OPINION: Don’t give up on the Stanley Cup Playoffs

by | Apr 8, 2016 | Opinion, Sports

Alex Martino

It was only last year that five of the seven Canadian NHL teams made their way into the postseason.

The Ottawa Senators had their incredible win record in the second half of the season.

The Winnipeg Jets made their first playoff appearance since relocating from Atlanta.

The Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks had all their key players working at full speed.

And the Montreal Canadiens sat atop the Atlantic Division.

What a difference a year makes.

Hockey fortunes did not smile on Canada this NHL season: injuries plagued teams that should have been the top in the league and half the Canadian teams are in a rebuild stage right now.

With the playoffs just weeks away it seems certain that our great white northern teams will be hitting the golf courses early.

Right on cue, the mutterings of this year’s playoffs having a low viewership, the unfairness of no Canadian teams in the playoffs despite hockey being Canada’s sport and the classic taunt that NHL commissioner “Gary Bettman hates Canada.”

The jury is still out on the latter claim, however not seeing a Canadian team in the playoffs isn’t reason to give up on the NHL altogether, especially not when there are so many reasons that the playoffs are worth a peek this year.

Let’s begin with some context about why the “why watch hockey if Canada isn’t represented” argument is antiquated: we are months shy of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 expansion that doubled the number of teams in the National Hockey League. . That expansion move drove Canadian team representation from 40 per cent of the league down to 20 per cent.

The current climate around hockey is also nowhere near what it was during the early days of the league.

The talent pool is more of a Schengen zone – that is to say the borders are open between European and North American talent in general – than it was in the days of Canadian hockey team dominance; the best players from around the world are in the NHL and they’re spread across the league.

And there’s the effect salary caps have made on the mobility of players in general.

With that in mind great players from Canada are spread out across the league, as opposed to playing for their hometown team at an elite level.

Take the Montreal Canadiens, a team historically known for having a roster largely comprised of French Canadian players and native Montrealers.

The Habs haven’t had a Canadian captain since the 1998-99 season and the organization has come down to maybe a handful of token francophone players.

Beyond that, in Toronto it’s a lucky but rare occurrence for a local GTA kid to get a shot at being a part of the team they cheered for in their youth.

So, your favourite Canadian player is probably on a team somewhere south of the Border, you have him in your fantasy league and you’re interested in how his games are going.

With all that in mind, there is plenty of reason to still watch the NHL playoffs, despite the projected lineup of teams not meeting CRTC standards.

Despite the hot streak of the Habs fizzling out due to Carey Price’s injury problems, there is one team that has maintained dominance all season: the Washington Capitals.

Alexander Ovechkin has had the season of his life collecting numerous milestones and NHL records and joining the 500 goal club.

With the additions of some key pieces from the Los Angeles Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup team in Justin Williams and Mike Richards, and with Braden Holtby a shoo-in for a Vezina nomination, it’s worth seeing if the Caps will be able to overcome the challenges of previous seasons and make a deep run toward the Cup.

The two Florida teams are worth watching in the postseason as well thanks to the intriguing narratives given to fans by Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos.

Jagr at 44 is still a force on the ice and he is surrounded by talented young players. To see him make a Stanley Cup final for the first time in a career that started before many of his teammates were even born would be an incredible feat.

Plus it’s pretty hilarious to see a pile of plastic rats get flung onto the ice when Florida has a good night.

The Stamkos issue is intriguing for completely different reasons. Rumours have been flying all season about Stamkos’ contract: will he stay, will he go? The idea of Stamkos no longer being a member of the Lightning has Leafs fans salivating. But if the Lightning can make a strong case for keeping the star forward with a deep playoff run and a return to the Stanley Cup finals, those hopes may slowly be crushed.

The Eastern Conference wild card race is still tight with the Detroit Red Wings and the Philadelphia Flyers neck and neck to make it into the postseason. Should Philadelphia find their wings the scoring potential brought by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek (who’s been off his goal-scoring game this season but may peak at the right time), Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn (who’s put up career high numbers) will make them an interesting team to watch. They’ll just need to make sure their goaltending is ready to go.

On the Western Conference side it’s mostly looking like more of the same. The Chicago Blackhawks, despite currently being third in the Central Division, have extensive playoff experience and are always favourites to extend their hockey dynasty. Their young additions have fans awestruck by their point production this season and their franchise guys in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Andrew Shaw know exactly what to do in playoff situations.

And when all else fails, Brent Seabrook in overtime is a cure for anything.

The Dallas Stars lead the Central Division and have clinched a playoff spot. Like the Capitals, they have difficulty translating regular season dominance to playoff success but if they can stop their opponents from dictating the game and forcing more defensive play, the Stars could become the most fun team to watch in the playoffs in recent history.

That’s just scratching the surface of what could happen in the NHL playoffs this year so it’s easy to say “what’s the point of watching with no Canadian teams in” but to follow that principle would deprive a hockey fan of some potentially fascinating storylines.

And Leafs fans, there’s always the lottery for top prospect Auston Matthews to get your heart racing.