If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers or Carolina Hurricanes, you can’t wait for this season to end. For the Leafs, it’s the ninth time in ten seasons they’ll miss the playoffs. It’s now nine straight seasons for the Oilers and six straight for the Hurricanes.
It’s difficult for fans of those franchises to find much hope for the future. Years of mismanagement are largely to blame for the current woes of their respective clubs and there’s little sign of improvement in the foreseeable future.
Say what you will about the Arizona Coyotes and New Jersey Devils, who are both poised to miss the playoffs for the third straight season, but at least they enjoyed a modicum of success in the not-too-distant past. Looking at the youth in the respective rosters, there’s at least some hope for those clubs.
The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars have had their share of struggles in recent years, but both clubs made the playoffs last season, and their current woes are seen as inevitable stumbles on the path toward better days.
Only a year after reaching the Columbus Blue Jackets reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009, injuries decimate their roster and knocked them out of contention. Their fan base remains understanding, taking comfort in last season’s improvement whilst looking forward to a healthier (and hopefully more productive) Jackets squad next season.
The Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators could miss the playoffs this season, but they still have a competitive shot at a berth. They’ve at least given their fans reason to hope for improvement next season.
Yes, the Buffalo Sabres suck on toast and have for a while, but they’ll land either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel this summer via the draft, acquired a possible superstar in Evander Kane and are stocked with promising youth. Gaping holes remain in the Sabres lineup but their fans had low expectations this season. They understood their team wouldn’t be very good and can comfort themselves with the knowledge things can only improve after this season.
The Winnipeg Jets are oh-so-close to clinching a playoff berth for the first time since they were Thrashers in Atlanta in 2007. They’re struggling of late and could drop out of the playoff race, but at least they’re competitive. As frustrating as missing the playoffs again could be for Jets fans, they won’t despair.
But in Toronto, Edmonton and Carolina, there’s simply no hope.
The Leafs, who were in playoff contention when 2015 dawned, have undergone one of the worst second-half collapses in recent memory. The Oilers’ season started poorly, showed brief improvement in early-November only to crash and burn by December. The Hurricanes began the season hampered by injuries and were out of playoff contention by Christmas. In recent weeks they’ve played better, but that’s cold comfort for fans of a franchise out of contention again for the sixth straight year and the eighth time in nine years.
It’s hard to believe that, over a decade ago, the Leafs were not only a perennial playoff team, but seen by some as a Stanley Cup contender. Hell, from 1998-99 to 2002-03, they were often seen as the only Canadian team with any legitimate shot of reaching the Cup Final. Some in Leafs Nation dared to call their club “Canada’s Team.” And for a few years there, they actually were the nation’s best hope for winning a Cup title.
Now, after four general managers, five head coaches and a half-arsed rebuild which began six years ago, the Leafs have become a a joke nearly as cruel as those curmudgeonly former owner Harold Ballard used to play on Toronto fans in the 1980s.
Nine years ago, the Hurricanes and Oilers met in one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup Finals in years, with the ‘Canes triumphing in a thrilling and dramatic seven-game series. One year removed from a season-killing lockout, these two clubs appeared to have bright futures ahead of them.
Since those heady spring days in 2006, the Hurricanes and Oilers have been poster children for poorly-managed franchises. Their respective records speak volumes. After a while, excuses no longer cut it. Coaches and general managers have come and gone (more so in the case of the Oilers), but the ineptitude remains.
The players aren’t to be faulted. Sure, it’s easy to tar one or two or several as spoiled overrated scapegoats. Occasionally, perhaps one or two are worthy of the scorn. But they’re to be pitied more than anything. They were acquired via draft, trade or free agency and, in many cases, thrust into roles they weren’t suited for on teams lacking the depth in talent and management with the proper vision to make it work. Most of them feel the mounting losses far more than the fan base. Those players give their best, but because their team is poorly constructed, their best simply isn’t good enough.
It’s easy to pick on the players because they’re the most visible and the easiest targets for scorn. Even the coaches sometimes unnecessarily get blamed for their inability to turn a roster lacking skilled depth into a playoff contender.
The folks in the front office are largely to blame. They’re the ones who built those rosters. Sure, it’s not an exact science. Sometimes it takes longer than expected for plans to work out. There are unexpected difficulties along the way.
But once a team reaches a half-decade of failure, it’s usually a sign that something’s very wrong with how it’s being run. And when a streak of failure reaches six, nine or ten years, there’s no excuse to explain it away.
So, where do the Hurricanes, Oilers and Maple Leafs go from here?
The Hurricanes finally hired a new general manager in Ron Francis last year, who has a big mess to clean up from predecessor Jim Rutherford. His franchise player, Eric Staal, is 31 with his best seasons well behind him. With only a year left on Staal’s contract and free agency looming, Francis has to decide if his declining production is worth keeping and at what cost. Francis also has an inconsistent, oft-injured starting goalie in Cam Ward, who’s also eligible for UFA status next summer. There’s not a lot of depth throughout the Hurricanes roster, and certainly no youngster with the promise Staal had a dozen years ago around which to rebuild.
What more can be said about the Oilers’ complete and utter inability to build around young stars Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? 2012 first-overall pick Nail Yakupov was largely wasted under former coach Dallas Eakins, and once-promising blueliner Justin Schultz has regressed with each passing season. There’s no established starting goalie, no experienced top-two defensemen and a serious lack of depth at forward.
And the Leafs. Oh, my, the Leafs. A team with several genuinely talented players and not much else, playing under the intense focus of the biggest hockey market in the world. Big changes are hinted at this summer, but no one knows if Dave Nonis will return as general manager, who will be the head coach or what the future holds for core players like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Some of their fans have taken to actively cheering for the Leafs to lose, nursing the misguided belief that a shot at drafting Connor McDavid will magically cure all their team’s ills.
Difficult as it is to believe, the Leafs, Oilers and Hurricanes won’t be horrible forever. At some point in the future, they will get better. They will become perennial playoff clubs again. They could become Stanley Cup contenders again.Their fans need only look at the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and New York Islanders to find some inspiration. It wasn’t that long ago those franchises were where the Leafs, Oilers and Hurricanes are now, seemingly with no hope of success in the foreseeable future. Today, those teams are legitimate Cup contenders.
But, as Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part. Fans of the Blackhawks, Rangers and Islanders had to wait a long time for success. They had to remain faithful to their teams even when there was seemingly no hope.
That’s the test now for Leafs, Oilers and Hurricanes fans. Maintaining faith when all hope seems lost. It won’t be easy. And the waiting could be very, very long.