With Toews Injuy, Anyone Can Win The Western Conference

In this woeful season, where serious injuries are piling up at an alarming rate, one of the most significant is the upper body injury to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. With the exit of the best player on the best team in the Western Conference, anyone, even lowly Phoenix has a chance to win the Western Conference.

This year there is a significant difference in the quality of play between the two conferences. Teams in the Eastern Conference play competitive hockey, while the western teams mostly play stumblebum style. Only the Blackhawks had the winning record the best eastern teams have. It is the mediocrity of the west that is keeping bad teams at the bottom of the conference like Phoenix still alive for the playoffs and even to reach the top.

Of the remaining teams, only St. Louis and San Jose, last year’s conference finalists have respectable winning records. The rest hover a few games above and below the .500 mark.

Almost all the remaining teams have some merit that gives them hope to win this mediocre conference. As noted above, San Jose and St. Louis are trying to build on their break-through playoff performances of last year. Los Angeles is trying to find the elusive formula of a few years ago that allowed them to win their first two Stanley Cups. Nashville made the big trade for P. K. Subban from Montreal but still has not found any consistent winning chemistry. Edmonton has finally put in an overdue appearance after drafting all those number one picks for the past decade. Anaheim might be back after rehiring its Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle. There is mediocre team Minnesota who have hired mediocre coach Bruce Boudreau. Winnipeg got an A-1 draft pick in Patrik Laine but they do not have much other talent.

But even without Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks are still the team to beat. They have won it all three times before so they know how to keep their poise in difficult circumstances. They have Joel Quenneville’s great coaching and they still have lots of other star players, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa. But Toews’ injury is a real blow.

If a Western Conference team wants to make a statement and get hot, there is not a more opportune time. There is no time set for Toews’ return. Can Chicago hang in there until he comes back? Will they fall without him? The western team that can right itself and put together a long winning streak will be the beneficiary.

Gerard Gallant Becomes The First Scapegoat Of The New NHL Season

And now for some funny news. Want to know why the Florida Panthers seldom make the playoffs? Want to know why they usually have poor yearly attendance? Want to know why when people talk about shifting franchises to better markets, Florida is always mentioned? (Holding your breaths Quebec fans?) Well Florida just fired its coach, Gerard Gallant yesterday after losing to the improving Carolina Hurricane.

Poor Gallant just didn’t do enough. After all he only led the Panthers to a division title last year, was the runner up in the coach of the year ballot, was only one of four coaches in Panther history to get them into the playoffs, had a total record of 95-65-25 with Florida, and even had a winning 11-10-1 record this year when he was fired. No, he just didn’t do enough.

It is decisions like this that makes people with knowledge about hockey smile, shake their heads, and then laugh to themselves when they think and talk about the Panthers. The Florida (Miami) market is one of the most precarious in the NHL (along with Phoenix, etc.), and a large reason for it being so fragile is the horrible record it has amassed since it made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, two decades ago. Since then they have iced bad teams, drafted poorly, failed to develop their young talent properly, and seldom made the playoffs leading to declining interest in hockey until the very existence of the franchise is at stake.

The coach takes the material that the management gives him and tries to mold it into a winning team. Gallant’s winning record since he joined the Panthers shows that he did a good job. But the coach does not build the team and the Panthers horrible record of the past twenty years is an account of bad management and ownership. Even last year with its division title, there were symbols of the  rot at the upper levels of the team. When your best player is legend Jaromir Jagr, now 44 years old, well past his prime (this is no derogatory comment on Jagr’s play last year or his remarkable career), what does that say about the rest of your team?

Where are your top draft choices after twenty years of horrible play? How are they being developed? Where are the smart trades to add to the core of young talent you are allegedly building a team around? If Jagr is your best player, you are not drafting the right young players or developing them properly. The only achievement that is noteworthy is that you managed to sign the right free agent, well past his prime, with some talent still going for him.

In assuming the coaching duties, General Manager Tom Rowe is starting to put his own position in the organization on the line. A few years ago the Toronto Maple Leafs were contending for the Stanley Cup playoffs when they suddenly fired coach Randy Carlyle, a former Stanley Cup winning coach with Anaheim. The Leafs promptly fell out of contention and finished near the bottom of the standings. If Rowe fails to inspire the players, that could well happen here and then the team he helped to build (his achievement?) will be exposed for all to see.

If that happens, the ownership and management may well regret firing Gallant. It may then be said that Gallant’s coaching was not only benefitting the Florida players, it was also concealing and protecting the management and ownership above him, those who have now showed an eagerness to dump him.

So the Florida Panthers and their ownership and management now embark on a new perilous path. Hockey fans may not be able to take this team seriously and the existence of the team may not last much longer in Miami if they continue to be chronic losers, but they are still always good for a laugh.

NHL 2016-17 Season First Quarter Report

Now that most of the NHL teams have reached the 20 game mark are there any patterns present that can be discerned? Can any teams be said to have won or lost the off season?

Go East Young Hockey Player

Except for the Chicago Blackhawks, not one other team from the western conference really belongs in the highly competitive east. Most of the other current western playoff position holders are mediocre at best and it is their mediocrity which is still keeping the bad western teams at the bottom of the conference in contention.

Winner Of The Big Trade 1

Nashville is finally starting to play like everyone said they would but Montreal is on top of the tougher eastern conference. Shea Weber is thriving playing for the Canadiens. Victory to Montreal.

Winner Of The Big Trade 2

Edmonton started out running away with the western conference with new defenseman Adam Larsson and then faded. But they still are finally in the playoffs where there should have been years ago with all the number one picks they owned. But then New Jersey caught fire with Taylor Hall finally adding some scoring punch to the excellent New Jersey defense until he got injured. Winner: Edmonton just barely but only because Hall is injured.

Too Many Mr. Brittles

Taylor Hall is injured again which made him expendable by Edmonton. His injury cripples New Jersey’s mediocre attack. Sidney Crosby started off the season with a concussion. Steve Stamkos is out long term again thwarting Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman’s hopes of putting the Lightning over the top and winning the Stanley Cup by signing all his top stars in the off season. Connor McDavid was injured last year and has a history of injuries in junior hockey. Fortunately for Edmonton he is still around. Jack Eichel is still injured for Buffalo. Too many key players are getting serious long term injuries. Is the game too rough or are these players not built for hockey?

Last Hurrah

Detroit Redwings and Vancouver Canucks

The Steve Yzerman – Nicklas Lidstrom era is coming to an end in Detroit with only Henrik Zetterberg remaining of the once star-studded lineup which would win the Redwings four more Stanley Cups. At one time Detroit went unbeaten for six games, proving they are still competitive but since then they have tumbled down the eastern conference standings. The problem is they have not had high draft picks for such a long time and have had no chance to build a new championship era around younger players. But they made the most of a glorious period. The same cannot be said of the Vancouver Canucks where the Sedin brother era is winding up. The Canucks went unbeaten in their first four games but then reality caught up with them. But whereas Detroit won four Stanley Cups, Vancouver won none. The best the Sedins could do in their prime was take the Canucks once to the Stanley Cup Final. Soon they will retire and join Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden as the all time best Canucks so far. Vancouver is still waiting for its first golden age.

Winners In The Off Season

1. Montreal Canadiens

General Manager Marc Bergevin looked for players who did not respond last year when goaltender Carey Price got injured and the team collapsed. He zeroed in on P K Subban and putting his own neck on the chopping block, traded Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. The high risk trade made him look like a genius. Weber is thriving in Montreal which early in the season assumed the top spot in the tough eastern conference and has not relinquished it since.

2. Edmonton Oilers

For now at least Edmonton remains in a playoff position in part thanks to a mediocre western conference. They are finally showing something after years of number one draft picks. But two more of those number one picks, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov are gone, their careers wasted in Edmonton. The Oilers started out good but have tumbled back recently. Edmonton better hope that their best number one pick Connor McDavid is not a “Mr Brittle” or else they could continue to fall and again be on the outside looking in once again.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

Coach John Tortorella is getting the Blue Jackets to play the way he wanted horrible Team USA to play in the World Cup, which they conspicuously failed to do. Columbus is playing good, competitive hockey and if they can keep it up for the rest of the year, they should make the playoffs. A big part of the reason is the play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky who showed he was back to par in the World Cup by keeping a bad Russian team competitive and the score respectable in a loss against Canada who fired 47 shots against him.

4. New Jersey Devils

They were always a good defensive team but then they added former number one pick Taylor Hall from Edmonton to give them a decent attack. New Jersey had one of the best records in the east but now Hall is hurt long term. Did they add enough elsewhere to hang on to their playoff spot while Hall is out?

Still The Teams To Beat

Other teams have improved but until otherwise proved, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are still the teams to beat in their conferences until someone eliminates them.

Did The Right Thing But It’s Not Enough

Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg and Toronto both drafted the right players, Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews but both teams are still out of the playoffs. The high point for Winnipeg was a shut out of the Chicago Blackhawks on home ice but instead of taking off from that victory the Jets have tumbled out of the playoffs. They simply do not have enough talent. The Maple Leafs hired the right coach, then the right general manager, drafted Matthews and are still paying for the horrible ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund that ran the team into the ground.

Spinning Wheels

Washington Capitals, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues

The Capitals and Wild did nothing noteworthy in the off season to improve their talent level except the Wild hired ex-Washington coach Bruce Boudreau to be the new helmsman. St. Louis lost talent.

Except for getting T. J. Oshie, the Captials have not significantly improved their talent level for a long time and Alexander Ovechkin (as shown again during the recent World Cup) has never shown that he can take a team past mediocrity. They could not beat the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and probably not the Tampa Bay Lightning too. Do they think by doing nothing in the off season that they can beat them now? Worse still is that many other teams might have caught up to the Capitals. These include a returned New York Rangers, Montreal, Columbus, New Jersey, and maybe Ottawa and Boston. All things point to the usual playoff result. Maybe win a first round playoff series or not and if they do win, eliminated for sure in the second round.

Minnesota was a bad team that could not make the playoffs and then signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, patted themselves on the back that they could now make the playoffs and have not added any significant talent since. They can beat bad playoff teams like Colorado and Winnipeg but never a true contender like Chicago. Funnily enough, the same can be said of new coach Bruce Boudreau’s playoff record with Washington and Anaheim. The current weakness of the western conference makes them look better than they really are.

St. Louis made a breakthrough last year to reach the conference final but they lost talent in the off season. Like Minnesota, the mediocrity of the western conference is making them look better than they would be if they were located in the east.

For all three teams, the true test of how good they are is the playoffs and not the regular season. Over all three hangs the phrase: “Show me”.

Off Season Losers

1. New York Islanders

The Islanders finally won a playoff round after going ages without showing anything and were poised to join the top teams in the east as true contenders. Instead they lost significant talent during the off season and now are close to being the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention. Does management and ownership think that star player John Tavares can do it all by himself? There are deep problems with this team, not at the player level (see below).

2. Arizona Coyotes

The NHL fought tooth and nail to keep this team in Phoenix and out of Hamilton, Ontario, and after one decent playoff appearance, they have done nothing since. Phoenix is said to have the worst attendance year after year and the team’s failure to improve in the off season and their current horrible record, tied for the worst in the entire NHL is sure going to pack them in. When are they going to do something to show they really belong in the NHL?

Who Are They Kidding?

New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets

The Islanders and Jets play in 15,000 seat arenas. That seating capacity was good enough up till the 1980s but now the median seating capacity for the NHL is approximately 18,500. The size of your arena and the revenue it can generate is part of your team. It enables your ownership and management to afford more star players. New York and Winnipeg are being hurt by the size of the arenas they play in. Both of them are not currently in a playoff position.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Islanders used to be able to add top talent. First Dennis Potvin, then Bryan Trottier, and then Mike Bossy, plus a host of top secondary players like Butch Goring. Instead of adding talent to John Tavares, the Islanders now lose it.

Winnipeg built its current arena to be the home of the AHL Manitoba Moose, not a returned Winnipeg Jets. But Gary Bettman knew Winnipeg wanted the Jets back desperately and Dave Thomson and Mark Chipman were first class owners, so Bettman was willing to overlook the size of the new arena when the Atlanta Thrashers went under. I used to feud with the Manitoba Mythbusters pressure group over this issue. The Islanders and Jets only have two star players, John Tavares and Patrik Laine. If they cannot afford any more they can never ice a Stanley Cup winning team and might as well not be in league. When will the size of the arenas become an active issue with these two franchises?

Welcome

Las Vegas Golden Knights will become the 31st NHL team. Let’s hope they get the support that the city’s fans promised and not become another Phoenix Coyotes. But that is at least better than …

Where’s The Owner?

Gary Bettman wants the Quebec Nordiques and the $500 million expansion fee back in the NHL. So does the NHL Board including Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. But the owner of bidder Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau made inappropriate racial remarks about Molson after he lost owning the Montreal Canadiens to Molson Breweries, dooming any attempt to join the NHL Board long before a single shovel went in the ground to build the new Quebec City Videotron. (Forget the nonsense that the NHL turned down Quebec because of unbalanced conferences and a low Canadian dollar which they proclaim in public. This is the real reason the Quebecor bid was rejected.) So far Gary Bettman’s attempts to find a suitable Quebec City owner behind the scenes have not produced anything. Will something develop in the next quarter of the NHL’s season?

Quebec Nordiques Fans Have To Make Themselves Heard – Again

It started with the fans. Now they may have to finish it. How badly do the Quebec Nordiques fans want their team back?

The NHL wants the Nordiques back. There is no problem with the fan-base and Quebec finally built a suitable arena, the Videotron.

The problem is at the ownership level. The owner of the bidder for a new Quebec NHL franchise, Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau is unsuitable in the NHL’s eyes. His company tried and failed to buy the Montreal Canadiens, and when he failed, he made inappropriate racial remarks about the new owner, Geoff Molson and then made no attempt to apologize or reconcile with him. Peladeau was already a suspect potential owner in the eyes of many of the NHL Governors because of his known support of the separatist provincial political party Parti Quebecois which has passed discriminatory legislation against the English language in the Province of Quebec in the past. His remarks merely confirmed their worst fears about him and made NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s rejection of Quebecor’s bid automatic long before a single shovel started construction on the Videotron.

That left Bettman in a bind. In 2010, he made a tour of the three cities who lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered terms for readmission. Also, probably in private, he told the Quebec City mayor and the Provincial premier that Peladeau was an unsuitable owner, but to keep building the arena using taxpayers’ dollars while he found a suitable owner for a returned Quebec franchise.

But he faces the same problem that occurred in 1995 when the Nordiques left Quebec: There may not be a suitable French Canadian owner who wants to own an NHL team. If no such person exists, that leaves only one option left; Quebec must accept financial help from outside, either from native anglophone Quebecers, Americans, or investors from “English Canada”. And as mentioned in a previous article, despite his offer to Quebec in 2010, despite his promises to the premier and mayor, despite a great arena like the Videotron, despite s bidder offering the $500 million expansion fee, and despite the majority of the NHL Board including Geoff Molson wanting the Nordiques back, the NHL will not tolerate an unsuitable owner. They want a Nordiques team owned, managed, and coached by tolerant non-racists, with no political bias. Until such an owner appears, the NHL is quite willing to carry on without Quebec – probably forever.

So the question on whether Quebec gets the Nordiques back may rest on whether Quebec City is prepared to accept an owner from outside the province. Such ownership is not unprecedented.   Ottawa and Winnipeg are owned by people from Toronto. When the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball were created in 1977, much of the financing came from Montreal. But no help is going to come to Quebec if an outside investor fears retribution from racists, acting through a Parti Quebecois Provincial Government, perhaps led by Peladeau himself. The result is the current stalemate.

Gary Bettman must need work behind the scenes to resolve this matter so it is difficult to know what is going on, if there is any progress being made. It is suspected by this author that the resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche may be part of Bettman’s plan to build an ownership group around him.

But things would be a lot easier and faster if Quebec City were to accept an owner from the United States or “English Canada”. And if there are not suitable French Canadian owners available, that is what might have to happen for Quebec to get a team.

There is nothing wrong with the Videotron or the fan-base. The Quebec City market includes all of the eastern part of the Province of Quebec plus the four Maritime provinces. Quebec is the coming city in Canada, firmly entrenched as the seventh largest city in the country. Soon it will have over one million residents. Quebec City with a proper NHL size arena like the Videotron, which it never had before, is a sure winner, one of the stronger and better NHL franchises. It is a wonderful investment opportunity. But all potential outside investors fear French Canadian racists.

So maybe it is time for Quebec Nordiques fans to speak up. First of all they have to decide if they themselves are willing to accept an “English owner” and if they do, then they have to tell the NHL, particularly Gary Bettman, and outside investors that they are willing to accept such ownership. Finally and most importantly, they have to tell all their politicians at every level; municipal, provincial, and federal – particularly Peladeau – that any attempt at passing discriminatory legislation that impedes the operation of a returned Nordiques under English ownership is unpopular and will be politically punished.

It was the Quebec Nordiques fans that have brought matters to this stage in the first place. Ever since the team left in 1995, the fans which had always loyally supported the team wanted the Nordiques back. Eventually 80,000 of them signed a petition that let the politicians know that steps to bring back the Nordiques, including spending tax dollars on a new arena was popular and would win votes. Now the fans have to speak out about the ownership issue and let the politicians, investors, and the NHL know what they want.

This issue is not just confined to the NHL. The CFL, NFL, MLB, NBA and major league soccer are not going to come to Quebec if there are racial and political issues involved. The Olympics and other top international sports events will not be awarded to Quebec if such controversies raise their ugly head. The very future of sports – perhaps even more – in Quebec is at stake.

Right now there is a stalemate over the ownership issue and the NHL has shown by its rejection of Quebecor that it is prepared to wait indefinitely until a proper owner ever appears. But Nordiques fans could hasten the day for a returned team if they are willing to accept outside ownership and let the politicians, investors, and the NHL know it. When the Nordiques left in 1995, the puck was left in the fans’ end of the ice until they got things moving. Now the puck is back in their corner of the ice again and they have to speak up once more if they want a Quebec Nordiques again. Let the same question that started this article finish it. How badly do Quebec Nordiques fans want their team back?

The Bottom Line: The NHL Is Quite Prepared To Live Without Quebec City If They Have To

Let’s recap briefly. The NHL turned down Quebecor’s bid not because of the imbalance of the conferences or the low Canadian dollar which is the public explanation they give, but because the owner of Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau made insensitive and inappropriate remarks about the owner of the Montreal Canadiens, Geoff Molson, concerning his suitability of owning the team because he is an anglophone Quebecer. Peladeau made these remarks about Molson after his company lost its attempt to own the Canadiens to Molson Breweries.

Peladeau was already a suspect potential owner in many of the NHL Governors’ eyes because of his support of the separatist provincial political party, Parti Quebecois which has passed restrictive legislation against the English language in Quebec in the past. His remarks confirmed their worst fears about him and when Peladeau announced that his company would now actively support a new arena for Quebec City and the return of the lost Quebec Nordiques, any bid by Quebecor was doomed to failure long before any construction of the new Videotron began unless Peladeau apologized and became reconciled with the NHL Board. He made no attempt to do so and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned down Quebecor’s bid without a second thought.

In 2010, Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission to the league. Winnipeg is back in and now Quebec is trying to comply.

The NHL and Gary Bettman are by no means anti-Canadian though many Canadians like to cling to that myth. Probably the majority of the NHL Board including Geoff Molson wants Quebec City back in the league. They like the Videotron, they want the Montreal-Quebec rivalry back and they want that $500 million expansion fee. But they cannot tolerate a public racist on the NHL Board. Naturally Gary Bettman would back Geoff Molson to the hilt against Pierre Karl Peladeau.

While the Videotron, costing nearly $400 million taxpayers dollars was being built, Bettman was seen consorting with the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier. Probably in private he told them that Peladeau was an unsuitable owner but to keep building the arena while behind the scenes he would handle the ownership problem.

But since the decision to accept Las Vegas and reject Quebec, there have been no public announcements. To show that they favor a returned Quebec team, the NHL played one of its World Cup exhibition games in the Videotron. Everything in this matter must needs be done behind the scenes. It is suspected by this author, that the resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche is really a step to put together a potential ownership group involving him. At the exhibition game, Roy confirmed that he would do all he could to get a team back in Quebec City.

The problem is the same one that existed back in 1995 when the Nordiques left Quebec, the only change being there is no longer an arena problem. But back in 1995, no new owner stepped forward to save the Nordiques and they left for Denver.

They are several solutions to this problem but they are being hampered by Quebec history and racism. Before going into specifics it is important to remember that Quebec City has been like a “hinterland” in its relationship to “English Canada”. It has been mostly a homogenous French Canadian city. The “melting pot” where French and English Canadians have lived side by side and intermingled has been mostly Montreal. But now Quebec, the emerging city of Canada, soon to have over one million residents, has had a taste of being a member of the NHL and wants more. But NHL teams are composed of multi-lingual players and owned and managed by racially tolerant people. That makes French Canadian separatism and racism passe and intolerable.

The ideal solution is to find a suitable non-racist French Canadian owner(s), but there are few such persons around. The very fact the owner should be French really puts a hamper in Bettman’s efforts to find a suitable Quebec City owner behind the scenes. The other obvious solution, accepting help from anglophone Quebecers, Americans, and rich people from “English Canada” is virtually closed. It is not unprecedented. Ottawa and Winnipeg are owned by Torontonians but nobody is going to step forward – even though a Quebec City team is a sure winner, a wonderful investment opportunity, one of the better NHL teams – when they fear French Canadian racists, perhaps even headed by a vengeful Peladeau himself, acting through a Parti Quebecois Provincial Government, passing vengeful legislation against them.

The fact there is still official silence in this matter by the NHL shows how difficult it is proving to find a suitable owner. Bettman would love to bring back a Quebec City team for 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday, and Quebec (Bulldogs) being one of the founding clubs of the NHL in its own Centennial anniversary. But because of the ownership problem, there is now a stalemate.

And this stalemate shows that there are limits to what the NHL will do. Despite Bettman’s invitation in 2010, despite finally having a suitable NHL arena, despite his promises to the Quebec City mayor and Provincial Premier and other important people, despite his encouragement of spending taxpayer on a new arena, despite the fact that Bettman and the majority of the NHL Board including Geoff Molson want Quebec City back, despite the $500 million expansion fee, the NHL will not tolerate an unsuitable owner.

While Bettman and others will continue to work behind the scenes to bring back the Nordiques, the NHL is quite prepared to continue to live without them including that $500 million expansion fee. There are three choices; a suitable French Canadian owner appears; Quebec accepts and tolerates a team owned and operated by “foreigners”; or Quebec remains outside the NHL.

The continuing silence, the need to work behind the scenes makes it virtually impossible to know if any progress is being made. The only thing that is known for sure is the NHL’s policy: Quebec we want to love you, but there is a limit to our love. Canada may allow you pass discriminatory legislation, may allow you to make inappropriate remarks about its other residents, may allow you even to separate – but we will not. Either you conform to our standards – meaning that you will be owned and operated by tolerant non-racists with no political bias – or you will remain like some Victorian child with your nose pressed to the glass pane of a candy shop in the shivering cold, on the outside looking in forever.

Hartley Made The Calgary Flames Better Than They Were

Too often the scapegoat is the coach where blame should have been placed elsewhere. That is the situation the Calgary Flames find themselves in today. The decision to fire coach Bob Hartley is coming back to haunt them in a hurry. It is only mid-November but the Flames are almost out of playoff contention already. The only thing that is keeping their chances alive is the overall weakness of the Western Conference teams. If the Flames were located in the Eastern Conference, they would be six points out of a playoff spot with no games in hand.

It was a hasty decision to fire Hartley, a coach who had won a Stanley Cup with Colorado, less than a year after he won the NHL Coach of the Year award for getting the Flames into the playoffs – the only Calgary coach ever to win the award – and winning a playoff round in 2015. In 2016, the Flames fell back to Earth and Hartley was made the scapegoat for their collapse.

The truth is that the Flames simply do not have the talent to compete. There is no potential young superstar like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, or Patrik Laine to build a team around. The Flames have not had a superstar since Jerome Iginla was in his prime. Hartley simply got his team of average talent to play harder and combined with steady goaltending, he squeezed everything he could out of it. When the goaltending collapsed and the talent could improve no further, Hartley could not camouflage things any more and the Flames fell into the position they now occupy. The Flames are only another version of Don Cherry’s “lunch pail” teams, trying to make up with hard work for the talent they lack.

The real blame for this situation is the ownership and management of the Flames which has not got the talent either by drafting or trading to compete even in the weak Western Conference. Sometimes coaches like Hartley can make chicken soup out of chicken feathers but it seldom happens. Management and ownership were riding on his coattails and when he could take the team no further, their acquisition of “quality” talent has been laid bare for all to see.

In the middle of all this mess is coach Glen Gulutzan in his first chance as an NHL head coach. Normally it is an exciting chance to get out of the minor leagues and up to the NHL, but he has come into one of the worst situations a new coach can enter. He would have been better to have declined the post and wait for something better to come along. Unless he can turn this team around – which the experienced Hartley, a Stanley Cup winning coach could not do – his NHL coaching career could be over after less than one season. Fans expect him to bring the Flames back to the playoff level Hartley got them to, but the early results show that the opposite is happening. The Flames are already competing for a high draft pick, not a playoff spot.

Right now, being a member of the Calgary Flames organization is not a happy place to be. This team needs talent, lots more of it to be competitive again. Changes have to come. The only question is will they include Gulutzan and those above him.

Make The Memorial Cup An International Trophy

During the recent World Cup, one ominous fact became apparent: Canada is pulling away from the rest of the world in quality and quantity of player. It has won 16 straight significant international matches dating back to the Vancouver Olympics. That is not a fluke. It can be truly said that during the Sidney Crosby era, hockey is a Canadian game.

This is great for Canada but bad for international hockey as a whole. There is no real competition for Canada any more. Before there was only one significant gap in hockey; between the traditional “big 7″ countries and the rest of the world. Now there are two gaps; Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ and the gap between them and the rest of the world.

After the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there were boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But in the 44 years since 1972 there has been no expansion of quality of play from a “big 7″ to even so much as a “big 10″ or ideally a “big 16″ or better. There have been a few coaches from “big 7″ countries sent abroad to coach teams in other countries and occasionally the NHL hosts a few “clinics” like Los Angeles and Boston recently did for players from China. It is obviously not enough.

It is not that the problem is unrecognized. When Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr decided to set up “Team Europe” and “Team North America” instead of inviting more national teams to participate in the World Cup, it was an open admission that there was a significant gap in quality between the “big 7″ and the rest of the world. Hockey is still confined to the same narrow base that existed in 1972. If Bettman and Fehr want hockey’s World Cup to approach the prestige and stature of soccer’s World Cup, the gap in quality of play has to be rectified by raising the standard play in the rest of the world to that of Canada. Quality of play is probably the main problem in international hockey right now. On the women’s side, it is horrendous with only Canada and the United States icing quality teams. If the quality of hockey is not significantly improved outside of North America, women’s hockey could be expelled from the Olympics.

The results of the World Cup were alarming about the quality of play internationally. Team Europe and Team North America were supposed to be credible 7th and 8th place opposition teams, not the second and third best teams in the tournament. Bettman will be happy to accept congratulations for his idea but he can hardly be happy that the national teams that were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opposition played so poorly. Team USA became the whipping boy of the tournament when they could not win a game. Russia gave up 47 shots in its semi-final loss to Canada and the score would have been higher if not for the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. Sweden could not beat either Europe or North America. The Czechs could only beat horrible USA. Finland also failed to win a game. Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team and its members became the core of underdog Europe. There is a huge gap between Canada and the rest of the world.

What accounts for this gap in player development? It does not come about at the adult professional level but at the junior level and younger. Canada simply has the finest system for developing hockey talent in the world, most notably its CHL junior league system, a group of approximately 60 teams located mostly in Canada with a few American franchises, in three leagues, based in Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec and the Maritimes. Every year, the winners of the three leagues plus a host team play for the Memorial Cup, the trophy symbolizing Canada’s junior championship.

chl

The CHL is the foundation of Canada’s current vast superiority over the rest of world. Almost every American and European boy wants to play for one of its teams, so much so that the CHL has had to put a limit on how many Europeans a team can have. These boys want to come to Canada because they know that the training and development they receive will be the best in the world and if they distinguish themselves against Canada’s best young players, there is a good chance they will become high NHL draft picks. And occasionally, a European country will send an all star junior, national team to tour and play against all star teams from all three CHL branches. There is no better way to measure their players or test how their own system is developing its young talent than to play against Canada’s best young, junior players.

But if young Europeans and Americans have to come to Canada to get proper development, what does that say about their own national junior systems? They are obviously not doing the job that the CHL is doing. The result is 16 straight Canadian victories, two Olympic gold medals, and now a World Cup triumph. Total domination. Everybody else is playing for second place.

The obvious truth is that at least the junior systems of the rest of the world need a severe overhaul. Unless a better system is discovered, the best thing to do is to set up junior leagues in every country modeled on the CHL. It is a vast undertaking but unless someone else has a better idea, for now it seems to be the only way of dealing with the quality of play problem that is holding back the development of international hockey.

And the best person to head such a tough undertaking is CHL Commissioner Dave Branch. Under Branch, the CHL keeps churning out top junior talent, Canadian, American, and European every year. There is no one else better equipped for such a task.

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First, the countries that want to take part and have the ability and resources to implement such systems have to be identified. Then people who know how to own, operate, manage, and coach junior league franchises have to come forward and the new leagues set up. These new leagues would be directly affiliated with the CHL. Branch would become the overall Commissioner of all these leagues, probably with Deputy Commissioners for each country to handle routine matters.

At the end of every season, the winners of every country’s national junior championship would play in a tournament for the Memorial Cup. It would no longer symbolize the championship of Canada but become the trophy that is presented yearly to the junior team champion of the world. There is no need for inter-country junior play during the regular season but it could occur if travel and expenses permit.

Hopefully this will standardize development of junior hockey players around the world and bring all players up to the level of Canadian players. It will close the gap in quality not only between Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ but at least between the dozen “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level of play since 1972 and before. Then the World Cup that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr idealized about in September could become a reality.