The woefulness of Canadian NHL teams has been something I've found myself thinking about a lot today. I think it's a combination of different factors: 1) I write This Week in Kings every week where I see the inept Alberta teams flounder and the Canucks fail to make up any real ground in the standings, 2) Team Canada was just named yesterday with almost a shocking lack of players from Canadian NHL teams (four of the 25, or 16% of the roster, is Canadian. compare that to 7/30, 23.3%, of NHL teams from Canada. also worth noting is that of the four, two were goaltenders, and no forwards were taken from Canadian NHL teams at all), 3) the score-adjusted Fenwick chart through Saturday, which shows Canadian NHL teams playing almost shockingly bad this year. Since 3 of the 7 Canadian NHL teams now play in Los Angeles' division, this would seem to be cause for further investigation. So let's start with the chart in question.
Seriously, let's analyze that chart for a second (if you're not aware of what score-adjusted Fenwick is, exactly, check this link out from Broad Street Hockey, as it explains it nicely and relatively briefly). The first Canadian NHL team to appear on the list at all is Vancouver, and they don't appear until thirteenth! That's surprisingly low for a team that many have come to think of as the only consistently elite club in Canada, nearly midway through the list! The next Canadian team to appear isn't until below both the halfway point of the list and the magic 50% Fenwick number most would argue you need to be above to have a real shot at a playoff spot (without fluking into it, anyway): Winnipeg, a team few would even consider good, is next at 17th. Ottawa and Montreal both come in at 19th and 20th respectively, and we're now 2/3rds into the list with only 4 of the 7 Canadian teams accounted for. That means 3 of them are in the bottom third of the league, and not only that, but they're actually right at the bottom. Though Buffalo is obviously quite bad and their 30th place in this ranking reflects that, Toronto (whose own issues have been well-documented) sit right above them at 29th, with the two Alberta teams right above them at 28th and 27th. Three of the bottom four teams, all Canadian. Ouch.
So the best team in Canada, according to this well-respected predictive measure, is the 13th place Vancouver Canucks. Admittedly, this is a bit of a drop-off from their ranking in the more traditional Fenwick Close model, where they at least sit in 9th and in the top third of the league. But the Canadian teams don't fare much better there, either. You still have to wait until the 17th place Ottawa Senators to see another team from Canada on the list, meaning that just like in the score-adjusted Fenwick rankings, 6 of the 7 Canadian teams sit in the bottom-half of the league (and 5 of the 7 are in the bottom third, so in that respect it's even worse for Canada).
But maybe you don't like all 'dem #fancystats. Okay, let's just take a look at the actual standings. It gets a little better for Canada, but not by much. The only Canadian club to have a top three divisional seed is Montreal, who sit 3rd in the Atlantic. Vancouver is relatively comfortable in the top Wild Card spot in the West, while Toronto is clinging desperately to the second Wild Card spot in the woeful East. The other 4 Canadian teams are mostly non-factors in the playoff races, with Ottawa being the only other team you'd even consider having a chance to qualify. And again, using the predictive nature of advanced stats, Montreal & Toronto's grip on their spots would have to be described as tenuous at best. It's easy to see one or both of them dropping out in the second-half, and it's very difficult to see any of these teams putting together much of a playoff run (even Vancouver, in the very tough West, are probably a 2nd round team at best, with any of the other teams likely being first-round cannon fodder).
Not that this is anything new for Canadian NHL teams, of course. In last year's shortened season, 4 of the 7 Canadian teams made the playoffs, but only one (Ottawa) advanced past the first round (and they were playing another Canadian team, so one of them was guaranteed to make it through), where they were quickly and quietly sent packing by Pittsburgh. In the last full season, 2011-12, it was 2 of 7, and neither made it out of the first round that year. In 2010-11 it was 2 of 6 (the Jets moved from Atlanta following the season), with the exception-to-the-rule Canucks going to Game 7 of the Final.
But with the Canucks, Canada's only consistently elite team over the past decade, clearly on their way down a bit as their stars get older and their depth dries up, no other team looks poised to step up and replace them. Montreal and Ottawa are both having disappointing campaigns following breakout years in 2012-13. Toronto is a complete mess. Winnipeg hasn't been able to do much more than resign all the players it brought from Atlanta, none of whom have been able to get them anywhere close to the playoffs so far. Calgary is at the very first stages of a rebuild, and are likely a few seasons away from even being ready to compete for a playoff spot again. And Edmonton, well, is Edmonton. They've taken another gigantic step backwards this year after what was only a modest step forward last year, and they seem no closer to competing than they did when this endless rebuild first started.
23.3% of the teams in the National Hockey League are Canadian. 3 of 16 playoff spots being held by Canadian teams are 18.7%, and that number could (and maybe even arguably should) drop further between now and the end of the season. Add in the fact that most Canadian teams have the resources and the willingness to spend to the cap- with only maybe Winnipeg and Ottawa standing out as teams unwilling or unable to do that- while many American teams do not, and their utter lack of success becomes even more confusing. So why, exactly, are these teams so bad? There's no easy answer, but let's explore some possible theories:
1) There is no underlying common explanation; it's all just randomness
Maybe. This is always an explanation worth considering- narratives are fun but often have little to do with reality, and so much more sports is luck-based that I'm always inclined to agree with it. But it's the Canadian clubs' ineptitude in the #fancystats categories that can kind of serve as a rebuttal here. If a few of the teams were just getting unlucky that would be one thing, but if anything they are even higher in the standings than they deserve. For whatever reason, the Canadian NHL teams appear to be at their absolute nadir in terms of puck possession. Something else other than just luck is probably going on here.
2) It's too difficult to deal with all that media!
No, I hate this explanation. Lots of teams in many different sports have to deal with equal or even greater barrages of media coverage, and have had great success. I'm sure it's annoying to deal with but I highly doubt it's a great explanation for what's going on here.
3) But maybe the media and all the pressure scares away big-name free agents? Also, the taxes probably don't help.
Hmm, well that makes a little more sense. Still, there really aren't that many big-name free agents at all in the NHL anymore. And a team like our own LA Kings can't get anyone to sign here, either, but that didn't stop us from winning a Cup and being a consistently elite team. So no, I don't think this is it either.
4) Canadian teams don't rebuild enough! Their fans wouldn't stand for some Pittsburgh-style tanking!
I hear this explanation a lot too, and maybe it was true like ten years ago, but it clearly isn't anymore. Edmonton has been rebuilding forever, Calgary just started a rebuild, and it's easy to forget that Ottawa was considered a rebuilding team until their miracle run to the playoffs in 2011-12. This might be an excuse for why specific teams are bad, but not the group as a whole.
So maybe it is just randomness, huh? I haven't been able to come up with an underlying explanation. The one thing that is clear, though, and it is crystal clear so far this season, is that six of the seven Canadian NHL clubs are having years that range from mediocre to awful, and their one good team isn't even all that good. This is obviously good news for the Kings, who compete with 3 of the 7 in their division, but bad news for fans of any of these teams. So I turn it over to you, dear readers: is there some other explanation for why these teams are all so bad? Do they draft poorly? Are their GMs simply not very good at their jobs? Is there anything they can learn from the top American teams? Have at it in the comments!
I liked these two explanations on Twitter, from two of the smarter Canuck fans I follow, enough that I wanted to come back and include them.
@toshanshuinLA But your explanation is "a result of ego/pride screwing up/preventing rebuilds, combined with randomness"— Sir Canuckles (@SirCanuckles) January 8, 2014
@toshanshuinLA But I would also suggest that you have a prevalence of old school thinking in Canadian franchises. They are slow to change.— W. Ron Sweeney (@wronsweeney) January 8, 2014
(that second one especially really rings true to me. we all know how much Leafs GM Dave Nonis seems to resent and reject advanced stats, for one. anyway.)