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:
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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.”
Reason for optimism: Well, they were the best Canadian team in these playoffs and were so close to a conference final appearance, so that’s obvious reason to be optimistic about what comes next. They have the superstar talent to lead them up front (Elias Pettersson), and on defence (Quinn Hughes). They have a fair amount of complementary talent to those marquee players in Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller. And, while perhaps the Canucks have invested too much cap space in their depth forwards, that is what gives them an element of playoff grit and depth that some of these other Canadian teams lack.
You have to be optimistic about Thatcher Demko’s future after the brief work we saw him put in during the playoffs, but if the Canucks can either re-sign Jacob Markstrom or replace him with another proven goalie, we’d feel even better about their situation in the crease for 2020-21.
Reason for skepticism: The blue line may have to be significantly re-shaped this off-season and there’s no telling how they may come out looking. Chris Tanev is a UFA, Troy Stecher is an RFA and it’s possible neither return next season. Tanev would be an especially tough loss, but this is the reality Vancouver is facing with limited cap space and a number of important, expiring deals.
The biggest of those expiring contracts is Markstrom’s, and with the Seattle expansion draft on the horizon the path towards a new deal with the Canucks isn’t clear. Vancouver wouldn’t want to put itself in a position where they’d have to expose Demko, but Markstrom may want protection from the Seattle draft. He was the team’s MVP this season and we don’t know if he’ll even return in 2020-21.
Tyler Toffoli is also a UFA. Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette and Tyler Motte can be added to the RFA pile. GM Jim Benning has only $14.2 million in cap space to deal with all this, which will evaporate quickly with one big extension. Benning faces a lot of tough calls for his roster this off-season and may have to consider trades or even a buy out.
What Burkie says: “They’ve got really nice top six forwards. They have the second-best 1-2 punch at centre in the West. They’ve got to re-sign Markstrom in my opinion, they can’t rely on Thatcher Demko. They have to re-sign Chris Tanev, he’s too important to their team.”
Reason for optimism: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, ’nuff said.
When you have the NHL’s best 1-2 centre punch you’re already ahead of the game. McDavid and Draisaitl still have room to get better, too, especially on defence where a playoff loss could lead to some further buy-in there next season.
Edmonton’s blue line is an underestimated strength for the team, especially after Ethan Bear emerged as a minute-eating, defensively sound rookie. Oscar Klefbom is their leader, Darnell Nurse has improved and still has potential to get better, and once you get past what Adam Larsson was acquired for, you can be happy with him as a shutdown top four. Evan Bouchard, Dimitri Samorukov and Philip Broberg are all under 22 years old and not far from the NHL.
Any one of those blueliners could be in Edmonton for the long-term, or used as a valued trade chip to upgrade on their depth up front.
There are some depth and goalie concerns (more on those next), but when the NHL hit pause Edmonton had the most standings points among all Canadian teams. They have Ken Holland and his proven winning track record in the GM chair. If you can’t find optimism here, you’re not looking too hard.
Reason for skepticism: How much of what we saw this season was real and sustainable versus a spell of overachieving? We know the top centres will be there, but is there enough to support them? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has only one season left on his contract. Kailer Yamamoto was a point per game player in 27 regular season games, then didn’t score at all in four playoff games — what will he settle in as? James Neal and Zack Kassian have bursts of production, but ultimately are probably not top-six players on this team. Andreas Athanasiou had the potential to be, but he may not be qualified after that experiment appeared to fail.
The Oilers need some help up front, to be sure.
Not only that, but goaltending is a huge mystery for them right now. The Oilers had the second-worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the regular season and then were the worst in that stat in the playoffs. Mikko Koskinen will return, but the Oilers must take advantage of a buyer’s goalie market to upgrade from Mike Smith. If they return with the exact same tandem, it’s really hard to see how their fortunes will improve.
And finally, while the blue line is one of their better areas, they still need to find some more experienced depth to fill it out. If Edmonton is to win the Stanley Cup next season, it’s unlikely that their only additions to the blue line will be any of the three rookies we mentioned. Even for the third pair, Edmonton could use a bit more on the blue line. The Oilers ranked 20th in shots against this season and were too leaky against a Chicago team they should have overmatched in the playoffs.
What Burkie says: “They’ve got to upgrade their defence. They’ve got some space, they’ve got some decisions to make. They’ve got to figure out the goaltending position and they’ve got to upgrade their depth at forward.”
Reason for optimism: Look, it would have been really easy for the Jets to miss the playoffs and get a full pass on this season. Their defence was decimated after the loss of Jacob Trouba to trade, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency, and Dustin Byfuglien’s decision not to play. They ended up as one of the worst defensive teams in the league, allowing a ton of high-danger chances against and putting a lot of pressure on Connor Hellebuyck.
And yet, they fought through, were in a wild card spot at the pause, and gave Calgary a run for their money in a playoff round that dealt even more bad news with Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine suffering injures.
The Jets are deep in talent up front, though, which has led to some speculation that someone as big as Nikolaj Ehlers or Laine could be dealt for blue line help. Hellebuyck is their rock in net and even a minor upgrade to the blue line would be huge for him. They can score, they have playoff experience, and their strong history at the draft table leaves the Jets with a pipeline that’s still churning out NHL players. One off-season could put the Jets right back atop this list.
Reason for skepticism: We can talk about making big trades and armchair GM our way to a much better roster in Winnipeg, but the fact is that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s history is to be conservative and let the team develop. And there are prospect defencemen who could be part of this team soon, most notably Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola, the 2019 first-round pick who started this season in the NHL. But if that’s all the Jets do to their blue line before next season, will they be good enough to be Canada’s best Stanley Cup hope? Too much youth can be a bad thing on the back end.
If free agency is how they’re going to fix the blue line (with, say, Travis Hamonic as a target) then that will be a tight squeeze. The Jets have $15.5 million in projected cap room, but that’s with only 13 players signed.
And defence isn’t the only thing that needs to be upgraded. With Bryan Little’s future in doubt (and even if he does return at some point), Winnipeg sorely needs a second line centre. They’ve temporarily found that player at the trade deadline in the past couple of seasons, but that’s not a sustainable model. At some point they have to find their own long-term fit and it’s not ideal to make Blake Wheeler be it. The three teams we have ranked ahead of Winnipeg on this list are all set at centre, but Winnipeg has questions at this vitally important position.
What Burkie says: “They’ve got to rebuild their defence. Most of their defencemen are unrestricted free agents. And they don’t have enough secondary scoring.”
Reason for optimism: They’re a year removed from finishing first in the West and the Flames really dealt with adversity well through this regular season. They’re pretty well situated at forward, with a good top-six and a third-line that stepped up in the playoffs — including Sam Bennett for the second year in a row. The blue line has been solid and deep, and even though a few of them are hitting UFA status this off-season, the younger Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki are good bets to fill in as the next generation.
There is a little bit of flexibility here. No one makes more than $7 million, so most contracts are tradable, which is a good thing for a team that figures to make changes. Matthew Tkachuk is a beast. And even though Johnny Gaudreau is a trade candidate, if he does return after two disappointing playoffs, he’s a huge part of their regular season success and, who knows, maybe it’s just a matter of time until he rips off a solid post-season.
Reason for skepticism: There is so much potential for turnover here that we don’t really have any idea how the Flames will look next season. Gaudreau is likely to go, but what will that deal look like and can they replace his regular season scoring? The Flames have five defencemen who are UFAs and, like Winnipeg, have to rebuild that blue line. That could be easier said than done, so they could be left in just as bad a situation at that position as this year’s Jets were — and Calgary does not currently have a goalie on Hellebuyck’s level.
And what about their goalies? David Rittich is the only one under contract and he had lost the starter’s job by the playoffs. Will Cam Talbot return, and is that tandem good enough to take a Cup run with? Will Calgary instead target someone like Anton Khudobin, Braden Holtby or Jacob Markstrom in free agency? Could they explore the trade market for a Marc-Andre Fleury or even Frederik Andersen type? There’s a ton of uncertainty here at the most important position.
What Burkie says: “No. 1 problem is their goaltender, second they’re going to have to rebuild their defence. Valuable playoff experience. They’ve got a good group of top-six forwards. They’re going the right way.”
Reason for optimism: Not that long ago Montreal had a major organizational weakness at centre, but now it’s a source of depth thanks to how some of the younger players have come along. And that’s partially why we should be optimistic about the Canadiens. While Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault must play big roles up front for them to be successful, some of the younger players showed real progress. Nick Suzuki led the team in playoff scoring and Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a good post-season as well.
And the oldest players are still key contributors. Shea Weber was a monster yet again, and with the benefit of having four months off between games to rest from a heavy workload, Carey Price looked like, well, prime Carey Price. Plus, Marc Bergevin acquired Jake Allen for next season to presumably rest Price a little more than usual and have him ready to go for the 2021 playoffs all over again.
Price and Weber should motivate Bergevin to add to this team now and take runs before either start a steep age-related decline. And on that note, the Habs actually have a fair bit of cap flexibility compared to most teams around the league. They’ve used up some of it already, but only to help in their areas of need. If they can re-sign Joel Edmundson (a UFA they acquired over the weekend) we’ll feel that much better about their defence core that will already have prized rookie Alexander Romanov added to it.
Trades could add more. Max Domi’s name has been mentioned in the rumour mill and we wonder about Tomas Tatar too. It would take some magic for next year’s Habs to win the Stanley Cup, but that was also true about the 1993 team. This year’s Canadiens took top-seeded Philadelphia to six games in the opening round before losing, and they were clearly the better team in the game they were eliminated.
Reason for skepticism: They just don’t have the true superstar forwards yet that it seems you need to win in this league. Even a low-scoring regular season team like Dallas has Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. And even the NY Islanders have Mathew Barzal. The Habs lack that.
This is especially true on the wing, where scoring upside is limited. There are no scoring title or Rocket Richard Trophy threats in this lineup right now. The offensive ceiling is rather low in that regard for the Habs.
And then there are the more traditional playoff ideals. Do they have enough grit and sandpaper and winning experience?
Weber is 35 now and not getting any faster. Price is 33 and though he has a more reliable backup for next season, he won’t have the same rest time in the lead up to next year’s playoffs. So much of Montreal’s chances ride on Price’s ability to steal games and series — can he still do that in a normal season?
What Burkie says: “Great playoff experience for them this year. They’ve got some work to do. They’ve got to get some scoring wingers and they’ve got to use these draft picks wisely. They’ve go a whole slew of draft picks in this draft and the next draft and they’ve got a top GM in there who’s got to hit home runs on those.”
Reason for optimism: There is lots of reason to be optimistic about the long-term plan in Ottawa, just not as a Stanley Cup hope for next season. They have two draft picks inside the top five this year, plus the Islanders’ first-rounder. They’ve also got four seconds. Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Logan Brown, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton — those are just some of the young players already in the fold to get excited about.
And while Ottawa probably won’t spend a ton of money this off-season to rush their rebuild, they are one of the most cap flexible teams at a very uncertain time. We’re still a year away from owner Eugene Melnyk’s stated window of when he’d be open to spending to the cap, and if that day does arrive the Sens will be in a good spot to take advantage. Perhaps they can make a trade to acquire a big-ticket player in a year or so from some team that is stuck against the cap.
Ottawa has draft picks, tons of prospects, and plenty of wiggle room around the cap. They are as well-situated as you can be for a rebuilding team.
Reason for skepticism: It’s just not going to happen in 2021. Who knows who their goalie will be, but if next year’s tandem is Marcus Hogberg and Anders Nilsson they likely won’t carry this young team to some unexpected heights. There are plenty of holes on this team still, but that’s to be expected — they intentionally tore it all down to build it back up again and that will take time to finish.
What Burkie says: “This takes guts what they’re doing in Ottawa. This is a total rebuild. Pierre Dorion’s got a bunch of prospects coming from the AHL. He’s got to hit home runs on those top two picks in the first round. Their future is bright, but it’s a long tunnel. Losing character people has been a problem. Pageau, Borowiecki. They lose top guys like that, character people. They’ve got to stop that.”