Hockey is religion in this country and the seven teams in our great land are under intense pressure to succeed.
Teams in Carolina or Columbus or Arizona can struggle and only a small collection of passionate fans are frustrated, but if the teams stationed outside of the United States hit the skids and fail to achieve the ultimate goal (which they haven’t done in a long, long time), ownership, management and the players will hear about 24-7-365.
That often leads to inflated expectations, retooling instead of rebuilding and ownership and management that end up at odds because the goals of the former can’t be accomplished by the latter.
A perfect example of this exists in Ottawa right now.
Earlier in the week, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk suggested that his team should be a “top five or six” squad in the league right now and that no one’s job within the organization is safe given their underachieving ways this year. That assessment seems based on the fact that Ottawa made the playoffs last season, but neglects to recognize that the Senators needed an insane run down the stretch to even qualify before quickly getting bounced in the opening round by the Montreal Canadiens.
Everything went right for Ottawa over the final four-to-six weeks of last year and it hasn’t been the same this season, which has only served to highlight the limitations of this team.
They have arguably the best defensemen in the game in Erik Karlsson, but everyone else is good, not great at best. Mix in the swing-and-miss from this season’s Dion Phaneuf trade that saddles Ottawa with his salary going forward and you see a team that doesn’t have the pieces necessary to contend, nor the resources on the way up to bolster this unit in the foreseeable future.
Which leads me to say something I never thought I would say: Toronto is currently in the best position going forward of any Canadian franchise.
Toronto has done what the remaining clubs in this country have often failed to do – they started re-stocking the farm, stripped the big club down to the studs and admitted they needed a couple years of being bad in order to hopefully become good again. There is still a bunch of work to be done, obviously, but the building blocks for improvement are in place and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
No other Canadian team has been willing to take that step and they have suffered as a result.
Edmonton’s ineptitude has left them in a perpetual state of rebuilding, but they’ve consistently made the wrong decisions, which have kept them in the basement for the better part of the last decade.
Calgary started in that direction with some tough decisions with veteran stars, but unexpected success last season led to heighten expectations this year and lo and behold, they’ve failed to reach those lofty heights.
Vancouver is the worst offender of the bunch, constantly trying to add a couple vets and a young player or two in order to make the playoffs and hopefully make one more run while the Sedin Twins are still playing. All that has done is left them drafting outside of the Top 10 and no further ahead when it comes to building for the future.
What’s needed is ownership and management to (a) do a better job in building these teams and (b) be transparent with their fans about their process and what to expect.
One of the pros of hockey being religion in this country is that the loyalists in our seven NHL centers aren’t going to abandon ship due to a couple down years, provided they’re shown that better days are ahead.
But if owners like Melnyk keep saying, “We should be one of the best teams in the league” when nothing about their roster suggests that is the case, they’re going to have a hard time managing expectations and maintaining fan support.