Canadian Comebacks Spell The Return Of The Playoff Rivalry
This time last year fans of the seven Canadian NHL teams were looking at a nuclear winter. Or maybe that should read a nuclear springtime.
None of the teams in the nation where hockey is religion was headed to the postseason. Think of the odds. Seven teams in three separate divisions and four time zones had all found a way to wilt at the same time. With the resources available to most of them it seemed unbelievable. The effects were costly for all the teams as they lost out on the precious postseason revenue.
Large markets like Toronto or Montreal could afford could sustain that loss (Toronto has made the postseason but once in twelve seasons.) But for smaller markets like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton, losing playoff profits combined with a drop in the Canadian dollar was bracing financial medicine.
The absence of Canadian teams in the postseason was also a major sting at Rogers Media, which had sold the farm a couple of seasons back for the NHL’s Canadian TV rights. As a result, multiple bodies— both on and off the air— had hit the floor in austerity moves at the broadcaster. (The Blue Jays huge ratings in the summer saved a few jobs, however.)
There was some luck and more than a few injuries to explain the Year From Frozen Canadian Hell. As we at IDLM wrote at this time last year :
“Let’s just say it’s hard to look at these seven and see an ETA for success. Several have plans but no players. Some have players but no apparent plan. In real business there’d be For Sale signs on the office window. This being Gary Bettman’s league of socialist splendor, however, most of them will be rewarded for the abject incompetence with a top prospect.
“As they say, if you want more welfare cases, just keep giving out welfare.”
Sure enough, the 2016 draft came along with Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine, some key players healed, and the leavening effect of the NHL meat grinder has produced a bounce-back result for Canadian NHL fans. Rogers might actually get some of its money back after all.
One Eastern Conference Canadian team, Montreal, is pretty much a lock to give Rogers some partisan rooting interest when the playoffs open up in mid-April. They’re up 12 points as of Monday on the ninth-place spot in the East. But it wasn't without the usual Habs drama. Coach Michel Therrien was fired when the Canadiens went brain dead in the midseason.
The Edmonton Oilers, who haven’t been in the postseason since Madonna was cool, are also going to have to a lot wrong to miss the playoffs in the Western Conference. They’re ten points up on the L.A. Kings with but a month to go. Connor McDavid is simply too brilliant a player for even the Oiler curse to slow down. Or maybe it was their sparkling new arena?
Only one Canadian team, the Vancouver Canucks, seems a definite miss for the postseason— although they keep embarking on spurts of competence to keep even that faint hope alive.
In between are four teams who could all make the postseason— or four teams who could grab an anchor and sink with the Canucks to non-contender status. The Ottawa Senators, always getting by on less, changed coaches to Guy Boucher and now control their own fate in the East. As of Sunday, they’re up six points on ninth in the Conference— which could set up a Hab/ Sens series come April.
Translation: Ratings gold.
The Calgary Flames have wobbled at times this season, but their recent seven-game winning streak has pushed them a comfortable eight points up on ninth in the West. Despite all the talk about the Battle of Alberta, the Flames and Oilers have not met in a postseason series since 1991. If these two can somehow find a way to meet in the playoffs at the same time as the Habs/ Sens tangle, Rogers stock might well be worth an investment.
No one in Canada has to get by with less than the Winnipeg Jets, but they still find themselves within two points of the final berth in the Western Conference. If they don’t make it they can blame a home record of 16-15-1 (so far) for losing the chance to cash a needed playoff cheque.
Which leaves us with the team everyone outside the 416/ 905 loves to hate. The Toronto Maple Leafs have adopted a longterm development plan, drafted like aces with their many high picks and excited their fans with the prospect of a return to respectability. For a franchise that hasn’t even been to the Stanley Cup final series since Canada celebrated its Centennial in 1967 that’s delirium.
They are in ninth in the East, just a point behind eighth place— and that’s after a 3-4-3 stumble in their past ten games. With a very young roster and a fluid goaltending situation, anything could happen in the final month. But if the young Buds do find a way to a long run in the postseason Rogers might get back the entire $5.2 billion TV investment back in one year.
And there might be something other than Toronto Raptors to fill the nation's playoff gap.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)