With November in the rear-view and that cold December wind in the air, the anticipation towards the holiday season is ramping up as we enter the beefiest part of the NHL season, too.
Heading into a pivotal month on the hockey schedule, here’s how every Canadian team grades out at this point in 2022-23 campaign, and what the number one item on every squad’s wishlist should be.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (A+)
After an abysmal October for the Maple Leafs, November was a welcome change of pace in every sense of the word. Despite the bumps and bruises, the club concluded November with a franchise record 25 out of a possible 30 points, en route to a pristine 11-1-3 mark. The team finished second in the entire NHL over their 15-game stretch, trailing only a ripping-hot New Jersey Devils team that lost their lone November game to Toronto.
To say that the temperature in Leafs-land has cooled dramatically would be an understatement. Sheldon Keefe, who appeared to be on the hot seat after an extraordinarily slow start to his team’s campaign, has suddenly begun receiving praise as a darkhorse Jack Adams candidate due to his team’s defensive responsibility.
Meanwhile, Mitch Marner has put himself on the radar for a major trophy, setting a Maple Leafs record with an ongoing 19-game point streak.
What’s on their wishlist: A healthy defence core
A big reason for Sheldon Keefe’s renewed message of defensive responsibility has been the cacophony of injuries that have plagued the Maple Leafs on the back end. Four of the Maple Leafs' top seven defencemen have hit the shelf, including top pairing mainstays Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie.
While the Maple Leafs are winning in the meantime, it would certainly be advantageous to be able to slot their best blueliners back into a suddenly stalwart core as soon as possible.
2. Winnipeg Jets (A)
After years of some of hockey’s smartest people doubting and dismissing them, the Winnipeg Jets suddenly look extremely good and extremely for real. Josh Morrissey just spent his November terrorizing teams, and suddenly looks like a legitimate Norris candidate.
Additionally, netminder Connor Hellebuyck has gone absolutely nuclear, putting together back-to-back .930+ save percentage months (min. seven games) for the first time in his entire career. The 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner looks well on his way to duking it out for a second trophy, sitting third in the entire NHL by goals saved above expected, as well as third by raw save percentage.
It all totalled up to a spectacular 9-3-0 record on the month for Winnipeg, good for eighth in the National Hockey League over that stretch. Combined with underlying numbers that outpace every other Canadian team in November, it looks like the Jets are raring to take off, pun intended.
What’s on their wishlist: A speedy Nik Ehlers return
One of the most impressive parts of this Winnipeg Jets surge is that they’ve done it almost entirely without one of their most important players. The perpetually underrated Nik Ehlers was hurt early this season and has since undergone a procedure for a sports hernia that has him lined up to return in early January.
One place that the Jets haven’t blown the doors off the barn has been their goalscoring, which sits 20th in the league by raw goals for, and a pedestrian 13th by expected goals for per sixty. Adding a bonafide offensive presence like Ehlers, who scored at a 37-goal pace last year, to their top six would be a welcome sight, and would make one of the league's emerging teams even more dangerous down the stretch.
3. Montreal Canadiens (B)
For a team not yet built to win many hockey games, the Montreal Canadiens sure are doing a surprising amount of it. They’re not in the playoff picture by any means after finishing November with a 6-6-1 record, but the Canadiens are well on their way to crushing their point total from last season, on pace to beat it by over 30.
The biggest reason for that has been the continued ascension of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, as well as Kirby Dach’s breakout that has him firmly situated in the Canadiens' top six. Almost everything is coming up roses for the Habs, and while there’s almost certainly some regression set to come, it’s hard to be too concerned, especially when some hot starts could fetch larger returns come March, assuming they don’t foolishly keep them around.
What’s on their wishlist: A Juraj Slafkovsky breakout
It’s somewhat puzzling that for a team trying to build towards the future, the Canadiens are quietly feeding their potential centrepiece hardly any minutes.
Last year’s number one overall selection Juraj Slafkovsky certainly hasn't been bad by any means, but with just 6 points in 18 games — an 82-game pace under 30 points — it doesn’t feel like the type of production you’d like to see from the guy you just picked first. In fact, it would be the lowest 82-game pace of any first-overall pick dating back to the 2005 lockout.
Combined with the second worst expected goals percentage amongst regular Canadiens forwards, it’s hard to imagine this is the start Montreal fans envisioned for the highly-touted Slovakian.
4. Edmonton Oilers (C)
After posting a 7-7-0 record in November, Edmonton’s problems are both two-fold and highly concerning as the calendar flips into December. For starters, beyond the always lethal duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the team’s secondary scoring has been lacking considerably, with just two other skaters tallying over 15 points so far.
On the other side of the puck, combined with one of the weakest d-cores in the league by expected goals against, the goaltending has been bad in Edmonton, again. After a tremendous October that stole him the Oilers crease, Stuart Skinner tumbled hard back to earth with a .893 sv% in eight starts.
Perhaps even more shockingly is that Skinner was still a good amount better than Campbell during that time, as the Oilers' $25-million man put together the worst month of his entire career with a 1980’s-esque .863 sv% in six games.
What’s on their wishlist: Somebody to stop pucks
This one isn’t exactly rocket science, as their .880 save percentage in November was ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. For a team with major aspirations of a deep run after getting so close to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, there’s no possible way that anything close to that will cut it.
How they go about solving this issue is an entirely different question itself, as the goaltending market basically consists of James Reimer and nobody else, but if they have any hopes of being a playoff team this year, somebody will have to get in front of some vulcanized rubber before it’s too late.
5. Vancouver Canucks (C-)
Perhaps it’s a bit of an indictment of the state of the NHL north of the border if the lowly Vancouver Canucks, who sit 25th in the entire NHL, aren’t even the most worrisome team in Canada. A 7-6-1 record in November will certainly help with that, even if it’s just middle of the road league-wide, but the vibes are still all sorts of bad on Canada’s Pacific coast.
The continued game of will-they-won’t-they continues to hang over the Canucks like a dark cloud as they decide on Bruce Boudreau and his future with the club. Vancouver’s three-game-winning streak near the end of November briefly quelled concerns, but a 5-1 lashing at the hands of the Washington Capitals quickly had people up in arms again.
Meanwhile, the Canucks have found some scoring mojo in the form of a rejuvenated Elias Pettersson and a sniping Bo Horvat, only for questions to arise in the crease after Thatcher Demko’s continued struggles lost him the net to Spencer Martin before the former's injury that will sideline him for weeks.
In short, the Canucks are a mess, and yet somewhat mystifyingly, aren’t the Canadian team in the most disarray.
What’s on their wishlist: Some certainty behind the bench
At some point, the Canucks have to get off the pot and decide what to do with Bruce Boudreau, and frankly, it’s somewhat baffling that they haven’t pulled the plug already. Throughout the first number of weeks this season, management has done everything short of outright telling Boudreau they don’t want him, which certainly can’t help a team that’s already dealing with significant outside distractions.
Perhaps adding a new coach, of which there are several exciting candidates potentially available, could get the Canucks ship righted for good, and get them back in the hunt behind a roster that should be better than this.
6. Ottawa Senators (D)
Things are not going well in the nation's capital, as the Senators look like a directionless bottom-feeder despite promises of a competitive team this year. The toughest thing about the Senators is that they probably don’t deserve this fate.
The club has gotten adequate goaltending, albeit not superb, from Cam Talbot since he returned from injury, and the scoring at the top of the lineup looks stellar, namely Brady Tkachuk and his ascension into the NHL’s elite.
Under the hood, the Senators are shockingly the second-best Canadian club by expected goals for percentage, and in terms of generating offence altogether, they’ve been top five in that category this season at 5v5 on the expected front.
Perhaps Josh Norris’ injury earlier this season created a hole too large to fill in their top-six, or maybe the defence, which has been a weaker point for the Senators, lacks the horses to compete.
Whatever the case may be, the Senators find themselves deep in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes and seem poised to be amongst the first teams to send their head coach packing.
What’s on their wishlist: A few more bounces going their way.
The list of sideways turns in what was supposed to be a climb-year for Ottawa is long and arduous: Top defenceman Thomas Chabot has missed time. Perpetually underrated blueline staple Artem Zub has missed time. Starting netminder Cam Talbot has missed time. Josh Norris is done for the season. Their 7% team shooting percentage is 30th in the league. Nothing, it seems, is going Ottawa’s way.
As such, it seems like the best thing that the Senators could ask for around this time of year is a Christmas miracle, and a little bit of help from the hockey gods to get things back on track. The way the Senators have started the season is dreadful, there’s no hiding that fact given their spot at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Had a few things broken differently to this point, however, the mood in Ottawa could have potentially been very different.
7. Calgary Flames (F)
Jacob Markstrom put the state of affairs in Calgary far more succinctly than any hockey writer could possibly dream of.
“I thought the guys did a great job and once again I’ve got to be better,” Markstrom said postgame on Thursday. “I suck right now.”
While that quote may come from December 1st, the ethos of Markstrom’s take pretty much describes the entire Flames season to this point, as last year’s Vezina Trophy finalist has been a huge reason why Calgary went just 5-7-3 during November. The Swedish netminder’s .881 save percentage has put a team with Stanley Cup aspirations in quite the bind, sitting outside of the playoff picture with a negative goal differential despite their big offseason.
Additionally, the secondary scoring that helped the Flames out to a strong October has evaporated into thin air. Nazem Kadri, Andrew Mangiapane, and Dylan Dube, amongst Calgary’s most productive trio to start the season, went ice cold during November, hurting a team already struggling for scoring from its stars.
It all totalled out to a 26th-place finish in November by points percentage and has the Flames looking nothing like a team to be feared come spring.
What’s on their wishlist: The 2021-22 version of Jonathan Huberdeau
Huberdeau’s struggles have been well documented this year, as the Flames' newest superstar has seen a dramatic drop in production since his westward move.
A few big nights towards the end of November, including against his former team, provide a reason for optimism, but his 53-point pace over 82 games would be his weakest output since his sophomore season. That’s even more astonishing given the fact that he finished tied for second in the NHL with 115 points just last year.
It’s hard to see Huberdeau getting anywhere near that total this season, but Calgary could sorely use something closer to a point-per-game from Huberdeau as they aim to get out of a deep funk. That additional scoring, plus a few more saves from their netminding tandem, and there’s reason to believe the Flames should be in much better shape when the dust settles later this season.
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