Canada's Stanley Cup drought is a mind-boggling mathematical outlier

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Since 1927, when the National Hockey League took charge of the Stanley Cup, the grandest goblet in North American professional sports has been awarded 96 times — 55 to American-based teams, 41 to their Canadian counterparts.

Given that the Original Six featured four American and two Canadian teams and the geographical imbalance continues today at 25-7 in favour of the U.S., there seems no historical cause for embarrassment up here.

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If only that were the case.

When the Montreal Canadiens most recently won the Cup in 1993, teams from the Great White North led their U.S. rivals on the championship scorecard by a count of 41-26, thanks in large part to the Habs’ unparalleled 24 titles.

But the Americans have been on a run ever since — Canadian-based teams are zero for the past 29 Cup presentations — and hand-wringing has become a rite of spring from Stanley Park in Vancouver to Cup Gully, Nfld., and many points in between.

This Canadian drought is both anecdotally and mathematically ridiculous. Michael Kouritzin, a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, crunched the numbers after first offering an important caveat.

“You have to qualify them because there is no easy way to correct for them, but any calculation will support the fact that it is pretty bizarre. The reason why it would be hard to correct for is you’re starting from the point when they last won. You’re looking at a run in a changing environment rather than probabilities from a set starting time. They are not the same thing.

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“The run probability would be problematic because the number of teams changed a lot, as did the number of Canadian teams, and then there is the question of how many years back to go.”

All that said, Kouritzin did calculations at 25% Canadian representation and again at 20%, and employed a Bernoulli counting process model.

At 25%, the expected number of Cup wins by Canadian teams over a set 29 years would be 7.25, the most likely would be seven, and the probability of zero wins by Canadian teams during that span would be .00024.

At 20% Canadian content in the NHL, expected wins would be 5.8, most likely would be both five and six (both equally likely), and the probability of zero wins just .00155.

Canada’s NHL representation by percentage has fluctuated and mostly declined as follows with expansion and franchise movement since 1993: 31% (‘94), 27% (’95), 23% (’96-‘97), 22% (’98), 21% (’99), 20% (2000-10), 23% (2011-15), 22.5% (2016-20) and 22% since.

How then did Canadian teams beat the odds by not beating their American rivals for 29 consecutive seasons? How did it all go so far south, to places like Anaheim, Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Vegas?

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It’s hard to fathom, especially if Canada is seen as one of the league’s five geographical regions. For instance, there are eight teams in the American northeast — Boston Buffalo, New Jersey, the Rangers and Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington — and five of those teams have combined for nine Cups since 1994.

There’s the mid-eastern U.S. — Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado and Columbus — with 12 Cups between four of those teams.

If one thinks of the NHL’s southern components as Carolina, Dallas, Florida, Nashville and Tampa, they’re good for six Cups.

And out West, there’s Arizona, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vegas and San Jose with four more Cups combined since 1994.

It’s hard to win when you don’t get to the final and Canadian teams have been limited to just six appearances in the last round of the playoffs in the past 30 years — Vancouver in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in ‘04, Edmonton in ‘06, Ottawa in ‘07 and Montreal in 2021.

This year’s Canadian contenders are the Oilers, Leafs, Jets and Canucks. Though there won’t be an all-Canadian series in the first round, there are three teams on the western side of the bracket and one might well meet another during the second and third rounds.

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That particularly painful strain of playoff elimination has occurred 13 times since 1994, most notably in 2021 when Montreal beat Toronto and Winnipeg ousted Edmonton in the first round, then Montreal dumped Winnipeg in the second.

That’s the luck of the draw, as it were, and it certainly doesn’t help Canada’s chances. But there are other, more salient theories as to the genesis of the drought. One of the most popular suggests Canadian teams can’t win the Cup because the combination of largely inclement winter weather, the weight of expectation generated by media and fandom in a hockey-mad environment, and unfavourable taxation regimes vis a vis many American locales scares away most of the prized free agents every summer.

If one thinks of the NHL entry draft as the long road to the Cup, free agency is supposedly the shortcut, given the maturity and talent levels of the prize plums on the market each year.

We don’t pretend to understand why specific free agents choose Florida, Tampa, Arizona or any of the California teams instead of any destination north of the border. It could be a vitamin D deficiency. It may well have something to do with disdain for poutine and Alberta beef.

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But a reliable indicator of talent ought to be the lists of major award winners and post-season all-star teams, right? So let’s give that a whirl, starting with the 12 players who comprised the first- and second-team all-stars from 1994 to 2023, excluding the cancelled season of 2005.

There was indeed a bleak period from 1996-2001 when the only Canadian-based players to be so honoured were Vancouver’s second-team right winger Alex Mogilny (’96), and Ottawa’s second-team centre Alexei Yashin (’99).

At least three Canadian teams made the playoffs in each of those six years, but the Toronto Maple Leafs of ’99 were the only Canadian team to reach the third round, where they were eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres.

Since 2001, Canadian-based teams have produced 47 all-stars for an average of two per season, well within tolerances. It reached a zenith in 2022 when Austin Matthews and Mitch Marner from Toronto, Johnny Gaudreau and Jacob Markstrom from Calgary, and Connor McDavid from Edmonton were named to the two all-star teams. Even so, Colorado beat Tampa Bay in another all-American Stanley Cup final.

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And what of the major award winners? Again, there was a whole lot of nothing from Canadian teams between 1994 and 2001 — not a Hart, Vezina, Norris, Selke, Rocket Richard or Art Ross winner to be had.

Daniel Alfredsson snagged the Calder as rookie of the year for Ottawa in 1996 and that was it until Calgary’s Jarome Iginla won the Art Ross in 2002, Henrik Sedin did the same for Vancouver in 2010 and his brother Daniel followed up in 2011, the same year teammate Ryan Kesler won the Selke.

A dearth of award winners like that seems to fit with and feed the drought narrative. However, thanks to the continued presence of McDavid in Edmonton and Matthews in Toronto, the tide has turned of late, yet the Cups still haven’t come.

McDavid has copped five Art Ross, three Harts and a Rocket Richard since arriving in Edmonton in 2017, while Matthews claimed the Calder in ‘17, the Rocket Richard in ‘21 and ’22, as well as the Hart in ‘22.

Add Leon Draisaitl’s Hart with Edmonton in 2020, Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina that same year with Winnipeg, Mark Giordano’s Norris for Calgary in 2019 and Elias Petterson’s Calder for Vancouver that same year, and the secondary hardware is starting to pile up.

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But the big piece, the only one that really counts, eludes them all.

All that said, is there simply no hope?

Well, there was none in the spring of 2016, when all seven Canadian teams failed to advance to the playoffs. There was no hope after the first round in 1996, as all five Canadian teams were bounced. And there hasn’t really been cause for much hope about half the time. A Canadian team has reached the third round in only 14 of the past 29 playoff seasons.

In the interim, Detroit has won the Cup four times, New Jersey, Tampa, Colorado, Chicago and Pittsburgh three times apiece, Los Angeles twice, each of the Rangers, Dallas, Carolina, Anaheim, Boston, Washington, St. Louis and Vegas once.

The only sustained Canadian momentum came between 2004 and 2007, when the Flames, Oilers and Senators made it into consecutive finals, only to come up short.

So it has been three dry decades since the Habs won with a gritty, experienced leadership corps, Conn Smythe-level goaltending from Patrick Roy and an otherworldly OT streak that still hasn’t been matched. Montreal played in 11 overtime games that spring, lost the first one to Quebec, then won an NHL-record 10 straight, including three in the final.

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Demers told a Postmedia reporter in 2016 that the OT streak was born of “good leadership and depth,” and he cited the value of players like Brian Bellows, Kirk Muller, Rob Ramage and Vincent Damphousse, all of whom had been captains elsewhere in the league. Indeed, some of those players scored OT winners that year.

The final turned in Montreal’s favour in Game 2. The Kings won Game 1 in Montreal and were up 2-1 again, ready to take a series stranglehold and head home for the kill. Instead, Demers called for a measurement of Marty McSorley’s curve, which was deemed illegal.

With Roy on the bench for an extra man, the Habs converted the resulting six-on-four power play into Eric Desjardins’ second goal of the game to knot it up. Desjardins then scored his hat-trick goal in OT.

It should be noted that in his first 44 playoff games with the Canadiens, Desjardins scored five times.

So, if there is a recipe for a Stanley Cup title, it has to include great goaltending, discipline, depth, good special teams and luck — because there will be Grade A chances at both ends, players will take bad penalties and some will suffer injuries, there will be unexpected heroes and unfortunate goats, and the puck will bounce off skates, sticks and posts, into your net and theirs.

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Just ask the Flames about that Martin Gelinas goal in Game 6 in 2004, the one he might have scored on Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin if video review was as exhaustive then as it is today. Instead, Tampa took that game on Martin St. Louis’ double-OT winner and the Cup in Game 7.

Or ask the Oilers about Dwayne Roloson’s untimely injury in 2006. With Game 1 of the final tied 4-4, Marc-Andre Bergeron slammed Carolina forward Andrew Ladd into Roloson in a jarring goalmouth collision and the resulting knee injury left the Edmonton starter on the shelf for the rest of the series.

With Ty Conklin in Game 1 relief and Jussi Markkanen manning the net the rest of the way, the Oilers lost the goaltending duel to eventual Conn Smythe-winner Cam Ward and the series to the Hurricanes in Game 7.

If those moments and those series had turned in favour of Calgary and Edmonton, the stat line might well read two Canadian wins in the past 19 seasons, there wouldn’t be quite so much focus on the drought, and nobody would be wringing their hands in Stanley Harbour, Nunavut, or Cup Lake, Ont., or any points in between.

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