Cana­dian Cup con­tenders

Toronto odds-on favourite to win Stan­ley Cup, Win­nipeg third

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - SPORTS -

John Tavares was sit­ting in an empty dress­ing room last week and talk­ing about his desire for a Stan­ley Cup, the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for an NHL player, and (once again) why he chose to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs this sum­mer, but his eyes kept dart­ing to­wards the thick sil­ver band on his fin­ger, which at that mo­ment was cut­ting off cir­cu­la­tion to the rest of his hand.

“It feels tight,” he said of the ring, as he wrig­gled it back and forth to­wards his knuckle. “I think for what­ever rea­son, my fin­ger’s swollen right now.”

It took get­ting mar­ried this sum­mer for Tavares to re­al­ize that his fin­gers tend to get big­ger in the morn­ing. It’s good to know this now, we sup­pose, be­cause if all goes ac­cord­ing to plan this sea­son, Tavares and the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs will be head­ing back to the jew­eller next sum­mer.

When he does, he’ll want to or­der a cham­pi­onship ring that is at least one size larger than the last one he bought.

Not to get too far ahead of our­selves, but that’s why Tavares signed in Toronto. He wants to win a cham­pi­onship. And while he has given him­self seven years to get it done, he wants to get it out of the way sooner rather than later. That’s the im­me­di­ate goal. Or rather, that’s the ex­pec­ta­tion — both from Tavares and Maple Leafs fans.

“Get­ting into the dance is what it’s all about,” Tavares told Post­media Net­wor dur­ing last week’s NHL Player Me­dia Tour in Chicago. “It’s about giv­ing your­self that op­por­tu­nity to com­pete for a Stan­ley Cup. With how young this team is and how tal­ented we are — you look at what they’ve al­ready ac­com­plished in such a short pe­riod of time — I think for the du­ra­tion of my whole con­tract we’re go­ing to be ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive.”

It might be un­fair to sug­gest that it’s Stan­ley Cup or bust for the Leafs, who en­ter train­ing camp on Fri­day as the pro­hib­i­tive favourites to go all the way now that they have two of the top-10 cen­tres in the league. At the same time, they’ve used up their mul­li­gans from the past two years.

It’s no longer ac­cept­able to lose in the first round, as they did against Washington in 2017 and Bos­ton in 2018. The re­build is long over. Their young guys can’t use their ages as ex­cuses. Start­ing on Oct. 3, any­thing short of play­ing for a cham­pi­onship will be deemed a let­down.

“I think it’s fair, but I still think we have a lot to prove,” Leafs cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews, who turns 21 next week, told Post­media Net­work. “We haven’t proven any­thing. It’s been two years in the play­offs and it’s been two years with the same re­sults. They can do all the odds and stuff like that, but in the end we still haven’t done any­thing. We still have a lot of work to do.

“A lot of peo­ple for­get that we’re go­ing into our third year and (a lot of us) are 20, 21 years old. They put all these ex­pec­ta­tions on us and it’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, be­cause we have high ex­pec­ta­tions for our­selves as well. Ob­vi­ously, in­di­vid­u­ally you want to take a step for­ward. As a team, you want to take a step for­ward.”

It’s not just the Leafs who will be feel­ing the crush of ex­pec­ta­tions this sea­son.

Back in 2015, the Hockey News pre­dicted the Win­nipeg Jets would win the Cup this year. Af­ter they fin­ished with 114 points in the reg­u­lar sea­son — sec­ond most in the league — and reached the con­fer­ence fi­nal, the mag­a­zine dou­bled down on that pre­dic­tion.

“I think ev­ery team it’s Stan­ley Cup or bust,” Win­nipeg’s Mark Scheifele told Post­media Net­work. “No one goes into the start of the sea­son say­ing we just want to make the play­offs this year. No one says that. Ob­vi­ously, only one team gets to raise the Cup, but we have those ex­pec­ta­tions.”

For once, the ex­pec­ta­tions aren’t just a case of mis­placed op­ti­mism. While the re­build is on for the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens, Ot­tawa Se­na­tors and Van­cou­ver Canucks, the time is now for a Cana­dian team to bring the Stan­ley Cup north of the border. And when it comes to which team will do it, it’s all up for grabs.

The Bodog bet­ting site had Toronto as the pre-sea­son favourites to win the Cup, with Win­nipeg ranked third be­hind Tampa Bay. But don’t dis­count the Flames or the Oil­ers.

“I think at the start of the year, there’s so much pres­sure put on one team that should do some­thing,” said Scheifele. “At the end of the day, it’s what you do on the ice that mat­ters. Af­ter Nashville made the fi­nal the year be­fore, every­one was say­ing Nashville is go­ing to win the Cup. And you see how tough this league is to win it.”

Af­ter an event­ful sum­mer where Cal­gary fired its coach, swapped Dougie Hamil­ton out for Noah Han­i­fin, and then added sniper James Neal, the Flames en­ter the sea­son as per­haps the best team in the Pa­cific Divi­sion. That is, if Ed­mon­ton doesn’t find a way to re­bound from last year’s mess and re­claim the top spot.

When you have the best player in the world on your ros­ter, any­thing is a pos­si­bil­ity.

“We’re look­ing for­ward to right­ing the ship and get­ting things mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion again,” Ed­mon­ton’s Con­nor Mc­David told Post­media News. “Last year wasn’t the team that we are. We have a fresh start to prove that two years ago wasn’t a fluke.”

In­deed, there’s go­ing to be sur­prises and dis­ap­point­ments. There al­ways is. No one ex­pected that the Oil­ers would miss the play­offs last year or that Ve­gas would win the divi­sion and then reach the fi­nal. But for the first time in a while, the win­dow is open for a Cana­dian team to do some­thing spe­cial.

And for once, it’s not a silly pipe dream.

“My mind­set was al­ways you only get so many years to play this game and play in the NHL and try to win a Stan­ley Cup,” said Tavares. “That’s al­ways the goal. I know go­ing through this process (as a free agent), I just wanted to give my­self the op­por­tu­nity to win a Stan­ley Cup with a team that was very young and that had a large win­dow to do that.”

Toronto Sun files

Newly ac­quired Maple Leaf John Tavares is one of the key rea­sons Toronto is the odds-on favourite to win the Stan­ley Cup this sea­son.

Michael Traikos

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