Thursday, November 18, 2010

What are Canada's Stanley Cup Chances?

A quarter of the way through the 2010-11 NHL Season, there have been some surprises, but also a lot of correct predictions that have some prognosticators tooting their own horn, and some scratching their heads in disbelief.  One question inevitably raised before each NHL season is 'will Canada's Stanley Cup drought end this year?' and 'Which Canadian team is most likely to end that drought?'

Let's review the six Canadian teams thus far, in order of their likelihood to take home the Stanley Cup according to PuckWatch, and see whether or not they are on their predicted course.

1. Vancouver Canucks
The Good:  The Vancouver Canucks have enjoyed a strong start to the year after coming out of the gate a little slow (2-3-2).  Since that stretch, the Canucks have gone 8-2-1 and now hold a 10-5-3 record.  The team has had to endure a rash of injuries to their back end (Salo, Hamhuis, Ballard) but thrived in their absence when having to rely upon the likes of Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts and Kevin Bieksa.  Alex Edler has taken another step forward this year and their defense looks as solid as ever.  Also of note, the Sedins have been consistently strong all year, they've received secondary scoring from the Kesler and Malhotra lines, and solid goaltending from both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider.

The Bad: The Canucks have relied upon the twins a bit too much on some nights early on, and could do with more consistent secondary scoring.  Injuries could be a concern if they continue to mount, but for now everything is okay.  Not a lot of 'bad' through this point in the season.

The Future: The Canucks may wish to add an additional forward with scoring ability at the trade deadline if cap room allows, but since they are in a weaker division, they should be able to take a run at the conference title and ensure home ice advantage - where they have yet to lose in regulation this year - for a round or two in the playoffs.

2. Montreal Canadiens
The Good: Carey Price has arrived.  Well, it's early, but he looks fantastic.  Moreover, the Habs are getting scoring from multiple sources and despite the loss of Andrei Markov, their defense has played very well.  Most notable might be the emergence of PK Subban who certainly lessens the blow of losing Markov yet again due to injury.

The Bad: Markov is out for an extended duration - and that may hurt them as the season wears on.  Questions will also persist about their anemic powerplay that finally has seen life lately.  Expectations can become very high in Montreal providing they haven't reached critical mass yet.  The question is, can Carey Price and the rest of the team repeat last year and handle the pressure?

The Future: The Habs would be well served to silence some critics and add a bit more toughness up front and some depth on defense.  Insulating Carey Price down the stretch may be key for his confidence.

3. Ottawa Senators
The Good: The Senators put together a decent winning streak earlier this year but have lost a couple in a row after a tough loss to Vancouver.  Daniel Alfredsson is still showing that he has what it takes, and the rise of Erik Karlsson has been timely and necessary for a suspect blue line.  In the weaker Eastern Conference, the Senators will have a shot at the playoffs but will have to get consistent efforts from Jason Spezza and some secondary scoring from the likes of Nick Foligno and Alexei Kovalev.

The Bad: Ottawa has enjoyed the emergence of Erik Karlsson, but Sergei Gonchar boasts a team worst -11 and the team has the fourth worst goal differential in the entire league.  Their goaltending situation isn't spectacular quite yet so they may give up a lot of goals as the season moves forward.

The Future: The Senators will fight for a playoff spot and may sneak in.  From there anything can happen, but don't bet on a deep playoff run as they lack the depth at most positions to compete with the beasts of the east.

4. Calgary Flames
The Good: There isn't a lot of good for the Calgary Flames this year.  Early play from Rene Bourque and Brendan Morrison has been encouraging, as have the offensive contributions from Alex Tanguay and to a lesser extent Matt Stajan.

The Bad: Jarome Iginla has been under immense scrutiny this year, with many people asking whether or not he still has 'it'.  Similar to Markus Naslund a couple of years ago, Jarome Iginla may be slowing down in his mid-30s, but a bona fide number one center would definitely help.   Iginla isn't alone though in sharing criticism.  Olli Jokinen is clearly not the player he once was while in Florida and Phoenix, and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester has not been the player Calgary hoped when they signed him. 

The Future: For the Flames to move forward, they will have to turn a lot of things around.  Flames fans must be frustrated with the performance of their stars in recent times.  A team that looks pretty good on paper is failing yet again to deliver on the ice.  How much longer with the Sutters last in Calgary?  A playoff spot is possible but appears less likely as time goes on.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Good: After starting the year 4-0. the Leafs showed some promise with hard work.  Their defense and goaltending should be and has been relatively solid.  Last game collapses have diminished when compared to last year.  Clark McArthur has been a great surprise though, emerging as one of the team's most consistent scorers.

The Bad: An eight game losing streak and the lack of offensive production has really hurt the team.  A slightly desperate move by GM Brian Burke to recall forward prospect Nazem Kadri really is a testament to how poorly Kessel, Versteeg and Bozak have played.  That being said, it's probably unfair to cast Bozak and Versteeg into top line roles for the first time in their NHL careers and expect both chemistry and consistency. 

The Future:  The Leafs lack the depth up front and are a definite long shot for the playoffs.  They may occupy the cellar in the East when all is said and done, but Burke will become increasingly desperate.  Either Ron Wilson will be fired, or Burke will resort to trading Kaberle or another move to bring in some talent to improve his hockey club in the short term.  The most unfortunate thing is, finishing at the bottom won't mean a thing for the Leafs as they have no first round pick to fall back upon.

6. Edmonton Oilers

The Good: Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi have all indicated they will be a force to be reckoned with in future years - but that time is still a while away.  Nikolai Khabibulin has stolen some games from them and there is some excitement in the air in Edmonton that the team shows promise for great things down the road.

The Bad: Khabibulin got injured and the Oilers are bleeding goals right now.  The Oilers have the worst penalty killing and the worst goals against numbers in the league.  They are 2-10-3 in their last 15 games, including being outscored 30-8 in their last five games.  Unsure whether 1.6 goals per game is the worst statistic, or 6 goals against per game. 

The Future: It'll be another long year in Edmonton, but at least they have their first round pick.

In sum, the Oilers and Maple Leafs will likely occupy their conference cellars while the Flames and Senators will battle for a playoff spot.  At this point it doesn't look like they would do any damage if they made the playoffs but you never know.  Canada's best hopes this year likely rest upon the Canadiens and the Canucks.  Both teams lead their division and have put up with injuries to their blueline.  Both the Habs and the Canucks appear to be among the league's best and may have what it takes for a deep playoff run.  For Montreal and Vancouver fans though, this may be the best time in recent years to be a supporter, as their Canadian rivals are bringing up the rear, it certainly is a good time to enjoy your rivals misery.

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