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Puckin' Around With Spector

Could This Decade Become Dominated by Canadian Teams?

For nearly twenty years, Canadian-based NHL teams have for the most part ranked amongst the lesser lights of the league.

The Montreal Canadiens in 1993, Vancouver Canucks in 1994, Calgary Flames in 2004 and Edmonton Oilers in 2006 were underdogs which marched to the Cup Final, of which the Canadiens were the only team to win the Stanley Cup, and since 1993, the last to do so

From 1998 to 2004, only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators ranked among the league’s better clubs. The Leafs made two Conference final appearances, while the Senators regularly placed among the top teams in the Eastern Conference standings, winning the President’s Trophy as the top regular season team in 2002-03. The Senators carried over their strong play post-lockout for two more seasons, culminating in their 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

But until 2010-11, when the Canucks won the President’s Trophy as the top regular season team and advanced to Game Seven of the 2011 Cup Final, the last Canadian franchise to be so dominant was the 1988-89 Flames, which won both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

From 1992-93 to 2009-10, Canadian teams were either good, but not great (Toronto, Ottawa), one-year underdogs (Calgary and Edmonton), or mediocre (every team at various periods).

Part of the reason was for much of that period, the Canadian dollar was worth considerably less than the American dollar, making it very difficult for most clubs to retain their best stars or bid competitively for the top UFA players.

The other reason was mismanagement, for varying degrees and years, of which each team was guilty.

But one month into the second full season of this decade, there are indications Canadian franchises could become more dominant in the coming years.

The logical place to begin is with the Canucks, currently struggling through the “Cup Final hangover” which tends to plague all Cup Finalists in recent years.

The Canucks best players – goalie Roberto Luongo, defenseman Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler, and forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows – are between the ages of 27 and 32, firmly in their playing prime.

While it remains to be seen if the Canucks will be able to rebound and return to the Cup Final this season, they still have a window of several years to remain amongst the league’s best teams.

GM Mike Gillis has done a tremendous job building the Canucks into Cup contenders, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume he could keep this club among the upper echelon of NHL teams for some time.

Turning to the Alberta franchises, we currently see two teams heading in opposite directions.

The Oilers, after spending the past five years amongst the worst teams in the league, appear this season to be reaping the benefits of garnering high draft picks.

Young forwards Jordan Eberle (21), Taylor Hall (19) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (18) have quickly become the foundation upon which the Oilers hope to build themselves into not just a playoff contender, but an eventual Cup contender.

The Flames, by contrast, have one of the league’s oldest rosters, showing its age this season and sparking rumors management could soon embark upon a rebuilding program.

Flames stars like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff are in their mid-thirties, and heading into the twilight of their careers. At some point, the Flames will rebuild with youth, a process which in all likelihood won’t include “Iggy” and “Kipper”.

In Winnipeg, the former Atlanta Thrashers-turned-Jets have a good nucleus of talent in defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian, as well as forwards Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Alex Burmistrov.

One problem, however, is a lack of a superstar franchise player for this club to rally round. They’re also missing a true number one goaltender and skilled depth elsewhere in the lineup. The Jets have also gone through numerous coaching and management changes over the past three years, making it difficult for the players to adapt.

If these problems can be sufficiently addressed over the next couple of years, the Jets have the potential to become a very good hockey team.

Moving to Ontario, the rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Senators is but a shadow of what it was a decade ago.

The Leafs last made the playoffs in 2004, while the Senators suffered a swift decline following the 2007 Cup Final, missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons. Both clubs have been rebuilding, the Leafs for much longer than the Senators.

It’s still too early to tell how long or effective the Senators rebuild will be. Still, there’s a feeling of optimism amongst Senators fans, who point to the promise of the future in players like goalie Robin Lehner, defensemen Erik Karlsson, David Rundblad and Jared Cowan, and forwards Stephane da Costa and Mika Zibanejad.

Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has aggressively pursued talent to bolster his team both now and for the future, with mixed results.

Leafs fans still ache over management giving up two first round picks (one of whom became Tyler Seguin) to Boston in 2009 for Phil Kessel, yet he’s turned into the Leafs most reliable scorer. If the Leafs can ever find him a quality playmaking center, the 24-year-old Kessel could have 40-50 goal potential.

For every promising young player, like goalie James Reimer and defensemen Jake Gardiner and Joe Colbourne, the Leafs have others (Nazim Kadri and Tyler Bozak) who’ve yet to fulfill their promise.

For every player acquired via trade and free agency which bolstered the Leafs (Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, John-Michael Liles, Matt Lombardi), there are others (Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, Tim Connolly) who’ve been disappointments.

Over the past three years, the Leafs have made progress, but their long-suffering fans have grown so jaded awaiting their breakthrough season, they approached the club’s surprising strong start to this season with caution.

Finally, there’s the Montreal Canadiens, who appeared in 2008 to have finally been rewarded for years of rebuilding with youth with a first overall finish in the Eastern Conference, only to see everything blow horribly apart the following season.

Since then, the Canadiens have brought in skilled veterans (Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Erik Cole), but also added young talent to their lineup via the draft and trades.

The Habs have several established players (Cammalleri, Gionta,Tomas Plekanec,and Josh Gorges) currently between 27 and 32, but it’s their younger players - goaltender Carey Price (24), defenseman P.K. Subban (22) and forwards Max Pacioretty (22) and Lars Eller (22) - which will form the nucleus of their core in a few years.

Still, any significant improvement of this team from marginal playoff contender to legit Cup contender is several years away, provided their young players develop as anticipated into quality talent.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the hopeful assessments for these clubs will pan out. Many factors could derail most of the grand plans of these clubs.

While they’ve now got a Canadian dollar at par with the American dollar, that doesn’t mean that money will be well invested by management.

Prospects can fail to pan out. Promising young talent can flame out. A general manager can put too much faith in ageing talent at the expense of youth. Expensive free agent signings can turn into busts.

Still, the possibility exists most of these teams could see their best laid plans come to fruition, turning into legitimate Cup contenders over the course of this decade.

The result could be a golden era for Canadian NHL teams, unlike any seen before in league history, in which most of those franchises could rank among the league’s top teams.

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Comments

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No.

Posted by GoUSA on 11/09/11 at 01:24 PM ET

awould's avatar

This is an argument to support an opinion, rather than an opinion concluded through argument.  The major thing lacking is any analysis at all of the USA based teams. All this says is, “hey, some of these Canadian teams seem to be headed in the right direction”. I’m sure the author could write up a similar article about the top 6 American teams too.

So Toronto is looking good huh? You really think they’ll be better than Pittsburgh or San Jose or LA in five years? What about Colorado - talk about a young team with tons of talent. It’s easy to declare one side the victor if you completely ignore the other side.

Posted by awould on 11/09/11 at 04:06 PM ET

Avatar

Seems to me a some very ignored american fans on here.He stated an opinon based that he is form Canada.

Posted by Grishnackh from Mordor on 11/09/11 at 05:31 PM ET

awould's avatar

Seems to me a some very ignored american fans on here.He stated an opinon based that he is form Canada.

Right. That’s obvious. And I stated that it made no sense to go pie-in-the-sky about Canada’s future without considering the competition against the American based teams.

I can make a case that Columbus is on track to win a Cup in the next four years if I’m allowed to ignore the fact that they have to play other, better teams. It has nothing to do with feeling left out as an American or whatever you’re implying. Just saying his argument is dumb because it has a giant hole in it.

Posted by awould on 11/09/11 at 05:55 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

There was no slight intended toward American teams in this piece, nor was I deliberately ignoring them. 

I was instead pointing out the fact that, over the past two decades, Canadian teams haven’t been dominant, stated the reasons and suggested the possibility, given their respective statuses, most could be on track toward changing that.

The fact American teams have been dominant during the same period goes without saying, or at least, I thought there was no need to go into great detail on that fact.

This wasn’t a “pie in the sky” theory. I acknowledged the problems some of these clubs have encountered, as well as the factors which could derail the attempts of these teams to build toward dominance.

This had nothing to do with my nationality, nor was there any disrespect intended toward American clubs, though it puzzles me how anyone can make the leap toward that assumption. Didn’t feel I needed to added the clarification of the blatantly obvious, as it seemed unnecesary.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 11/09/11 at 06:23 PM ET

awould's avatar

This had nothing to do with my nationality, nor was there any disrespect intended toward American clubs

I never said there was.

it puzzles me how anyone can make the leap toward that assumption.

me too.

Your point then is that things are looking up for Canadian clubs. You make a good case that that is true and you’re right, teams have improved. But your theory is that this will translate into a period of dominance by these clubs, is lacking when you fail to consider the competition, which in this case is the rest of the league (American teams). You could make a case that the teams on the west coast (LA, SJ, Anaheim, Vancouver) are primed to dominate. And it would be a compelling case because all four teams are good. But it doesn’t matter if they’re doing all the right things when there are 8 other teams east of them that are doing things as good if not better. That’s why I said ‘pie-in-the-sky’, because you ignore the major factor of the rest of the league and focus solely on why they’re great.

I think you do a good analysis of the teams, by the way, and found it interesting. I just don’t think it’s fair to draw a conclusion about anything when you only assess one group, whether that be Canadian teams or teams on the West Coast or teams with more than 2 Finnish players.

Posted by awould on 11/09/11 at 06:39 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

I didn’t say it “will” translate into a period of dominance for Canadian teams, but “could” result in a possible golden age for those teams. I didn’t “ignore” the rest of the league, or focus solely on why Canadian teams are “great”. If anything, I pointed out the reason why they haven’t been for two decades, and merely assessed the possibility of how many of those Canadian based franchises could be on track toward becoming dominant teams over the course of this decade.

Could they fail? Of course it could! I duly noted those factors in the piece, and of course, it goes without saying they would be facing a number of strong American-based teams. It could also go the other way, too. Considering most of these teams are, or will be, rebuilding, the possibility exists many of them could, over the course of this decade, join the ranks of the dominant franchises.

For me, it’s interesting that Canadian-based teams, which account for over 35 percent of league revenue, and which are the most strongly-supported of all NHL teams (if fan cost index and attendance is anything to go by), have not been among the dominant teams of the league over the past twenty years. In a country where hockey is king, that’s an interesting - and troubling - fact. That was the genesis for this piece.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 11/09/11 at 06:52 PM ET

Red Winger's avatar

Without question, the worst thing about the NHL now: how some Canadians have a laser-like focus to make NHL hockey a Canada v America thing.

Grow the f*** up.

Posted by Red Winger from Sault Ste Marie on 11/09/11 at 06:58 PM ET

awould's avatar

Fair enough. What would be interesting to me is if you took some time to compare some of these promising Canadian teams with current dominant teams to find parallels. Are there a couple of dominant teams now that went through a similar transformation? This isn’t me criticising you for not doing that, it’s me asking you to do it.

Pittsburgh, for instance, got real good through more than a couple of high draft picks. Edmonton, as you note, is working that same angle. Detroit got good mostly through development but also some savvy FA pick-ups (Dan Cleary, for instance). San Jose is a mix of draft, development, trades and FA, maybe the most balanced approach. Chicago got good mostly through draft but then got a couple FA and now have a great core but no depth, will they be able to compete w/ that dynamic in the long run?

I didn’t mean to bash your article that much. Just the last line seemed a little over the top optimistic, “The result could be a golden era for Canadian NHL teams, unlike any seen before in league history, in which most of those franchises could rank among the league’s top teams.”  That’s when I thought… what about the other 23 teams? For my part, I think possibly 3 Canadian teams will consistently make the playoffs over the next decade, with a 4th popping up as an 8th seed sometimes. And Calgary won’t be one of them, they’re in a deep hole.

Posted by awould on 11/09/11 at 07:08 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

awould: That might not be a bad suggestion for a future post, if not here, then perhaps on my site.  Also, I didn’t mind the discussion. I hope I’ve clarified my point. Appreciated the feedback.

Red Winger: Who’s turning the NHL into a “Canada vs America” thing?

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 11/09/11 at 07:20 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

Spector,

What, if any, effect do you think the much bigger focus on hockey by the Canadian media will have on the teams’ ability to dominate?  There are some who believe that the intense media/fan scrutiny of everything done in Toronto has actually prevented them from being competitive early.

Do you put any stock in this theory?

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 11/09/11 at 07:26 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

J.J.: There was a time I subscribed to that theory, but the Leafs futility since 2006 suggests otherwise. Sure, between 2005-06 and 2007-08, under the management of JFJ and Fletcher, management appeared to be reactive, rather than proactive, to their roster issues, which media pressure may have played a small role. Under the Burke years, however, the media has no impact whatsoever on how the Leafs are run.

Ditto in Edmonton, where five years of mediocrity has led to critical press, which during Kevin Lowe’s final years as GM may have been a factor to a small degrees, but didn’t force current GM Steve Tambellini into deviating from his plan to rebuild via the draft.

The same goes for Ottawa, where the Senators finally decided to blow up their roster and begin again. It’s clearly ownership and management aren’t putting any stock into anything the local media has to say about them.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 11/09/11 at 08:27 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.