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Why Haven’t Canadian Teams Won the Stanley Cup?

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Nate Silver has a long post about one of the most important subjects of our time — why no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the ’93 Canadiens. There’s a great deal of fascinating data here if you’re interested in this kind of thing. As Silver says, this isn’t about the greater size of American markets, since as hockey markets Vancouver and Toronto are comparable to New York City, Edmonton and Calgary are comparable to Boston, LA and Chicago, Winnipeg comparable to Washington D.C., and Saskatoon is comparable to Houston. Toronto, as this blog has noted several times, would have at least two and probably three NHL franchises if the league were run by people who were remotely competent. (And note that Edmonton and Calgary have grown enough that they would be at least marginal major league markets by American standards, with media markets comparable to Kansas City, Orlando and Columbus. During the period of the franchise’s greatest success, Calgary’s media market started out like Albany or Tulsa and ended like Birmingham or Rochester.) So why have none of the Canadian teams won in more than 20 years, a 3.5% chance? Leaving aside the fact that because the NHL’s leaders are inept even as profit maxmizers there are fewer Canadian franchises than there should be, Silver offers three major explanations, two of which I think are right and one is more more dubious. Let’s start with the dubious one first:

Finally, and related to the excess demand for hockey in Canada, Canadian teams routinely sell out their arenas at high ticket prices — whether or not they are any good. This may reduce their incentive to compete.

I don’t buy this at all. First of all, despite the fact that most Canadian teams play to capacity or near capacity in the regular season irrespective of team quality there’s plenty of incentive to have a competitive team, because with their combination of sky-high ticket prices and no additional player expenses playoff runs are a license to print money.

And, second, if you look at the history of these teams since the lockout, I don’t think in any case a reduced incentive to compete is really the issue. The Canucks haven’t managed to win a Cup but have been one of the best organizations in hockey over the last decade. The Canadiens have been above-average during this period. The Leafs have been terrible since the lockout until this year, but before the lockout fielded several pretty good teams that were certainly as good as the ’93 Canadiens (or ’06 Panthers.) The Oilers have had a really rough patch but have enough young elite talent that they certainly could be very good as soon as next year. None of these teams have exhibited the cost-cutting that would seem to go along with teams who don’t care if they’re competitive or not.

If anything, I think if you look at the Leafs after the lockout or the Flames the last five years or the Oilers after their ’06 run or the Canucks after their ’04 run, you’d see that if anything the problem is the opposite: too much perceived pressure to compete in the short term. Again and again, Canadian teams have hauled in expensive veterans to try to patch up aging cores that probably weren’t good enough to win rather than rebuilding. In theory, teams with less elasticity in demand should find it easier to rebuild — but in practice, at least until Edmonton the last three years and now Calgary, this hasn’t actually happened.

Here, Silver’s second explanation is also relevant — the hard salary cap makes the short-term strategy even less likely to succeed, and prevents Canadian markets from using all the benefits from their markets acquire talent (granting that given the realities of the free agent market even before the salary cap acquiring expensive veterans was often a pretty dubious team-building strategy.)

But, really, I think this is the variable with by far the greatest explanatory power:

Much of the reason, I must emphasize again, boils down to bad luck. Canadian teams have reached the Stanley Cup finals five times in the 19 seasons since 1992-93 but have come up short on each occasion, including in four cases where the series went to the seven-game maximum.

That’s it, really; the long drought is mostly a fluke based on the nearly random outcomes of short series. The ’94 Canucks lost by a single goal in Game 7. The ’04 Flames lost in double overtime in Game 6 and 2-1 in game 7 (granted that Tampa Bay outplayed them in the deciding game by a greater margin that the score suggests.) The Oilers essentially lost Game 7 in ’06 by a goal (there was an empty netter.) The ’11 Canucks also lost a Game 7, granting that they weren’t really competitive in any game they lost in that series (although, again, luck still matters: injuries, the Bruins could have lost Game 7 in the first round giving the league’s best regular season team a more favorable matchup, etc.) The ’07 Senators were the only one of the Canadian finalists to lose a lopsided series. Obviously, a few bounces of the puck and there could have been several Canadian champions during this period.

It’s true as well that there have been relatively few dominant Canadian teams, but (at an organizational level) there’s a lot of luck involved too. Only one team can win the right to draft Sidney Crosby. More importantly, it’s very hard to know a priori how someone without much a track record will do as a GM. The assistant GM who was part of a successful organization you promote is a lot more likely to be Doug Risebrough or Steve Tambelini than Ken Holland, and once Ken Holland proves to be Ken Holland you’re generally not going to be able to acquire him. When six (and, briefly, 7) teams are shooting in the near-dark hiring veteran GMs with mixed records or first-time lottery tickets, it’s not surprising that they mostly haven’t come up with dominant teams. With the exception noted above, I doubt it’s anything structural about Canadian markets.

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