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Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Canadian Disadvantage

The NHL has evolved and changed significantly in the past 25 years with expansion, a salary cap and new rules.

But there is one change that quietly has put the seven Canadian teams in a position of weakness.

Last season 728 skaters played at least 10 NHL games and 79 goalies skated in five or more NHL games for a total of 807 players. Here is the breakdown of players per country.

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Canada: 352 (324 skaters and 28 goalies)
USA: 220 (203-17)
Sweden: 80 (73-7)
Finland: 45 (36-9)
Russia: 44 (36-8)
Czech Republic: 26 (21-5)
Switzerland: 10 (10-0)
Germany: 8 (6-2)
Slovakia: 6 (5-1)
Denmark: 5 (4-1)
France: 3 (3-0)
Latvia: 3 (2-1)
Norway, Slovenia, Austria, Belarus and Netherlands each had one.

Canada leads with 43.6% of players followed by the United States at 27.2%, but when it comes to free agency the seven Canadian markets are at a clear disadvantage as American players rarely sign in Canada.

This means that the Canadian teams are now realistically picking from 73% of the available free agents (on average) each off-season.

When Ryan Suter was bought out by Minnesota early this week, some Oilers fans, and some media, suggested on social media Edmonton should have waited to acquire Duncan Keith, because Suter was now available and he could be signed for a lower cap hit. The latter part is likely accurate, but believing Suter would sign in Canada is far from accurate. Like, in the category of: no chance.

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Here is a list of American-born unrestricted free agents who signed in Canada since 2016. I only included players who had played at least 100 games when they signed.

Calgary:
Matt Bartowski signed a two-year, $612K AAV in 2016.

Montreal
Al Montoya signed one year, $950K in 2016.
In 2019 Keith Kinkaid signed for one year at $1.75m. He played six games.

Ottawa:
Nate Thompson signed for two years at $1.65m AAV in 2017.
Ron Hainsey signed a one year, $3.5m deal in 2019. He was 38.
Alex Galchenyuk signed one year at $1.05m in 2020.

Toronto:
Ron Hainsey signed two years at $3m AAV in 2017. He was 36.
Zach Bogosian inked a one year, $1m deal in 2020.

Winnipeg:
In 2017 Matt Hendricks signed a one year, $700K deal. He was 36.
These three signed in 2020:
Derek Forbort for one year at $1m.
Trevor Lewis one year at $700K.
Nate Thompson one year at $750K.

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Vancouver and Edmonton didn’t sign any.

Hainsey played top-four minutes in Toronto as did Forbort in Winnipeg. The rest were depth signings or backup goalies. No marquee names.

Here is the list of top American UFAs available this off-season.
Defencemen: Ryan Suter, Keith Yandle, Alec Martinez, Jake McCabe, Mike Reilly, Alex Goligoski, Derek Forbort, Ian Cole and Jon Merrill.
Forwards: Brandon Saad, Kyle Palmieri, Blake Coleman, Paul Stastny, Nick Foligno, Nick Bonino, Luke Glendening and Derek Stepan.

Stastny has played in Winnipeg for years, so he’d be open to playing in Canada. Foligno has dual citizenship, so he might be an option. Bonino’s wife is from the Edmonton area, so he is a possibility. But most of the top-end players are unlikely to sign in Canada. Often it is based on the comfort of being in their home country as well as family. I understand it.

But with each passing season, the options in free agency for Canadian teams is diminishing. There are significantly more USA players in the league now than ever before.

Year CAN USA SWE RUS FIN CZ OTHER Total
1996 439 137 30 51 13 28 20 718
2001 443 129 43 51 32 62 68 828
2006 423 150 43 42 35 58 54 805
2011 440 182 53 26 28 41 43 813
2016 398 186 76 37 31 33 42 809
2021 352 220 80 44 45 26 40 807

In 1996 Americans made up 15.6% of the league.

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In 2006 they comprised 18.6% of the league. In 2016 they made up was 23% and this season they jumped to 27.2%.

Sweden has increased from 4.1% in 1996 to 9.9% this season.
Finland has jumped from 1.8% in 1996 to 5.5% this year.
Other countries have increased from 2.7% in 1996 to 4.9% in 2021.

Meanwhile, Russia has dropped from 7.1% in 1996 to 5.4% now. The Czech Republic was at 7.4% in 2001, but is now only 3.2%. The KHL has kept more Russian players at home, so that explains their drop a bit. Canadians comprised 61.1% of the NHL in 1996 and are now at 43.6%

Canada has dropped 17.5% while the USA has increased 11.6%. The growth of hockey in the United States is a big reason in the surge of their numbers. More American kids are playing hockey and getting better coaching and development than they did 25 years ago.

And as hockey continues to grow in the United States, we will see more Americans in the league. And that means fewer potential free agent options for the Canadian teams.

It is why drafting and developing will become even more important for the Canadian markets. I outlined yesterday why overpaying in free agency is a bad move, so the lack of options isn’t all negative for the Canadian markets, however, it does limit their options.

This is the new reality for the seven Canadian markets, and fans and some media need to recognize this when discussing potential UFA targets.

Saad, Coleman, Suter, McCabe and others would be great options, but their passport makes it very unlikely they will sign in Canada.

I also hope Canadian players recognize this as well. If you want your country to remain at the top, then playing in your home country is a good option. Not to mention all Canadian teams pay their players in American funds. Connor McDavid’s salary is $13m this season, which equals $16.359m on today’s exchange rate. Living year round in Canada has some perks.

As you prepare to watch the free agent frenzy unfold starting July 28th, don’t be surprised to see most American players sign with one of the 25 US-based teams.

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