Can Mats Sundin help end a 15-year Canadian Stanley Cup drought by leading Vancouver to glory? (Getty Images)
It has been 15 years since an NHL team based in Canada has won the Stanley Cup.
Yeah, we know they still have to play the games and everything, but is there anyone out there who realistically expects that drought not to be extended to 16 by early June? For that matter, does anyone see a team north of the 49th parallel putting it all together anytime in the foreseeable future?
The fact of the matter is teams from Canada are further from winning the Stanley Cup than they have been in any time during the NHL’s salary cap era. (So, for the most part, are the small-market also-rans whom the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to help the most. Funny how the well-run teams still win no matter the economic landscape and the poorly-run ones continue to languish. But that’s a rant for another time.)
Let’s look at this year’s playoffs first. Of the six Canadian teams in the NHL, three of them have qualified for the playoffs this season. Two of them waged a spirited battle – talk about gilding the lily on that one – down to the wire to decide the winner of the worst division in hockey. The other fired its coach in a late-season act of desperation, barely qualified for the playoffs, was known more for its dysfunctional personality than anything it did on the ice, lost its last four games and seemed to crumple at the first sign of any real challenge or adversity.
Even if all three of them manage to somehow get beyond the first round – which certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility, given their opponents – moving more than halfway through the playoffs for any of them would be an extremely tall order indeed.
Of the three, the best positioned to do so would probably be the Vancouver Canucks, who will have home-ice advantage and should be able to quickly take care of the upstart St. Louis Blues, who have a definite “just-happy-to-be-here” feel about them.
The Calgary Flames, who otherwise look very, very beatable, might be able to take advantage of a Chicago Blackhawks team that is young and has a swagger. The kind of team that historically takes it on the chops in the first round before figuring out what it really takes to win in the playoffs.
The Montreal Canadiens face the Boston Bruins, whom they’ve historically owned in the playoffs. No matter what the point differential is during the season, players with the spoked wheel on their chests seem to get an unexplainable case of the yips when they face the Canadiens in the post-season. The ghosts of the old Forum have it in for the Bruins, with the Canadiens winning 24 of the 31 playoff series the two teams have played.
But does any one of those teams have the combination of talent, toughness and goaltending to endure the battle of attrition that is the NHL playoffs? Once you remove your rose-colored glasses, you can probably come to the inevitable conclusion.
And when you look at the situation with the Canadian teams even more closely, the only one that even looks as though it’s on an upward trajectory is the Canucks, who have assembled a group of young players with some grit and talent and appear to have the kind of defense corps that can do some very good things if it remains intact. The rest of the Canadian teams are either flat-lining, in decline, or too far away from contender status to be taken seriously at the moment.
That’s one of six teams, by my count anyway, that even has a chance of ending this thing in the near future. Don’t be surprised if this whole non-Canada thing goes longer than two decades before somebody figures it out.
The Flames have a veteran lineup that doesn’t quite have enough of what it takes to be a true Stanley Cup contender. Even worse, though, they’re in a load of salary cap trouble that got even worse when they took on Olli Jokinen’s ticket. If revenues decline as precipitously as expected, the Flames will be in some serious peril.
A year after finishing first in the Eastern Conference, it’s clear the Canadiens have not come as advertised. Their penchant for letting premier offensive defensemen get away has caught up to them and while they do seem to have a steady stream of serviceable prospects coming through the system, they’re not going anywhere unless Carey Price bounces back to establish himself as a premier NHL goalie.
The Toronto Maple Leafs look as though they’re on a good path to a rebuild, but to expect this team to contend anytime soon is folly. There is simply too much work to do before that can even come close to happening.
The Ottawa Senators, well, they’re hinging an awful lot of their future on a goaltender that has been injury prone (Pascal Leclaire) and have too much of their resources tied up in a group of three players who, collectively, have not exhibited a history of being able to rise to the occasion. Their defense corps needs a rebuild, too, and this looks like another long-term project rather than a quick fix.
The Edmonton Oilers are always supposed to be a dynamic, young team with all kinds of potential and they never are. There’s no reason for any of us to get fooled again by these guys anytime in the near future.
Which is precisely why the Stanley Cup will go south of the border again this season…and the season after that…and the season after that…
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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