5 Things: Canada, realignment, predictions

1. Oh no, Canada

Not a banner year for most of Canada’s seven NHL entries whose fans continue to blindly support them in spite of, in some cases, repeated futility. When the dust clears Saturday night at the close of the regular season, all seven Canadian buildings will have been sold out from beginning to end, yet only Ottawa and Vancouver will be preparing for playoff games.

Edmonton and Toronto have combined for one playoff appearance since the lockout and zero trips to the postseason since 2006. The Flames have missed three straight seasons and haven’t won a playoff round since 2004, which makes their run to the Cup finals that year look like one of the most impressive flukes of all time. Winnipeg, for all of the good will that accompanied their return to Canada and fans who actually care, remains virtually indistinguishable from the Atlanta teams that wandered around the corners of the NHL for a decade, failing to win one single playoff game. About the most positive thing to say about Montreal as it remains nestled in last place in the Eastern Conference is that it is in a state of flux, while Edmonton reminds us of a hamster on a treadmill with "rebuild" written on the side.

It is too simplistic to suggest that Canadian ownership/management is complacent because they sell out regardless of the product on the ice. And let’s not forget that teams in Calgary and Ottawa have endured financial hardships and empty seats, while Montreal struggled to find an owner before George Gillett bought the team back in 2001. There seems to be no pattern to futility beyond the futility itself, and the sad part for Canadian fans is that the immediate future doesn’t look much brighter. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if we are having this exact same conversation a year from now. Of the five northern teams that will be spending the summer trying to fix their tattered machines, is there one you can point to with any degree of certainty and say, yes, this is a playoff team? No. Not one.

2. Realignment

Some time ago, a top NHL executive explained the allure of the six-division alignment in this way: It’s important for teams like Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, Anaheim et al to have something to fight for, something tangible fans can relate to, and in some cases that means a division title.

Now, we don’t exactly buy that fans in Phoenix are salivating at the prospect of hanging a Pacific Division banner on Jobing.com Arena. And that lonely Southeast Division banner that marked the Thrashers’ one and only trip to the playoffs in 2007 certainly didn’t represent much of anything when the moving trucks backed up to Philips Arena last June.

Has the race for the Pacific Division title been compelling? Of course. Four different teams -- Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose and current leader Los Angeles -- have enjoyed at least a brief ride at the top in recent weeks. But fans are jazzed about the race because it means a playoff berth. They get that. They don’t care about the nonexistent cachet of a division title.

Now the league is faced with the double embarrassment of having the Pacific Division and Southeast Division champs own home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, even though the Pacific champ will have the sixth-best point total in the conference, while the Florida Panthers will possibly have the seventh-best point total in the conference. Ugly.

Maybe the fact the NHLPA stomped its collective feet to derail realignment plans for next year will give both sides pause to come up with not just a new alignment plan but a playoff plan that will save the league further embarrassment. What’s wrong with two 15-team conferences seeded top to bottom with the top eight playing on in the spring? Or divide the teams up however they like geographically but seed them one through 16, thus ensuring the best teams have the best chances of succeeding?

3. Captains

We were asked during a radio interview recently about Dion Phaneuf's adequacy (or rather as the question was posed, his inadequacies) as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hockey is unique in that the captaincy is in many ways considered a sacred trust. It certainly is in places like Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York, among other cities where the C denotes more than the guy that gets to talk to the referee. And when the position is handled well, having the right captain is a significant asset in moving a team forward.

There was a lot of debate when Dale Tallon made Jonathan Toews the youngest captain in franchise history and the third-youngest captain of all time. But it was obviously the right choice as Toews has evolved quickly into one of the top leaders in the game and has a Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal to show for those skills.

In Toronto, the Leafs appear to have forced Phaneuf into a role he was either ill-equipped or simply not ready to handle. But like the game as a whole, nothing happens in a vacuum. Toews didn’t transform the Blackhawks into a Cup winner by sheer dint of will. He had help in the form of guys such as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Likewise, Phaneuf’s shortcomings as a captain are not the sole reason the Leafs embarked on one of the more eye-popping flameouts in recent years.

The discussion reminded us of covering the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 during back-to-back Cup runs. This Red Wings team, starving for a championship, was undeniably Steve Yzerman’s team, yet having worn the C since he was a lad himself, he was completely comfortable in sharing the burden. When the team lost, Yzerman was invariably available to comment but his was not the lone voice. Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy, Igor Larionov and others shared that burden on both good days and bad. That’s how leadership is supposed to work.

4. Seriously Dude?

We have lots of awards and goodness knows we probably don’t need any more, but if we were to suggest another, it might be the "Seriously Dude?" award, which would go to the player who confounds the hockey world with otherworldly play that is simply off the charts.

This award wouldn’t be for the Steven Stamkoses or the Evgeni Malkins but the everyday blue-collar guys who rise up out of the shadows and shoulder their way into the limelight. Our "Seriously Dude?" winner would be Phoenix netminder Mike Smith, who was waived last season by Tampa and then perhaps saved his career with a couple of stellar turns in net in relief of Dwayne Roloson during the playoffs. Phoenix goaltending coach Sean Burke lobbied GM Don Maloney to bring in Smith because he felt he could work with him as he had with Ilya Bryzgalov. The Yotes signed Smith to a two-year deal and he has rewarded them with stretches of superlative play that should see the Coyotes journey to the playoffs for a third straight year. As of Thursday morning, Smith was riding a three-game shutout streak, including a 54-save outing against Columbus this week that produced his eighth shutout of the season.

Other finalists for the "Seriously Dude?" award would include Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell, who has gone from scrappy, penalty-prone winger to scoring assassin. His 37 goals are tied for fifth in the NHL and his 16 power-play goals are second. Go figure. Montreal’s David Desharnais would also get consideration, as the undrafted center has meshed nicely with Max Pacioretty as two bright spots in an otherwise dark season for Les Habs. Desharnais is second in team scoring with 60 points and hasn’t gone more than three games without registering a point since mid-December. Throw in impending free agent P.A. Parenteau of the Islanders, whose 49 assists rank ninth in the league and whose 67 points are good for third on the Islanders, and you’ve got a pretty good collection of surprise achievers.

5. Next season's playoffs

These are hard days for the 14 NHL teams that will fail to qualify for the postseason. Sitting on the sidelines is a mark of failure; it is an acknowledgement that the planning of last offseason, the personnel decisions, the game plan and the players’ effort has been found lacking. In some cases, the gap between expectation and reality has been significant, as was the case in Anaheim and in either Buffalo or Washington (only one of which is likely to make the playoffs).

But here are five teams that we think will be standing on the other side of the playoff line a year from now. With new head coach Kirk Muller already paying dividends, we suspect the Carolina Hurricanes will return after a three-year absence. Watch for Justin Faulk to continue to turn heads on the Carolina blue line. Anaheim will be back, too. The Ducks are too talented, and watch for Bruce Boudreau to have them back in the top eight and challenging for a Pacific Division title.

We often make sport of the New York Islanders, and it’s easy to do given the foibles of ownership and management, but there’s no denying the bright future guys like Parenteau, Matt Moulson and emerging star John Tavares represent. Still not sold on Evgeni Nabokov as "the answer" in goal, but watch for the Isles to jump up in the standings next season. We’re pretty much counting Dallas out of the picture in the Western Conference given its recent slide, but we like what GM Joe Nieuwendyk and rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan have going on in the Big D. New ownership and the stability Tom Gaglardi brings should see the Stars back in the top eight next season. We’re figuring either Buffalo or Washington to finish outside the playoff puzzle this spring, but whichever team fails to sneak in, we’re guessing both will be back in the top eight next season regardless of the significant upheaval a playoff miss will bring in either city.