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From high hopes to bottom feeding: A look at Canada’s teams from how they were expected to perform to where they placed at the end of the regular season.

April 20, 2010

At the beginning of the year, it was fair to say that 4 of the 6 Canadian teams had legitimate playoff aspirations.  Last year Vancouver had made the second round of the playoffs, Calgary and Montreal the first round, Ottawa had an aberrant season and missed the playoffs, Edmonton and Toronto didn’t make the playoffs at all. With the regular season now over, it’s time to take a look at how they fared.

Calgary Flames:

After a dismal 1st round exit in 2009, the Flames obtained one of the most sought-after acquisitions in Jay Bouwmeester and also brought in highly acclaimed Brent Sutter as coach.  With the already stellar goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff, all-star scoring forward Jarome Iginla and an impeccably strong defence that could only improve with the addition of Jay-Bo, Calgary looked to be well on the way to a solid berth in the big dance.

However, weaknesses that were thought to have been addressed by the various trades and implementation of Sutter’s new defensive system reappeared. The lack of secondary scoring, a top-six center to feed Iginla the puck, a solid back-up goaltender and the poor defensive play were not fixed by the additions of Olli Jokinen (last season), Matt Stajan (this season), Jay Bouwmeester or Vesa Toskala. In short, all the problems that plagued the Flames last season came back to haunt them again. Little or no cap space affected their depth at all positions, losing Michael Cammalleri lowered their goals for significantly and adding a string of depth players (Stajan, White, Mayers, Hagman, Kotalik, Higgins) did not address that loss.

Essentially, the Flames replaced Cammalleri, Jokinen  and Dion Phaneuf (who may well have worn out his welcome in Cow-town) with those gents above and have nothing to show for it. A team that seems to have no identity couldn’t put a ‘playoff push’ together when things mattered most and finished the year at 10th in the Western Conference.

Edmonton Oilers:

After finishing out of the playoffs last season, there wasn’t too much optimism in the ‘City of Champions’ that better things were in the future.  A new coach in the form of Pat Quinn was to bring a more offensive style to the team which was in turn, to benefit the small, quick, talented forwards that filled the Oiler roster.  Expectations were raised but in reality, a rise in standings was realistic, the playoffs were not.

During the off-season, attempts were made to land that elusive legitimate scoring forward.  Oiler management went to great lengths to try to obtain disgruntled winger Dany Heatley from the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately Heatley had no intentions of playing for the Oil and declined to waive his no-movement clause. Instead, Edmonton didn’t upgrade their offence, but did manage to grab Nikolai Khabibulin (the ‘Bulin Wall) as a free-agent out of Chicago, whom they felt was a significant upgrade in goal. Fan favourite Dwayne Roloson ended up with the New York Islanders.

A small team with no ‘jam’ didn’t get any bigger overnight.  And while the goaltending issue was addressed, including a few future years, goalies can’t score goals.  But they were a young team with some budding young talent in Cogliano, Potulny, Gagner and Penner, so with solid goaltending and defence, it was expected that there would be at least a rise in conference position from the year previous.

Instead, the small team played small, didn’t show any fight for pucks, position or much of anything else. Despite a career year from last year’s dog-house winner of the year, Penner, there was no secondary scoring, their star free-agent goalie got hurt and so did their top forward of the past year (Hemsky). The veterans showed no leadership and the youngsters showed their youth. The results were poorer than anyone could have expected and the Oil finished the year 15th in the conference and dead last in the entire league.

Montreal Canadiens:

The Canadiens 100th anniversary season ended on a sour note, having been swept in the first round by the Boston Bruins. Whole-sale changes were performed.  Bob Gainey allowed a number of high-profile free agents to leave. Captain Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay and Mike Komisarek did not return to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. A wealth of talent that seemingly did not ‘fit in’ to the team’s plans for the future walked off with no return for the Habs. Players were not the only members of the organization to lose their jobs, coach Guy Carbonneau was let go/walked away towards the end of the year.

To replace those losses, Gainey added Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta , Travis Moen and Hal Gill. A new coach in Jacques Martin and later additions in the form of Benoit Pouliot and Marc-Andre Bergeron completed the major changes to the team. A bright future was foretold. The beginning of the season also brought some adversity in the form of a terrible injury to all-star defenceman Andre Markov (who wouldn’t be back until Feb), dissension from youngster Sergei Kostitsyn and a goalie controversy.

Inconsistent play from the leaderless Canadiens was the most obvious problem with the team. Of the new forwards, all three landed near the top of the roster in offensive stats, with over 25 goals each.  But their one-time goalie of the future, Carey Price, struggled and left the cage open for Jaroslav Halak, who provided the solid goaltending required to get them into the playoffs.  The Canadiens would struggle down the stretch and barely squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season to finishing in 8th place in the Eastern Conference.

Ottawa Senators:

After an absolutely horrific season in which the newly hired Craig Hartsburg was dumped in favour of AHL coach Cory Clouston, the Sens missed the playoffs just two years after making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. There was hope at the end of the season as the team seemed to embrace their new coach and were back on track to respectability with a nine game winning streak along the way.  Clouston received a new contract and 2009 was brushed off as an aberration.

The offseason was marred by the news that star sniper Dany Heatley had requested a trade. Unhappy with his treatment under coach Clouston, Heatley wanted out. The very public feud made it difficult to trade the disgruntled winger and it wasn’t until shortly before the season started that Heatley was shipped to San Jose for Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo.  What was expected to be a rebound season was already under a cloud before it started.

Ready to ignore the past, Ottawa was a talented team that had added Alexei Kovalev and expected a full season from Pascal Leclaire. Led by the ever steady captain Daniel Alfredsson and solid d-man Chris Phillips, with several sophomores and exciting new rookie Erik Karlsson, the Senators seemed ready to shed their underachieving ways.  With a return to form from Spezza and Fisher, feisty play from Ruutu and fan favourite Chris Neil and some solid play from youngsters Foligno, Lee , Regin – the Sens had reason to believe.

However, the first half was again up and down for Ottawa. Prized rookie Karlsson made the team and then was dropped right back down to the AHL, the goaltending was again suspect, and while Michalek showed the promise they’d hoped for, Jonathan Cheechoo was a bust and was dropped into the AHL. But Ottawa did start to look like a team after Christmas. A stellar January brought them into contention and also solidified Brian Elliott as the team’s starting goalie. Although the Sens struggled going into the playoffs, they did clinch a solid 5th place in the Eastern Conference.

Toronto Maple Leafs:

The Leafs finished the 08-09 season out of the playoffs after yet another late season spurt.  New GM Brian Burke was not happy at having missed the playoffs and becoming the first Leafs team to do so four years straight.  Blaming a sense of entitlement and lack of talent, Burke started the summer with a goal to make his team harder to play against.

Burke felt the team was too soft on the puck and lacked both the talent and the gumption to improve upon their positions.  At the draft he picked up junior scoring star Nazem Kadri of the London Knights. He spent the offseason adding free agent defencemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin and prized rookie goalie Jonas ‘the Monster’ Gustavsson to shore up the suspect goaltending. The final addition was obtained by trading two first and one second draft pick to Boston for Phil Kessel, a bona fide goalscorer. The Leafs finally felt they were in position to legitimately challenge for a playoff berth.

Kessel wasn’t to play for the first month and during that month; all the things that were supposed to have been cleared up were shown to have just been masked. The new defencemen were still learning the system and the goaltending was still suspect. A lot of hard fought games, but very few wins.  The Leafs couldn’t score and the defence and goalies couldn’t keep the puck out of the net.

At the beginning of the year, the word was that all positions were going to have to be earned.  But large salaries and a limited talent pool severely reduced the abilities of the management to enforce the concept. Finally having run out of patience, wholesale changes were made. Out were Blake, Toskala, Stajan, Mayers, Stempniak, White, Hagman and Ponikarovsky.  In came Dion Phaneuf – a former all-star and Norris trophy candidate and a Conn Smythe trophy winning goalie in J.S. Giguere, as well as Fredrik Sjostrom.  More importantly, the departure of the ‘entitled veterans’ meant playing time for newcomers Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi. Despite the full turnaround, there would still be no playoffs for this Maple Leafs team and they would finish 29th in the league. As always with Leaf fans, there’s always next year.

Vancouver Canucks:

The Vancouver Canucks made it to the 2nd round of the playoffs in the 08-09 season.  Most stated that it was an overachievement but the Canucks created momentum and a solid team for 2010.  Although they appear to be the Canadian team to beat, there are definitely concerns about team depth.

Not a great deal changed over the off-season. The Canucks start with their captain, all-world goalie Roberto Luongo, adding the deft talents of the Sedin twins and the pesky annoyance of Alex Burrows.   While they lost Mattias Ohlund off the blueline and Mats Sundin from the front-end, the addition of Mikael Samuelsson and the projected addition of youngster Cody Hodgson and further development of Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler were expected to limit these losses.

Throughout the season the Canucks appeared to be on track to the next level. The playoffs were always on the board.  Out of the gates, Henrik Sedin drove steadily toward what would be a team record 112 points and the Art Ross trophy for leading the league. Alex Burrows, despite some hiccups, became a 35 goal scorer, Christian Erhoff was a minute muncher on the blueline and Ryan Kesler also showed his talents were well worth his salary. They would lead Vancouver to 3rd place in the Western Conference.

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