Down Goes Brown: Who is Canada’s most depressing NHL team?

Doughty took out McDavid with an old school hip check while Matt Martin crushed Canucks and Corey Perry bumped Mike Smith after the whistle.

With the NHL season at its midway mark, it’s time for Canadian hockey fans to start getting excited. Stake out your ground, and let the debates begin. Which Canadian team will earn the most coveted title in the land?

No, not the Stanley Cup. We all know that thing never lands north of the border anymore. No, we’re talking about something that fits better with the modern-day Canadian NHL psyche: the title of Most Depressing Team In The Nation.

Put two random Canadian fans in a room together, and it probably won’t be long before they’re arguing over which ones deserves to be the most miserable. Some years, it’s a crowded field — we all remember the entire country missing the playoffs back in 2015–16. Other years, like last season, there are fewer candidates. But it’s always a hotly contested title.

So the first order of business is to figure out who gets to be in the running. Obviously, we don’t need to consider the Jets or the Maple Leafs, two teams that are solidly holding down playoff spots. The Flames are a tougher call, as a recent slide had them drifting out of playoff contention (and their coach having temper tantrums) before their latest win streak. But they’re over .500 and only a point out of a playoff spot, so they’re out of the running.

That still leaves us with four contenders for the title of Canada’s most depressing team. The Canadiens, Senators, Canucks and Oilers are all well out of the playoff race, and all four are under .500 in terms of points percentage. That’s a crowded field, so let’s start sorting this out as we work our way through an unlucky 13 categories.

Expectations vs. reality

It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another entirely to be bad when everyone thought you’d be good. So who came into the season with the highest expectations?

Canadiens: They were the Atlantic’s top seed last year, and while they were far from a sure thing to repeat that title, most expected them to at least make the playoffs.

Senators: They went deeper than any Canadian team last year, but most seemed to expect them to take a step back this season. Some pessimists even had them missing the playoffs. But close to dead last? No way.

Canucks: Nobody thought they’d be all that good. As bad as this year has been, they’re actually on pace to improve on last year’s record.

Oilers: When the Sportsnet crew did our pre-season predictions, seven out of 16 of us had the Oilers winning the West, and two had them winning the Stanley Cup.

Edge: Oilers, and it’s not all that close.

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Painful ex-player

When things are going bad, the two most painful words are “What if?” Seeing a former player lighting it up somewhere else only adds to the misery.

Senators: While the current roster struggles, they get to watch one-time Senator building blocks like Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg blossom elsewhere. But the worst has been watching Kyle Turris fit right in as a Predator while Matt Duchene struggles in Ottawa.

Canucks: Luca Sbisa gets to be part of the fun in Vegas, and Ryan Miller‘s been fine in Anaheim. That’s about it.

Oilers: While only one is technically an ex-player, they gave the Islanders both Jordan Eberle and the draft pick that was used on Mathew Barzal. Then they get to watch those two do stuff like this:

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall looks like he’s going to lead the Devils to the playoffs.

Canadiens: Last year, it would have been P.K. Subban, who led his Predators all the way to the Stanley Cup final in his first year away from Montreal. This year, we might have to go with Mikhail Sergachev, who looks like a Calder candidate in Tampa. This time next year, Max Pacioretty.

Edge: It’s a close race, but the Canadiens take the crown on the strength of Subban just being voted an all-star captain.

Salary-cap situation

In today’s NHL, a flexible cap situation can fix a lot of problems. By the same token, making a mess of the cap can doom a team to years of suffering.

Oilers: Tight, thanks to the McDavid/Draisaitl deals, not to mention big commitments to Milan Lucic and Kris Russell. Trading Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would help, and they may be forced to do just that.

Canadiens: Not all that bad, depending on how you feel about the Carey Price deal. But Karl Alzner‘s signing already looks like a mistake, and that Shea Weber contract is going to be nightmare well before it runs out in 2026.

Senators: Believe it or not, they’ve got more cap space tied up for next year than any other Canadian team by over $5 million, thanks in part to ugly deals for Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf. It clears up after 2019, but only because key players like Erik Karlsson and Matt Duchene will need new contracts.

Canucks: Once again, they come out looking solid by comparison. That Loui Eriksson deal was a mistake form the day it was signed, but with both Sedin deals expiring after this season, the cap picture is actually in decent shape.

Edge: Ottawa, in a narrow upset over the Oilers, if only because at least Edmonton’s biggest deals on the books are to their best players. I’m no cap-ologist, but having the worst cap situation when you don’t even have the budget to be a cap team is not good.

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Pending move that will just make things worse

We can fix this! Wait, no, what are you doing…

Senators: While Karlsson could go eventually, in the short-term the focus seems to be on Mike Hoffman, a sharp-shooting winger on a team-friendly contract who they want to trade because… well, nobody’s quite sure.

Canadiens: The team is desperate for goal-scoring, so naturally they’ve apparently turned their attention to trading away their best goal-scorer. That would be Pacioretty, who they’d reportedly like to move for “a top goal-scorer” who’s also younger. Marc Bergevin’s phone is no doubt ringing off the hook.

Canucks: Uh… trading Thomas Vanek for a second-round pick at the deadline?

Oilers: Recent attention has turned towards firings, either of coach Todd McLellan or GM Peter Chiarelli (or both). But with some cold water poured on that, maybe it’s time for that Nugent-Hopkins trade.

Edge: Montreal, if only because the words “Marc Bergevin has a trade to announce” are now the surest way to ruin a Habs fan’s day.

OK, let’s call timeout and huddle up.

We’re four sections in, and there’s a pretty clear pattern emerging, so let’s just lay our cards on the table: I don’t think the Vancouver Canucks are actually contenders here. The team is bad, sure, but they’re not much worse than anyone expected, and unlike the other three teams, they at least seem to be headed in the right direction. While fans in Ottawa, Montreal and Edmonton are despondent right now, Vancouver fans are buying Brock Boeser jerseys and seeming slightly less surly than usual.

So I’m making what might be a controversial call: The Canucks are out of the running. We’re removing them from the rest of the competition, if only because it seems rude to continually remind the other three teams of how even bad teams have it better than they do.

Thanks for coming out, Vancouver, and better luck next year. Back to what’s now a three-way contest.

Recency bias

The NHL is a big-picture league, where games in October count just as much as ones in early April. But when it comes to feeling miserable about your team, the last few weeks or even last few games get extra weight.

Senators: The won a pair over the weekend and have points in four of their last five. Even better, the offence has woken up, including a long-awaited boost from Duchene.

Canadiens: They snapped a five-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Lightning, then beat the Canucks to make it two straight.

Oilers: They’ve lost six of seven, including a pair over the weekend. Over their last five games, they’ve been outscored 20–3. Also, people who watch them are tweeting things like this:

Edge: Edmonton, by a healthy margin.

Current fan mood

At least the fans will always have your back, right? Uh, right?

Oilers: Booing, which is bad.

Canadiens: Silence, which is worse.

Senators: Jersey tossing, which is about as bad as it gets.

Edge: Ottawa. Well, at least among the fans that are still showing up.

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Fatal flaw

What’s been the big problem this year, and more importantly, will it get any better?

Oilers: The penalty kill is historically bad, running at about 71 per cent. Or, as one angry fan shouted during a postgame call-in show, “It just sucks the life out of us. It sucks the life out of us.” Wait, I’m being told that was head coach Todd McLellan.

Canadiens: The puck isn’t going in. While the Canadiens are a top-10 team at generating shots, they’re shooting nearly two points below league average.

Senators: Despite what Pierre Dorion seems to think, the offence has been fine. It’s the goaltending that’s killing them, particularly a rough year from the usually reliable Craig Anderson.

Edge: Edmonton. Think of it this way: The 1980s Oilers had one season with a power play that touched 29 per cent, meaning this year’s edition is making their opponents look like the best of the Gretzky-era dynasty every single night.

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Disheartening locker-room quote

Let’s hear it directly from the players who are living it.

Senators: “I don’t think it’s work ethic. I think it’s a little bit of stupidity, more than anything. Stupidity and frustration…. Guys see top players cheating, then they do too.” — Mark Stone

Oilers: ” Positives? I mean, we haven’t been very good this year. I think everyone’s made that very clear. When I think positives? Whew. I don’t know.” — Connor McDavid

Canadiens: “How am I going to go tell my teammates that we got to be better when I’m the worst one on the ice?” — Max Pacioretty

Or we could go with: “We didn’t have everyone on board and that’s frustrating…. Coming back from a road trip and where we are in the standings and knowing how many games we dropped and how many people are struggling, that’s upsetting.” — Max Pacioretty

Or maybe: “Many frustrations kind of creep in and it’s definitely there, but I can’t let it take over my game and my mindset…. You just live your life and worry about your family.” — Max Pacioretty

Honestly, pretty much any time Pacioretty opens his mouth at this point.

Edge: Montreal. Seriously, can we trade this guy before he starts blinking post-game SOS messages like he’s in a hostage video?

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Sideshow drama

You haven’t truly reached rock bottom until people start reaching for the popcorn every time your team is mentioned.

Oilers: They’ve actually been relatively drama-free. There’s the usual stuff you see from most struggling teams, including talk of changes behind the bench or in the front office. But all things considered, they’ve been relatively dull, in the good way.

Senators: Remember when the biggest problem with the Senators was that people thought they were boring? That was before Karlsson started openly musing about free agency. Then the owner poured gasoline all over the fire at the outdoor game. And the departed Turris lobbing a few bombs from Nashville didn’t help.

Canadiens: Right now it’s the ongoing Pacioretty situation. Before that, there were questions over Carey Price’s injury. And in the off-season, there was the awkward exit of Andrei Markov.

Edge: Tough call here. The Montreal market makes them feel like the bigger soap opera, but they’re used to that. And Ottawa’s drama has more potential to derail the franchise. The Senators get the edge here.

But at least they have…

Look, we can build on this.

Canadiens: One of the best goalies in the world for the next eight years.

Oilers: The best forward in the world for the next eight years.

Senators: The best defenceman in the world for the next eight months.

Edge: Ottawa. But look on the bright side. It could be nine or 10 months.

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The case that they’re not actually that bad

As a wise man once said, statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk: Sometimes when you’re not watching where you’re going they hit you between the eyes and then you vomit all over them. That may not have been the exact quote.

Oilers: At 5-on-5 their numbers are surprisingly good; they’re top five in possession and top 10 in expected goals percentage. They’re getting killed by special teams, which are usually fixable, and to a lesser extent by Cam Talbot‘s goaltending, which history says should be better than this.

Canadiens: Their underlying numbers aren’t quite as good as Edmonton’s, but they’re not bad. Once their shooting percentage comes back up — assuming that isn’t a Claude Julien issue — then the wins should follow.

Senators: The stats don’t have much good news here; this year’s Sens are a poor possession team that ranks 28th in expected goals percentage. But Karlsson’s been hurt, Anderson’s slumping and Duchene has taken time to get settled in. Get all three of those guys going and it’s a different team.

Edge: The Oilers, because the only thing more depressing than watching a terrible team is watching a half-decent team get terrible results.

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Longshot scenario that will fix everything

Having no hope is bad. Having one unrealistic hope to cling to even though you know it’s not going to happen is worse.

Senators: Melnyk sells the team to someone who really wants to spend a ton of money on the day-to-day operations of an NHL team but not actually have any hands-on involvement with it.

Canadiens: Bergevin gets fired and replaced by somebody who’ll do a better job.

Oilers: Wayne Gretzky comes back, fires everyone and singlehandedly saves the day. That one might actually be happening, come to think of it.

Edge: Montreal, mainly because of how much more it will hurt when Bergevin gets replaced by Patrick Roy instead.

Creeping sense of existential dread

Let’s take it home.

Oilers: Through sheer and utter luck, they were gifted the single greatest asset a team can possibly have in a cap league: a generational superstar on an entry-level contract. And they turned it into one single playoff appearance.

Senators: As long as Melnyk is around, they’ll always be a cheapskate organization more interested in squeezing out a few games of annual playoff revenue than actually building a Stanley Cup contender.

Canadiens: Marc Bergevin has somehow triggered an ancient curse that dooms him to spend the next decade talking about the need for a No. 1 centre without ever actually acquiring one.

Edge: A three-way tie. Good lord, this whole post was bleak. I need to go lie down.

And the winner is…
It’s a photo finish, with each team taking four categories. That would seem like a fitting result — after all, these three teams can’t seem to win anything, so why would Most Depressing honours be any different?

But this is the NHL, and we don’t do ties. So we’ll go to the judge’s scorecard to declare a winner.

The Canadiens may be a poorly run mess intent on wasting the prime years of one of the world’s best goaltenders, and the Senators might be penny-pinching also-rans with a crippling case of little-brother syndrome. But neither of those teams came into the season with realistic Cup hopes. And that means neither has face-planted quite as spectacularly as the Oilers have.

Congratulations, Edmonton. For the first time all year, you’re the big winners. In a season full of sadness, you’ve set the standard that all others will be measured by. You are the country’s most depressing team.

(At least until you win the draft lottery, throw Rasmus Dahlin on the ice with McDavid and run over the entire league for a decade. Nobody could possibly screw that up, right?)