Canadian Cup contenders
Toronto odds-on favourite to win Stanley Cup, Winnipeg third
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.”
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.