As the NHL takes a break in its schedule for the 2016 All-Star Game, a quick peek at the standings reveals not one of Canada’s seven NHL teams hold a playoff berth.
In the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens (who until two months ago dominated the league’s overall standings) and Ottawa Senators each had 52 points, putting them three outside of playoff contention. The Toronto Maple Leafs, with 43 points, are 12 back and face long odds of climbing into the race.
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks (51 points), Winnipeg Jets (47), Calgary Flames (45) and Edmonton Oilers (43) are bringing up the rear in the Western Conference. Of these, the Canucks (sitting five points out of contention) are the closest to a postseason berth.
If the regular season ended today, it would mark the first time in 36 years that a Canadian team failed to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. The last time was in 1969-70, when the Habs and Leafs were the only Canadian teams in a 12-teams league.
Naturally, this is cause for concern among fans of those Canadian clubs and the pundits who cover them, especially the good folks at Sportsnet. No Canadian teams in the playoffs means lower television ratings.
This is simply the continuation of a trend for Canadian NHL clubs stretching back to 1993, when Montreal was the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup. Since then, Canadian teams reached the Stanley Cup Final only five times. Vancouver did it twice, in 1994 and 2011. The Alberta clubs staged miracle runs (Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006) bracketing a season-killing lockout, followed by Ottawa in 2007.
During the 1990s and into the early years of this century, the low value of the Canadian dollar, relocation of franchises from Winnipeg and Quebec City and the lack of controls upon player salaries were regularly cited as excuses behind the inability of Canadian clubs to regularly ice championship contenders.
Since the imposition of a three-tiered salary-cap system in 2005 and a robust Canadian dollar between 2006 to 2014, those excuses became irrelevant. Most Canadian teams regularly spent toward the salary-cap ceiling, investing big bucks retaining their best players, acquiring expensive talent via trades or bidding competitively for the best available free agents.
To be fair, three Canadian teams (Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver) did reach the Stanley Cup Final during that period. Unfortunately, those clubs failed to follow up on that success.
Two years ago, I claimed poor management hurt Canada’s NHL teams more than a lower loonie or a salary cap. With all seven teams currently perched outside the playoff picture, it’s apparent nothing has changed.
Of course, several of those teams are in the midst of recovering from years of mismanagement. The Maple Leafs are finally undergoing a long-overdue, much-needed rebuild. Last year, the Oilers finally ditched the old boys’ network that ran the club into the ground, bringing in Peter Chiarelli from Boston as general manager and the well-respected Todd McLellan as head coach. Down the road, the Flames are in the midst of rebuilding their roster, which got somewhat over-hyped by their surprise trip to the playoffs last season. In Vancouver, second-year GM Jim Benning and his staff are attempting to rebuild on the fly, hoping to maintain a playoff-competitive club whilst adding youth to their lineup.
Those clubs, at least, have a good reason why they’re outside this season’s playoff picture. All are still recovering from the sins of previous management. Perhaps over the next few years, one of those clubs will emerge as a legitimate Cup-contending powerhouse.
The Canadiens, Senators and Jets, however, have no excuses.
For the past two years, critics of the Canadiens claimed their success was solely because of superstar goaltender Carey Price. With Price out of action since November with a knee injury and the Canadiens tumbling in the standings, the critics were proven right.
Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, who earned plaudits for seemingly reversing the club’s fortunes the last three seasons, said his team had to learn to play without Price. Evidently, they lack the talent to do so. Without their superstar and true team leader, the Canadiens are revealed to be a team with steadily eroding confidence, struggling to score, unable to avoid costly mistakes, seeking guidance from a coaching staff that appears unable to staunch the bleeding.
Price’s absence reveals the glaring flaws in the Habs game his stellar performance usually covered up. Whether Bergevin can suitably address the lack of scoring depth (especially at center) and find a suitable replacement on the top-defense pairing for an aging Andrei Markov remains to be seen.
Following the Senators late surge last season’ into a playoff berth, they entered 2015-16 looking poised for significant improvement. Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman emerged as reliable young forwards, Kyle Turris matured into a valuable center, Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond provided solid goaltending and they were led by the NHL’s top defenseman in Erik Karlsson.
Sadly, the sloppy defensive play that bedeviled the Sens under previous head coach Paul MacLean is still very much evident under current bench boss Dave Cameron. The Senators lead the league in shots against and are among the worst puck-possession clubs. Rather than showing progress, the Senators seem to be spinning their wheels.
Karlsson recently claimed the Senators have to try to grind out wins because, as a budget team, they cannot afford to amass the talent of deeper-pocketed rivals. That may well be, but it’s ironic that the Senators remain cost-conscious under a salary-cap system team owner Eugene Melnyk pushed for during the NHL’s nuclear winter of 2004-05.
When the Jets relocated from Atlanta to Winnipeg, they had the makings of a perennial playoff contender. Captained by two-way left wing Andrew Ladd (who played on Stanley Cup championship clubs in Carolina and Chicago), carrying a deep defense core led by Dustin Byfuglien (who won a Cup with Ladd in Chicago) and with a slew of promising young players, it seemed only a matter of time until the Jets blossomed into a dominant team.
Now in their fifth season in Winnipeg, the Jets have failed to make any real progress. Indeed, they are currently in danger of missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years. They’ve already gone through one coach in Claude Noel, while current bench boss Paul Maurice isn’t having much success getting his charges to step up their game.
Five seasons in, Winnipeg fans and pundits are now openly questioning GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s ability to build the Jets into a winner. Ladd and Byfuglien, both eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, could be goners by the trade deadline. Despite wealthy ownership, the Jets are giving off the whiff of a penny-pinching small-market team, unable or unwilling to invest in its roster.
Granted, it isn’t easy to build an NHL team into a perennial playoff club, let alone one that has a reasonable shot of contending for a Stanley Cup each year. The salary cap makes it harder to keep a skilled roster intact. No matter how much time and effort is invested in scouting young talent, the draft is still more often than not a crapshoot. And while there are better revenue-sharing measures available to Canadian teams affected by a tumbling Canadian dollar today than in years past, those teams will still feel the pinch to their payrolls.
However, management remains the key to taking a team from the outhouse to the penthouse. A decade ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings were among the league’s doormat franchises. Thanks to good management, they built themselves into perennial league powers, with four Stanley Cup titles between them over the last four seasons.
Since the early 1990s, the Detroit Red Wings remain a model franchise of efficient management, able to adapt to the various changes in the league. Eight years after their last Stanley Cup title, they’ve once again stocked a roster of young future stars that could carry them to further championship glory in a few years.
Time will tell if the rebuilding Maple Leafs, Flames, Oilers and Canucks have that type of management, while those running the Canadiens, Senators and Jets will find themselves under a harsher spotlight in the coming months.
Until the Canadian teams finally find the right people to build and maintain strong, competitive franchises, there’s no end in sight for the country’s long Stanley Cup drought.