All week long, in newspapers and on websites, talk radio and television, the issue popped up like an annual rite of spring. It was a variation of the old Woe Is Canada theme – and why it likely that Canada’s Stanley Cup drought could easily extend for yet another season since only one or two of the NHL franchises based in the Great White North are about to qualify for the playoffs. That’d be the Vancouver Canucks, who are in, and the Ottawa Senators, who are close.
The starting point is always the same flawed premise too – that this coast-to-coast failure provides an opportunity for some national soul-searching, as if there really was a common thread linking Canada’s seven NHL franchises.
Why is it is even an issue? To me, Canada is the team that competes internationally in Olympics, world championships, world junior championships etc. – whatever entry we field in international ice hockey competitions around the world. That’s Canada and that’s a completely separate discussion from why Canadian teams haven’t won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did it back in 1993.
Thanks to the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, there are now seven individual corporate entities licensed by the National Hockey League to operate above the 49th parallel. These seven Canadian-based business operations, scattered across the country, have the same opportunity to win the Stanley Cup as the 23 separate corporate entities that operate in the United States – one in 30 on average, or a little more than three championships per century.
Generations of fans can grow up and grow old in a city – be it Toronto or Buffalo, Vancouver or Los Angeles – with the mathematical expectation of seeing only two or three championships in their lifetimes. Of course, because some teams win more through a variety of factors from management skills to pure dumb luck, others will win less.
In the 19 years since the Canadiens won the 1993 Stanley Cup, the percentage of Canadian-based teams compared to the rest of the NHL has been altered by the last round of expansion and then again last year, when Winnipeg arrived on the scene. But for mathematical simplicity, let’s call it roughly about 20 per cent, since for most of that period, there were six Canadian teams in a 30-team league.
From a mathematical perspective, it means about four Canadian teams should have won the Cup during the past 20 years. One did. Montreal.
But in 2011, Vancouver lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. Could have gone either way. In 2007, the Ottawa Senators lost in the final to a one-and-done champion, the Anaheim Ducks. Could have gone either way. In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers lost to a one-and-done champion, the Carolina Hurricanes. Could have gone either way. In 2004, the Calgary Flames lost to a one-and-done champion, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Could have gone either way, and probably should have, except that Calgary had a legal goal disallowed in Game 6 that would have permitted the Flames to wrap up the series on home ice. Instead, it went to overtime, Tampa eventually pulled it out and then won it all at home. If those championship finals go the other way, then you would have had five Canadian champions in 20 years, which is more than what it should be based on statistical probability.
Unhappily, when you get to a Stanley Cup final, factors other than how well you build a team enter the equation. Usually the healthiest team, the one that has everything break right for it in a given year, is the one that wins it all. Every general manager will tell you that, from the veterans to the rookies - that you can put what you think are all the right pieces in place and if you aren’t really lucky along the way, it can all go wrong.
Also: In that 20-year span, the best team didn’t win in the Stanley Cup most of the time (including and beginning with the Montreal team that won in 1993 because of Patrick Roy’s goaltending. Pittsburgh, champions the previous two years, with the best team they ever had in the Mario Lemieux era, was upset by the New York Islanders in the second round).
Among NHL franchises, one could safely argue that the Detroit Red Wings represent the gold standard these past two decades. They have qualified for the playoffs for a 21st consecutive season in 2011-12 - an extraordinary and admirable record of consistency. The second most successful club might be the San Jose Sharks, who have made the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 years, managed 100 points or more in six of the last seven, but have not been able to even qualify for a Stanley Cup final, let alone with a championship.
Does that make San Jose a successful organization (because of all its regular-season successes), or a failed one? If you measure strictly by championships won, probably it’s the latter. The Sharks have been operating in the NHL since 1991-92 and are still looking for that first Stanley Cup.
Right now, the two NHL teams based in Alberta represent an interesting study in contrasts because they are using directly opposite blue prints to build. Edmonton followed Pittsburgh’s lead and went all scorched earth three years ago. Short term, the Oilers are paying the price for that decision too – another terrible year in which they’ll be rewarded with another high draft choice. By contrast, Calgary did its usual patch-and-pray job. Neither produced even a playoff spot, so no championship there this year - again. Will Edmonton’s approach ultimately prove beneficial?
They have good pieces in place; but the temptation to fast-track the maturation process will be there. It always seems to be in Canada. Maybe Leafs’ GM Brian Burke has something when he complains about how difficult it is to run a team in Toronto because of the 24/7 noise. Nobody is telling general manager David Poile in Nashville that the Predators would be better if only they played Colin Wilson more (Wilson was chosen seventh overall in 2008). Meanwhile, on Hockey Night In Canada, analyst Don Cherry figures everything would be well in Toronto if only they played Nazen Kadri (seventh overall in 2009) more. Just because Kadri has good shootout moves? Nashville sits Wilson until he’s ready; and nobody is telling them to do otherwise.
In Toronto (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal), everybody’s an expert. Does it affect performance/development/decision-making? It shouldn’t, but maybe it does. When Canadiens owner Geoff Molson announced his decision to fire general manager Pierre Gauthier Thursday, he spent a goodly portion of his press conference talking about fans – and the need to be responsive to fans. All well and good, except the popularity with the general public of an executive or a coach, who are often obliged to make hard and unpopular big-picture decisions, shouldn’t be a criteria when making a switch, or if it is, it should be way down the list.
The point is, it’s just easier to do the right thing when you operate in a vacuum; and nobody is questioning or second-guessing every little move you make.
About the only across-the-board threads that link the performance of Canadian-based NHL teams that I can see are 1) relatively poor player development and 2) the general feeling that you have to win RIGHT THIS MINUTE and you have to do it every year. That’s Burke’s theory and what you hear from management types in Calgary every year too.
Of course, that means Canadian teams operate with a business plan that includes a lot of imperfect reasoning.
Theoretically, rabid, knowledgeable Canadian hockey fans should be more sophisticated than their American hockey counterparts and thus understand that sometimes, you need to take one step backward to take two steps forward. Discounting Winnipeg because it’s too soon to evaluate their management team, every Canadian team (with the exception of Edmonton) seems to be in too much of a hurry to win.
Burke’s whole credo was fans in Toronto wouldn’t patiently wait for a turnaround. Sure they would have.
Burke has actually made some good ancillary moves, on the trade market and in signing college free agents. His blunder was the Phil Kessel deal. If they’d just drafted the two players that would have come to them in the draft, they’d have two more good young pieces coming through the system. Tyler Seguin will soon pass Kessel in terms of his overall impact (although in fairness, Kessel is still a top-10 NHL scorer). And of course, Burke’s blind unwillingness to fix the goaltending is the root cause of most of this last month’s angst.
Elsewhere: Montreal’s management has been an unmitigated disaster. They just understood they had to clean house and start over. Ottawa appears in good hands. Winnipeg’s group shows promise. Edmonton? Their young players are improving and they are fun to watch. In 36 months, they’ll be really good, and then the trick will be hang on to everybody that matters.
Calgary is a middle-of-the-road disaster, but a close look at the moves made by GM Jay Feaster in the past 12 months suggests he is still in the business of unravelling the Darryl Sutter years – in which Sutter, in the misguided view that the Flames were close to competing for a championship, kept trading off draft choices to get quick-fixes that never really worked. How many decades can a team go without developing or otherwise finding a true No. 1 centre? Calgary appears to be going for the record.
The point is, the evidence, as opposed to the rhetoric, suggests there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for success. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups mostly by tearing it down and then building it up again (and landing talents from Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr a generation ago to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in modern times). They win because of high draft choices. Detroit, which never seems to have a high pick, wins through player development. They haven’t had any high draft choices.
Conclusion: Success and failure have little to do with geography or location, Canada or U.S., and everything to do with smart operating principles and a little bit of luck (having Crosby available at No. 1 the year you bottom out is better than having Erik Johnson available at No. 1).
Moreover, it also means that if Vancouver does win it all this season, ending the so-called “drought,” it really will have no impact or trickle-down effect on what happens to the other six Canadian clubs anyway. All that it will really do is just kill an easy storyline for next spring.
THE HENRIK AND DANIEL WATCH: Life without Daniel Sedin began pretty well for the Vancouver Canucks, who haven’t lost since their star forward went out of the lineup. Sedin is out with a concussion, sustained on a hit from the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith, and it created a back-to-the-future moment for his twin brother, Henrik. It was two years ago when Daniel missed 18 games with a broken foot that Henrik answered, once and for all, if he could compete a high level without his twin patrolling the wing. The answer was a definitive yes – and voters for the Hart Trophy dutifully took note and named Henrik the NHL’s MVP for the 2009-10 season, a year in which the Vancouver Canucks had 103 regular-season points and made it to the second-round before losing to Chicago.
How is Daniel’s absence this year different than in 2010? According to Henrik, “I don’t think it’s easier because he’s one of the best players in the league but it’s less pressure maybe right now, because last time around, I had to prove to everyone that we were able to play without each other. This time, everyone has seen … I mean, obviously, we’re better together, but it’s not like I’m getting a big drop-off when Danny’s not there.” Henrik is currently playing with Zach Kassian and Mason Raymond, but the Canucks expect Daniel back for the start of the playoffs.
COYOTE SURGE: The most consistently underrated player of his generation must surely be the Phoenix Coyotes’ Ray Whitney, the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native and former Edmonton Oilers stick boy who came up big when he had to again – namely in Thursday’s must-win game over the San Jose Sharks, when he made two brilliant passes to earn assists on Radim Vrbata’s goals in a 2-0 Phoenix victory. Whitney has 999 career points, with four games to go in the season. He is 12th overall in the NHL scoring race (23-50-73), a plus-25 and his 55 even-strength points are tied for fourth in the league. Only Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), Steven Stamkos (Tampa) and Jason Spezza (Ottawa) have more. What an unlikely success story – and the real irony is that Whitney made those pivotal plays Thursday night against the Sharks, the team that drafted him originally, 23rd overall in the second round of the 1991 entry draft. San Jose let him go after the 1996-97 season when he was just 121 points into his career. Edmonton signed Whitney as a free agent that year (smart), but then put him on waivers (dumb), where he was claimed by the Florida Panthers and proceeded to score 32 goals and 61 points in 68 games – and he was off and running. Whitney turns 40 on May 8; and unlike some players of his age, isn’t dithering at all. He’d like to keep playing. We’d like to see him keep playing too.
AND FINALLY: By contrast, 36-year-old Milan Hejduk, a stalwart on a decade’s worth of Colorado Avalanche teams, may pack it in this year, according to the Denver Post. Hedjuk acknowledged that this could be his final season: “I don't want to analyze right now, but it definitely could be,” he said – and that would be a loss. Hejduk’s calm professionalism has helped the Avs become one of the NHL’s most surprising teams this season – and he is the last remaining link to the 2001 championship year. Colorado may not make it this season, but all those young speedy talents up front (Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, even Paul Stastny is not that old) suggest a bright future.
Editor's Note: The original web version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of Milan Hejduk's name.