NHL: Three Canadian Sad Sacks Turn Things Around

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIINovember 1, 2011

OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 30: Jonas Gustavsson #50 the Toronto Maple Leafs guards his net as Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for position against Nikita Filatov #21 of the Ottawa Senators during an NHL game at Scotiabank Place on October 30, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

This year, Canadians wishing to see the Stanley Cup return to Canada may have more than the Vancouver Canucks to place their hope in—and it's not simply because the addition of the Winnipeg Jets has increased the odds.

This year—at least temporarily—three Canadian teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Ottawa Senators) have shown significant improvement.

Toronto's improvement can probably be ascribed to general manager Brian Burke's desperation.  

Having produced a champion in Anaheim, Burke arrived in Toronto facing expectations to turn the franchise around immediately. But as time has passed and the Leafs have continually missed the playoffs, fans have become increasingly discontented.

Coach Ron Wilson is not expected to survive if the Leafs fail to make the playoffs again.

It can be argued that Burke can be excused for two reasons.

First, it has taken an immense effort simply to undo the damage done by previous general manager, John Ferguson Jr. Second, the team's main owners—the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund—are starting to rival Harold Ballard as the worst owners in franchise history. Under their ownership, the Leafs have yet to make the playoffs.

Except for Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, Burke has brought no superstars to Toronto. Even his best draft pick, Nazem Kadri, has failed to make the team.

But the unexpected improved play of players like Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Carl Gunnarsson—and the quick development of goaltender James Reimer—has given the Leafs more depth than anticipated.

EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 25: Nikolai Khabibulin #35 of the Edmonton Oilers stops a deflection by Daniel Sedin #22  of the Vancouver Canucks on October 25, 2011 at the Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

When Toronto beat top-ranked Pittsburgh last weekend, it was no fluke.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the Oilers' improvement is a matter of top talent finally starting to show itself.

Edmonton has been at or near the bottom of the league for the past few years—so they've been able to stockpile high draft picks.

Now the Oilers' young talent is finally meshing together.

Most prominent are Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

But it would be remiss not to mention two veterans—Ryan Smyth, the team's second-leading scorer, and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who is trying to rediscover the form that took Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup.

If the Oilers continue to display this present form, will fans start to compare them to the young pre-Stanley Cup teams of the Gretzky era?

The biggest Canadian surprise, however, has to be the Ottawa Senators.

Picked by many to be the worst team in the NHL, the Senators began the season as expected, with an initial 1-5 record. Now, they've become the hottest team in the NHL, with six consecutive victories.

What's remarkable is the fact that there hasn't been much change in personnel from the team that finished the 2010 season.

OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 30: Robin Lehner #40 of the Ottawa Senators hugs team mate Erik Karlsson #65 after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place on October 30, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photograp
Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

It is true that many of Ottawa's opponents during the current winning streak are sad sacks themselves.

But the Senators are clearly playing better as a team now, particularly defensively. They are winning close games, sometimes in the last minute.

Many people now credit the Senators' new coach, Paul MacLean, formerly an assistant coach for Detroit, with instilling improved team play.

Jason Spezza, whose stock has been falling for the past few years, seems like a reborn player.

Healthy Milan Michalek and Sergei Gonchar are finally contributing.

And the defence, a 50-50 pairing of veterans and newcomers, has tightened play up around its goaltenders.

Last year, the only Canadian teams to make the playoffs were Vancouver and Montreal.

These three upstarts have given Candians everywhere more hope.