KNOCK, KNOCK KNOCKING ON STANLEY’S DOOR
Jets, Leafs and Oilers all in position to end Canada’s 25-year Cup drought
It’s been 25 years since a Canadian franchise last won the Stanley Cup. Surely, that drought is about to end. It has to be.
There are three Canadian franchises about to start knocking on Lord Stanley’s door. Finally, one of them has to knock it down.
But which team will end the skid that turned ‘O Canada’ with those great runs by the Montreal Canadiens and the Oilers — even the Leafs, if you go back far enough — into ‘No Canada’ in all those years since?
The Toronto Maple Leafs? The Winnipeg Jets?
Or the Edmonton Oilers? There’s one thing all three Canadian franchises have in common as the 2018-19 NHL season goes to the post. Their Stanley Cup windows are now open.
The Oilers, starring Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Jets, featuring Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine.
The Leafs, led by John Tavares and Auston Matthews.
They go into the season in different circumstances.
Are the Maple Leafs, with the addition of Tavares, the odds-on favourite to win their first Cup since 1967?
The Jets are riding the slogans ‘Rise Together’ and ‘See Them Rise’ as they come off a 52-20-10 regular season that took them to the Western Conference final last year. They were the last Canadian team standing.
The Oilers, on the other hand, enjoyed a 103-point season the year before and were just one win away from the conference final. They’re determined to return to be that team again.
Edmonton, last year, went into the season as co-favourites (with the Pittsburgh Penguins) to win the Stanley Cup at 8-to-1 odds. But they let the expectations get to them.
This year, it will be Toronto and Winnipeg having to deal with great expectations, while Edmonton requires bounce-back years all over the lineup, with big time pressure on GM Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan and an entirely new coaching staff to return a team celebrating its 40th NHL season to contention.
Should they succeed, it will be the situation that was envisioned with Toronto and Edmonton trending toward being Canada’s reach for the top teams as this picture began to come into focus a couple of years ago.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock, in an interview conducted the morning following the 2016 Grey Cup game in Toronto, said he totally could see it.
He said it was like the Maple Leafs and Oilers were climbing ladders side-by-side in the Eastern and Western conferences.
The year after all seven Canadian teams missed the playoffs, the 30th place Leafs and the 27th place Oilers had initiated their ascents to the top.
Two years previous, days apart, the two teams, with new management structures, hired two of the top head coaches in the game in Babcock and McLellan.
The Oilers drafted McDavid and, a year later, the Leafs picked Matthews.
“Having good coaches is great,” said Babcock that day. “Having good players is better.”
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, Kevin Cheveldayoff was quietly and patiently constructing his team.
At this time of year, people tend to ponder mostly the positives. There’s an abundance of them on all three teams. But it’s not like there aren’t areas of concern and it’s probably how those concerns are solved and handled that will probably determine the outcome of their seasons.
Consider Toronto, where the biggest question mark is on defence.
When the NHL Network listed its top 25 defencemen this offseason, not one Leaf was on the list. Toronto was 28th in shots on goal against last season.
Morgan Rielly is believed to be on the verge of being a No. 1 defenceman, but is he there yet? They don’t really have a No. 2. Jake Gardiner had 52 points last year, but his defensive game is still a work in progress and he was minus-five in Toronto’s Game 7 loss in its first-round series against Boston last year.
Can goaltender Freddy Andersen bounce back from a shaky playoff series with the Bruins?
Then there’s the big picture question. Can this franchise conquer its own history? The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series in 14 years and every hockey fan in the country knows about their last Cup victory in 1967.
In Winnipeg, the Jets were once the toast of the World Hockey Association. But last year, advancing to the Western Conference final against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights marked the deepest the team had ever made it in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With the Jets there are questions, too.
Can Bryan Little enjoy a bounce-back season and replace Paul Stastny, who played so well as a trade deadline acquisition, as the second-line centre only to depart for Vegas in the offseason?
Can netminder Connor Hellebuyck come close to duplicating his Vezina finalist play of last season and can Laurent Brossoit succeed as the No. 2 goalie in Winnipeg after failing to do so in Edmonton?
The Oilers, who went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006 and then suffered through a decade of darkness, equalling the record of 10 consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, thought all that was behind them following the 2016-17 season.
Last year, the Oilers allowed a goal on the first shot on goal in a ridiculous 13 games. So there’s that, too.
For the next few years, because of McDavid, Draisaitl, Tavares, Matthews, Laine, Scheifele and the other star players, talents, leaders, effective role players and coaches involved, the Stanley Cup windows are open in Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
No guarantees there. The last Stanley Cup window that was open big time in Canada for a significant number of years belonged to the Vancouver Canucks. They never had a parade.
But you have to figure that one of these teams, in the next five or six seasons, will get there.