Riding the Highs and Lows of the Canadian NHL Teams

Jason HackettAnalyst INovember 29, 2007

Once again there are three Canadian teams in playoff positions and three Canadian teams in dire need of help.

Why is their such parity for half of the Canadian teams? This is after all Canada's game, isn't it?

We can write off the Oilers, as they are in rebuilding mode, and are years away from returning to being the steady playoff bound team they once were. Thus, wasting time talking about them is useless. No offense, but when you rebuild, you are not expected to get much bang for your buck right away. It's a long term investment, not a scratch a nd win lottery ticket!

So lets move on to the Buds. The Maple Leafs have been the butt end of many jokes over the years—everything from the "Bud" ugly (that is my own creation!) to the model of a team that you do not want to replicate.

Lets face it: Toronto is a hockey town, there is no denying that, and with that comes a need to produce every year. There is no bones about it that when the team or a player isn't up to par, the fans, media, and anyone with a voice will let them know it.

The Leafs have always been known to dump draft picks for veterans at the trade deadline—that is where we start having problems. While other teams look at the draft as a cheap way to rebuild franchises, the Leafs have almost nothing to show for it.

Since 1990, the Maple Leafs have basically bombed out of the gate until 2000. Let's start with the first two picks they selected in the 1990 draft, Berehowski and Potvin.

Can't complain about Potvin—but instead of Berehowski, they could have selected Martin Brodeur. You know Martin Brodeur? 500 wins and counting? That would solve their so-called goaltending problem, wouldn't it?

The drafting problem is more then skin though, as only two draftees of the Maple Leafs have more then 300 career points (Modin and Kaberle). The recent years have seen Pogge, Wellwood, Steen, and Stajan giving the Leafs a little more glimmer of hope, but again it's highly doubtful that any of these guys will be franchise players.

The top two picks of the last five years have been Boyes and Pogge—Boyes of course was traded, and Pogge will probably not see the light of day in a Leafs jersey unless there is an injury or a trade involved.

Of course, you can't just look at the Draft as the only problem, as you also have to look at the Leafs neglecting their weakness. The Leafs have been known for having bad defense for years on end, with last season being no different. So the Leafs go out and sign forward Jason Blake and trade for Vessa Toskala, a goalie. Neither of which have solved their defensive woes on the blueline, as they are not defensemen.

Year after year, the Maple leafs have one of the worst ranked defensive cores in the league, and yet they do nothing about it. They are tied for 4th in goals, for are dead last in goals against. They are seemingly missing the point when it comes to improving their team. They have a terrible PP despite the "Quarterbacks" they have on the blueline, and are one of the worst disciplined teams in the league.

How does it get any worse? Simple: they are allowing more shots on net than 28 other teams in the league, and have more losses than anyone else in OT/Shootouts. Defensive teams win cups—just look at New Jersey, Colorado, Detroit, and Anaheim in the past decade.  All those teams had great offenses, but they won primarily because they were able to shut down their opposition.

My personal favourite for the Leafs' current blundering is their idiotic way of re-signing players. The Maple Leafs have a tendency to re-sign players after having one good season. A good example would be Darcy Tucker, who was never known as a goal scorer and never will be, ever! He had a decent season with 28 goals and 61 points in 74 games, gets re-signed for three mil a year, and has another alright season last year despite missing 24 games. This year he is on pace for 29 points—that's some great spending there.

Bryan McCabe had a good year—64 points, great for a defensemen, thus he gets re-signed for 7.125 a year and is currently on pace for 44 points, a -48 and 144 PIMs.

Jason Blake breaks out for a 40 goal campaign, signs with the Leafs as an UFA for an average of four mil per season, and currently has two goals through 25 games. I know that he was diagnosed with cancer, but he only has to take a pill to defeat it.

On to the Flames—the lowly lowly Flames. The best of the lower three Canadian teams, but basically by default. They are not as bad as the Oilers or the Leafs, but can't compete with the 'Nucks, Habs or Sens for the top three spots.

The Flames are just two games below .500, but miles away from the team that went to the Cup final in 2002. So what is going wrong with the Calgary Flames this season?

Well lets go back to 2002: the Flames are up 3-2 in the Stanley Cup final, have a heart breaking goal that wasn't counted (even though no one noticed until much later) and lost game six in OT. Then they lost their stride and tanked game seven despite the close score on paper.

Most teams would be able to take the summer off and come back to battle for the Cup again, but something stopped them and every other team from playing that year. That's right, the lockout!

This is where all of the Flames' momentum died off, as when the NHL came back a year later they were nowhere as good as before. Having come within a goal to bringing the Cup back to Cowtown for the first time in 13 years, the Flames had a lot of pressure on them. Not only because they almost won, but because it had been over a year since anyone watched an NHL game. Their coach lost the team in the locker-room late in the season, and the Flames were knocked out early in the playoffs.

The next season the Flames had a new head coach, Jim Playfair, a long time coach in the Flames system. So a new season, a new coach, a new Flames team and a new system.

The Flames were dominant at home, with the best home record by far, but a far cry on the road as they won just 10 games away from the Saddledome. Many fingers were pointed as the Flames once again lost confidence in their head coach and went down in the first round. Jim Playfair was demoted to assistant as Mike Keenan was brought in, despite rumours that Darryl Sutter's brother Brent Sutter, WHL coach extraodinare, would take the reigns.

So for the third year, a third coach and a third system. Would this system work? Nope.

The Flames went from a mild offensive/heavily forechecking/defensive minded team, to an offensive/mildly forechecking/terrible defensive team. Low and behold, their dominant home record was just .500 and their road record, although improved, was sub .500 again. So Playfair was ridiculed and demoted...in comes a has-been coach and the Flames are even worse. I know that there are still 55+ games left in the year, but if they don't turn it around now, they're in deep trouble.

There are other factors that took the Flames from a once defensive powerhouse to a sub .500 team. One reason is the lose of Hamrlik to Montreal. Hamrlik and Phaneuf had great chemistry, and were easily one of the top blueline pairings in the league—a force to be reckoned with on the powerplay and dominate on the penalty kill.

Talks stalled in the offseason and Hammer was gone. In came Aucoin, after many terrible injury filled seasons in Chicago. The Flames expected Aucointo play well with Phaneuf, but that just hasn't been the case.

Still no number one center for Iginla and Tanguay. Everyone expected that Conroy's return to the Flames would ignite the old ways of himself and Iginla from back in the 2002 Cup run. However that has barely sparked anything between the two of them as when Conroy left for LA, so did that chemistry—and it looks like it got lost in transit. Langkow is a great number two centremen for any NHL team, but isn't skilled enough to be that franchise centremen that Iginla needs.

Iron Mike is all rusted up and needs to wake his head. Mike Keenan was expected to come into Calgary and light the fire under the Flames. However, Keenan isn't the Iron Mike of old and even he admitted to that. So what remains is an aging geezer, yelling and shaking his fist with the old gusto long gone. He was once a great coach, and has one of the highest win totals for any coach, but the key word there is "was"!

Miikka should be called Kipper the Ghost (you know like Casper the ghost? Well I tried). Kipper is a mere shadow of his former shelf, and even that is dancing around the bush. There was once a time where the Flames' blueline would break down and Kipper would bail them out. This year however, there is no such thing: the more breakdowns on the blueline, the more goals against. Kipper needs to regain his old form, or this team isn't going anywhere.

So what are the other Canadian teams doing so well? Simply put: goaltending, goaltending, and goaltending.

The Canucks are an example of what a great goalie can do for a team. Vancouver is not going to strike fear into opponents with their offense. Lets face it, Naslund is not the 50 goal scorer he once was, and other then the twins, the Canucks' offense is lackluster.

However, they have a stay at home, shut-down style of defense with Luongo standing tall. This year is a great example, as their goals against average is in the top eight in the league. With this comes more chances the other way for the Canucks to pot some goals.

With the twins seemingly re-sparking Naslund, the Canucks are getting goals from all lines. They just need to work on their penalty kill and discipline. The Canucks see themselves as tops in the Northwest division, and do not appear to be looking back any time soon.

The Canadiens are a team that specializes in goaltending. With Halak, Huet, and the upcoming star Corey Price, the Habs have a plethora of NHL caliber goaltending. With Huet and Price rotating and putting up great numbers, the Habs are turning that into wins along with a disciplined squad, pretty good penalty kill unit and the best powerplay in the league (by quite a large margin, might I add.) This is all despite all the flack that their GM Bob Gainey received for not bringing in the all-star talent that he promised.

Low and behold, the Canadiens are proving that hard work pays off, as they sit in 2nd place in the Northeast division (right behind the Sens) and 4th in the East.

The Senators are coming off of a great season that saw them just inches from the Stanley Cup last season, and are looking to return to hockey's glory land. With a top ten offense and top five defense, the Sens are powering their way past most teams. With Emery not being his usual self this season, Martin Gerber returns to his old form from when he was with the Hurricanes, helping the Sens along to tops in the East thus far this season.

Great goaltending and a great shutdown defense and argubably one of the best starting lineups in the NHL today. Look for many Senators to suit up for the All-Star game this year.

The Habs are on the up side of a roller coaster at La Ronde. The Leafs can't seem to get into "Canada's Wonderland," no matter how little they try. The Flames keep thinking they are still playing in the old "Correl". The Oilers are out looking for young men to grow on. The Canucks are riding the high waves. And the Senators are showing why they are the leaders of the assembly.


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