The 2017-18 NHL season marks the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup victory over the Los Angeles Kings. That was the last time a Canadian franchise won hockey’s ultimate prize; no Canadian team has even gone as far as the final since the Vancouver Canucks in 2011.
It’s a drought that could end this season. Which of Canada’s seven teams has the best chance of doing it?
Two different iterations of the Canucks roster made Vancouver a team to be reckoned with for a full decade. Both variants were powered in part by some of Sweden’s greatest sons, most notably Markus Naslund and later Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
The marks of that second cluster are still on the team, from the dignified presence of the aged Sedins to the retained salary on Roberto Luongo’s forever contract which, with five years left to run, will probably outlast even the twins. Both may survive longer than Vancouver’s current management group, whose feeble efforts to hold off the cyclical nature of team-building have instead consigned the club to a lengthy purgatory.
Status: It might be five years before we can mention the Canucks seriously in a piece like this.
Over 17 years in Winnipeg, the original NHL version of the Jets never won a second-round playoff game. Over 11 years in Atlanta, the Thrashers never won a playoff game, period. Fans in Manitoba, and any traces of that Atlanta fan base whose affection for the current club survived relocation may thus be forgiven for impatience. This is especially true with the current Jets incarnation, which is still looking for its first playoff win six years after returning.
That specific record of futility may be wiped out in 2017-18, but with the team’s best players still under (in several cases well under) the age of 25, a championship will need to wait.
Status: The Jets are high on potential, but need to finally put up some results.
Let’s quickly run through the checklist.
• Dominant for a decade? Check
• Two strong versions of the team? Powered by different superstar Swedes? Check, check.
• Lost a Stanley Cup Final? Between the 2005 and 2012 lockouts? To a particularly nefarious American foe? Check, check, check.
The two critical differences between Vancouver and Vancouver-East are that a) the wonderful Erik Karlsson is a decade younger than the Sedins and b) the books in Ottawa bear no scars left from the team’s last Cup run.
Ottawa is coming off a modestly successful season in which it was outscored by its opponents and just snuck into the playoffs, followed by a wildly successful post-season in which it came within a single game of advancing to the Final. One of those descriptions is far more reflective of the team’s current reality than the other.
Status: Teams that can’t outscore their opponents in the regular season don’t win Stanley Cups.
Outside of a single glorious run in 2004, Calgary hasn’t been a championship threat since its Battle of Alberta heyday in the 1980s. It’s fitting then that as Edmonton emerges from a decade of irrelevance the Flames can be more optimistic than they have been in years.
Calgary boasts a defence corps which, with the addition of Travis Hamonic, is as good as any in the league, and the Mikael Backlund-centered second line was one of the best defensive forward units in the NHL last season. The questions now are whether the team has enough scoring, and whether newcomer Mike Smith can deliver goaltending good enough to put the team over the top.
Status: Mark Giordano and his blue line colleagues look championship-ready, but the rest of the roster does not.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Love or hate Toronto—and in Canada at least, those are the two options—there’s no denying the past decade has been a tough one. Last spring’s incredible first-round series against Washington, featuring five overtime games and a sixth decided by a single goal, served notice that those days are at an end.
If we look only at score-tied even-strength situations, the Leafs have gone from getting out-shot by 500 just four years ago to a positive differential today. If that sounds like gobbledygook, try it this way: Toronto was rebuild-Sabres bad just four years ago, and now they’re more than respectable.
Status: It’s not crazy to mention them in this kind of list, but it’s probably a year and one top-pairing defenceman early.
Carey Price had his first great season as Montreal’s starter in 2010-11 at the age of 23. He’s posted elite numbers in four of his six healthy seasons since then, and outside of the 2013 lockout year, has never dipped below an average save percentage. He has a good case as the best goalie in hockey today.
On the one hand, it’s impossible to count the Canadiens out as long as they have Price in net. On the other, he’s only been to the Conference Final once since his breakout campaign. The Habs have mostly squandered his prime years, and it isn’t totally clear why this season is going to be different.
Claude Julien will help, and it’s possible that Jonathan Drouin is the first-line centre Montreal has been missing since Saku Koivu left town, but losing Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov hurts.
Status: The Habs should come out of their division, but still look a half-step behind the top teams in the Metropolitan Division.
It turns out all the Oilers needed to end their seemingly interminable stint in the NHL cellar was the league’s best player, something a lucky roll of the lottery balls delivered in Connor McDavid. It’s not a one-man show, but the non-McDavid parts of the roster need to contribute more than they did a year ago.
Moving Leon Draisaitl to his own line will help with that, assuming coach Todd McLellan can resist the temptation to load up the top forward trio at the expense of his other units. Outside of the necessary business of re-signing McDavid and Draisaitl the Oilers were mostly content with lateral moves in July and August, so any other significant change will have to come from internal growth.
Despite that curiously unambitious summer, Edmonton has McDavid, a strong goalie, and plenty of useful pieces left over from their last two rebuilds.
Status: The Oilers should vie with Anaheim and Nashville to come out of the West this year.