Cam Cole: Will the playoff bubble burst for Canada’s NHL teams?

 

Zero Canadian teams in the post-season hasn’t happened since 1970

 
 
 
 
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard slides into the  goalpost next to goalie Rogie Vachon on March 11, 1970, fracturing his left leg in five places. While Savard returned to action the next season to resume his Hall of Fame career, his Canadiens would miss the playoffs that spring — the last time there were no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Adrian Lunny, Montreal Star)
 
 

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard slides into the goalpost next to goalie Rogie Vachon on March 11, 1970, fracturing his left leg in five places. While Savard returned to action the next season to resume his Hall of Fame career, his Canadiens would miss the playoffs that spring — the last time there were no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Adrian Lunny, Montreal Star)

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VANCOUVER — There are any number of perfectly good rationalizations for the decline of Canada’s mastery over the game we gave to the world.

Most of them are contained in that sentence. We gave hockey to the world, and the world took it and skated with it.

Inevitably, inexorably, with multiple nations embracing our game, studying it, refining it with ideas different and occasionally better than our own, now and then we come out second best — or, in the case of this year’s world junior tournament, sixth.

The same circumstances explain the falling percentages of Canadian players drafted, and playing, in the National Hockey League. It’s not us getting worse (or not only that), it’s them getting better, and more numerous.

But the absence of a single Canadian team in playoff position as of this writing (though Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal were still only a whisker or two away from wild-card spots) … that’s not them. It’s us.

Us, as in the land of rising taxes and the plummeting peso, of too much scrutiny and not enough summer, of fans that don’t shrug off a lousy performance and let underachievers off the hook.

Zero Canadian teams inside the playoff bubble hasn’t happened this late in a season, according to the folks at Elias Sports Bureau, since 1969-70, when there were only two Canadian NHL teams, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, and they were fifth and sixth in the East (Original Six) Division. The West was the six expansion franchises.

And just like modern times, fifth and sixth is where the Habs and Leafs would finish, out of the playoffs. Evidently then, as now, very little was apt to change after the pattern had been established in the first half of the season.

If you follow this column, you may recall that a year ago, a similar malaise was being debated, with gasoline thrown on the fire thanks to a poll of 10 unidentified agents conducted by ESPN, in which Canada was pretty roundly dismissed as a desirable destination for the players those agents represented.

Who will forget these gems?

“I hate to say it, but it’s the Canadian teams,” said one agent.

And this: “If you think it’s cold in Detroit, it’s like that for four months in Winnipeg,” said another. “If you have a family, you’re a shut-in. The kids can’t go outside and play. You go outside for 15 minutes and it’s frostbite.”

And this: “Winnipeg is at least winning a little bit. Edmonton is a complete nightmare.”

Vancouver was pardoned, presumably due to weather and scenery. Calgary got a pass by omission, as did Ottawa. Montreal was called “love it or hate it.” Aversion to Toronto was the eternal “if only the team was better” lament.

Wednesday, on a straight points basis, Ottawa and Montreal were 14th and 15th overall, Vancouver was 20th, Winnipeg 25th, Calgary 26th, Edmonton 27th, Toronto 29th.

Fairly discouraging, all in all.

The converse of the plight of Canadian teams is that all 16 playoff-positioned teams are in the States, and the Stanley Cup has been in American possession for going on 23 years now.

Coincidentally — and I do believe it is just that — 23 years is how long Gary Bettman has held the commissioner’s job.

Has the league’s power base moved south under Bettman? Sure. But also, the U.S. has bigger cities, better travel, warmer weather (by and large), lower taxes, less pressure and — as all these factors build upon one another year over year — a much higher percentage of free agents, both stars and depth players.

It is not an incurable condition, but the odds are very much against Canadian clubs.

Carey Price will be back soonish, and when he is, the Canadiens’ v-shaped depression presumably will end and they will inch back up the standings. Connor McDavid will be back, and the Oilers, though they have defied all predictions of impending competence, may get a bounce from his return.

The Babcock Effect is bound to be felt, one of these years, in Toronto.

There are still elite players on Canadian rosters — Erik Karlsson, Price and P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall and McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano, the aging Sedin twins, et al — but not enough other ingredients to put any team over the top. And draft picks, the one avenue in which Canadian franchises are on a level playing field, rarely provide quick fixes, even if a team is good enough, or lucky enough, to make them count.

So the Stanley Cup is out. Sorry if you were hoping. Add Year 23 to the drought.

The playoffs are not out of the question, in a few places. Last year, after all the hand-wringing, five Canadian squads qualified.

But it’s late January, and if the standings aren’t set in stone just yet, you can already see the chisel marks.

ccole@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/rcamcole

 
 
 
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Montreal Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard slides into the  goalpost next to goalie Rogie Vachon on March 11, 1970, fracturing his left leg in five places. While Savard returned to action the next season to resume his Hall of Fame career, his Canadiens would miss the playoffs that spring — the last time there were no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Adrian Lunny, Montreal Star)
 

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard slides into the goalpost next to goalie Rogie Vachon on March 11, 1970, fracturing his left leg in five places. While Savard returned to action the next season to resume his Hall of Fame career, his Canadiens would miss the playoffs that spring — the last time there were no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Adrian Lunny, Montreal Star)

 
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard slides into the  goalpost next to goalie Rogie Vachon on March 11, 1970, fracturing his left leg in five places. While Savard returned to action the next season to resume his Hall of Fame career, his Canadiens would miss the playoffs that spring — the last time there were no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Adrian Lunny, Montreal Star)
John Ferguson (centre) and his Montreal Canadiens got squeezed out by the Chicago Blackhawks’ goalie Tony Esposito defenceman Gilles Marotte during the 1969-70 season, the last time there were no Canadian teams to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Blackhawks, incidentally, finished first in the East Division that season. (Mac Juster/Montreal Star/Montreal Gazette files)
 
 
 
 
 
 
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