Canucks still Canada's best hope
Every year we take a look at the NHL's Canadian content and project if this is the year the Stanley Cup will return north of the border for the first time since 1993. That year, Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens won an unfathomable 10 postseason contests in overtime and denied Wayne Gretzky a fabled ending to the five-year plan of bringing the Cup to California. Since then, Canada-based teams have been in the Cup final five times, including four of the last seven seasons.
Statistically, that's a pretty fair representation, especially when you factor in that the NHL went from eight Canada-based teams out of 24 when the Habs prevailed in 1993 to six out of 26 by 1996 and eventually six of 30 by 2000. So, to get a team to the final 57 percent of the time with only 20 percent membership is already a positive trend.
Now, with the Winnipeg Jets returning to the fold via Atlanta, Canada-based membership is up slightly to 23.3 percent. Does that make the prospect any better for Canada's continued participation in the Stanley Cup Final and ultimately the defining moment of "bringing the Cup home"?
Well, early returns aren't promising. Not that the addition of the Jets to the playoff potential was going to be a tipping point anyway. At 2-5-1, they are proving that you can move from Atlanta to Winnipeg easier than you can take the Thrashers out of the Jets. And last season, of all Canada-based teams, only the Montreal Canadiens and the Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks made the playoffs.
Monday night's action underscored where most of those teams are right now -- already scrambling for wins and in jeopardy of putting themselves in the unenviable position of coming out of October in full chase mode -- as all three teams in action lost.
Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a fine start at 5-2-1, even after losing in Philly 4-1. Phil Kessel leads the NHL in goals (9) and points (15), which accounts for where the team is currently. It is a terrific start by one of the most gifted goal scorers. Kessel's all-around game -- meaning his play without the puck -- is better, which is encouraging for Leaf fans everywhere.
And it hasn't been Kessel alone, as captain Dion Phaneuf has rekindled the fire that made him a menace early in his career. Phaneuf seems to be settling into the leadership role that was so badly needed in Toronto, and is tied for the league lead at plus-7.
The Leafs will be all about consistency and sustainability. Last season, they got off to a similarly encouraging 5-2-1 start only to give it all back and then some with a 0-6-2 skid. If they do prove to have too little to be there in April, the prospect is very real that, of the Canadian seven, only the Vancouver Canucks will make the playoffs.
The Ottawa Senators are in full rebuild mode. The Calgary Flames should be. The Canadiens have lost five-straight and look completely overwhelmed at this juncture.
And the young Edmonton Oilers might not be ready to endure the long regular-season road to the playoffs quite yet. If Nik Khabibulin puts together a season of redemption, though, the Oilers will be the most intriguing team in Canada to follow. They are already one of the most fun to watch anywhere and Tom Renney is the perfect coach to guide them along. Still, they have a long way to go.
I know, I know. It's early. Lots can happen. But, so far, I haven't seen anything that changes