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Sports Each Canadian team's greatest challenge in 2019-20

21:15  29 september  2019
21:15  29 september  2019 Source:   thescore.com

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A Canadian team hasn't hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1993, but a few clubs north of the border have serious chances to end the drought in 2019-20.

No season comes without its obstacles, however, and each Canadian team enters the campaign facing a unique challenge it must overcome to maximize its potential.

Flames: Establish reliable goaltending

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The Flames are strong in nearly every area of the ice. The only real question mark is between the pipes.

Is David Rittich ready to take the reigns as a full-time starter? Can Cam Talbot bounce back and become a reliable option after consecutive down seasons? Calgary needs answers as quickly as possible.

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Rittich was satisfactory last season, but the Czech puck-stopper's numbers waned in the latter half as a knee injury plagued him from the start of 2019 onward:

Come playoff time, veteran Mike Smith stole the show and Rittich didn't play a minute of action. It remains to be seen if he can shoulder a starter's workload over the course of a full campaign.

Talbot, meanwhile, finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting after a sensational 2016-17 campaign but hasn't looked anything like a starting netminder since then: The 31-year-old has a 3.15 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage over his last 102 appearances.

The Flames have serious Stanley Cup aspirations, but the quality and consistency of their goaltending will define their ceiling.

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Oilers: Live up to playoff pressure

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Few teams face more pressure to make the playoffs this season than the Oilers, who will have to adjust to a new regime as quickly as possible.

Connor McDavid looks healthy after a scary leg injury sustained in Edmonton's final game of 2018-19 kept him off the ice for most of the summer. Having the league's top talent miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five campaigns would be nothing short of a disaster, but the Oilers didn't add much on the ice this offseason to move the needle.

A new and experienced voice behind the bench in head coach Dave Tippett should benefit the club. But with the team pressed against the cap, general manager Ken Holland may have to wait until next summer to really put his stamp on the roster.

The Oilers will be hard-pressed to compete for a divisional playoff seed in the top-heavy Pacific, but a wild-card berth is certainly attainable if they can get off to a strong start.

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Canadiens: Keep pace in tough Atlantic

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The Canadiens have too much skill not to compete for a playoff spot, but their talent runs thin compared to the juggernauts atop the Atlantic Division.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins are practically locks to make the postseason, while the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres both made improvements this summer. An all-world season from Carey Price will go a long way, but the offense needs to be firing on all cylinders if the Habs are to stay competitive.

Montreal will need more from its top offensive talents - especially with the man advantage. Last season, the Canadiens' power play posted the league's 30th-ranked percentage (13.2%) while scoring the fewest total goals (31). Defenseman Shea Weber, who missed 24 contests due to injury, led the club with five power-play markers.

Several young talents including Nick Suzuki, Ryan Poehling, and Jake Evans could all force their way into Montreal's lineup at some point this season. If a playoff berth is firmly out of reach come February, the Habs will be faced with a decision: Run it back again in 2020-21, or enter a slight rebuild to give their younger talent more exposure.

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Senators: Instill winning habits

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It's highly unlikely the Senators shock the hockey world and step into playoff contention this season, and that's just fine. The club's focus for 2019-20 should be giving its promising young talent as much NHL exposure as possible.

D.J. Smith, a rookie himself as a first-time NHL head coach, will play a key role in this team's development. Ottawa may lose more often than not, but Smith understands a strong work ethic is paramount in building a winner.

"Instil the mentality that we won't be outworked," Smith said in an August interview with Sportsnet's Wayne Scanlan. "We're just not going to be easy to play against. We're not going to win every game, but it can't be easy to come here and get two points. When you play Ottawa, people need to know we're coming to play."

Defenseman Thomas Chabot and forwards Brady Tkachuk and Colin White represent a bright future for the Senators. If that trio can take some major steps in this season, consider it a productive campaign in Ottawa.

Maple Leafs: Keep Frederik Andersen fresh

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The Maple Leafs enter 2019-20 boasting arguably their strongest roster of the millennium, but it may not matter come playoff time unless they lighten Frederik Andersen's workload.

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Since joining the Leafs in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, no goalie has started more regular-season games (192) or played more minutes (11,198) than the 6-foot-4 Dane.

Comparing Andersen's playoff stats from his final two seasons in Anaheim - where he shared regular-season duties with John Gibson - to his postseason totals with the Leafs, the numbers speak for themselves:

It's essential the Leafs separate themselves from the pack as early as possible in order to afford Andersen more rest. Veteran netminder Michael Hutchinson looks poised to assume the backup role, but the 29-year-old has started just 12 NHL games over the past two seasons and it remains to be seen how much responsibility he can handle.

Canucks: Find depth scoring

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Beyond Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat, the 2018-19 Canucks lacked serious scoring punch. The club ranked 25th offensively and didn't have a single player break 35 points besides those three talents. Vancouver's potential bottom-six forward group for 2019-20 contributed a combined 47 goals in 316 man-games played last season.

Loui Eriksson, the club's highest-paid forward, and 2014 first-round pick Jake Virtanen need to find the net at a more consistent rate. Swiss winger Sven Baertschi could also play a major role this season after an injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign. The 26-year-old has tallied four points in four preseason contests and will look to carry that momentum into October.

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General manager Jim Benning attempted to address his team's offensive deficiencies this summer by bringing in forwards Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller. The Canucks will also have Quinn Hughes in the fold for a full season, and the young blue-liner should be able to contribute right away. Will those additions be enough to help the Canucks establish some depth scoring and push themselves into the playoff picture?

Jets: Figure out the blue line

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The Jets' main priority is getting restricted free-agent forward Kyle Connor signed to a new deal. Assuming they succeed at some point in the near future, they still face another significant challenge - keeping pucks out of the net.

Dustin Byfuglien's future remains up in the air, leaving the club's opening-night blue line looking something like this:

Winnipeg ranked 15th in goals against last season, and that was with Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Byfuglien in the fold. The former three averaged a combined 61:50 of ice time per night, a number that jumps to 86:12 when Byfuglien's minutes are included. That's a remarkable amount of ice time to replace, especially considering this season's projected right-side trio has combined for just 156 career NHL games.

The 2018-19 Jets were slightly below average in terms of five-on-five possession (Corsi For 48.97%). Early in their careers, Neal Pionk and Sami Niku have been far below average when it comes to this metric, with respective Corsi For rates of 42.59% and 43.99%. Pionk played his first two NHL seasons with a weak New York Rangers team, though, so Winnipeg's elite forward group should help boost his number.

Winnipeg has $14.85 million in cap space without Connor signed, according to CapFriendly. If and when the Jets ink him to a new pact, they should still have some financial flexibility to explore bolstering the blue line.

(Analytics courtesy: Natural Stat Trick)

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