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Puckin' Around With Spector

Management The Root of Canadian Clubs’ Woes.

When the salary cap was implemented under the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, it was assumed it would be a boon for Canadian NHL franchises to become not only more competitive, but improve their chances to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Over the course of this CBA, however, only two Canadian teams – the 2006-07 Ottawa Senators, and the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks – fell into that category.

Yes, the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, but they were an underdog team, finishing eighth overall in the Western Conference, and14th overall in the league-wide standings. The ‘07 Senators and ‘11 Canucks, by contrast, were among the league’s dominant franchises in those respective seasons.

Apart from ‘05-‘06, when four of the then-six Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs, only three Canadian teams qualified between 2006-07 to 2009-10, and since 2009-10, only two.

Of those who have made the cut over that period, most weren’t among the league’s elite. Only the Senators of ‘05-‘06 and ‘06-07, and the Vancouver Canucks since 2008-09 were consistently among the league’s best regular season clubs. The remainder were marginal playoff contenders.

Various excuses have been given for this problem. The most popular is the respective managements of these teams are under considerable pressure - from ownership as well as their fan base -, to be successful, thus forcing them into making decisions which fail to pan out on the ice, and prove costly to their cap space.

Another theory suggests the respective fan bases are so impatiently demanding success, the teams cannot risk rebuilding as other NHL franchises, lest their fans abandon them.

But as Damien Cox of The Toronto Star recently observed, despite many of the Canadian-based clubs either consistently missing the post-season (Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary) or barely qualifying (Montreal, Ottawa), they’re all doing well at the gate, regularly ranking among the top teams in revenue each season.

Some blame the inability of Canadian franchises to attract top free agent talent, claiming those players avoid such hockey hotbeds, where they’ll not only face constant pressure to perform well, but also face a fishbowl existence away from the rink.

Some notable free agents, like Brad Richards and Daniel Briere, did balk at signing with Canadian teams, though they went on to sign with teams in demanding American hockey markets (New York, Philadelphia).

Other notable free agents, however, had no problem signing up with Canadian clubs.

Mike Cammalleri, among the top free agents forwards in the summer of 2009, agreed to sign with the Canadiens after a brief courtship with the Maple Leafs.

Defensemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, considered among the best free agent blueliners that summer, signed with the Maple Leafs.

Blueliner Jay Bouwmeester, meanwhile, was not only dealt by the Florida Panthers that June to the Calgary Flames, but happily re-signed an expensive, multi-year deal with the Flames, rather than test free agency..

In the summer of 2010, Sergei Gonchar – considered among the best available free agent defensemen – signed a two-year deal with the Senators.

Last summer, the Canadiens landed one of the better free agent forwards, inking forward Erik Cole to a multi-year deal.

So why are most Canadian teams struggling to make the playoffs?

As Ken Campbell of The Hockey News recently observed, lousy management is the real reason why most Canadian teams failed to thrive in recent years.

With the exception of the Canucks and Senators, who either hired general managers who knew how to work within the salary cap system (Mike Gillis), or learned from their mistakes and rebuilt with youth (Bryan Murray), the management of most Canadian NHL teams have fared poorly.

Too often, the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Oilers and Flames tied up too much cap space by investing in players -  either from within their ranks, via free agency, offer sheets or trades - who failed to play up to expectations.

The results speak for themselves. Though the Canadiens made the playoffs five of the past seven years, they’ve only advanced beyond the second round once, and apart from 2008, usually were among the last teams in the East to qualify.

Since marching to the Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, and while they’ve drafted some fine young talent in recent years, have yet to turn that into a playoff contender.

The Flames made the playoffs in their first four seasons, but were bounced in the first round in each of them, and have now missed the post-season three straight years.

Toronto fans and pundits, meanwhile, are well aware the Maple Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, and their disappointment and frustration is giving away to impatient anger.

The Winnipeg Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, have only had one season under their current management team since their relocation last year, so it’s too soon to tell if they’ll suffer the same fate in the coming years as most of the aforementioned.

Their front office insists they’ll stick with their current blueprint of building primarily from within. While the club is still enjoying its honeymoon with Winnipeg fans, time will tell if the Jets can successfully avoid the pitfalls which befell their peers, or for that matter, the management during most of their years in Atlanta.

Until these Canadian teams hire the kind of management capable of working well within the constraints of a salary cap system, the mediocrity could continue.

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Comments

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The teams you are flagging as being poorly managed are those that didn’t sign players to 10, 12 and 15 year contracts. It remains to be seen how the teams that did sign these contracts are faring in 5-6 years with their 38 and 39 year old fading superstars eating 6 million in cap space. Time will tell…

(if, in the end, these players end up retiring to be removed from the team’s salary cap, it will only prove that the most cynical teams who found loopholes around the cap rules were the successful ones. Maybe that is the real lesson to be learned.)

Posted by toine from montreal on 04/04/12 at 11:04 PM ET

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These things tend to run in cycles.  More a coincidence that many Canadian teams are down right now.  Should a lot of their young talent blossom things will be very different.

Posted by 13 user names on 04/05/12 at 12:11 AM 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.