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There are similarities between Canada in 1970 and Canada in 2016.
The Trudeau bloodline in back in the Prime Minister's office. Tim Hortons still serves fresh coffee. And, perhaps most importantly, there are no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sure, there are differences, like the fact there were only 12 NHL teams and two divisions 46 years ago. But just like in 1970, Canada's inability to put a single team in the postseason hs become one of the biggest stories of the year. Especially when five of the 16 teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season were Canadian.
“Last year we enjoyed a modicum of success as did some other Canadian teams,” Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “Obviously a (defending) Stanley Cup champion didn’t make the playoffs last year, so I think it just underscores the fact that each and every year is a different.”
While all share a nation and the same burden to succeed all situations were different and some are considered preventable from happening again.
- The Calgary Flames had fewer comebacks this season.
- The Winnipeg Jets couldn’t recover from a November swoon and saw a drop-off in their play with mostly the same roster as a team that was a sleeper upset pick in last year’s postseason.
- The Vancouver Canucks doubled down on the aging Sedin Twins and Ryan Miller. Also their younger players never took the step they hoped for this year.
- The Ottawa Senators couldn’t catch fire near the end of the season like they did a year ago.
- The Montreal Canadiens couldn’t overcome the loss of goaltender Carey Price.
- Both the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs continued on the rebuilding track.
“When you have all seven teams that don’t make it, I get it. There’s a story,” Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving said. “Generally speaking, is there some commonality between the group? Maybe certainly to a degree but I think there are individual issues and characteristics for each of the teams and this was one of those anomalies where all went through trials and tribulations and we all ended in the same place.”
The dropping Canadian dollar is often referenced as a reason for financial concern for the NHL. But Canadian general managers didn’t see at as the reason for this year’s drop-off with their clubs.
As of early April last year, the Canadian dollar was trading at around 80 cents per one US dollar. By January it had dropped to about 68 cents, and has since rebounded to near 77 cents.
The NHL has said their collective bargaining agreement with the players accounts for drops in the Canadian dollar and has no bearing on the league’s competitive balance.
“It has nothing to do with the Canadian dollar because we’re all under a cap system,” Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said.
Said Treliving, “I don’t look at that as the fluctuation of the dollar as a reason for a team to have or not have success. That’s a sidebar issue.”
Still, the dropping dollar does cause some long-term business worry. For example, Forbes’ valuations for six of the seven Canadian teams dipped because of the dollar drop.
“I don’t think you can make too much of it about what effect it’ll have long term, that I couldn’t answer,” Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “I think short term a little less, but long term I think it will have an effect.”
Even with the drop, the business side for Canadian NHL teams is more robust than the past. The Canadian Currency Assistance Plan ended after the 2004-05 lockout. Five Canadian teams were still in the top-15 of Forbes’ most recent NHL team values, despite the Loonie’s issues.
As far as team gate, only the Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames have averaged under 100 percent home capacity. The Senators are currently the lowest at 94.3 percent capacity.
“I think where the dollar tremendously impacts is the league as a whole, not necessarily just the Canadian teams because it has a big factor on the growth of the league based on all the revenue that’s generated in Canada,” Cheveldayoff said. “Once it’s converted to American dollars, the conversion factor is a big play. But to link it back to why the seven teams are not in the playoffs as we speak. I don’t think that’s a factor at all.”
The location of playing in hockey Canada may have the biggest impact in team’s ability to attract certain types of talented players in trades or free agency.
In February, hockey broadcaster Ron MacLean wrote a piece for Hometown Hockey exploring why Canada had trouble attracting players.
“Weather (for the family left at home while the player goes to work) and taxes are two pretty obvious reasons,” he wrote, later adding “The biggest reason players do not wish to play in Canada is that, as Jean Beliveau once said, ‘The hardest part of being a professional hockey player is to not think about the game.’ Players in Montreal hear morning, noon and night that without Carey Price there is no hope. They hear it’s P.K. Subban’s fault, or Max Pacioretty’s. And even if they ignore the chatter, they see the pressure of their job in the faces of everyone looking back at them.
Treliving admits the fishbowl-type lifestyle is an issue.
“If you’re going through a difficult time and playing in Canada, people know about it,” he said. “You’re going to get questions about it. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. There’s different pressure points as far as market you play in. The profile teams have in Canada is a big profile.”
But he also notes this creates opportunity as well.
“The game matters a great deal here,” Treliving added. “There’s a buzz and a juice that goes into playing in a market like this.”
And different markets have their different types of problems. San Jose and Los Angeles have nice weather year-round, but the cost of living is near the top of the NHL.
Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit have a similar type of ‘nonstop hockey’ mindset as the Canadian markets.
Arizona and Florida may be on the lower end of the tax bracket, but both have shown major dips in attendance without a competitive team as well as ownership instability.
“The biggest deterrent is the media scrutiny, but it’s not a huge deal to most guys,” said an NHL player who requested anonymity. “Toronto and Montreal would be the biggest in that regard. But I enjoyed playing up there. It’s fun to play where hockey is important.”
Added another player, “It depends on each individual guy. Young guys seem to love it. They feel like somewhat of a celebrity because everybody knows you. Older guys maybe not as much due to wanting to just be with their families when they’re out and not having to deal with as much or whatever. Middle age guys coming into UFA are generally the most stressed. Media can play a huge part in their future so it's hard not to pay attention to what's being said. The fishbowl isn't the whole picture by any means when looking at a Canadian city but it would be wrong to say you don't have to come to terms with it before choosing that Canadian city because your signing up to be constantly scrutinized.”
Still, problems with Canadian teams tend to get lumped together, but this isn’t realistic. All fanbases are different as are all the cities and what they offer.
Vancouver has warmer weather than a lot of US hockey markets. Calgary is nestled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and has several outdoor distractions players can lean on during the grind of a hockey seasons.
Montreal is the only NHL team in the province of Quebec and is considered one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities in North America. Toronto is the world’s hockey hub. Ottawa is Canada’s capital.
“Have I ever had an issue with a guy saying ‘I can’t golf in January?’ no I haven’t,” Treliving said. “But when we start talking lifestyle we feel confident about all the things we can sell here as not only a place to play but a place to live and raise a family and all those types of things.”
Both Edmonton and Winnipeg seem to have the most trouble attracting players, and were recently listed as the least desirable Canadian city to visit amongst NHL players. An NHL agent told Puck Daddy that his clients show less interest in playing in those two cities than the other Canadian markets.
But the aura around those franchises could change soon. The Jets re-signed defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to a long-term deal and have one of the better prospect pools in the NHL.
The Oilers are closing down Rexall Place and moving into a new downtown building. Though they haven’t made the playoffs since 2005-06, they have arguably the NHL’s top building block in Connor McDavid.
“You look for small victories along the way,” Cheveldayoff said. “When you are in a ‘draft and develop mode’ you have to have solid veteran players. With guys like (Blake) Wheeler and Byfuglien, we think they have many good years ahead of them to match the growth of the young guys we have within our system and some young guys coming into the system moving forwards.”
There’s a belief that this down year for Canadian teams could lead to future success since all will pick out of the lottery in the upcoming NHL Draft. While this should help the teams, it won’t create any level of certainty.
“I don’t automatically say, ‘OK, all seven teams are in the position they’re in, and what that means is three years from now we’re going to be elite teams,’” Treliving said. “You still have to make great decisions and improving your team in any way you can.”
If this year truly was a fluke, a healthy Carey Price should guide the Canadiens back to the postseason next year. When the Flames sort out their goaltending they should improve.
The Jets still have a lot of the same players that helped them make the playoffs a year ago. If Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli moves the right pieces from Edmonton’s group of forwards, his team could become more balanced.
If a Canadian team wins the draft lottery, Auston Matthews would provide an immediate boost.
But that’s on the optimistic side. The Oilers still haven’t made the playoffs in over a decade. The Canucks suffered through a tough year where they couldn’t unload veterans and have an aging roster. As important as Price is, one injury shouldn’t have created such a precipitous drop from Montreal.
There is a chance all the teams won’t make the postseason again. It’s happened before and there’s always a risk it could happen again. All the teams understand this and believe they have learned from the mistakes that got them to this point.
“Your hope is that because you go through a difficult time you grow from it,” Treliving said. “But that doesn’t automatically guarantee you anything in this league.”
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