For the first time since the end of the lockout Canada does not have an NHL team who are considered a legitimate contender. The Canadian Stanley Cup drought that started in 1993 has been well documented: a narrative that the press surfaces at some point during mid-April on an annual basis. But before this year there had always been legitimate hopefuls.
The Ottawa Senators enjoyed the golden age of their short lived franchise to start the post lockout era, concluding in a Stanley Cup Final loss to the Ducks. The Vancouver Canucks have carried the torch the most and also came very close to ending the Canadian curse. The Montreal Canadiens, the last Canadian champion, had a couple of flashes of their historic reputation. Even Edmonton, now the consummate NHL failure, made a cup final, although they were never really considered a contender.
Now, in 2013-14, the only three Canadian teams who even grace the fringes of the contention discussion have two faces. All three have had periods where they were the league’s hottest team, compelling discussion as to whether they should really be taken seriously. Then, as if on some sort of queue, they succumb to mediocrity and fully demonstrate the faults that negate the consideration of elite status. For the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks the result of their season may rely on whether they are ascending or descending the metaphorical rollercoaster that has been their respective seasons.
On the eastern coast of Canada, who are still shocked by the relative disappearance of the Ottawa Senators, the other two teams seem to be engaged in a high-stakes game of tug-of-war. Any success by one team seems to, without failure, results in mediocrity from the other. For example, prior to an embarrassing loss to the Dallas Stars, the Toronto Maple Leafs were enjoying a season-best six game win streak. Montreal, whom they beat during that run, have won only two games in their last six.
In fact, Toronto may be the most interesting of the three teams because of their ongoing battle with statistics. It doesn’t matter whether the team is succeeding or disappointing, the advanced stats always seem to indicate that they should be losing. When they are winning it is because they are opportunistic with their chances and their goaltenders play exceptionally. When they lose it is a result of being badly outshot and a questionable defense that even at the best of times looks shaky. Every losing streak seems to bring coach Randy Carlyle closer and closer to the door.
However, if the Leafs enter the playoffs while on one of their furious missions to disprove everything that Corsi stands for then they could go a long way. It is doubtable, even then, that this current roster would be able to hold on long enough to make a Cup Final. But the team has already demonstrated this year that it can score on limited opportunity, an asset that is crucial in the playoffs. Furthermore, both goaltenders have already shown that they can steal games, and have done so consistently this year.
After starting the season poorly, the Montreal Canadiens came very close to equalling their record from last year’s shortened season, in which they finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference. However, since that narrow miss the team has been in a downward spiral. A number of leaks have sprouted in the hull, and all of them are concerning. The key to last year’s success, goalscoring, has gone out the window this year. Other than Max Pacioretty, no player has been consistently dangerous offensively. Meanwhile, the defensive effort has been inadequate, as every game Carey Price seems to long more and more for the defensive corps that will be in front of him in Sochi. With the worrying display, coach Michel Therrien is losing supporters after every loss.
But at times this season the Canadiens have demonstrated, against some of the league’s very best teams, that they are still a very dangerous squad. Carey Price is arguably the best goaltender in the league, and has had the best stretch of his career to keep a very mediocre Canadiens team afloat. Moreover, when Montreal is healthy they have four lines that are capable of producing offense and speed. That is an asset that very few NHL teams can claim. If this is the side of the Habs that shows up come playoff time than Montreal may be a dark horse in a weak Eastern Conference.
Out west the Canucks are the last team standing while the Jets, Flames and Oilers sit in the last three spots in the conference respectively. Vancouver has long been the Canadian pillar of success, and seen as the clear favourite to break the Canadian Cup Drought. They came incredibly close in 2011, but have fallen a considerable way since attaining those heights. With a new identity under John Tortorella the team is still probably the Canadian favourite. But the team hasn’t glided through the regular season in a way that has almost become their signature of late.
Vancouver was sluggish out of the gate, appearing to have issues adjusting to a new system. All of the sudden that system seemed to gain traction, resulting in a Canucks team who for a period were the best in the NHL. However, lately the team has returned to the same concerning mediocrity that enveloped most of their early season play. The team has often struggled to adequately show up for games, and, as always, forward depth remains an issue with injury-prone Ryan Kesler in the fold.
It seems almost a cruel fate that the team is in the Western Conference, because they would be a powerhouse in the East. But it is geography that may be their biggest enemy when it comes to contention. The Canucks are a very good hockey team. But they are simply not better than the Ducks, Hawks, Blues, Sharks or Kings. Meanwhile, defeating the Wild, Coyotes, Avalanche and Stars is no easy feat either. A truly elite hockey club will represent the Western Conference this year in the Stanley Cup and the Vancouver Canucks are likely not at that level. But if fate shines there way and the club reenacts the scary-good episode of their season Vancouver is Canada’s best hope at reclaiming Lord Stanley’s mug.
Trade is a possibility, and a fanbase outcry, for all three of these clubs. If done correctly it could help one of these teams grasp the elite status they have been flirting with. In Toronto they continue to look for the two pieces that always seem to have alluded them: an elite centre and a solid top four defencemen. In Vancouver it is gritty scoring depth that can complement the efforts of the Sedins and Kesler. It would be preferable if that player was a centre. In Montreal it is anyone who can score but does not hurt the team longterm: a replica of last year’s Michael Ryder acquisition. If that acquisition has size, and a willingness to go to the net, then all the better.
But if none of these teams are willing to make significant movement at the deadline it may come down to which face they reveal at the start of the playoffs.
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