Panthers and even the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ottawa ultimately wasn’t able to capitalize on that opportunity, finding themselves sinking into the mushy middle after a mediocre March, but don’t let that fool you. The Ottawa Senators have found a winning formula and could be a legitimate playoff threat in another year’s time.