Post-season pipe dreams

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:21 AM ET

It was less than a month ago that it all six Canadian National Hockey League teams appeared to have a reasonable chance of making the playoffs.

Not anymore.

And for the foreseeable future, never again.

Today, even though all six are still alive, the playoff-participation number, in realistic terms, probably will wind up at four.

But in Gary Bettman's new NHL, it is almost impossible for all six Canadian teams to join the post-season festivities.

For starters, the divisional setup is stacked against them.

The theory of pitting regional rivals against each other on an accelerated basis has some obvious attraction, but it means every Canadian team plays no fewer than 16 games against Canadian rivals. Some seasons, like this one for instance, that number rises to 19.

That means that for almost one-quarter of the season, the Canadian teams are busy knocking each other off.

With the level of parity being what it is, at least one Canadian team is going to fail to qualify as a result of losses to other Canadian teams over the course of the season.

In the Eastern Conference, the problem appears to be one that simply has to be accepted. Ottawa and Montreal, only 150 kilometres apart, are inextricably linked. Toronto wants to have Montreal as a divisional rival and must therefore accord the same status to Ottawa.

But in the West, there is strong sentiment for moving the Vancouver Canucks into the Pacific Division. When the league was reorganized in 1998, the Dallas Stars were promised that if they went into that division, they wouldn't have to stay long -- two years was the accepted term.

The Stars should know better than to accept the NHL's promises.

They're still in the Pacific and, as a result, playing almost all their divisional road games two time zones away. That does wonders for the local TV ratings.

For Vancouver, a new posting to a division with San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix would make a lot of sense.

But the biggest problem likely to prevent all six Canadian teams being in the playoffs at once is the so-called level playing field.

Toronto and Vancouver are big-market teams. The other four like to portray themselves as small-market teams but in reality, that's just a way of begging for concessions. Although Edmonton qualifies, the others are more mid-market.

But either way, the NHL landscape changed after the lockout. Now, teams are expected to build by drafting wisely and making judicious trade decisions.

But if you're a small-market team, you already were doing that. The high-payroll teams, however, have to switch philosophies and will need some time to do so.

Therefore, for the next few seasons, until drafted players start to mature, Toronto and Vancouver can expect to encounter difficulties.

But even if they do somehow quickly learn to build teams in the same fashion as everyone else, there is still the sheer weight of numbers.

In any given season, 16 teams are in; 14 are out. That's roughly 50-50.

So if there's a true level playing field, where everyone is equal, pure probability tells us the chances of six Canadian teams making the playoffs in the same year is an aberration. Only three should qualify.

To have all six make the playoffs in one year will be a rarity -- and should happen as often as all six miss the playoffs.

But don't expect any of this to cause the slightest tremor of concern in the NHL's New York office.

On the Avenue of the Americas, getting multiple Canadian teams into the playoffs is not exactly a high priority.


Videos

Photos