Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 11/09/11 at 01:56 PM ET
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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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.