Red & White thin on blue line

A wise man once told me that teams do not win games without strong defence. Not only did this man coach a team of six-year old soccer dynamos to an undefeated season but he also delved into the foundation of team sports for all ages and skill levels.

The 2001 NHL playoffs are no exception to his rule. Each team eliminated from the playoffs has fallen victim to defensive breakdowns and neutral zone giveaways. Defensive strength south of the border provides an explanation for the demise of Canadian teams in the playoffs.

The youth and exuberance of present day Canadian hockey teams may be more of a curse than a blessing in their quest for the Cup. The Ray Bourques and Al MacInnises of the league display the wear and tear from years of intense competition, but what they lack in agility they make up in experience.

Offensive defencemen remain an issue for Canadian teams. Diehard Leaf fans may omit their team from such criticism and probably believe the Leaf defence is every bit as capable of scoring as New Jersey’s rushing defencemen Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer.

I beg to differ.

The Leafs did indeed record a 3-0 win over the Devils on goals by three different defencemen, but timing is everything. While it takes only one goal to win, the same holds true for a loss.

With one-goal losses in mind, cynics such as myself cannot help but revert back to the Leaf’s overtime loss against the Devils, courtesy of defenceman Cory Cross. He may have contributed to the 3-0 win but fans and critics alike will most likely remember him for redirecting John Madden’s shot past an unsuspecting Curtis Joseph.

Other examples of defensive inconsistency include miscues by Dmitri Yushkevich and Danny Markov. Yushkevich was caught floundering along the boards on multiple occasions and his nonchalance allowed for crucial goals against. Meanwhile, Markov ended the playoffs at minus three after lapsing into antics reminiscent of a 10 year-old defencemen caught pinching.

What some men lack in brain they could possibly make up in brawn, but not Markov. With a dismal 27 hits in eleven games, Markov draws attention to the lack of heavy-hitting defencemen on Canadian teams. While up-and-comer Bryan McCabe shows promise of a physical style of play, he does not invoke the fear similar to that of Scott Stevens who consistently levels the opposition with lethal open-ice hits.

But all hope is not lost. There is potential on the Oiler blueline. Tom Poti and newly acquired Eric Brewer continue to improve. The Leafs’ Kaberle and the Canucks’ Jovanovski are emerging as rugged NHL defencemen. Unfortunately while these players improve, the St. Louis Blues will still have Chris Pronger sporting the ‘C’ on his jersey and the Devils will re-sign a highly underpaid Rafalski to continue quarterbacking power-plays while providing an additional offensive dimension.

The estimated time of a new Canadian NHL dynasty is hazy. The recipe for success depends on a collective bargaining agreement as well as a little luck with draft picks. It will be a long uphill climb for the six remaining Canadian teams in the NHL.

Just as not every draft will yield the next Bobby Orr, not every team will get the opportunity to raise Lord Stanley’s cup in victory. For the time being the Canadian teams are far from it.

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