The goal of this column is to take a crack at creating the best All-Canadian Team lineup for the 2022-23 season. The rules are straightforward: three forwards, two defencemen, one goaltender, and a head coach. The caveat: you can only select one representative from each of the seven Canadian NHL teams.
We had a lot of fun playing with different combinations last season, and this year will be no different. With the sheer star power in cities like Edmonton and Toronto, and with the significant roster turnover in places like Ottawa and Calgary, the lineups figure to be quite different. Only being able to select one representative per team forces you to optimize the lineup in ways that leave elite options out of the mix.
I’ll take the lead and create my optimal seven-man team, but I’m fascinated to see what others think is the best setup possible. I’ll take a (surprise!) data-driven approach to try and optimize these lineups, and we’ll see where it succeeds and where it may miss the mark.
Two housekeeping notes:
– There are any number of skaters who may have multiple position eligibility (think Leon Draisaitl at centre and wing); it’s dealer’s choice when you are making your picks.
– The data tables reflect even-strength production (individual and on-ice) for apples-to-apples comparisons.
Let’s start in net.
Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
This was the first time in a few years where I had to wrestle with the decision in the crease. Thatcher Demko is a very good goaltender and selecting Demko would have allowed me to consider either of the famed Jets wingers in Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers when that position came around.
But it’s hard to pass up on the consensus best goaltender amongst the seven Canadian teams, and still one of the three best goaltenders in the National Hockey League. Despite being buried in heavy shot volumes – often from dangerous areas – Hellebuyck has been the ultimate eraser for an otherwise mediocre Jets franchise over the past couple of seasons.
His 28.4 goals saved above expected trails only Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), which is an impressive class. Plus, the luxury of elite goaltending is that it can steal games when your skater group is struggling. Demko made it interesting, but I’ll go with the safe pick here.
Next, left wing.
Left wing: Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames
This was an extremely difficult choice between Ottawa’s Alex DeBrincat and Huberdeau, who is officially a Flame after last weekend’s blockbuster trade. You could flip a coin between these two.
DeBrincat has developed into an elite scorer, nabbing 41 goals last season with the Chicago Blackhawks. Huberdeau is a wondrous playmaker and setup man. His 85 assists last season in Florida tops in the NHL, even ahead of the venerable Connor McDavid. For as much as we talked about the explosiveness of Florida’s attack last year, it’d be hard not to give Huberdeau a big piece of the credit – his line, primarily featuring Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair, was unstoppable en route to the franchise’s first President’s Trophy.
The unfortunate part of choosing between DeBrincat and Huberdeau is that both of their teams have most of the defenders I want on my blueline. Calgary has no less than four incredible options on defence, and despite the loss of both Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, gives them real credibility in a weaker Western Conference; Ottawa, of course, possesses the youngster in Thomas Chabot.
This takes all the Calgary defensive options off the table later, but Huberdeau’s playmaking is impossible to pass up.
Onto right wing:
Right wing: Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Of all the judgment calls that had to be made, this was the easiest. Not only is Marner the surefire best right winger across the seven Canadian teams, but it also takes away any temptation, however miniscule it may be, to consider Auston Matthews at the centre position ahead of Connor McDavid.
The thought of playing Huberdeau and Marner on the same line is also tantalizing. If Huberdeau is one of the league’s best setup men, Marner isn’t far behind, and he also is an exceptionally agile skater with and without the puck.
The ability to pierce the interior with his lightning-quick mobility makes him one of the league’s best scorers, and he absolutely is that. Over the past three seasons, Marner ranks ninth in the NHL in total points (231), and the Maple Leafs are a whopping 43 goals better than their opponents with him deployed at even strength.
That brings us to the centre position, and with Matthews off the board, another easy call:
Centre: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
First, it’d be sacrilege to not have McDavid on the All-Canadian Team. If I’m going to make sacrifices, it’s going to be somewhere other than the consensus best player in the world – a player so good, I spent nearly a month explaining how he was breaking the sport of hockey.
He’s easily the most talented hockey player I’ve seen since peak Eric Lindros, and even that feels like a weak comparison on McDavid’s best nights. It’s impossible to replicate the pace at which he plays, and no defence has figured out a way to contain the way he attacks the centre of the ice beyond hoping and praying their goaltender can stand on his head the entire night.
The only time McDavid looks mortal is when he’s playing against a juggernaut team like the Colorado Avalanche that can dominate the puck and limit Edmonton’s chances by burying the Oilers in their defensive zone. And even that can be fleeting.
I’d be remiss to not mention how hard it is to leave Matthews out of the lineup. He’s indisputably the second-best player in the league and surely the second-best amongst the Canadian teams. The American phenom happens to play the wrong position for this exercise.
At this point, we have two defenders and a coach to grab across the Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens.
To the blueline:
Defence: Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators and Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
The blueline in Canada isn’t exactly saturated with talent outside of Calgary, and because of our Huberdeau selection, the Flames are out. It does leave us with two very gifted (and young) puck movers, though – Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes will sync up for a dynamic, offence-minded pairing.
What I think is alluring about both players is how they have been able to flourish in otherwise difficult situations.
Ottawa is finally looking to exit a five-year rebuild, one that extends throughout the career of Chabot as a professional. And yet, the Senators were break-even in goals with Chabot on the ice last season. Said differently: for what everyone remembers about Ottawa being a struggling team last season, a lot of it had to do with their depth players getting annihilated on a nightly basis. The top of their lineup was quite good, and Chabot’s ability to transition the puck and ignite the young offence there was instrumental in keeping that group competitive.
For Hughes and Vancouver, it was much of the same. Vancouver’s been more competitive than Ottawa, and certainly were last season when the Canucks missed the playoff cutline by five points. Hughes finished third in team scoring (eight goals and 60 assists), and at even strength, the Canucks outscored their competition 67 to 57 (+10) with him on the ice.
Hughes benefits from playing with high-end talent – his most common teammates last season included J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson. But look at the production of those forwards when Hughes is away, and it drops off a cliff. Having a defender unburden forwards from the exit and transition game when in the defensive zone isn’t just good defence, it’s the ignition for productive attacking sequences. Colorado’s Cale Makar may be the gold standard, but Hughes is exceptionally capable in his own right.
That leaves us with a coach.
Head coach: Martin St. Louis, Montreal Canadiens
I would be lying if I didn’t recognize that Montreal’s aggressive rebuild had thinned out available options in the skater ranks, but I am optimistic about what St. Louis after seeing him in limited duty last season.
When the Canadiens made the decision to fire Dominique Ducharme, the team was an appalling 8-30-7. The front office would undergo a similar gutting, and the Canadiens spent most of the rest of the season purging the roster and blending some younger players into the lineup under St. Louis as an interim coach.
St. Louis went 14-19-4 with a roster devoid of real talent. Expectations were very low for St. Louis and may be for another season or two, but the team definitively improved under his watch and the organization seems excited to give him the keys to the operation for a longer period of time.
I’m excited to see what St. Louis brings to Montreal next season and beyond. On our phony All-Canadian Team, he has access to endless talent.
Have fun building your lineup!
Data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com, Hockey Reference
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