Canada's Stanley Cup Hopes Rest on Three Contenders to End a 26-Year Drought

Could this be the year Canada finally takes back the Stanley Cup? Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto each have a difficult journey to make it happen, but one stands out as a clear contender to reclaim the coveted chalice.
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When Lord Stanley decided to donate a trophy to Canada’s beloved sport, he wrote in a letter, “I have for some time been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup, which would be held from year to year by the leading hockey club in the Dominion.” He proceeded to buy the original silver bowl for $50 and the legend of the Stanley Cup was born, ready to be claimed by hockey clubs in the Great White North.

Fast forward through more than a century of growth, the formation of the NHL, a Montreal Canadiens dynasty, labor disputes, hockey’s rapid expansion into the South, arrive at the present day and there’s an abnormality: the Stanley Cup hasn’t been held by a team from its home and native land in over a quarter of a century. Montreal last won in it 1993, 26 years ago. The Flames and Canucks came within one game in 2004 and 2011, respectively. That might change this year, but Canada’s greatest hope of reclaiming the Cup might fall on the shoulders of 37-year-old Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith.

Audible groans from the entire province of Alberta aside, Smith has ignited and carried a team through the postseason before. It happened in 2012: Smith, then playing for the Coyotes, backstopped his way to the franchise’s first Conference Finals, posting a .944 save percentage despite facing an onslaught of 37.6 shots per game. Coach Bill Peters has kept mum on which goalie he’ll use in the playoffs—backup David Rittich has the better numbers—but in his team’s potential dress rehearsal against the San Jose Sharks, he went with Smith.

Calgary’s inconsistent goaltending keeps it from being the locked-in favorite to emerge out of the Western Conference. The Flames have been an offensive buzzsaw all year, rolling four lines with ease behind Johnny Gaudreau’s near-100 point season, their dominant “3M” line comprised of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, and as their bottom six comes alive as the season closes. They rank second only to the Lightning in goals and shots for per game and, oh, James Neal looks like he’s bouncing back from a down year.

Starting to sound scary? Mark Giordano has put together a Norris-worthy campaign, flourishing as the Flames’ do-it-all defenseman while becoming the fourth defenseman who is 35 or over to register 70+ points. The longest-tenured Flame, Giordano is the unquestioned leader of a Calgary team that skews young and heads a blueline that allows the fewest shots per game and the eighth-fewest high danger attempts per game. One more for the road: Calgary leads the NHL in shorthanded goals.

That’s the makeup of a team built to withstand the gauntlet of the Western Conference playoffs and match the Lightning tit-for-tat. As for the West’s other Canadian hopeful, the Winnipeg Jets? Not so much.

For one game, the Jets put it together in their season finale and saved home-ice advantage for the first round. Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler synergized and recorded five points while Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Ben Chariot pelted the Coyotes from the blueline in a 4–2 win. They looked like the team that rode whiteouts and multiple high-goal efforts to last year’s Western Conference Finals. That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that the Winnipeg Jets have looked capable of venturing on another deep postseason run, but haven’t consistently played to that level over the course of the season.

Winnipeg added Kevin Hayes at the trade deadline, hoping to bolster the second line a la Paul Stastny last year, but they barely went .500 in their final 20 games and were plastered by offense-optional teams like the Stars, Islanders and Wild along the way. Before Saturday night’s effort, the Jets’ top line scored just one even-strength goal in their previous eight games together. Sharpshooter Patrik Laine is on a six-game goal drought, he shot a career-low 12.2 percent this year and, despite rotating linemates, Paul Maurice hasn’t unlocked the 20-year-old’s skills over a prolonged set of games. He entered last year’s playoffs with 13 goals since the trade deadline; this year he only has two in that same span.

Can the Jets make it through the West and contend for the Stanley Cup? Yes. They have size that wears other teams down, depth through each of their forward lines, a defensive core that matches well against any team and staunch goaltending provided by Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets have all the elements of a team that could even take down the Lightning, but that hasn’t translated well onto the ice and they’ve looked rudderless throughout the season. Winnipeg could very well struggle to make it past the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

And, finally, that leaves the Toronto Maple Leafs as Canada’s remaining hope to reclaim the Stanley Cup. It’s been over half a century since the Leafs last had the Cup—the longest drought of any team in the NHL—but oddsmakers pegged Toronto as the preseason favorite to claim the silverware. A wave of hope and optimism bubbled up in Leafs fans when John Tavares decided to join his childhood team and that hope hasn’t been completely unfulfilled: Tavares set personal bests in goals and points and nearly attained his first 50-goal season.

Even when William Nylander held out at the start of the year, Tavares helped shoulder the offensive load along with Auston Matthews. Despite the preseason hype, this Leafs’ season wasn’t about Tavares or Matthews. It was about Mitch Marner. The 21-year-old winger’s decision-making and hockey sense flourished alongside Tavares, and Marner blossomed into one of the NHL’s best forwards while leading the Leafs with 94 points. The Leafs didn’t have this Marner against the Bruins last season.

Add in 25-year-old Morgan Rielly, who became the first Leafs defenseman in nearly three decades to record 20 goals in a season. Rielly’s offensive production put him in the Norris trophy conversation and supercharged Toronto’s high-octane offense. Offense was never going to be the problem for the Leafs, but play has broken down on the defensive end. Injuries left Toronto with Martin Marincin and Igor Ozhiganov (who?) on the blueline, while Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey garner more ice time than is warranted. The team’s defensive pairings have looked lost on the ice. And, now, the hopes for the Leafs defense lie with Jake Gardiner: the eight-year veteran returned on April 4 from five-week absence due to a back injury. Gardiner will help solidify the Leafs on the backend, but it’s a last-ditch hope ahead of a tough seven-game series against the Bruins.

The Leafs’ road to the Stanley Cup isn’t easy. They’ll potentially have to beat the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning just to get to the Final. None of these Canadian teams have an easy journey—but there’s a better chance of a victory parade running through Calgary than there is of a whiteout sweeping throughout Manitoba or the Leafs’ ancient Cup drought finally coming to an end.