Dissecting Canada’s NHL underachievers

We could see as many as five Canadians teams in the playoffs – but more likely we’ll see two or three at this pace

Bruce DowbigginFor fans of Canada’s seven embattled National Hockey League teams, the man from Zamboni is a suitable talisman of their frustration.

As most everyone now knows, a 42-year-old Zamboni driver – a kidney-transplant Zamboni driver – stepped in for the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night in Toronto to defeat the listless Leafs 6-3. When both Hurricanes goalies were injured, David Ayres acted as a substitute halfway through the contest. A guy whose last team had folded made the talented Torontonians fold the rest of the way, becoming the oldest goalie to ever win his first NHL game.

The win by the Hurricanes – who have more Stanley Cups than all Canadian teams combined since 1994 – left Leafs fans seething in frustration as they slowly back their way out of a playoff position.

At least the Leafs still cling to a post-season berth. As of trade deadline day, only Vancouver and Edmonton are also in playoff positions – by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins.

In the East, Montreal and Ottawa are already DOA, and should act accordingly when it comes to being sellers in the final scramble for trades. In the West, Calgary’s recent mediocre home stand has them currently out of the post-season. Put bluntly, we could see as many as five Canadians teams in the playoffs – but more likely we’ll see two or three at this pace.

So, in the words of Fred Willard, “Wha’ happened?”

Let’s do a shallow dive.

Toronto

All dressed up and going nowhere seems to be the Leafs’ prognosis. Having fired hard-ass coach Mike Babcock to placate the tender feelings of his young millionaires, general manager Kyle Dubas finds that not much has changed results-wise. Toronto remains a leaky boat that takes on water at the slightest signs of a storm, as their recent 4-5-1 skid shows.

The only blessing is that Florida, their nearest pursuer in the Atlantic Division, has been equally awful of late (3-7-0), allowing Toronto to stay in the final divisional playoff spot. Were they counting on a wildcard, they’d be behind … yup, Carolina and their Zamboni Boy.

If the Buds do capsize, expect heads to roll in the executive suite.

Montreal

As Jed Clampett used to say, “Pitiful, pitiful, pitiful.”

The Canadiens are six points back of Toronto in the Atlantic and eight back of the team with the 42-year-old substitute goalie. Montreal has lost all four games this season to Detroit, which might be the worst NHL club in 50 years.

While captain Shea Weber made a miracle recovery from a foot injury, nothing’s going to create a Habs’ comeback for a playoff spot. Blow it up and find the next available Francophone to run this sorry squad.

Ottawa

Best not to speak ill of the dead.

Vancouver

Hands up everyone who had Vancouver as the best Canadian NHL squad before the season?

Things are so topsy-turvy in Lotusland that notoriously cranky Canucks fans actually cheered former general manager Mike Gillis, who they ran out of town in 2013. A healthy corps of exciting young offensive talents led by defenceman phenom Quinn Hughes, centre Elias Pettersson, and a Gillis acquisition, goalie Jacob Markstrom, have the Canucks just ahead of a bevy of pursuers in the West.

But there is little wiggle room in either the Pacific or the wildcard. They have a two-point bulge over Calgary in the division and five teams lie within four points off the wildcard. With 21 games to go, this is a fluid situation. And that, considering how much rain falls on Vancouver, is appropriate.

Edmonton

The Oilers have probably the two best forwards in the sport right now – Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl – and a few offensive assets. They should be home and clear with their talent.

But this is Oil Country, where no asset can’t be wasted. As usual, Edmonton’s brain trust is trying to finesse it in goal – maybe they should call Dave Ayres – this time with veteran Mike Smith and enormous Finn Mikko Koskinen.

McDavid’s injury and Zack Kassian’s predilection for getting suspended are not encouraging as the final sprint looms. And if the Oil miss the post-season again, questions have to start about what the heck McDavid is doing staying in this dead end where his brand is diminished by the day.

One point ahead of Vancouver, four up on Winnipeg and three up on Calgary, they’re also battling Nashville and Minnesota in the wildcard. It’s there for the taking (they picked up defenceman Mike Green on Monday) but then we say that about the Oil every year and they find a way to come up short.

Calgary

Call them Toronto West. A team with young, skilled players who saw their coach fired earlier this season. But the bump expected from Geoff Ward has been lukewarm at best.

Their recent home stand was emblematic of their season: a bushel of goals scored but even more allowed as they let their closest pursuers blow past them in the standings. Goaltending is problematic at best.

Could it be as simple as stop Johnny Gaudreau and you stop the Flames?

They better hope not.

Blowing the upcoming Eastern road trip could leave them with too much ground to make up. Like Toronto, their problems are not ones that can be solved on trade deadline day.

Winnipeg

The season should’ve ended with the Dustin Byfuglien contract meltdown before the season, but the Jets have outlasted the usual shortcomings of playing in Winnipeg to maintain a puncher’s chance at the post-season. The Jets’ core – led by Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor –  has stayed relatively healthy and productive.

One problem is that the Central houses three powerful teams they won’t catch so any post-season probability comes in the wildcard category. So yes, the Jets’ success will likely come at the expense of one or maybe even three Canadian rivals.

All of this begs the question: Is 2020 finally the year of Stanley in Canada?

If you answer yes, I have a 42-year-old Vezina candidate I’d like to sell you.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

© Troy Media


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