The embarrassment of an empty Canadian spring in the NHL has been wiped away.
Canadian teams have made huge strides from last season, when all seven squads missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 1970. In fact, five of the seven biggest leaps in points from last season to this season are projected to come from Canadian clubs, with the second-biggest coming out of Edmonton.
Projected point gains from last season (entering Monday’s action):
1. Columbus Blue Jackets â€” 38
2. Edmonton Oilers â€” 29
3. Toronto Maple Leafs â€” 25
4. Montreal Canadiens â€” 20
5. Calgary Flames â€” 19
6. Minnesota Wild â€” 17
7. Ottawa Senators â€” 15
T-10. Winnipeg Jets â€” 3
T-17. Vancouver Canucks â€” minus-1
Edmonton: Guess who? Connor McDavid has been the MVP candidate we expected, running primarily with emerging star Leon Draisaitl (more on him below) and surprise 25-goal-man Patrick Maroon. Add in Cam Talbot’s stable netminding and the Oilers are headed for their first post-season in more than a decade.
Toronto: The Leafs owe their big leap primarily to a historic rookie class fronted by Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Considerable improvement between the pipes from Frederik Andersen has helped, too, as has an effective all-around campaign from Nazem Kadri.
Montreal: A jump from last season’s swoon was to be expected with the return of Carey Price from injury and while they stumbled â€” replacing Michel Therrien with Claude Julien in February â€” the Habs have found their way again, likely to win the Atlantic division.
Calgary: It took a while, but Brian Elliott has finally delivered in goal. Sprinkle in better second halves from Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, improvement on the back-end and a hearty year-long performance from a Matthew Tkachuk-led trio and the Flames are headed back to the playoffs.
Ottawa: Guy Boucher has transformed the Senators into a considerably more effective defensive entity from last season, evolution that’s been led by captain Erik Karlsson. Whether from Craig Anderson or backup Mike Condon, stability in goal has helped too.
Winnipeg and Vancouver: The Jets have been a relative disappointment, with instability in goal the biggest issue, and the Canucks only starting to show signs of a rebuild with Bo Horvat making a notable leap at age 21.
Which teams are due for the biggest dips from last season?
30. Colorado â€” minus-34
29. Dallas â€” minus-29
28. Florida â€” minus-18
27. Los Angeles â€” minus-17
26. Detroit â€” minus-13
Nikita Kucherov has made a late charge into the MVP race with a scorching stretch drive for Tampa. The 23-year-old has been scoring at a goal per-game pace since Feb. 21, entering Monday’s game in Chicago with 17 goals and 29 points over a 16-game span. Kucherov, in his fourth NHL season, has already set career-highs in goals, assists, points, power-play points, power-play goals, even-strength assists, shots, shooting percentage and ice time.
The Russian winger, in another bit of Steve Yzerman mastery, still has two more years to go on the three-year contract he signed in October. The deal carries a mild annual cap hit of just US$4.77 million â€” the 149th highest in hockey next season according to the Cap Friendly website.
THE OTHER OILER
There’s not one but two Oilers amid the league’s top scorers. McDavid is, of course, leading the charge, but just a few paces behind is his 21-year-old German running mate, Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl, who’s currently riding a seven-game point streak, has 70 points on the year â€” tied for 10th overall heading into Monday’s action. His seven three-point games this year trail only McDavid (10), Nicklas Backstrom (9), Sidney Crosby (9), Kucherov (9), and Patrick Kane (8).
BEFORE AND AFTER
St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen before coach Ken Hitchcock’s dismissal (36 games): .895 save percentage, .899 even-strength save percentage
Allen after Hitchcock’s dismissal (19 games): .941 save percentage, .944 even-strength save percentage
Jonathan Bernier has found a bit of magic playing in California for the second time in his NHL career. The 28-year-old recently grabbed control of the No. 1 reigns in Anaheim with John Gibson injured and appears unwilling to give it back. Bernier is 9-1-1 in March with a .943 save percentage and 1.71 goals against average. Previously thriving as a back-up to Jonathan Quick with the L.A. Kings, Bernier was traded from Toronto to Anaheim last summer after struggling to lock up the starting job over three seasons with the Leafs.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press