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Canadian NHL team grades: Senators rolling, Canadiens crumbling into New Year

As 2023 rolls in, some Canadian teams have their sights set on the playoffs, while others are still doing some soul searching.

The Ottawa Senators finally got going in December after a slow start to a hopeful season. (Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators finally got going in December after a slow start to a hopeful season. (Getty Images)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot!

The New Year is here, and all seven Canadian teams have begun to find their identity ahead of the back half of the 2022-23 season. With 2022 in the rearview mirror, and New Year's resolutions season upon us, it’s time to bust out the report cards for every Canadian club and see what they’ve got their sights set on making good on in their new year.

1. Ottawa Senators - A

The up-and-down roller coaster that has been the Ottawa Senators season has, against all odds, put them in the top spot at December's conclusion amongst Canadian teams. Owners of an 8-4-2 record over the month, those pesky Sens somehow find themselves on the cusp of being a top-10 club in the entire National Hockey League for December.

The method to their madness, for the most part, has been their special teams, which were particularly special throughout the holiday season. Ottawa’s power play and penalty kill both sat top-five, including the second-best penalty kill percentage in the entire league this month. They’ve needed both of those to be every bit as excellent as they’ve been because at evens, things look decidedly less rosy.

Only the bruised and battered Colorado Avalanche, and the intentionally struggling Chicago Blackhawks scored less at 5-on-5 on a rate basis than Ottawa last month, a problem that has persisted all season. If they have any hopes of turning themselves into a legitimate playoff team, now would be the time to start scoring to augment their already exceptional play around the edges.

New Year's Resolution: Extend Alex DeBrincat

Given the significant cost to acquire the former 40-goal scorer in a trade last summer, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Senators would do everything in their power to extend the pending RFA. However, into the new year, DeBrincat remains without a new deal, with nary a peep on any contract negotiations. Perhaps Dorion prefers to move in silence, but given the loud month the Michigan native just put together - his seven goals, 12 assists, and 19 points all led the Senators in December - make prioritizing a deal a wise objective for Pierre Dorion and the Sens.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs - A-

It was another strong month for the Maple Leafs, as their 8-3-1 December record kept them in the thick of the NHL’s best heading into the New Year. Perhaps even more impressive, the Maple Leafs kicked it up a notch under the hood as well, producing the league’s second-best 5-on-5 expected goals-for percentage at over 61 percent, and scoring the third-most goals per game over that same period.

The only real areas of concern for this club, beyond the concerns, come playoff time, have been a middling penalty kill and a goaltending tandem that has faltered, if ever so slightly. Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov were exceptional through the first two months of the season, even in the wake of injuries, but both have slowed down since their strong Novembers. Murray’s sub-.910 save percentage in December was a far cry from his November .938, while Samsonov’s puck stopping fell from .937 in November to a pedestrian .913 save percentage. If those two straighten out in the new year, however, expect the Maple Leafs to continue winning a lot of hockey games.

New Year's Resolution: Shore up to the top-six

The Maple Leafs core four has remained the engine that drives the Maple Leafs bus, as the Matthews-Marner-Nylander trio all boast between 41-42 points, with Tavares lagging not far behind. The Maple Leafs top line, in particular, has been very strong, serving as a top-10 unit in the entire NHL, according to Moneypuck.com.

The Maple Leafs second line, however, has lacked a definitive option to pair with Tavares and Marner for some time now, with a revolving cast of characters slotting in with varying degrees of success. Finding a legitimate option to complete the top-six, perhaps with some penalty-killing capabilities like the rumoured available Ryan O’Reilly, could be a great way to solidify the team's position as a potential Stanley Cup contender.

3. Vancouver Canucks - C+

Make no mistake about it, the Vancouver Canucks being the third-ranked Canadian team speaks more to the way the others have failed to meet expectations, rather than any particularly exceptional play from Vancouver. Ranking 28th last month by 5-on-5 expected goals for percentage, the Canucks somehow managed to go 7-5-0 this month despite Thatcher Demko’s absence.

The biggest reason for their winning record was, undoubtedly, the offensive explosion of Elias Pettersson, who’s been excellent since returning from a flu-like virus earlier this month. Combined with contributions from the likes of Bo Horvat and rookie Andrei Kuzmenko, Vancouver ranked top-10 in the NHL in scoring this month, propelling them to within six points of a playoff spot despite their stumbles out of the gate. Whether this team is actually a bubble playoff squad or simply hanging around until they run out of gas is unclear, but for now, things appear to have stabilized on the Pacific coast.

New Year's Resolution: Pick a direction

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes seem like a strong foundation to build upon, however, the pieces around the edges just simply seem to be lacking in Vancouver. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has already reported that nobody is untouchable, so perhaps the Canucks are already prepared to tear it down, but nevertheless, somebody needs to be the adult and make a call.

Missing the playoff this season would mark three straight seasons without the postseason in Vancouver, and seven misses in eight years dating back to 2015-16. Something's gotta give.

4. Calgary Flames - C

Darryl Sutter's club continues to disappoint through the first three months of the season, as the projected Presidents Trophy contender has slinked to a meagre second wild-card position as 2022 closes. It isn’t particularly hard to figure out what’s gone wrong in Cowtown, as despite the big contracts and even bigger deals, the Flames' key offseason pickups have disappointed in a major way to this point.

A so-so 8-4-4 record in December is exacerbated by Jonathan Huberdeau’s underwhelming 13 points in 16 games, which is somehow his most impressive stretch to date. Kadri, similarly, has fallen short of expectations by and large, though his December stretch similarly served as a much-needed jolt after a slumbery November.

These concerning numbers are made all the more puzzling since Calgary has seemingly solved much of the under-the-hood issues they had been dealing with through November. They ranked top-five in expected goals for percentage during the month, and their extremely tough schedule to begin the year morphed into one of the league's easiest, though that ultimately hasn’t quite shown up on the scoresheet to date. So why isn’t a solid process winding up with good results? Well…

New Year's Resolution: Remember how to stop pucks

Calgary’s netminding duo has continued their early season struggles into the holiday season, as Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar combined to put together the seventh-worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL this month. Neither goalie surpassed the .905 mark through Dec. 31, and things overall seem to be going flat-out poorly.

If the Flames want any shot at making a push for the Stanley Cup in 2023, their goaltending is going to have to improve leaps and bounds over the coming few months. Whether that’s done through an internal solution, or the team goes out and shops for goaltending at the deadline is as of now yet to be seen, it’s no secret that netminding will remain the team’s achilles heel despite improved play overall since the start of their season.

5. Edmonton Oilers - C

There are a lot of adjectives you could use to describe the Edmonton Oilers through December 2022. Electrifying is certainly befitting of this club. With Connor McDavid soaring to new heights matched only by names like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the Oilers are one of the most exciting teams to watch on any given night boasting the offensive firepower to make any game special.

Other words that come to mind include those such as frustrating, or inconsistent. With a 7-5-2 record in December, the Oilers struggled to string together wins in any meaningful capacity, while their depth scoring and goaltending continued to lag behind other contenders in the Western Conference. The emergence of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a legitimate star has certainly helped ease the burden carried by McDavid and Draisaitl, but getting players like Kailer Yamamoto (6 points in 13 games in December), or Warren Foegele (2 points in 7 games) would help dramatically.

New Year's Resolution: Enjoy watching history unfold

Connor McDavid is on pace to score over 140 points this season, which would make him the first player to do so since the mid-1990s. McDavid has lived up to every expectation and then some, as the 25-year-old has taken his game to unthinkable heights in recent weeks.

His 30 goals and 70 points before New Years are mind-boggling in themselves, and his projected 25+ point lead on the Art Ross Trophy would be the most dominant award-winning season in decades. For Oilers fans born too late to witness the Great One’s heyday (or even Super Mario’s magic), this season is an opportunity to witness one of the most exceptional players we’ve ever seen at their absolute peak.

6. Winnipeg Jets - D

Through November, the Winnipeg Jets looked as though they were set to be the class of the NHL’s Central Division. Boasting a legitimate Norris contending defenseman, a Vezina candidate netminder, and exceptional underlying metrics, the Jets appeared well on their way to juggernaut status.

Now, just one month later, a pedestrian December has left a lot to be desired from a team that had seemingly elevated their standard to new heights. An 8-7-0 record this month was underscored by middling under-the-hood numbers, and big parts of the team either suffered injuries or saw their production sputter — Blake Wheeler and Neal Pionk come to mind respectively.

New Year's Resolution: Regain their form

If Winnipeg wants to be taken seriously as a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, getting back to playing at a similar level as they did in November is imperative. Their 18th-ranked points percentage in December sat in line with middling clubs like the Nashville Predators and not far ahead of the Arizona Coyotes, which is never a good indication that your month went well.

Primarily, if Winnipeg can get their defence rolling again after a month that saw them drop from top-10 by expected goals against to the bottom half of the league, there’s reason to believe in what the Jets are doing, Until such point, however, we could be trending towards another disappointing year that sees the Jets falter in the playoffs due to a lack of structure and defensive buy-in.

7. Montreal Canadiens - F

In a stunning turn of events, it turns out that teams do not stumble into historically bad seasons like last year's Montreal Canadiens. This Montreal Canadiens team, much like last year’s iteration, is just not all that good. The calendar could not turn fast enough for Montreal, demonstrated by a New Year's Eve thrashing at the hands of Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals that firmly cemented the Canadiens as the worst defensive team this past month.

No team allowed more goals in December, only two teams drove play by expected goals percentage at a weaker clip, and just two clubs were more impotent on special teams this month. Things went downright horrendous for the Canadiens, as even their emerging duo of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki went frigid this month, posting nine and eight points, respectively, during the team’s 15-game stretch.

The Canadiens went from fringe bubble team to outright Connor Bedard contender, and appear prepared to continue getting worse in the new year. It is going to be a long 2023 for Canadiens fans at this rate, as the team continues its shift toward the future and dives headfirst into Connor Bedard watch.

New Year's Resolution: Keep sucking

When you’re in the dumps like this, there’s only one goal in mind, and that is to earn as many lottery balls as physically possible come Draft Lottery night. With multiple exceptional players potentially available — Connor Bedard is undoubtedly the crown jewel but there are lots more names worth noting — the Canadiens should be ready and willing to stink it up in the Atlantic Division’s basement until the final horn blows on their 2023 season.

Selling off expiring UFAs for future assets, including the currently injured Sean Monahan, will only expedite the cause, but there’s no two ways about it: this is a bad hockey team, and they’ll need to continue to suck at hockey if they want any hope of being good in the future.

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