It’s a grisly picture, but it’s hockey and this is Canada, so you can’t avert your eyes.
With a week left to go in the 2011-12 NHL regular season, only one Canadian-based NHL team is a lock for the playoffs, while another is hoping to white-knuckle its way there.
The rest are undergoing varying degrees of makeover and mayhem.
The Montreal Canadiens need a total renovation. The Calgary Flames are once again doomed by their slow start. The Edmonton Oilers remain a work in progress. The Winnipeg Jets were just happy to be home.
As for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they looked capable for a time – then their season collapsed like a gutted building. (This is not new to long-time Leafs fans.)
Overall, it’s almost the same crumpled scenario as last season.
Still, this being Canada and hockey being the life-giving essence that pulses through our veins, we ask: What in the name of Eddie Shack has gone wrong?
The answer is complicated – the seven Canadian entries are at different stages in the building process, they employ different philosophies, have different ownership structures.
Some argue Canadian teams are still recovering from the financial pinch of the 1990s and early Oughts (anyone remember the 62-cent dollar?). Others point to the presence of income taxes in this country and absence of palm trees.
One aspect seems beyond dispute: There is considerable pressure to win in a Canadian market, the seven teams in this country tend toward impatience, and as Toronto GM Brian Burke is fond of saying, fans aren’t keen on a full-scale rebuild. (Although the Oilers are the exception that proves the rule.)
Still, this could be the worst season in almost four decades for Canadian-based teams – if the Ottawa Senators stumble and the Vancouver Canucks are the lone playoff entry, it would the first time since 1973 that has happened.
On the plus side, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup that year.
As the Habs and Leafs lurch toward their season-ending match in Montreal in a week’s time, the stakes are not a playoff spot, but a slot in the draft lottery. Expect a low-scoring game.
It seems certain the teams will finish last and second-last in the Eastern Conference.
That would be a first since 1969-70, when the Leafs were bad and Montreal was good, but the playoff format kept them out of the postseason.
Before that, it hadn’t happened since 1925-26, when Toronto’s team was known as the St. Patricks. It’s little wonder the Canadiens jettisoned their front office this week, and that Leafs fans are demanding Burke’s head on a busted hockey stick.
History suggests panic is not the answer.
Habs president and principal owner Geoff Molson talked at length last Thursday about restoring stability to an NHL franchise that has had three owners, five general-managers, and 10 head coaches in the 19 years since it last won the Cup.
“When one looks at the great organizations of the past or the ones that perform particularly well currently, the root of their success lies in their consistency and stability – in ownership, in management, in coaching, in player personnel,” Molson said.
He may be stating the obvious, but he’s also on to something. A strong case can be made that to win you need consistency in the owners’ box or the management suite, and ideally both.
The last 15 years give a glimpse of what consistency in the front office can bring.
Of the five longest-serving NHL GMs (in order: Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils, Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes, Darcy Regier of the Buffalo Sabres, Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings, and George McPhee of the Washington Capitals), three have won the Cup, and the other two have reached the final at least once.
Since McPhee was hired in the summer of 1997, the group has combined for 11 final appearances and seven titles. In that span, four Canadian teams have made the final, none have won.
The numbers are skewed by Detroit’s success, which far outstrips anyone else, and all four of the other teams have had some terrible seasons over that period.
But Molson is probably right to crave stability.
Over the same period, the Habs have had four GMs, the Leafs five, the Flames four, the Oilers three, the Canucks four, the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers three, and the Senators five.
While the picture looks dire, zoom out a little and see that the Canucks are strong, the Senators are on the upswing, Edmonton and Winnipeg are well-stocked with prospects and will be good sooner rather than later. Montreal, Calgary and Toronto can all claim to be a player or two away from a decent playoff run.
So lament if you must, but this is a 30-team NHL, only one team can win.
And it won’t always be based in Canada.
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