CALGARY — The jurisdiction starts with the letter “C,” about 35 million people live there and they’ve had some of the best NHL playoff hockey in the salary cap age.
No, it’s not Canada. It’s California.
The three teams based in the Golden State have had more playoff success than the seven Canadian teams combined in the 10 seasons the NHL has played under the salary cap.
“Cool,” Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf said. “The league goes in cycles. But our organization has done a great job drafting, being patient and developing players.”
• Getzlaf and his partner in scoring crime were rookies in 2005-06, the first year the league played under the cap. In that time:
California’s teams won the Stanley Cup more times (three) than seven teams based in Canada (zero).
• The Ducks, Kings and Sharks have won more playoff series (28, with the Ducks perhaps going to make it 29) than the Leafs, Oilers, Canucks, Canadiens, Flames, Jets and Senators (21, with Calgary and Montreal still alive).
• Canadian teams have seen slightly more playoff series (52 to California’s 47), but have also seen far more playoff disappointment (29 lost series to California’s 18).
“But look at how many from Canada made the playoffs this year: five,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “That’s a positive. I rarely look at negatives, I look at positives, and those are positives.
“But those California teams deserve lots of credit because they made lots of great moves.”
Looking back, the California teams might have been better suited to thrive in the salary cap era. The teams have done a superior job in drafting players, and replenishing their teams from within, rather than waiting for free agency or building through trades.
Getting cheap young players is the key in the salary cap age, a lesson the Maple Leafs — a team built on trades and free agents — appear just to have learned.
Canadian teams, with their demanding fan bases, may get caught in a trap of having to “win now” and therefore make short-sighted moves.
In California, the pressure — at least until winning the Cup became a regular occurrence — has been lower.
“We don’t have much to worry about in terms of media — we just play,” Ducks winger Emerson Etem said. “Us, the Kings, San Jose, you can say we fly under the radar a bit in the hockey world. We’re in California. We have a couple of other sports in front of us.”
There’s a by-product of all this winning: the growth of hockey in the state.
Next year, the American Hockey League is opening up a California division with five teams moving there. Affiliates for Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton and Los Angeles will join the Sharks’ farm team in California.
Etem was born and raised in Long Beach, one of 11 California-born players in the NHL, up from four in 2003-04. There were 25,288 registered hockey players last season in California, up 48.6 per cent in a decade, according to USA Hockey.
The Ducks’ high school league has gone from one team to 41. The Kings are working with the Ducks to organize an eight-team high school league for next season. The Sharks went from managing one facility and two sheets of ice to three facilities and seven sheets.
“I love the growth, I love seeing it grow,” Etem says. “We keep winning and the enrolment is going to go up and the hockey is going to get better.”