This season has not been a happy one for Canadian teams. After having four of the seven Canadian teams make the playoffs last year, that number has been reduced to two. And given the way the Toronto Maple Leafs have played lately, it could be that, at the end of the season, the Montreal Canadiens would remain as the lone representative for the Great White North. One would have to go back over 30 years to find another season that has been this historically bad for teams in Canada. In 1973, the Montreal Canadiens were again the only Canadian team to make the playoffs, but that was a league that contained 16 teams and only three Canadian ones. With so many teams struggling in the birthplace of hockey, Canadian fans have handled the hardships in various and interesting ways.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were an enigma coming into this season. They had made the playoffs last year, but their exit was a messy one. After being up 4-1 in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, the Maple Leafs allowed 4 unanswered goals in the third period and overtime. Goaltender James Reimer was in net for that game and received a lot of criticism for his play during that short playoff run, especially with regards to his rebound control. Toronto acquired Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings in the offseason and the Maple Leafs felt safe going into the season with those two goalies. And for a while, it worked out well for them. At the end of February, the Maple Leafs were tied for 4th in the Eastern Conference. However, a recent injury to Bernier put the full weight of the Leafs playoff hopes on Reimer and he has struggled under the pressure.
Reimer has allowed 18 goals in the past five games – all Toronto losses. The five game skid has put the Maple Leafs in a perilous position, only one point ahead of the 9th place Washington Capitals. The combination of the recent poor play and the memories of last year’s Game 7 have stirred Toronto fans into a frenzy with regards to Reimer. Though Reimer himself is not on Twitter, his wife is; And the Maple Leaf faithful have held nothing back when messaging the goaltender’s wife through social media. Ranging from calling her husband “a piece of [expletive]” or asking her if he needed psychiatric help, the ravenous fans have shown the downside of playing in a hockey-crazy traditional market in Canada.
The Edmonton Oilers have also received a message from their fans, though they have decided to take more traditional routes. After season after season of crushing disappointment, Oiler fans have had enough. Earlier in the season, fans of the team pooled their money together and bought a billboard along side a major highway that runs through Edmonton. The billboard called for the firing of the Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, stating simply “This is as ‘Lowe’ as We Go!” After a recent 8-1 loss to their rival Calgary Flames, certain fans took their protest to the ice, tossing Oiler jerseys onto the ice in disgust. This drew negative reactions from the Oiler players and the head coach, who said throwing the jersey “shows a lot about an individual’s character.”
The Oiler fans have every right to be angry. Edmonton has finished at or near the basement of the NHL for the past four years and this year is looking to be the fifth. The Oilers have not made the playoffs since the 05-06 season, where they had a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Due to the consistent finishes near the bottom of the league, the Oilers have racked up a good number of young skilled forwards with high potential. But none of them address the real issues the Oilers have had for years: Their defense and their goaltending. Their goaltending improved when the Oilers acquired Ben Scrivens at the trade deadline, but the fact of the matter is, if the Oilers want to find their way out of the basement, one or more of these skilled forwards will have to be flipped for good defensmen. It is a move that seems obvious to everyone, including fans of the team, but one that the Oilers management seems hesitant to make.
Not all the fanbases in Canada have responded to the struggles of their team with anger. Fans of the Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa Senators have taken a different route than those of the Oilers and the Leafs. Though both teams were playoff teams last year, both have fallen greatly in the standings this season. Rather than express anger at the quick turnaround, the fall of both teams has been met with bemused acceptance. Neither fanbase is exactly happy that their teams are in the position they are in, but after the season both teams have had, there is nothing that can be done but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
It is a strange sight to see the Ottawa Senators out of the playoffs, as they overcame a lot of injuries to make the playoffs last season, including one to their starting goaltender and their star defenseman. With a healthy lineup, it was expected that they would perform even better. This season, the Senators have been relatively healthy, but the play of just about every single player on their team has regressed. The only real change to the roster in the offseason was the loss of long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson to the Detroit Red Wings. Alfredsson said he left the Senators because he felt he had a better chance of winning the Cup with Detroit. That kind of parting shot, especially from a former captain, can have an effect on a team and could be a reason why the Senators do not look nearly as strong as they did last year.
Most troubling for Senator fans has been the play of young defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has always been a dynamic defenseman that puts more focus on offense than defense, but he has never been what one would call “bad” defensively. Until this year, that is. Karlsson seems to have forewent all pretense of being a defenseman, solely focusing on his offensive production at the cost of his defensive obligations. And while the team is well out of the playoffs and, thus, this mindset will not hurt the Senators this year, it should be a cause for concern if Ottawa wants to find success in the future. When a defenseman playing 25 minutes a night does not seem interested in playing defense, it can only spell disaster for the team.
The story of the Vancouver Canucks this season has played out like a soap opera, one that began last year. Though the Canucks were solidly in the playoff picture last season, the drama off the ice was what grabbed the attention of the Vancouver media and their fans. Longtime Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo was becoming increasingly unhappy with his playtime, having been splitting starts with young goaltender Cory Schneider. Luongo eventually went public with a trade request, but rather than meet this request, the Vancouver management traded Schneider in his stead. This seemed to resolve the issue, until a similar situation arose when upstart goaltender Eddie Lack again challenged Luongo’s place in the lineup. This time, Luongo was moved at the trade deadline, but the damage had been done. The drama surrounding the Canucks this season had an obvious effect on the team’s play and it is one that appears to have had a lasting effect.
Rumors have Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler also asking for a way out of the Vancouver organization, though he refuses to do so publicly. After watching what happened to his good friend Luongo, there is little wonder why. Those two have had conversations over Twitter, taking not-so-subtle shots at the Vancouver management and their handling of the trade situation for both players. It might be best for Vancouver management to blow it up and start over from scratch, simply because their position as authority figures on the team has been undermined greatly this season and last.
Lastly, there are two teams in Canada that have met or exceeded expectations going into this year. The Calgary Flames have been a pleasant surprise for their fans. Though they will not make the playoffs this year, their team has shown a marked improvement over last season and have surpassed the expectations set for them in the offseason. Though, admittedly, that may be simply because the expectations were morbidly low. After wallowing aimlessly in standings limbo for years, the Flames appear to have a precise gameplan to rebuild the team and the organization, one that has gotten Flames fans excited about the future of their team. The Winnipeg Jets came into the season with higher expectations than where they currently are, but their fans have seen a coaching change that could make future success easily to obtain. After a terrible start, the Jets fired head coach Claude Noel and hired veteran Paul Maurice. The coaching change caused a resurgence for the team, bringing them close to a playoff spot. Their comeback appears to have fallen short, but the play that brought them that close is what Jet fans are hoping will continue in future seasons.
There are very few bright spots in Canadian hockey this year. With almost all of the Canadian teams struggling, it is no wonder that many Canadian fans have expressed anger or disappointment at the state of their beloved national sport. After all, it has been almost two decades since a Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup, and this seasons’ odds of that happening are historically low. But, at the very least, there is one thing Canadian fans can hang their hat on: Team Canada has won the gold medal in ice hockey two times in a row, and there is no reason why a third could not be in the near future.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.