Pressure To Win Could Account For Canada’s Stanley Cup Drought

by | Jan 26, 2022 | Soapbox | 16 comments

Of Canada’s seven NHL franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only ones holding a playoff berth at the halfway point of the 2021-22 season.

Meanwhile, seven of the NHL’s 10 “Sun Belt” franchises – Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles, Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights and the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – would make the playoffs if the season ended today. The Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks would be outside the postseason picture. 

It’s been 29 years since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

A Canadian team last won the Stanley Cup in 1993. Since then, a Canadian club only reached the Final six times. Over the same period, a Sun Belt team has won the Cup eight times and reached the Final eight times.

It seems those Southern U.S. clubs have had better luck than their cousins in the Great White North. Actually, luck has nothing to do with it. The cold hard facts are those teams have been better managed and coached compared to their Canadian brethren over the same period.

That doesn’t mean those Sun Belt teams haven’t had their share of troubles. They’ve spent their share of time wallowing among the also-rans, in some cases for many years.

Some, like the Predators and Panthers, were dogged by whispers of relocation while the Atlanta Thrashers wound up moving to Winnipeg. Meanwhile, the Arizona Coyotes remain in place despite years of multiple owners and questionable management thanks to the sheer force of will of league commissioner Gary Bettman.

Most of those teams, however, still managed to find a way to get it right. They eventually put together a solid front office staff, draft and develop talented players, make shrewd trades and free-agent signings to augment their lineups, and hire the right coaching staff to turn their rosters into contenders.

Meanwhile, Canada’s teams stumble along, sometimes seeming on the verge of becoming serious Cup contenders, only to make costly mistakes that knock them out of the running.

It’s not as though the Canadian teams haven’t hired experienced general managers or coaches. Most have had various degrees of success with previous clubs. So why is it that they seem to struggle in Canada?

Once upon a time, Canadian fans could pin the blame on the low value of the Canadian dollar and the free-spending ways of the rich American hockey markets. That’s no longer the case with the Canuck buck at a higher value, a salary cap leveling the field and a revenue-sharing plan that ensures Canadian clubs will have the same competitive advantage as their American cousins.

The expansion of the league from 24 franchises in 1993 to 32 franchises is a contributing factor. More teams mean more competition for draft picks and established players through trades and free agency. Nevertheless, the Sun Belt franchises face the same challenges and most have managed to do all right for themselves.

Of course, many of those teams are in states with low or no state taxes, paid in American dollars which go much further than Canadian dollars. The warmer weather can also be enticing.

Being able to lead relatively normal lives in those markets is also a big draw for the players. They live and work in much larger cities compared to those in Canada where they’re not the only major sport in town. The NHL is well down the popularity pole in those markets compared to basketball, football, baseball and NASCAR.

The players can go about their lives without being constantly harangued by fans if they’re mired in a slump or their club is in danger of missing the playoffs. They’re not facing packs of reporters tracking their every word and passing harsh judgment on their efforts.

That’s not the same thing for their Canadian peers. Even in the smallest markets such as Winnipeg and Ottawa, the players face a fishbowl existence.

Management and coaches and team owners feel it too. They understand what hockey means to Canadians. They know about the rich histories of the Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. They know how much fans of the Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators long to win their first championships.

In hockey parlance, those clubs have little time and space to build and maintain a champion. The mantra among the Canadian hockey punditry is the fans won’t have the patience to go through a long rebuild. They want a winner and they want it now.

Since 1993, every Canadian team has endured long droughts outside the playoff picture.

Ask Leaf fans how much fun it was making the playoffs just once between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Or Oilers fans if they were enjoying themselves while their club reached the postseason once between 2006-07 and 2018-19. Or Flames fans about the lost years between 1996-97 and 2002-03 and 2009-10 and 2013-14. Or Senators fans about the last four years. Or Canucks fans about reaching the playoffs once in the last six years. Heck, ask Canadiens fans how much of a kick in the junk it is to see their team dead last overall after reaching the Cup Final seven months ago.

Those teams, however, weren’t undergoing a rebuilding phase during those lean years. In most cases, they were trying to reach the playoffs.

They changed management or coaches, traded away or acquired players, and set their sights on the postseason. And after they failed, they’d go out and try again and promise the fans and media that they were heading in the right direction, that they had a competitive team, that they were just the victims of injury or bad luck the previous year.

Rarely has a Canadian team told its fans it was engaging in a rebuild. The Leafs were a notable exception. In 2015 and 2016, they shed stars such as Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf for draft picks and prospects, warning its fans that several years of pain were ahead.

Rather than get upset, Leafs fans bought into team president Brendan Shanahan’s plan, or “Shanaplan” as it was later dubbed. They knew their club was long overdue for a true rebuild, that years of patchwork attempts to build a Cup contender wasn’t working. They handled it well throughout 2015-16, accepting the concept of short-term pain for long-term gain as their club rebuilt with young players.

That rebuild, however, didn’t last long. Powered by young guns Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the Leafs made the playoffs in 2017. The following season, they were among the league’s best, reaching a franchise record 49 wins and 105 points in the regular season. They were eliminated from the opening round by the Boston Bruins, but they seemed destined to become a Cup contender if they stuck to their rebuild.

Instead, the “Shanaplan” was quickly scrapped. They blew up their budget by signing free agent John Tavares to a monster contract and handing out big bucks re-signing Matthews and Marner. They became a club top-heavy in offense but lack sufficient defensive depth to match up well against the league’s best clubs. To date, they still haven’t won a first-round series since 2004.

It came down to impatience on the part of the Leafs’ front office, fueled by the heightened expectations of Toronto fans and media. Rather than stick with the plan, they tried to take shortcuts and are still dealing with the consequences.

The Canadiens appear poised for a rebuild under the new management following this disastrous season. Will they learn from the Leafs’ mistakes or repeat them? It will be difficult to avoid the pitfalls given the pressure cooker they face on a daily basis.

None of the Canadian teams have the luxury of rebuilding out of the harsh spotlight like the Sun Belt franchises. Their demanding markets simply won’t allow it.

Until that trend changes, Sun Belt franchises will remain Stanley Cup contenders while Canadian clubs will be mere pretenders.


  1. I don’t think there was much pressure from leaf fans to sign Tavares.

    Seems to me it was more an impatient, innexperienced, young executive wanting to prove himself by making a big splash.

  2. I think you nailed it, Lyle!

    • Thanks!

  3. Solid assessment Lyle. Factual up and down the article, especially the part covering the fishbowl existence of those playing in Canadian cities. A very few personalities can thrive over a career in that reality – many buckle under the pressure, and when the cat-calls start and every move picked over on umpteen different panel shows and it filters down to families, a lot can’t wait to get out of town.

    The sheer odds if looking at it through the spectrum of U.S.-based vs Canada-based is also a factor. And don’t forget, there are also 8 teams in the U.S. that are still waiting for their first cup (9 if you count Seattle): Florida, Nashville, Minnesota (in 2 incarnations), Vegas, San Jose, Columbus, Buffalo, Arizona.

  4. This is a great read. But I have to say the whole pressure / fish bowl thing I just don’t buy.

    While I understand players In Toronto face much more criticism than a Florida, Arizona etc. How are the successes in other sports not factored in?

    The NY Yankees don’t live that life? They don’t have more pressure and higher expectations than Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh? The NE Patriots? Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, LA Lakers?

    Can the NY knicks blame their long term failure of being under a constant microscope?

    Or has it been the brutal management, bad picks and overall organizational failures that have left Knicks fans sucking on their thumbs in a corner every spring?

    It just seems like a lame cop out and excuse to use pressure. Plenty of markets have pressure.

    I’d venture to say that there are much smaller markets in other sports than a Toronto that have a great amount of pressure / expectations on their backs (hello Green Bay population 100k) .

    Or even a Cleveland Browns that have struggled for decades. Are they tired of being the punching bag / meme generator yet? The NFL’s revenue is literally double that of the NHL. I’m positive the owners , players and management in every market feel the squeeze in every market.

    32 teams , 7 are Canadian. It takes a lot of luck, good choices to win. Blaming pressure is just an excuse.

    • Also being a NY fan my entire life, even wins and success come with disclaimers.

      The NY media can’t wait to rip at the flesh of all their organizations regardless. Rangers win, but!

      I’ve seen plenty of jabs at NY this season in the media. And they sit 4th in the league in todays standings. Talk about the fish bowl life and pressure?

      • Well, for one thing – and I get and respect that you don’t “buy it” – you don’t have to live in their shoes so, of course, you have absolutely no idea of the pressures they go through. It’s not as if any one of them is going to stand in front of a camera and bitch openly about “the pressure.” Nor do you know what their children and wives have to go through when things go bad. None of us do – simple fact.

      • I just gave multiple examples of teams under that same microscope. How have they managed any success? Or the failing ones not blame “pressure”?

        Look at teams like Dallas Cowboys, no pressure there? NY Knicks, NY Jets, no pressure? They all have a couple of things in common. Crap owners, crap decisions. But all have lots of pressure.

        As far as players not saying it, I remember when Randy Johnson came to NY and had multiple melt downs. In games , to the media.

        He said something pretty funny.
        “I went from having to answer to a handful of reporters with two mikes in my face to having 70 reporters with a microphone in my face”

        I’m sure there are other examples.

        But again, Does Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg or Edmonton have more pressure than the NY Yankees? Somehow I don’t think so.

        The expectations for NY never change. Ever year before one pitch is thrown the expectation is to win.

        Plain and simple, it’s a cop out. It goes back to that mentality that Montreal or Toronto are the center of the universe.

        They’re not. They’re not going through anything above and beyond what other big markets go through.

        The unrealistic expectation that they have a chance regardless of personnel, Players , coaching staff or competition.

      • And yes, We don’t know exactly what it’s like to go through. I don’t have reporters sitting in my office hounding me for a mistake.

        I don’t have an over weight shirtless guy wearing a jersey with my name on it throwing beer on me.

        (I’ve requested all of the above, HR said “we’ll get back to you”)

        But plenty of athletes outside the Canadian market do!

        California has about the same population as all of Canada. (1 million more exactly) You see the Lakers folding under pressure year after year?

      • Good points – I must admit. There have been meltdowns in those sports but negligible in terms of the numbers that have gone through the various systems.

  5. It’s also interesting to note that, since the first expansion in 1968, only 3 Canadian teams have taken the cup home – Montreal 8 times, Edmonton 3 and Calgary 1.

    Vancouver has been waiting 52 years, Winnipeg 32 (21 as the forerunner of the Coyotes), Ottawa 30, and Toronto 55 years since their last win in 1967.

    Compare that to the 8 U.S.-based teams listed above: Buffalo 52 years, Minnesota 48 (26 as The North Stars before moving to Dallas), San Jose 31, Florida 29, Arizona/Phoenix 26, Nashville 24, Columbus 22, Vegas 4.

    • Edmonton 5

      • You’re absolutely right – lol – I had “5” jotted down after checking the list – and then typed “3” and didn’t notice – thanks

  6. I don’t buy the thesis which totally ignores the changes forced on the teams by forced parity as opposed to rewarding management.

    Essentially, a system rewarding team investment, building farm teams, investing in future players has been replaced by poor teams getting high draft picks to build a core 4 and trade deadline rentals.
    If you get the right core 4, you have it made.

    The Canadian teams don’t have more pressure than American teams competing with other pro teams and the huge college business and that very much includes the South.

    • Yes I agree. The excuses are lame. The truth is poor ownership or management = poor product. That’s an undeniable fact of life.

      You could say that since most hockey players we are accustomed to “knowing” are generally quiet and keep to themselves and Canadian, the fact they play a sport that is regarded as a religion in more than one part in the country may put them off their game but as professionals, I doubt that plays an impactful effect on their performance. It seems to me that when a Toronto area player comes to town, they usually have a good night against the Leafs. So I don’t know if either case there’s an effect in play.

      The final nail in Canadian teams besides the most important – ownership and management, is the cap. Right now it’s trying to create parity which means to me, flattening the product. Teams that have good management with their picks and prospects development, thus having good players which cost more to keep and if the player continues their current development trajectory, ie a top 4 d or a top 6 player, that will eventually need to get paid.
      Teams that draft their stars shouldn’t have to be forced to lose their players. Am I the only one that thinks what happened to TB losing their whole 3rd line, one of the best because of the cap? That shouldn’t of happened and teams that have poor management now have their quick fix at TB expense.

      I just think that if you draft and develop a player and that player a team shouldn’t fear losing a roster player to fit him under the cap. In situations like this, I would like to see a soft cap on drafted and developed players and a hard cap for UFAs.

  7. Perfect summary on every point Lyle

    Great read (but disappointing [as a Canadian] and true summary)

    The Great White North might be void of a SC for another couple of years….. at least 😭


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