Headline: Canucks at Front of the Class, Senators Still Finding Their Seat
In another life I absolutely cringed when they dished out the bi-annual report cards at school.
“Take this home and have your parents look at it, AND sign it,” said the schoolmarm with a prim smirk and knowing smile.
“AND make sure you bring it back for us to see that your parents are aware of just how well you’re doing in class.”
Safe to say that any sort of Dean’s List never sported my name, and those report-card days were a long trudge home that’d end in a cocked eyebrow and frown from one of the parents.
But now I get it. Completely.
The reason that long list of teachers sneered at my decimation was this: It’s so much more fun giving report cards than getting them.
With all that in mind, let’s get to our first edition (this season) of “Cross-Country Checkup.”
(Teams are listed from best in class, to worst).
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: A
What’s working: Long inventory here, but we’ll start with the coach.
I remember meeting and actually hanging out with Rick Tocchet (we’re not above name-dropping around here) during his second year as a Philadelphia Flyer. Rick was from Scarborough, and I was co-hosting a sports talk show there and he’d pop on a number of times during the summer.
Anyway . . . he and my future sister-in-law (Hi Nora) would get along well. They both believe(d) that you had to “have a plan!”
In other words, to attain a goal, engage in a course of action.
Rick’s plan, back then, was simple – fight everyone you had to fight to make your mark in the NHL as a tough guy then refine your game and become a complete player.
Mission accomplished as Rick went on to eventually win a spot on Team Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup, won Stanley Cups and appeared in four all-star games.
Clearly, his transition into coaching was a natural shift after Rick’s playing career wrapped in 2002. He’s found a home in Vancouver where the shrug-your-shoulders Canucks seem to finally have a personality, and a plan.
The plan seems simple and obvious – implement a program of accountability and identify and hand over responsibility to your leadership group.
It doesn’t hurt that captain Quinn Hughes has taken yet another step as far as development is concerned. Elias Pettersson has also advanced and credit Tocchet for tapping into what makes J.T. Miller tick as well.
Credit management for dealing for Filip Hronek at the draft. He’s been the ideal complement for Hughes.
There’s a lot to like about the Canucks, the speed, the work, the attack and throw in a brilliant start from netminder Thatcher Demko.
What isn’t: At 13-5-1, you tell me.
WINNIPEG JETS: A
What’s working: Kyle Connor, Cole Perfetti and Kevin Chevaldayoff. Whatever you lads are chewing on, keep on chewing.
While Vancouver’s a surprise given the slew of pre-season predictions, Winnipeg is stride-for-stride. The forgotten frozen ones are rolling.
Connor continues to be hockey’s greatest secret. Fourteen goals in his first 17 games and it looks like the 26 year old’s found another gear.
After getting drafted 10th overall in 2020 from Saginaw, Perfetti’s finding his game as well. The Whitby, Ont. native scored in five straight games recently.
Chevaldayoff is generally the non-splashy-move type. That changed big-time this past summer with the signings of Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck to hefty deals; letting long-time front-liner Blake Wheeler leave; and trading Pierre-Luc Dubois to LA for Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari and Gabriel Vilardi plus a second-round pick.
The Jets – like Vancouver – accentuate pace and pressure and it’s working.
What’s not: Most contended that Winnipeg’s sole hope for a playoff spot would lie with Hellebuyck. Not so. That sub .900 save percentage could be better, but we’re probably grasping at straws here.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: B
What’s working: To put it simply: Willy’s search for gold.
William Nylander will be one rich son-of-a-gun very soon and akin to Tocchet and my sister-in-law, appears to have a plan. That plan? Strike fast and hard and aplenty during a contract year.
Back in the summer, and in summers and winters past, the cry out of T.O. was: “If you’re going to swap out one of the Core 4, let it be Willy!”
Well, forget it. Not happening.
Toronto will sign Nylander because, A) It’s Toronto, and B) Because there is absolutely no other choice.
So how has he put himself in this position? The greatest change in Nylander’s game is his drive and purpose. Leaf-haters once chuckled at Nylander’s propensity for perimeter-play . . . No corner will be visited; the front-of-the-net, no way.
Give the slickster credit. He’s gone from star to superstar.
What’s not: A few things here. The John Klingberg Era seems to be shifting into, um, something.
While Klingberg’s play was never in question (it was pretty bad), his status remains up in the air. Injury-wise, he’s shelved for the present, but this could be a long, long, long-term deal. Klingberg did have double hip surgery a few years ago.
On the better-news-for-newcomers department, both Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi have picked up their games and fitting in a ton better. Their importance will invariably increase as the grind becomes more of a grind.
OTTAWA SENATORS: C
What’s working: This team needs more Sweden apparently.
Up-and-down through a ridiculously lax early schedule (they’ll pay for this later, believe me), the Senators’ roadie overseas brought about back-to-back wins and a very, very valuable four points.
Anything less than success in Sweden and this year is again a veritable write-off.
With this team, it’s a case of if Brady’s going, you’re likely doing okay. Tkachuk’s been good this season and leads the team with 10 goals. He’ll need to slow down a bit on that “I’m gonna run everyone on the other team through a wall or punch them in the eye” routine. It’s effective, but if he’s gunning for blood every night he’ll be out of petrol by January.
The two key youngsters – Tim Stutzle and Jake Sanderson – have taken larger steps this season. Likely they both get even more valuable as we roll along.
What’s not: The schedule for one and that damn US Thanksgiving math to boot.
Ottawa faces a whirlwind from December through till the end of season. If you thought injuries were problematic early on . . . give your team doctor a big hug.
Thanksgiving rolls around tomorrow (as of this writing), and you know what that means. Being four or more points out of a playoff position and it’s tough sledding. Very tough.
Get out the dogs there D.J.
CALGARY FLAMES: C-
What’s working: The current run, to start (and finish).
Calgary’s found its game lately but is anyone buying that this is going to last? We’re hoping so, for Jonathan Huberdeau’s sanity and peace of mind.
What’s not: With apologies to the Flames’ faithful – everything about Calgary reeks of ‘meh.’
Huberdeau’s been, well, okay. Kadri’s been, well, okay. Lindholm’s been, well, okay. Hanifan’s been, well, okay. Markstrom’s been, well, okay.
Since 16 of the NHL’s 32 member clubs capture post-season slots, ‘okay’ likely won’t cut it.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: C-
What’s working: Like the lads sitting in last spot in this report card, perspective is required.
The Habs were not expected to make, or compete, for a playoff rung this season. Anything closing in on success means a stronger grade. And with that, C- is moderately generous.
The latest Golden Boy in Coaching Award goes to Marty St. Louis who the media loves him as much as his players and Montreal’s fan base. He gets the most from a very young group. Rah-rah and positive vibes seem to be working for the Canadiens who skate with purpose.
What’s not: Montreal’s injury list now rivals Ottawa’s from a few weeks ago. David Savard, Mt. Olympus Arber Xhekaj, Kirby Dach, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Jordan Harris are all on the mend (some long term).
EDMONTON OILERS: F
What’s working: Perspective here again. Then again that F mark would be considerably lower if we graded below F.
“Stanley Cup or bust” was heard around these parts all summer and it looks like the Oilers have chosen the latter.
On the positive side of things . . .
What’s not: Goaltending, defence, systems and brains. In fact, the netminding’s been so poor word is GM Ken Holland is reaching out to a 45-year-old former Zamboni driver to measure availability (insert bad Leafs joke here).
It will take a rather large miracle – even at this point – for Edmonton to work its way back towards a playoff spot.
OTTAWA SENATORS WEEK AHEAD:
Friday, Nov.24: NY Islanders at Ottawa (7:30 pm)
Monday, Nov. 26: Florida at Ottawa (7 pm)
Photo: Courtesy NHL