Seven Hockey Heavens: A Quick Diagnosis of Canada’s NHL Teams

Let’s take a tour of that frozen tundra and the few habitable cities it can generously call big. 90 per cent of Canada’s citizens live within a sliver of the American border. They live in places like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and a few more with a few less – the only ones large enough to have NHL teams do, and they’re the seven cities and clubs we’re touring in this post today.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs have been so irrelevant – on the ice – for so long now, most of the country’s well-established and admittedly envious hatred of Toronto’s most cherished franchise has thawed. Some die-hard Leafs haters will disagree with me on that, and they’ve continued to take sadistic pleasure in watching the past 12 years unfold and unravel. But that’s what die-hards do – they die hard, and their biases die harder and slower and often never at all.

But give the Buds one first overall pick and a great debut and watch every host on Sportsnet, TSN, and CBC reach underneath the table to give the Leafs a white-knuckle favour and, well… Toronto, we hate you all over again. Don’t take that the wrong way, it just means you’re good again.

You’re good again and you’re loud again and you’re annoying as all hell again. There’s hardly anything as cornhole-quenching and infuriating as a happy Leafs fan. The only thing worse is five million happy Leafs fans. And I know Torontonians don’t understand this when they first hear it, that their Leafs are the most loved and most hated, most exhaustingly over-covered team in hockey – they say, Why would you hate a team just because we’re always on TV? Why would you hate the Leafs when we don’t hate your Canucks, Flames, Oilers, or Jets?

But I know they understand it when they see it somewhere else. The Maple Leafs are the Yankees of the NHL. It’s a compliment, because it means you’re big-time. But it also means you’re the Yankees. Cool logo and all, but it’s just really fun to watch you lose.

Ottawa Senators

Craig Anderson’s 37-save shutout – coming only a day after it was publicly revealed that his wife, Nicholle, has been diagnosed with cancer – has been the feel-good story of the night, perhaps for a while this season, and has pushed any other sports-related current events in the nation’s capital to the bleachers. Seems pretty damn insensitive to even segue from that to any kind of cheeky analysis of the Sens’ typically and predictably bland play so far this season. But here we go…

(Fun fact: Ottawa is actually doing okay. We don’t hear about it if we live anywhere else, because they’re Canada’s seventh-most important hockey team, and even the Saskatchewan Roughriders are probably more important to more people. But the Sens are 5-3-0, good for 10 points through eight games and a current hold on a lower-floor playoff spot.)

I can’t comment with any respectability or authority on the team. I can offer the very obvious – they have a rotating roster of very good players, led by Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Derick Brassard, and Matt Hoffman at forward, with an excellent goaltender and the other-worldly Erik Karlsson on defence. But the Sens simply aren’t good enough to thrill you or honestly push for a Stanley Cup, not unless Tinkerball drops some magical powder on their forgetful red jerseys and turns one of their wingers into Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Glaude Giroux, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, or any of the other players leading other teams in the East that are better than any player Ottawa could send to the opening face-off.

Perhaps that’s why the Senators’ biggest problem right now has nothing to do with their win-loss record. It has to do with their attendance – or, lack of it.

Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price is Carey Price again, Brendan Gallagher is the league’s most gifted water bug, Max Pacioretty is happy and captaining and able to over-achieve without sky-high individual expectations, and this Shea Weber experiment seems to be working out. Monteal is 8-0-1 and leading the NHL’s standings.

It’s going so well right now, it might just be enough to make Habs fans forget how last year proved just how fragile their formula for success is.

But hey, don’t worry about the hangover yet. Just enjoy the night.

Winnipeg Jets

I mentioned how the Leafs are hated again. Well, perhaps Canada’s honeymoon-like, aww-shucks attitude toward the Jets is over, too.

Since Winnipeg got their hockey team back in 2013, the Jets have been treated like a charity case, or more like a young kid at an adults’ dinner party – everything they do is adorable, they get applause for simply knowing how to fold a napkin, and everyone smiles and cheers when they sing the room a song later that night, no matter how terrible their voice is.

But then the draft lottery happened, and the Jets leap-frogged several struggling teams – the Oilers, who definitely didn’t need another break, the Canucks, the Blue Jackets, and the Flames – to win the second overall pick and Patrik Laine. And Laine has been everything he was advertised to be, and then some.

So, Winnipeg. We’re no longer happy for you. You’re our enemy now, finally. You’re our rival. Welcome to adulthood.

Calgary Flames

How to sum up the Flames right now in one sentence?

They’re the Alberta team that doesn’t have Connor McDavid.


Edmonton Oilers

From my “mailbox” the other day: I had an old friend message me, telling me to write about how incredible Connor McDavid is and how the comparisons to Gretzky, Lemieux, or Sidney Crosby are a little off. Instead, he thinks McDavid reminds him more of a famous Four:

“I think if you look at the old YouTubes, he is actually the next Orr. Not since him has a young guy been that much faster and more skilled than everyone else. 50 years in the making. Hopefully, a little more longevity!”

Yes, hopefully…

I was at the game the other night, when McDavid destroyed the Vancouver Canucks. He only needed a little bit of room to score the game-winner, wiggling free for what seemed like a breakaway every single shift. And although the Canucks held him in check for most of the evening, he still found the space to score one goal and threaten for several more.

McDavid is, to put it simply, unstoppable. You can’t truly limit him. You can only contain his dominance for temporary amounts of time and hope he doesn’t do something superb when you inevitably give him an inch.

And Orr is a decent comparison, considering the speed McDavid carries the puck with and how he starts most of his rushes from deep in his own end and never slows down once over 60 minutes. I’d also offer up Gilbert Perreault – he was the last NHL forward who could slice through NHL teams like he was walking around motionless bowling pins, and that was 40 years ago.

But consider how far the game has come since then, how big and fast and – most importantly – structured and stifling it’s played, and it’s truly incredible how McDavid is still able to play the game and succeed the way he does. Perreault was ahead of his time, but defences have evolved since the Seventies and they’re built to crush creativity and offence. And McDavid’s ability somehow is immune.

Vancouver Canucks

You know, many were surprised how the Canucks started the season. But if you really watched them, and if you really looked at their roster, a 4-0-0 start wasn’t all that shocking. In the NHL, any competent team can beat any other team on any given night, and the Canucks – when fully healthy – actually have a very deep roster.

But a week or so since the hot start, the rain’s started falling and Vancouver has regressed to their usual, easy-to-suffocate selves. But why? With four dependable centres, a slate of capable wingers, and an overflowing defence, shouldn’t this team be able to at least win as much as it loses?

Well, depth doesn’t matter when it’s only depth.

There’s just nothing about these Canucks that stands out or is the paper to another team’s rock. Doesn’t matter if you have all the paper in the world. If your opponent has one pair of scissors, they win the game.

And yet, here’s the thing – Vancouver is actually doing okay. Sure, they’re lost five straight, but their nine points and 4-4-1 record is good enough for sixth place in a so-far pretty flaccid Western Conference. And they hockey has been pretty good so far – the Canucks have been more entertaining in each game this year than almost every single outing late last season, even if they can’t score.