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