As the NHL season approaches hockey in Canada is trending upwards. A Canadian team hasn’t won the cup since the Montreal Canadiens captured hockey’s ultimate prize in 1993. I think the question isn’t when a Canadian team will finally win the cup again, but who will do it first. From East to West let’s take a look at why all seven teams have a reason to be optimistic about the future.
Over the past few seasons the Habs have been Canada’s most competitive franchise. A trip to the second round of the playoffs last year and two wins away from going to the Stanley Cup Finals the year before that. They have the best goaltender on the planet in Carey Price, and PK Subban is an exciting young superstar leading a strong defensive core of players. Montreal’s offense has held them back over recent seasons, but they do have one of the top wingers in hockey with Max Pacioretty. A wealth of young roster players and prospects will hopefully blossom into more scoring support for Montreal’s lone threat. Whether scoring help comes from within the franchise or outside help is acquired, it really feels like Montreal is just a couple pieces away from being a true championship contender. Carey Price has proven that when he’s at his best he can basically win games on his own, add just a little more scoring punch and the Canadiens become a scary team to face in a seven game series.
Before last season started everyone was ready to write off the Senators. Aside from superstar Erik Karlsson, the team just didn’t look like it would be competitive. Enter, Andrew Hammond. Anyone who paid even the slightest attention to hockey last season is aware of the miracle run this goaltender from out of nowhere took the Senators on. He backstopped the team to an insane 20-1-2 record and his near perfection pushed the Senators into the playoffs, a feat that seemed impossible prior to his being called up. The magic may have worn off in the first round, but this Senators team looks like they’re the real deal and are not in the rebuild mode that it initially looked like. Craig Anderson is still a talented goalie and Hammond has been signed to a very reasonable contract that will give him an opportunity to prove if he’s as good as he appeared. That along with the emergence of young forwards Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Mika Zibanejad mean Ottawa is set up front for years to come.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are further away from success than any other Canadian team and although the next few years might not be the most fun for fans, there is still reason for optimism. Teams like Calgary and Ottawa have shown us that even so called rebuilding teams can be competitive much quicker than expected. Additionally, after years of mediocrity the Leafs finally seem committed to the rebuild. They’re willing to be bad and suck it up for a few seasons in order to have a competitive future. Another bad season will at least yield them a high draft pick to add to what finally looks like an exciting group of young talent. Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Mitch Marner have all-star potential and are the best prospects Toronto has had in years. Any fan can tell you it sucks finishing low enough in the standings to actually get players like that, but we’ve also seen how well it has worked out for Chicago. A number of poor seasons have turned them into one of the most successful franchises in league history. If Toronto can follow the lead of teams like the Blackhawks or Penguins and continue to add young talent they’ll have no problem turning around their fortunes.
The Jets have every reason to be optimistic. When Winnipeg finally got hockey back the franchise got somewhat of a free pass, they didn’t need to play well to be adored by the city of Winnipeg and Canada as whole, people were just happy to have a franchise again. The honeymoon wouldn’t last forever though. The Jets needed to be competitive and they have delivered. They made it to playoffs for the first time this past season and although they got swept by a very talented Ducks team, Winnipeg’s run to the playoffs was not a fluke. It is the start of a bright future that only looks to get better. They have an already strong roster of talented players at every position. Goaltending, forwards, defense all look strong. They rid themselves of the distraction of Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian who never really lived up to his potential. In return they got a package of roster players, prospects and first round pick to help with the present and the future of the team. The Jets depth makes it hard to identify any real flaw with the team. Everything suggests they will only continue to get better.
After this many first overall picks you would think the Oilers would already be a winning team, but it hasn’t happened yet. That’s about to change. If Connor McDavid is as good as he’s projected to be he will quickly blossom into the type of talent that will take Edmonton to the playoffs year after year. The Oilers already has a stacked group of younger forwards, but there’s a difference between being great and being truly special. McDavid is special, he looks like he’ll be the kind of player that can take over a game and determine its outcome on his own. Not only is he that good, but with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Leon Draisaitl around him he’s got plenty of support. This group is young and still developing, but it’s scary to imagine going up against a matured version of this lineup. Back in the glory days of the Oilers it didn’t seem to matter how much other teams scored against them, but they were so offensively gifted they always seemed to score more. It looks like Edmonton is about to have that kind of team again. It’s been a rough ride for Oilers fans, but patience is about to pay off, there’s no way this team stays down in the standings for much longer.
Talk about a 180. The Flames were supposedly years away from being competitive and in for a long, slow rebuild. That hasn’t been the case at all. Not only did they make it to the playoffs last year, but they won their first round matchup too. They already had a very strong and deep group of defenseman, but went out and traded for young stud Dougie Hamilton without sacrificing any roster players. With Hamilton in the mix Calgary has one of the best groups of defenseman in hockey. Meanwhile the Flames have Jiri Hudler at forward who’s taken his game to a new level since arriving in Calgary. With him they also boast young talent in Sean Monahan and Calder trophy nominee, Johnny Gaudreau. Phenomenal defense, strong young forwards and solid goaltending make Calgary competitive right now with a strong chance be even better in the near future.
While the other six Canadian teams are all young and trending upwards, Vancouver is the only team that doesn’t quite fit this mould. If anything it looks like their window for success may have passed. They had the best team in hockey a few seasons ago and heartbreakingly came just one win away from the Stanley Cup. They are not the cup contenders they were in seasons past, but there is still reason for optimism. They have been a perennial playoff team for a long time now and have an experienced group of players who know how to win. The prime years of this current roster of Canucks players may be fading, but it’s not over yet and they still have a chance to make another run. They still have one of the most dangerous and versatile top lines in the game with the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata. He’s just one piece, but Bo Horvat already seems to be exceeding expectations after a terrific season at only 19 years old. I think people are also forgetting how good Ryan Miller can be in goal, and if he can recapture some of those seasons he had in Buffalo, he takes Vancouver to another level.