Damien Cox: Canadian NHL teams have to learn to navigate the cap if they’re going to navigate to the Cup

There’s guarded optimism in Vancouver and Edmonton. Degrees of disappointment in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. Continued delusion in Montreal. Acceptance in Ottawa.

This is the state of the national hockey psyche at the NHL all-star break. Despite the NHL’s efforts to add meaning by the inclusion of female players in the mid-season classic, all-star weekend remains a pointless, purposeless exercise for a league that swears it can’t possibly go to the Winter Olympics because it interrupts the regular season.

The break does provide a momentary pause to assess the state of all things NHL. There’s also a larger question at hand that’s worth asking: Shouldn’t Canada’s NHL teams be doing a lot better?

Before you go defending this team or that team, take a look at the standings, specifically the points percentages of the 31 NHL teams.

Not a Canadian club in the top 10. Here we are, almost 27 years since a team from the Great White North won the Stanley Cup, and not one of the seven clubs is in the top 10 of the NHL at the 2020 all-star break.

Four of the seven clubs have made an appearance in the Cup final since the Canadiens won in 19

93, but that’s it. There were legitimate issues around the turn of the century when the Canadian dollar lagged and there was great concern about the financial futures of all the Canadian teams except the Maple Leafs. That was in the pre-salary cap days of the NHL, and those were meaningful reasons holding Canadian teams back.

But nowadays? There’s no excuse. In fact, after years of wondering why all the best young talent seemed to go to U.S. teams, Canada has been blessed by an extraordinary influx of talent in the past five years.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner in Toronto. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton. Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in Calgary. Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor in Winnipeg. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot in Ottawa.

Only Montreal has missed out on the truly high-end youngsters, and the Habs still have high hopes for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Given all this talent, shouldn’t there be more success north of the border by now? Shouldn’t there be a team with a serious shot at the Cup?

Right now, Vancouver is the best Canadian team with the 13th best winning percentage in the league at .592. That’s really good stuff for the B.C. crowd given last season and the expectations of this season. Still, it’s miles behind the NHL’s best, specifically Washington, St. Louis and Boston. Even Pittsburgh, without Sidney Crosby most of the season, is purring along with a .670 winning percentage.

In Canada, after the Canucks, there’s Edmonton (14th, .582), Toronto (15th, .582), Calgary (16th, .570), Winnipeg (21st, .529), Montreal (25th, .510) and Ottawa (28th, .438). Given all the losing that took place in many of these cities to position these clubs to get all that prime young talent, there’s a lot of underachieving going on, wouldn’t you say?

The exception would be the Canucks. Three superb draft picks — Brock Boeser (23rd overall in 2015), Elias Pettersson (fifth in ’17) and Quinn Hughes (seventh in ’18) — have helped Vancouver improve more quickly than many anticipated. An outstanding season from goalie Jakob Markstrom has also been pivotal.

The beauty of the situation right now for GM Jim Benning is that both Pettersson and Hughes still have one year to go on their entry-level deals after this season. So the problematic salary cap considerations that have been forced upon the Leafs, Jets and Oilers are still in the future for the Canucks.

The Flames have been able to weather their cap challenges a little better. About $20 million (U.S.) for Tkachuk, Monahan and Gaudreau isn’t bad when you consider the Leafs are paying $32 million for Matthews, Nylander and Marner. Calgary also has the reigning Norris Trophy winner, captain Mark Giordano, playing at the affordable salary of $6.75 million.

That said, the best NHL teams — the Capitals, Bruins and Blues — have been able to navigate their salary cap challenges far more smoothly than any of the Canadian teams. Part of that is timing. All these good young players have come north in recent years when the demands of players coming off their entry-level contracts have skyrocketed. That’s left Canadian teams paying enormous salaries to twentysomethings who are still developing as complete players.

Compare that to Washington, whose highest-paid players — Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson — are all in their prime with lots of playoff experience. None of those players are making as much as Matthews, Marner or John Tavares.

Boston, meanwhile, has done a brilliant job somehow making David Krejci and his $7.25-million salary an artificial team cap. Ditto for St. Louis and Vladimir Tarasenko’s $7.5-million salary. It’s no accident both the Bruins and the Blues have excellent depth.

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So while all the talent that has come to Canadian teams via the draft in recent years has added a lot of star power, it hasn’t produced results partly because of the cap dollars required to pay those players. Or at least the way those cap dollars have been managed.

That’s not the only reason why there isn’t a Canadian team better than 13th right now. But it’s part of it. By the time the Canucks are really prepared to win, they’ll be paying Pettersson, Boeser and Hughes close to $30 million combined.

For many of these Canadian teams, it was tough sledding when the dollar was low and they felt poor. Now, they can spend what every other team spends, but they’re finding an even playing field isn’t necessarily easier to navigate.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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