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A year to forget for most of Canada’s NHL teams

Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens is scored on by the New York Rangers during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday March 30, 2014.

The Canadian Press

Perhaps we can blame the salary cap.

Or the suddenly sliding dollar. Or, as many franchises tend to in this country, the crippling pressure and media coverage.

Or, maybe, just maybe, it's not any more complicated than saying they have just plain been beaten by better, brighter minds in the front offices of other teams.

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Whatever your theory, it is pretty hard to dispute that this has been a truly lousy regular season for Canada's seven NHL teams – perhaps the worst ever, depending on your definition of success.

With a week left in the 2013-14 campaign, only the Montreal Canadiens are a reasonable bet to make the postseason, which means this will likely go down as the first time since 1973 that only one Canadian team made the postseason.

And, other than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are keeping up the fight, these aren't near misses, either.

The bottom of the NHL standings is filled with teams from this country, with five clustered in the bottom 10 (Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver), with Toronto the second-best Canadian team despite sitting in 18th entering Friday's games.

This season has been such a struggle that Canada's teams are on pace to finish with an average of only 82.5 points, 13 fewer than the average U.S. team in the league. That's the biggest gap since 1990-91 season, when Quebec, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver all finished in the NHL's bottom five in what became the Eric Lindros draft sweepstakes.

(He ended up in Philadelphia, the Leafs traded away their pick – which became Scott Niedermayer – and the Jets passed on Peter Forsberg to take Aaron Ward. It wasn't a banner year.)

Looking back over the years at how Canadian teams have fared compared to their U.S. counterparts, it's clear that their success has gone in cycles.

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Canadian teams outperformed American ones consistently throughout the 1980s, and as a result won six consecutive Stanley Cups in a three-team run that ended in 1990.

The rest of that decade was tumultuous, with two franchises relocated to the United States as the dollar hit a low, which had a direct impact on the standings for the next decade.

Then came 2003-04, the year before a season-long lockout ushered in a salary cap, and Canada's teams were back on top, averaging 97 points.

Four different teams went on to make appearances in the finals in four out of the next seven years (2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011) in a clear sign things had changed for the better.

Until now, that is, with this latest dip, its length to be determined.

This will become the sixth consecutive season that the Canadian teams will finish with fewer points than American ones, and why that is is difficult to pin down to one specific cause.

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Surprisingly, the NHL's change to a salary cap league, beginning in 2005, which was supposed to benefit previously low-revenue Canadian teams, has actually been one contributor. That switch coincided with the dollar shooting up to par, which suddenly made teams like Calgary and Vancouver wealthy and Montreal and Toronto obscenely wealthy.

But unlike previously, they couldn't spend that wealth, and a lot of it wound up in revenue sharing for struggling American teams. Now, almost every team spends the same amount, with 23 NHL clubs dedicating $60-million or more to salaries this season, negating any real financial advantage Canada's teams might have.

The other prevailing theory is that Canada's teams have become too risk averse, with oft-meddling ownership and mediocre management dooming them to fall behind more innovative American teams. Because fans are guaranteed to fill their buildings and revenue is plentiful, Canadian teams simply aren't always under the same pressures many American owners face, where their bottom line lives and dies with icing a contender instead of a consistently middling team.

Perhaps as a result, the Canucks have really been the only team to have sustained success in recent years, and even they have lagged behind what franchises like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles and several others have built.

One thing most of those teams all have in common is they built through the draft starting seven or eight years ago, back when Canadian teams were having success. With five of them now expected to pick in the top 10 this year, this could be the start of a new upward cycle, centred around the classes of 2014 and beyond.

Although, as the Oilers can attest, that doesn't always work out as planned, either.

The success of Canadian NHL teams

They're a disparate group in many ways, but Canada's NHL teams do tend to travel in packs in the NHL standings. From a low point in the mid-90s when Winnipeg and Quebec were relocated to incredible success before the salary cap era, there has been great variance in how the six to eight teams have fared over the years. This season marks another low point, with Canadian teams on pace to finish with almost 13 fewer points than American ones.

Canadian NHL teams in the playoffs

If the Leafs fall short in their long shot bid to make the playoffs, only one Canadian team will make the postseason for the first time in 41 years, dating back to the 1972-73 season when similarly Montreal was the only qualifying team. Unlike today, however, there were only three Canadian teams in that era.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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