Which of Canada’s seven NHL teams stand the best chance of ending the nation’s 20-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought this season?
Rule out the Calgary Flames, who’re entering the first season of their long-overdue rebuilding process. It would take a miracle of biblical (or Hollywood) proportions for the Flames to win the Stanley Cup next spring. Their players, particularly their veterans, resent many experts select them to finish dead last in the Western Conference and overall league standings. Their pride is understandable, but their playoff hopes are remote and a Cup championship an impossibility.
The Edmonton Oilers are trying to end a seven-year playoff absence, so they’re also long shots to end Canada’s Cup drought. The Oilers possess talented young players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, but concerns remain over their goaltending and defensive depth. For this season, the goal is simply to make the playoffs, which at this point would come as a relief to their long-suffering fans.
Another club hoping to end a lengthy playoff drought are the Winnipeg Jets, who last made the playoffs in 2007 when they were still the Atlanta Thrashers. Like the Oilers, they have some notable talent (Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian) but questionable goaltending and defensive depth. Winnipeg fans have been patient with Jets version 2.0 and at this point would be thrilled if they reach the postseason.
The Vancouver Canucks were the last Canadian team to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but they’ve been in decline since coming within one game of a championship in 2011. There’s enough veteran talent (The Sedins, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrow, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler) to keep the Canucks in playoff contention, but their core is ageing and there’s not enough promising talent in their system to help the vets. Their Stanley Cup window has closed.
Last season the Toronto Maple Leafs ended a seven-year playoff drought and came within a overtime period of upsetting the Boston Bruins in the Conference quarterfinals. Making the playoffs, however, won’t be good enough this season. The Leafs have a good mix of skilled veterans (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk) and budding young talent (Nazem Kadri, James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, Jake Gardiner) to make the playoffs and win a round or two, but face long odds of ending their 46-year Cup drought.
The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was the Montreal Canadiens over twenty years ago. Like the Leafs, they also possess a good mix of skilled vets (Max Pacioretty, Daniel Briere, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges) and promising talent (Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk), plus a charismatic superstar in 2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Ultimately, their playoff hopes rest with maddeningly inconsistent goaltender Carey Price, whose shaky postseason performances have proven costly for the Habs. If that trend continues, they can forget about ending their Cup drought next spring.
Of the seven Canadian teams, I believe the Ottawa Senators stand the best chance of winning the 2014 Stanley Cup. The goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner is among the best in the league. 2012 Norris winner Erik Karlsson anchors a solid blueline mix of veterans (Mark Methot, Chris Phillips) and promising youth (Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch). Their first line (Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and the recently-acquired Bobby Ryan) could be among the most lethal in the league this season. They also have depth in good young forwards, like Kyle Turris, Colin Greening, Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher and JG Pageau. Head coach Paul MacLean, winner of the 2013 Adams Trophy, is among the best in the business. They also demonstrated incredible tenacity last season, overcoming a rash of injuries to stars like Karlsson, Spezza, Anderson and Michalek to clinch a playoff berth and upset Montreal in the first round.
Granted, there are potential problem areas. Spezza and Michalek have injury histories. Anderson faces too many shots on too many nights, running the risk of burnout or injury come playoff time. Some of the youngsters have yet to fully establish themselves. They’re only two years removed from the commencement of a major rebuilding process, and their inexperience was painfully obvious in their conference semifinal series last spring against the veteran-laden Pittsburgh Penguins. The departure of long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson could prove a difficult void to fill.
Still, given their significant improvement over the past two seasons, the Ottawa Senators are Canada’s best bet to win the Stanley Cup in 2014.