Dion Phaneuf's Maple Leafs and Scott Gomez's Canadiens sit 13th and 15th in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
All anyone heard from Canada’s NHL teams prior to the lockout was that cost certainty and a Canadian dollar at or near par with the American dollar was what they needed to be consistently competitive.
Well, they’ve been given both of those. Not only that, but Canadian teams have emerged as the real financial titans of the league, filling buildings, attracting teams from south of the border and loading their coffers with profits on the backs of fans for whom the game actually has real meaning.
And how have the teams responded? They’ve failed miserably on the ice, a fact that is no more evident than it has been this season when just two Canadian teams qualified for the post-season. In fact, given Canada had seven teams in the league in 2011-12, you could make the argument this is the worst showing ever for Canadian franchises. In 1973, the NHL had three Canadian teams and two missed the playoffs, but the one that did make it, the Montreal Canadiens, won the Stanley Cup. Prior to that, the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs both missed the playoffs in 1969-70 when they were the only two Canadian franchises in the 12-team league.
And since the lockout, when the supposed have-nots from Canada were put on an equal footing with their American counterparts, the franchises have been mediocre for the most part. Including the Winnipeg Jets this season, there have been a combined 43 seasons played by Canadian teams since the lockout and just 20, or 46.5 percent, of those teams have qualified for the playoffs. American teams have played a combined 167 seasons since the lockout, but have qualified 92 times for a much better showing of 55.1 percent.
And things don’t look to be getting much better. The Toronto Maple Leafs, under both John Ferguson and Brian Burke, have been putrid and now have the ignominious distinction of being the only one of the NHL’s 30 franchises to have not made the playoffs once since the lockout. It will probably take the Edmonton Oilers a few more years to capitalize on the bounty of young players they’re getting by being NHL doormats. And this is a franchise that has been so badly managed it can’t seem to get the post-deadline call-up rules straight. Not only have the Montreal Canadiens taken a huge step backward, but under the stewardship of new owner Geoff Molson, they’ve seen their image tarnished. And nobody who works for the Calgary Flames seems to be able to grasp what everyone else has been able to determine – that having lots of bad contracts and old players with few prospects is not the best way to run an NHL franchise. Blow it up, already.
The Jets look to be on their way to becoming a playoff team, the Ottawa Senators have turned things around nicely and the Vancouver Canucks are entrenched as a long-term legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But how could so many markets in an area of the world where the game matters so much have failed so badly?
It starts at the top, of course. Nowhere in the NHL have more people been paid so well for so few results than in Toronto, where the $3 million-a-year Burke and his massive band of highly paid lieutenants have delivered absolutely nothing more than bold proclamations. The Oilers have struggled on the management side since the last years of Glen Sather’s regime and the Flames have learned the hard way that the Sutter brothers might have been great hockey players, but their ability to manage and coach NHL teams is spotty at best.
Any way you look at it, this is unacceptable. Canadian fans are the most loyal and patient in the game and they’ve been rewarded for those traits with incompetence. When the Senators posted a franchise record of 113 points in 2002-03, the Canadian dollar was trading as low as 65 cents. When the Flames made their run to the Stanley Cup final the next season, they did so on a 73-cent dollar. When the Maple Leafs turned their franchise around and went to the Eastern Conference final in 1998-99, the loonie was trading at 68 cents.
And those accomplishments were all achieved in an era when the top teams in the league had the ability to spend as much as they wanted and cover up their mistakes with money. None of that applies now, which would lead you to believe cost certainty and the dollar have almost nothing to do with whether a team can be competitive.
As usual, it stems from making good decisions and running your franchises well. And for more than half a decade, the Canadian teams as a group have done a dismal job on that front.
I can’t imagine how much saliva was excreted at the NHL’s head office when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, probable first-round opponents, got involved in a line brawl in the final minutes of their game Sunday afternoon, complete with coach Peter Laviolette breaking a stick and getting into a heated between-the-benches argument with Penguins assistant Tony Granato.
Did anyone notice the entire melee was sparked by a perfectly clean, textbook hit on Daniel Briere by Joe Vitale? No head shot, no run from the other side of the ice, no targeting a vulnerable player. But still it started a brawl because, you know, you can’t allow players to hit your stars without answering back with some stupid sense of bravado.
I find it hilarious how everyone thinks reducing violence and fighting in hockey will make it less physical. But when a player faces the prospect of being jumped by two or three opponents after making a clean hit, doesn’t that reduce the potential for hitting?
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.