It has been 27 long years since a Canadian NHL team last won the Stanley Cup, all the way back when the Patrick Roy-led Montreal Canadiens beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in five games.
This season looked to be a promising one for teams from the north. The Edmonton Oilers were surprising most people as they sat second in the Pacific Division when the season was paused. Toronto, though the regular season was a little rocky, returned to play with plenty of optimism that their plethora of young, refreshed talent would get them through. Calgary had overcome a lot of adversity this season and had potential to break through. And Vancouver outlasted all of the Canadian teams, coming within a win of reaching the conference final.
Though none of Canada’s teams got past Round 2, a lot of them will enter 2020-21 with loads of promise. On top of the teams we mentioned, Montreal is seeing a lot of progress from young players and have valuable cap space to try and improve in the off-season. Winnipeg could be a force again if they can just improve a defence that fell apart over the past year. Ottawa likely won’t make the playoffs next season, but they’re shaping up to be well-placed for the future.
So who is Canada’s best hope to win the Stanley Cup in 2021? Here is our rankings:
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Reason for optimism: The core is in place and the big contracts to those players are all signed. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are all signed through at least the next two seasons, so at least they don’t have to worry about that business in a flat cap world. And, heck, this group rivals some of the best foundations in the league… on paper at least.
Toronto can score with the best of them and it looks as though 19-year-old Nick Robertson has an inside track on next year’s roster to add another young weapon. They need to make some adjustments, sure, but they have trade assets to do it with. Andreas Johnsson and Alex Kerfoot could be used to help the Leafs upgrade in an area of need, or return and leave them with valued depth.
The Leafs disappointed with the way this season finished, but remember that Tampa Bay had an even more demoralizing end to their 2019 season at the hands of Columbus and are now on the cusp of a berth in the final. We’re not necessarily saying Toronto is on the same fast track as the Lightning, but Tampa has gotten over the hump after acknowledging their shortcomings, addressing them, and returning a more well-rounded unit. Toronto is in a similar spot now.
They’ve got the main pieces in place and that’s the hardest part of building a contending roster. It’s not easy to make the subtle adjustments that get you over a hump, but it’s something that can be achieved in an off-season — especially one that could be as busy as 2020.
And, finally, even though team defence is an obvious sore spot that must be improved, they did get better there under Sheldon Keefe. Toronto was 24th in shots against per game under Mike Babcock and 17th under Keefe. We’re talking optimism here, so maybe a full (and normal-ish) season can return even better results.
Reason for skepticism: While the leaders are in place, there are a lot of things to figure out with this team. Beyond Muzzin and Rielly there isn’t another reliable top-four blueliner to feel confident about — certainly not for an organization that will be under as much pressure to win a round next year as Toronto will be. Next season will be Year 5 for some of these players, they still haven’t won four games in a playoffs — and they’re still building the blue line.
While Toronto is exciting, fun to watch and can score at an elite level, it’s clear watching these playoffs that there is a lot to figure out in both roster construction by the GM and style of play by the coach. Defensively sound teams like Dallas, Vegas and the NY Islanders have excelled and that’s the kind of team that eliminated Toronto in qualifying. It’s not obvious how, or if, Toronto can become more like them.
There’s also a lot of open-ended questions on this roster. Will Frederik Andersen return? You have to imagine he will unless the Leafs can find an upgrade, or at least a tandem situation they feel good about. And just how will Kyle Dubas upgrade that blue line? Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are all but gone, and Travis Dermott needs a new contract. The Leafs have five RFA contracts to deal with and UFA ones for Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford, but have only $6.1 million in projected cap space. It’s not clear how it will all fit.
Clifford, it seems, is the kind of player they need to keep. Not only for his Cup-winning experience, but also his physicality is needed come playoff time — and the Leafs could actually probably use another player of his ilk.
Toronto needs to improve, just as the Lightning did, but with limited cap space and a number of their own contracts to get done, it’s going to be harder that it would have been if the cap continued to rise.
What Burkie says: “They’ve got wonderful top six forwards. They’re set in net in my opinion. But their defence has to be rebuilt. They’re losing a bunch of defencemen. They’ve got to upgrade at defence, not just replace guys. They have to turn some of that high-end skill up front into depth on the blue line and they’ve got to get some grit.”