After five Canadian-based teams made the NHL playoffs last season and two advanced to the second round, there will be no Canadian franchises involved when the 2016 postseason begins on Wednesday.
The Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek assembled a blue-ribbon panel of analysts to consider individual teams' performances, examine root causes and ponder what happens next
Button, 53, was general manager of the Calgary Flames from 2000 to 2003, after spending the previous 12 years working for the Minnesota/Dallas Stars, two as director of player personnel and six as director of scouting. He currently works for TSN as an analyst and does extensive scouting of junior hockey on the network's behalf.
Ferraro, 51, played 1,258 NHL games over 18 seasons with six different teams, won a Memorial Cup in 1983 and once scored 108 goals in a single season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Now a colour commentator on TSN television broadcasts, his son Landon Ferraro plays for the Boston Bruins and his wife, Cammi Granato, was among the first two women elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Friedman, 45, joined Rogers Sportsnet as a reporter in 2014 after 11 seasons with CBC Sports, where he was part of the Hockey Night in Canada crew. He writes a popular weekly "30 Thoughts" column on Sportsnet's website and has almost 300,000 followers on Twitter.
Dubé, 54, a graduate of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, was an assistant coach with Canada's 1994 men's Olympic hockey team, and then spent two years as head coach of France's national team. Currently, he works as an analyst on Montreal Canadiens radio broadcasts.
Even though this is the first time since 1970 the NHL doesn't have a Canadian team in the playoffs, how surprised should we really be by this development?
Ray Ferraro: Each circumstance is a little bit different, but outside of Montreal, there wasn't a Canadian team that wasn't going to struggle to make it this year. Vancouver should have started their rebuild two years ago, but didn't. Calgary had a shot-in-the-dark season last year. Edmonton is Edmonton – they mismanaged that rebuild and now they're really on the ground floor, though with lots of good parts to start with. Winnipeg was much like Calgary – and this year, they pivoted to a smaller team that's more applicable to today's game, but there were going to be some growing pains. Toronto's in rebuild. Montreal lost the best goalie in the world, which exposed their lack of scoring. Ottawa's a borderline team to make it. In short, lots had to go right for five teams to get in last year – and not much had to go wrong for none to get in this year.
Craig Button: Everything went right for the Calgary Flames last year and the L.A. Kings struggled. Vancouver benefited from San Jose floundering. Ottawa goes on a historic run that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. With the Montreal Canadiens, we knew Carey Price was the most valuable player in the league last year – well, he could win it again this year, because of how much his absence has meant to Montreal. When I look at the flaws of Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver, they're very evident. Last year, we all wondered how the L.A. Kings could miss the playoffs. Well, somebody had to benefit from that. To me, it's a combination of factors.
Probably the biggest surprise is how Montreal faded, especially given how well they started (19-4-3). How do the Canadiens get back on track? Is there more to their woes than just Price's injury?
Dany Dubé: When you go two years in a row with 100 points, then to fall apart like they did, I can tell you, it's very disappointing for the whole organization. Price is the anchor there for sure, but in Montreal, I think they lost their confidence in December. When they faced adversity, they needed to hang in at .500 and weren't able to – and the key guys who were supposed to help them do that were very quiet in December.
Button: Watching Carey Price play last year, I hadn't seen anyone play like that since Dominik Hasek. Price was an intimidating presence in the net. Martin Brodeur never intimidated opponents, but Hasek did – and to me, that's how Carey Price played last year. I know Montreal hasn't scored, but you lose a lot if you don't have that intimidating goaltending presence in the lineup.
Although a few have come close, no Canadian NHL team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993; and there is a school of thought that it's harder for a team based in Canada to do so nowadays because of all the noise and media attention. Is there any truth to that theory?
Elliotte Friedman: A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with [Leafs GM] Lou Lamoriello and he basically said, "I don't worry about what the media thinks, I don't worry about what the fans think, I do what I think is best for the team." Every team in Canada needs to think like that, because some do worry too much about public opinion. You have to care about your fans because it's their passion that makes you a revenue-successful team. In this country, where the coverage and the fan experience is so much more intense, these teams need a greater sense of "we love you, we thank you, we need you, we can't be who we are without you, but we're not going to let you influence the way we do things by your noise." Some teams have fallen away from that.
Dubé: The fact that the Canadian markets are so hot and demanding, it does have an effect on the decision process of the hockey people. The urgency to win, or the responsibility to be competitive right away, it's so important, it's hard to let your players grow within your system. It's a Catch-22, if I can say that. People in Canada say they will be patient, but they aren't going to be patient for three years. Patience, for them, is one year.
Friedman: One of Mike Babcock's messages coming to Toronto this year was, "We've got to create a safer environment for our players to play in." If I'm a Canadian team; if I'm [Jets owner] Mark Chipman, I'm calling Jonathan Toews this summer and saying, "When you're back in Winnipeg, let's go for a quiet beer, where no one can hear or see us, and I want you to tell me why superstar players generally don't want to play in Canada." If I were an owner, I'd be going to guys on my team and asking, "Are you really happy here and if you're not, how can we change that?" Some players clearly love it – Carey Price, P.K. Subban, the Sedins, Erik Karlsson – but there are others who privately say they want no part of it.
Why do Canadian teams struggle so much to attract unrestricted free agents? Even though they're not usually the answer for a team – they will fill in gaps, rarely are they building blocks – it's rare that a Canadian team has been able to lure a key UFA north of the border.
Button: I would look at it this way: How many UFAs left Canada? The Sedins didn't leave. Daniel Alfredsson didn't leave until right at the very end. Mats Sundin didn't leave Toronto until he was really forced out. P.K. Subban signed up for the long term. Dustin Byfuglien isn't leaving. I think it has as much to do with the foundation of the team – and the player concluding "this is a good place for me." Dustin Byfuglien raved about how much he and his family loved Winnipeg. So I don't think it's about not wanting to play in Canada. Players become part of a team at a young age and the good ones are valued and the team lets them know they're valued. They don't want to go anywhere. As much as we say UFAs are not coming to Canada, the Canadian UFAs aren't leaving either.
Historically, have Canadian teams focused too much on quick-fix solutions, instead of tacitly acknowledging that there's ebb and flow in professional sport – and sometimes, you need to have a down year or two before you can start to climb the ladder again?
Ferraro: I think everybody's now on board with the need to draft and develop, all these things that Detroit has been doing so well for 25 years. It's basically the Detroit model that's being replicated 30 times. What I think is important – and I think they missed it in Vancouver – is you've got to take the pulse of your community. In Vancouver, there was an apathy forming about the Canucks. They had that great team in 2011 and then they tried to win again the next year – and they should have. But by the time 2014 rolled around, they weren't the same team – and there was this lack of buzz in the city. When Calgary smoked them in the playoffs last year, that should have been the impetus for change. Ownership pushed for playoffs because that's worth a couple of million extra dollars, but in the long run it's just the wrong way to go. The people in Vancouver, like the people in Toronto, they're ready for change. If you're honest and you say, "Hey, we're going to go backwards a little bit to go forward," the people will understand. And guess what? You know who they're most excited about in Vancouver? Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen and Ben Hutton. They're ripe for change.
Friedman: What are teams afraid of? They're afraid of not being able to sell their buildings. But I think the majority of fans, if you explain a plan to them, they get it. I see it in Toronto. Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock walked in and the first thing they talked about was pain. The toughest thing is, sometimes, the owners lose patience because they see a challenge to the bottom line.
Button: It's why I really like what the Winnipeg Jets are doing. Mark Chipman is behind [general manager] Kevin Cheveldayoff. They've been patient. They're not rushing players into the lineup. We can talk about Edmonton's drafts – maybe they take Tyler Seguin instead of Taylor Hall or Gabriel Landeskog instead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – but we're splitting hairs there. They took those kids and the expectation was they were just going to lead everybody to the Promised Land. I always say this about Edmonton: "Everyone says how talented they are, well, start naming their players." And you're not going to get past six or seven before there's a real drop-off. Well, you can't win in this league with six or seven players. I don't care how good they are.
If you examine the depth charts of the seven Canadian teams, is there one that excites you more than any other, in terms of the personnel they already have in the pipeline? Do you like the pieces in Edmonton best, or Calgary, or maybe Winnipeg?
Ferraro: Those three would be at the top for me. Winnipeg, I love their goaltending. I think Connor Hellebuyck is a Grade A prospect. I saw him at the world championships last year and I was really, really impressed. If you look at this as half-a-step back for Jacob Trouba, there's a lot in front for him. They've got some really highly talented forwards in their system and we'll see what they do with the money they saved by not signing Andrew Ladd. Edmonton is clearly going to make a pivot, if you listen to the comments from [general manager Peter] Chiarelli. The young players that have been there for so long are the culture and unfortunately for them, the culture is losing. And so, to continue down the same road is lunacy. The key is, their blue line will have to improve and in relatively short order. Then in Calgary, you start by building up the middle and they have two fantastic building blocks [in Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan]. They have a defence that should be good. Their Achilles heel is their goaltending. They've got to find a goalie. What Winnipeg has falling out of their pockets, Calgary doesn't have any. And their one guy, Jon Gillies, who they have big hopes for has been injured all year and has had hip surgery already.
What do you make of the situation in Ottawa? How good are they and how good can they be with the group they have in place?
Dubé: They really have some offensive tools; they are capable of scoring goals. If you look at the teams in the Atlantic Division, besides Tampa, Ottawa is the team that has the most high-powered offence. They can hurt you, if you're not sharp defensively. But by the same token, it looks as if their key guys can't find the balance between offence and defence. It's okay to produce, but when you're not reliable defensively, you're really running into trouble.
In the past, there has been a real copycat element to NHL team-building, which has created all sorts of confusion these past few years, given how the alternating Stanley Cup champions, Chicago and Los Angeles, have such completely different playing styles. One is a quick-strike offensive team; the other plays a heavy hard physical game. Philosophically, how do you develop a proper blueprint when there appears to be no one-size-fits-all recipe for success?
Ferraro: Here's what gets me about that: I hear teams say, well, we're going to have to play L.A. and Anaheim, so we're going to have to get a bunch of big players to play just like them. The problem is, if you're looking for Anze Kopitar or Ryan Kesler or Ryan Getzlaf, you're never going to find them. You can get a guy who looks like Anze Kopitar, but he's not Kopitar. You're chasing something you can never get to. So instead of trying to chase a model that's going to change all the time, why not look at the resources you have and build the best team you can with the people you have? And then, if you want to add bigger pieces, go add bigger pieces. If you want to add more skill, add more skill. But why would you chase the L.A. model when Chicago wins every second year now? Are you going to chase Chicago's model? Well, good luck finding a Patrick Kane and a Jonathan Toews. And in the meantime, while you're trying that, somebody else wins – so now you're chasing somebody else. It makes no sense.
So which organization has the best chance of ending Canada's Stanley Cup drought; and when might that happen? I'm going to pick Edmonton in 2021, on the grounds that Connor McDavid is going to win a championship before he turns 25. Any guesses?
Dubé: Goaltending is crucial. Young talent coming in gives you leverage to get around your salary cap. For that reason, Toronto is in good position, even if they don't look that way now. Montreal is not in too bad a position, either. It depends upon one or two moves they make. Their window is two years. If they're not capable of stepping up in the next year or two, I think they're going to miss it. After that, I'm like you. I put Edmonton at the top of the list because of Connor McDavid. The thing that scares me about this team is, they've done a solid job in scouting and recruiting, but they kind of ruined it with the early contracts – too much money too soon. They didn't let the kids earn their spots in the team and the league, so they became instant stars – and it's no good for the organization. So I don't know how they're going to turn it around, but they certainly have the guy to be a true leader in Connor McDavid. Their blueline is not strong enough, we all know that, and it's hard to build up a solid blueline in a short period of time. I think it's going to take them a little longer.
The interviews have been edited and condensed.