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This article was published 14/4/2017 (1218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The dominant narrative in hockey circles this week was that all is right once again with Canada’s NHL teams.
With five out of seven Canadian teams on the ice as the Stanley Cup playoffs began, a hockey-rabid nation has been assured we are once again punching above our weight in this country after the humiliation of being shut out of last year’s playoffs for the first time since 1970.
And if you want to analyze things on the most simplistic level possible (a personal specialty of mine), I suppose that’s true: Canada has 23 per cent of the teams in the NHL (seven of 30), but 31 per cent of this year’s playoff teams (five of 16).
Crack a Molson Canadian, put on a Gordon Lightfoot record and take a deep breath, Canada — we’re back.
Except, of course, we’re not. Far from it, in fact.
Because while there is no questioning the dominance of this country in hockey generally — we produce the best players in greater numbers than any other nation, by a mile — the cold, hard reality is that Canada continues to struggle to produce the kind of elite NHL teams that actually win Stanley Cups.
And the presence of five.playoff contenders from Canada this month has done nothing to change that fact.
You know who wins Stanley Cups? Exactly the teams you’d expect — the ones who dominate the regular season. And it’s that cold hard reality — more than any other — that is behind a 22-year Stanley Cup drought in this country that, barring a monumental upset this spring, will extend to 23 when the Cup is paraded a couple months from now.
Consider: of the 22 Stanley Cups hoisted since the Montreal Canadiens were the last Canadian-based team to win an NHL championship, 13 of those Cups were won by a team that had finished either first or second in their conference at the conclusion of the regular season.
And therein lies the rub: the problem for Canadian NHL teams has never been making the playoffs — statistically, we do that at almost exactly the same rate as American teams and have continued to do so even during this Cup drought — rather, the problem has been it has been a very long time since this country has consistently produced the kind of powerhouses that actually win Cups.
Stats guru Nate Silver did a fantastic study of this issue for the New York Times back in 2013 and I spent some time this week updating his numbers to reflect the current reality: since the Habs won in 1993, just 15 per cent of the top two teams in each conference at the conclusion of the regular season have come from Canada.
Put another way, the quantity of this country’s playoff teams that has never been the problem — it’s been the quality.
And that holds true today. Hands up if you seriously think the current editions of the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames are going to be the teams who end this humiliating Stanley Cup drought for Canada.
You’ve got lots of company in your skepticism.
Las Vegas bookmakers this week listed the Canadiens as this country’s best bet to win the Cup this spring — at long odds of 14-1 and with six U.S. based teams in front of them. The Oilers were listed at 16-1, the Flames and Leafs at 25-1 and the Senators at 28-1.
And that was before Canada’s five playoff teams went 0-5 this week in the opening games of their respective playoff series.
Put it all together and the website fivethirtyeight.com — where Silver is the founding editor these days — did a study this week that found while Canada has 31 per cent of this year’s playoff teams, this country’s chances of winning the Cup are actually just 17 per cent when you account for the quality of our teams, using a highly-regarded power rating system called SRS, which accounts for goal differential and a team’s strength of schedule during the regular season.
Indeed, for all the back-slapping going on in this country this week, the website found Canada’s chances of winning the Cup this year haven’t really much changed: Canada’s NHL teams have had, on average, a 16 per cent chance of winning the Cup at the start of every playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout.
And so it goes for a country whose NHL teams have for over two decades now provided not much more than playoff fodder for superior American teams on their way to hoisting a Cup.
Just twice since the Habs won in 1993 has a Canadian NHL team been the statistical favourite to win the Stanley Cup at the start of the playoffs: the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06 and the Vancouver Canucks in 2010-11. And we all know how that turned out.
To put all this in historical context, consider this: back in 1988, the top three teams, according to SRS, heading into the playoffs were all Canadian, giving this country a 61 per cent chance of winning the Cup that year before the playoffs even began. (Edmonton was one of those top three teams and did, in fact, go on to win that year).
But since 2006, Canadian teams haven’t combined for even one-half of those kind of Cup odds, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of this country’s NHL teams.
All of this, of course, should resonate loudly with Winnipeg Jets fans, who had their only playoff party spoiled in 2015 when the Jets finally made the playoffs only to promptly get swept in four straight games by a superior Anaheim Ducks team.
Those Jets were clearly not ready for prime time, as the intervening years have even more clearly revealed. And all the excitement in five other Canadian NHL cities this week is likely to prove just as short-lived.
And just as painful to contemplate. Here’s a cringe-worthy number: if, instead of competing for them, we’d simply handed out Stanley Cups randomly since 1993, the odds a Canadian team would have won one by now would be over 99.5 per cent.
Look, they play the games for a reason. And while my job description precludes me from cheering for a result, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess that, like any other red-blooded Canadian, I’d really love to see some upstart Canadian team go on a tear this spring and bring the Cup back where it belongs — north of the border.
But in an age when every sport is now dominated by advanced analytics, it’s hard to argue with the stats nerds who have concluded that five Canadian playoff teams this week is a mirage and this country is just as far away from ending an interminable Cup drought as we ever were.
So why? How come American cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago and Los Angeles have consistently produced the kind of powerhouses that win Cups while this entire hockey-mad country just produces also-rans?
There’s lot of theories out there that centre on things like an exchange rate that was unfavourable for much of the past two decades; a salary cap that today prevents cash-flush Canadian teams from simply overwhelming their American opponents with money; and just gross mismanagement.
But my theory is that we’re to blame — every sad-sack hockey fan in Canada who continues to fill the arenas in this country and pay huge bucks to watch mediocre (at best) hockey.
Our strength as a hockey nation is our also our biggest weakness when it comes to the NHL: our passion for the sport — and our willingness to be separated from our money in support of it, no matter what — provides no incentive for our NHL teams to be anything more than exactly what they are:
Just good enough to make the playoffs, but not nearly good enough to actually win a Cup.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
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