Next week will bring an early summer in six Canadian NHL cities when the playoffs begin without the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames.
For the first time since 1973, there is just one Canadian team in the post-season. The Montreal Canadiens - also the lone team 41 years ago - represent the nation's only hope of ending a 21-year Stanley Cup drought, and that's a long shot.
Across the rest of the country, disappointment reigns. Going into the season, it was possible six of seven teams would make the playoffs, but those expectations faded quickly.
"It's not fun, for sure," said Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri, a native of Richmond Hill, Ont., who spent parts of three seasons with the Habs. "The players on the team, I can tell you for sure feel it. It weighs a lot on you, no doubt. That's part of also what makes it so special to play in a Canadian market. When it goes the other way, there's no more rewarding feeling."
Playoff hopes slipped away at different times during the 2013-2014 season for Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary - culminating Tuesday night when the Leafs were the final team eliminated.
Change has already come for some clubs and more is on the way in other cities. Flames general manager Jay Feaster, Canucks GM Mike Gillis and Jets coach Claude Noel have already lost their jobs as part of this lost season.
And already Vancouver hired Trevor Linden and Toronto hired Brendan Shanahan to oversee what comes next.
So how did it all go so wrong?
When it seemed possible: Never
When hope was extinguished: Before opening night
No expectations were placed on the Flames in a hard-core rebuilding year. Maybe some came with the September hiring of Brian Burke as president of hockey operations, but a 6-11-3 start stamped those out.
Burke fired Feaster in November but didn't change course very much. The Flames have had 10 players make their NHL debut this season, as coach Bob Hartley was tasked with instilling a work ethic in a young team.
"I had challenged the players at training camp like we wanted to become the hardest-working team," Hartley said. "For me, as an organization if we want to grow young players, we have to grow them playing the right way, working out the right way."
Calgary was officially eliminated from playoff contention March 30, but this was a year to build for the future around players like Calder Trophy candidate Sean Monahan. To forward Matt Stajan, that doesn't make missing the playoffs any easier.
"You don't make playoffs, you're not satisfied," Stajan said. "That's what you play for. I think you can look at the progression of the team from a slow start and we've kind of gradually gotten better and better as the year's gone on, but when you don't make it, you're still disappointed and you don't go into the summer feeling good about yourself."
When it seemed possible: Pre-season
When hope was extinguished: Nov. 15 with a 4-15-2 record
So much young talent plus popular coaching hire Dallas Eakins was supposed to equal Edmonton's first playoff appearance since reaching the Cup final in 2006. Since then, they've drafted Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov in the first round, but that core hasn't been able to put it together.
Four wins in their first 21 games solidified that this wasn't going to be the Oilers' year, even though GM Craig MacTavish said in early November that "as bad as our record is, I see plenty of progress and maybe more important plenty of potential in this hockey club."
That potential will have to wait for next season, when goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth ??? both acquired in trades this season ??? could get a chance to succeed where Devan Dubnyk and others have failed.
More defensive changes are certainly needed, too, for an Oilers team that gave up the most goals per game in the NHL. Trading for defensive-minded forward Matt Hendricks is one step toward that, but MacTavish's off-season is likely to include a necessary overhaul on the blue line.
When it seemed possible: Dec. 30, at 23-11-6 and in West's first wild-card spot
When hope was extinguished: March 10 following 7-4 loss to Islanders
All seemed well with the Canucks at the start of 2014, perennial contenders who came one win from capturing the Stanley Cup just two seasons ago. Daniel and Henrik Sedin had new four-year contract extensions, and a 10-1-2 December had Vancouver in playoff position.
Then the bottom fell out. Seven losses in eight games to start January brought signs of trouble, and then coach John Tortorella's infamous attempt to enter the Flames' locker-room Jan. 18 after a brawl made things worse.
In March, Gillis blamed injuries and the locker-room incident for the Canucks' free fall that also included trading Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers less than a year after sending Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.
Blowing a three-goal lead and giving up seven third-period goals at home to the New York Islanders on March 10 dropped the Canucks to four points out of a playoff spot and seemed to represent the death knell.
When it seemed possible: March 1, two points out of playoff spot
When hope was extinguished: March 14, following a six-game losing streak
The Jets' third season in Winnipeg brought optimism. As the season turned sour, there were plenty of reminders that these were the lowly Atlanta Thrashers not too long ago.
"It's been a difficult year, where we are, where we've come from, everything we've been through," winger Blake Wheeler said. "It's been a challenging year for everyone."
Winnipeg was 19-23-5 when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff pulled the plug and fired Noel and assistant coach Perry Pearn. The Jets went 11-3-1 in their first 15 games under new coach Paul Maurice to make a run, but a six-game skid in a thorny Western Conference spelled the end.
Like Hartley in Calgary, Maurice has tried to create a winning culture in Winnipeg. Players seem to be buying in.
Given the struggles of Ondrej Pavelec, the Jets could be looking to upgrade in goal this summer. Trading the talented Evander Kane would also be one way to fill some other holes up and down the roster.
When it seemed possible: Jan. 30, one point out of a playoff spot
When hope was extinguished: March 22, following a six-game losing streak
The post-Daniel Alfredsson era in Ottawa got off to a rocky start. Something was off beyond just subpar goaltending that contributed to a 14-17-7 start.
"You are what you are," Jack Adams Award-winning coach Paul MacLean said in December after loss No. 17 of the season. "We need wins. You end up being what you are."
The Senators, very briefly, looked like playoff contenders at the Olympic break when they were one point back of the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot. Then came a 2-7-2 run that meant no playoff hockey in Ottawa for the third time in five years.
"If you don't feel you have any puck luck, then you're not working hard enough on a day-to-day basis,'' MacLean told reporters in Dallas after a March 22 loss to the Stars. "You shouldn't expect a break or something to go your way unless you're out there doing the work.''
Winger Bobby Ryan, acquired via trade the same day Alfredsson left to sign with the Red Wings, played much of the season in pain before finally having sports hernia surgery recently. Ryan still finished with 23 goals and 25 assists and said he'd like to sign an extension to remain in Ottawa.
In addition to a healthy Ryan, the Senators hope to get better goaltending from Craig Anderson (in a contract year) and Robin Lehner in what will be Bryan Murray's penultimate season as GM.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
When it seemed possible: March 13, after win over Kings had them second in Atlantic Division
When hope was extinguished: March 29, after eighth straight regulation loss
The Leafs went into, and came out of, the Olympic break so hot (9-3-2) that even some early-season problems that were masked by victories looked like they were in the past. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier was on his way to being a Vezina Trophy candidate, and Phil Kessel was on his way to getting some Hart Trophy votes, too.
Bernier's groin injury March 13 changed everything. Backup James Reimer couldn't make up for mistakes in front of him, and coach Randy Carlyle's assessment of his "OK, just OK" play March 19 in Detroit seemed to only further hurt his confidence.
Even Bernier's return couldn't stop the bleeding for the Leafs but it was only after losing to the Detroit Red Wings on March 29 that players seem resigned to missing the playoffs.
"It's tough to stay positive right now," winger Joffrey Lupul said that night. "This was as close to a do-or-die as you can get. But obviously we're not going to throw out hope until it's mathematically set in stone. But we pretty much had to have this game."
Two wins that followed gave the Leafs the slightest bit of a chance, but a knee injury to Bernier and then a loss to the Jets last week paved the way for their official elimination Tuesday.
Unlike the Canucks, the Leafs didn't go fire-crazy immediately. Instead, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment's Tim Leiweke hired Shanahan as president.
That could be the first of many changes for a team that had more than playoff expectations after pushing the Boston Bruins to the brink.
??????????????????????????? With files from Joshua Clipperton in Vancouver.
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