Naylor: What happened to parity for Canada's smaller teams?

Dave Naylor
4/13/2011 11:04:11 AM
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One year into the post-lockout NHL, the celebration was on in Canada and especially in Edmonton.

The Oilers were facing Carolina in the Stanley Cup final, returning after all those years to that stage they had visited so regularly back in the 1980s.

But the Oilers' success represented something much larger for many Canadian hockey fans, proof that the tides had indeed turned in the NHL, that smaller Canadian markets were now able to compete.

One year earlier, the NHL lockout had been waged in part in the name of ensuring that teams at the lower end of the pay scale - such as Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton - would be able to compete for hockey's biggest prize.

There was some flaw in the notion that smaller Canadian markets had been unfairly marginalized under the NHL's old economic order. Such as the facts that Calgary competed for the Stanley Cup final in the last year before the lockout and that Ottawa was annually among the top teams in the regular season.

But when the Ottawa Senators followed up Edmonton's 2006 visit to the final with a trip of their own in 2007, it seemed like happy times ahead for Canada's smallest NHL markets where teams were finally playing on equal footing with their competition and showing what they could do.

So what happened?

Since that loss to Anaheim in the 2007 Cup final, Ottawa has steadily regressed in the new economic order, missing the play playoffs in two out of four years while bottoming out this past season. The Oilers have now missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons, the longest such streak in franchise history. Under the old economic order - the one Oiler fans insisted was so unfair to their team - the Oilers made the playoffs six of the final eight seasons heading into the lockout. 

Meanwhile, Calgary has missed the playoffs two years in a row and hasn't gotten past the first round of playoffs since the players' union crumbled and the NHL installed its salary cap.

In fact, the Oilers, Senators and Flames made more playoff appearances in the six seasons leading into the lockout (11), than they have in the six seasons of post-lockout play (nine).

And this season marks the first time since the Senators returned to the NHL in 1992-93 that Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton have all missed the playoffs.

So what does this mean? Well, a few things.

Starting with the fact the old economic order, while tilted no doubt in favour of the wealthier teams, wasn't really all that bad at all.

For all the crying that the system wasn't fair, the Senators somehow managed to gain at least 90 points in the standings with one of the lowest payrolls in hockey for six straight seasons from 1998-99 to 2003-04. And at the trade deadline during the final season before the lockout, all three smaller Canadian market teams were buyers.

Smaller market teams couldn't afford to buy or retain the very best talent, but by strong drafting, shrewd dealing and making tough choices, were able to get fair return for assets that became too expensive.

Meanwhile, the annually over-spending New York Rangers went into the lockout on a streak of seven consecutive playoff misses, suggesting that money didn't necessarily translate into success.

Under the old system, small market teams that excelled by drafting the developing talent managed to do just fine. The problem was that those who messed up on draft day didn't have the luxury of being able to pave over mistakes with money - like the big boys did.

In other words, it was fair to small market teams that could develop talent, and harshly punishing to those that could not.

Which is kind of what best describes the current NHL economic environment, where young, inexpensive talent is like gold, and a bad contract or two can handicap a team for years at a time.

The Senators, Oilers and Flames are suffering in the current environment for the same reasons they sometimes struggled under the old economic order - making poor draft picks and questionable trades.

The difference is that this time around especially, especially in the cases of Ottawa and Edmonton, they've also been tripped up by something they never had the chance to mess up in the older - the signing of free agents.

Under the old system, Ottawa wouldn't have been able to compete for the services of Alex Kovalev and Edmonton could never have met Sheldon Souray's asking price. The lesson there? Be careful what you wish for.

There's no doubt the current economic order is more fair to the smaller market teams (although ironically Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton might rightly now be considered large markets because of the current strength of the Canadian dollar), and lives up to the principle of putting every team on equal footing.

But in today's NHL, just like in the old order, success starts with the ability to draft and develop talent better than others.

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