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Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price makes a glove save (ELLEN OZIER/REUTERS)
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price makes a glove save (ELLEN OZIER/REUTERS)

DAILY GRIND

Dowbiggin: Halfway there and the signs are encouraging for some teams Add to ...

You can always rely on the Calgary Flames. We thought they’d stink and, well, they stink. Otherwise, the Canadian Cohort of the NHL has been about as predictable as the college of cardinals at the Vatican. Other than the Flames, every team in Canada has gone against the form in this shortened NHL season.

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We caught Montreal, the most surprising team, live on Sunday as they toyed with the Florida Panthers, allegedly an NHL team. Cheered on by what seemed like 10,000 snowbirds, the Habs looked like this winning thing was old hat as they swept their back-to-back Florida swing.

Montreal was thought to be too small, too soft and too injury prone when play started Jan. 19. A playoff spot was going to be a tall assignment. Instead, Montreal has the best record in the East by using a stifling checking game and some very appealing young players like Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and, fresh from restricted free agency (RFA) limbo, P.K. Subban. They’ve been relatively healthy, too.

All this in spite of the recent Carey Price ventilation issues. If they start beating Toronto on a regular basis, prenez garde.

Don Cherry’s favourite team, meanwhile, might be a bigger surprise. Their suspect goaltending had doomed them to trade flop Nazem Kadri for Roberto Luongo. Their defence was plodding and Brian Burke would cause enough distractions to waylay his young charges.

Apparently not. Despite some bruising recent losses against the East elite, Toronto looks pointed toward a first playoff spot in seven season. Burke is gone, but there’s no pressure on successor Dave Nonis to sell the farm for anyone, let alone Luongo. They’ve survived some key injuries and coach Randy Carlyle has actually put a system in place that the lads can follow. Who knew?

When Ottawa lost its two top players(Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson) to injury the Sens were predicted to join Winnipeg with the other mouth-breathers at the bottom of the East. Instead, the Sens and the Jets are making a lively scrap for the postseason. The Senators secret is coach Paul MacLean. The Jets? No one sees ‘em coming.

In the West, Vancouver was a lock for the Northwest title again. However, after losing to Minnesota in desultory fashion Sunday, even a playoff berth is now in serious jeopardy. Plagued by the constant injury history of star Ryan Kesler, the Canucks’ winning formula is staler than the sequestration debate.

Once a team that imposed itself on opponents, a la Muhammad Ali, the Canucks have lapsed into his rope-a-dope phase, barely surviving on the ropes. The tandem of Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo kept the boat afloat early but now has caught the indifference bug afflicted much of the squad. Alain Vigneault must be seeing Lindy Ruff in his nightmares.

The most disappointing Canajun’ squad is Edmonton, perpetual owners of the NHL’s No. 1 overall draft pick. Watching the parade of glitzy young phenoms fizzle recalls the timeless, “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” Right now the Oilers look like a Fantasy team, contracts assembled to no discernible purpose.

With the CBA clock ticking for Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Nail Yakopov and Ales Hemsky on the same huge contracts awarded to Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, Edmonton has about 18 months to enjoy the fruits of No. 1 picks. Maybe enjoy is the wrong word considering the Oilers bleak record in 2013.

Calgary? We said they’d be mediocre and need to start dumping contracts. We got it half right.

IF IT LOOKS LIKE A DUCK...

Amusing the number of hockey experts saying that streaking Anaheim “took care of business” or “made a great signing” when it gave star centre Ryan Getzlaf $8.25-million for eight years. The premise being that Getzlaf is deserving of the top rung in NHL salaries.

The deal is a millstone that will haunt the small market Ducks. Since 2009, when he had 91 points, Getzlaf has notched 69, 76, 57 points. This year he’s back on a 90-point pace (adjusted for 82 games). He ranks about 50th in faceoff win percentage. In other words, a very good player.

But worth more than the $6.1-million of Henrik Sedin, who’s had 112, 94, 81 and (a pro-rated) 82 points this season? Or Brad Richards, who makes $6.667-million in New York? What Anaheim has done is accept the new NHL mindset that there is a shortage of top 6 forwards or top 4 defenceman and that you must overpay to keep the ones you’ve got. Even as the NHL salary cap dives from $70-million to $64.3-million next season.

Minnesota performed the same mental gymnastics last summer, giving Ryan Suter and Zack Parise $98-million over 13 years. Ditto Carolina paying Eric Staal $8.25-million per, Nashville coughing up $7.857 till Kingdom come for Shea Weber or the Oilers giving Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle $6-million a year after just two NHL seasons.

The message is clear. Barring a shocking jump in NHL revenues, there simply won’t be enough to pay your stars and maintain a balanced payroll. Like NBA teams, NHL clubs will have four or five well-paid stars on immovable contracts and a gaggle of interchangeable role players who get by on far less.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy

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