Maple Leafs are best bet to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought
John Tavares didn’t just follow his heart home to Toronto.
In his head, he envisioned the Maple Leafs as a perennial contender.
''I came here believing that we can win a Stanley Cup year in, year out,’' Tavares said.
In Year One of the Tavares era with young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner riding shotgun, the Maple Leafs are expected to make the playoffs and go on a run next spring. And even after the Winnipeg Jets reached the Western Conference finals, Toronto appears to have the best chance to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought that dates back a quarter-century to 1993.
''The big picture is obviously to always win the Stanley Cup and to not take any year for granted and always to believe every year, especially with the team we have that that’s where we want to get to,’' Tavares said. ''First and foremost you’ve got to take the small steps and look at the small goals, the small building blocks to get there. I think you’ve got to enjoy that process, enjoy that journey.’'
Toronto has 13 championships but none since 1967, when the NHL was a six-team league. Signing Tavares to a $77 million, seven-year contract has raised optimism the drought will end soon - another big move following the hiring of coach Mike Babcock in 2015 and picking Matthews first overall in 2016.
''You add him, and we have a good core,’' Matthews said. ''We want to definitely keep that core together obviously because we want to see ourselves in a position to win every year for the next 10 years.’'
To get there, the Maple Leafs have to get through a competitive Eastern Conference that includes the defending champion Capitals, back-to-back 2016 and 2017 champion Penguins and the well-established Lightning and Bruins. The Leafs are coming off back-to-back first-round exits and hope to get reliable goaltending from Frederik Andersen and solid defense to avoid a similar result.
The path to the Cup Final isn’t any easier for Winnipeg, which was one of the final two teams alive in the West last season before losing to Vegas. The Jets lost deadline pickup Paul Stastny in free agency but otherwise bring back the same group and the same big expectations to play games into June.
''We’re really close,’' center Mark Scheifele said. ''We have a bunch of young guys that are still coming into their own, that are still learning about the league. That run that we had last year is so crucial in terms of experience that you were able to gain that experience, gain that hunger for what could be coming.’'
Scheifele, captain Blake Wheeler, center Bryan Little, winger Nikolai Ehlers and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck are all signed long term, and Finnish phenom Patrik Laine is coming off a 43-goal season. Winnipeg will again have to deal with Central Division-rival Nashville but is as well positioned as anyone to come out of the West.
Missing the playoffs brought changes in Calgary. The Flames fired coach Glen Gulutzan and replaced him with Bill Peters, traded Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, and signed James Neal.
''I think Noah is just scratching the surface,’' general manager Brad Treliving said. ''We’ve got some guys on the blue line who can produce. We also want guys who want to be in Calgary. ... Elias and Noah, they’re excited to get out there.’'
Lindholm and Hanifin should be excited to join a team with forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and defensemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. The Flames could be scary good this season in a Pacific Division that got weaker with a long-term injury to Anaheim’s Corey Perry.
Connor McDavid led the NHL with 108 points last season and was voted the most outstanding player by his peers. His Edmonton Oilers finished 17 points out of the final playoff spot in the West. That doesn’t compute except Edmonton’s goaltenders had the fifth-worst save percentage in the league and the rest of the Oilers couldn’t keep up with McDavid’s production. He’d like to score more goals this season but learned from last year that it’s not about him.
''It doesn’t matter what one player does at all,’' McDavid said. ''It’s all about the team, and if one guy’s having success, it doesn’t mean that the team’s having success and you’ve got to find a way to win games and that’s not one guy.’'
One guy who needs to be better is goalie Cam Talbot. And it wouldn’t hurt if Edmonton’s defensemen all took a step up.
NO MAN’S LAND
Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary appear to be in good shape for years to come and the Oilers have McDavid to build around. The rest of Canada’s teams are in trouble.
The Ottawa Senators traded two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Mike Hoffman and can’t even look forward to a silver lining if they bottom out: the Colorado Avalanche own their first-round pick.
''We’re looking to have a competitive, good hockey team this year and we’re aiming to be the best we can be and we can be a very good team with the roster we have,’' said center Matt Duchene, who was acquired in the trade that cost the Senators that 2019 first-round pick.
Ottawa is expected to be among the worst teams in the NHL, but at least that’s clarity compared to the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. Both appear stuck between rebuilding and trying to stay afloat.
''Obviously it’s in transition with Hank and Danny (Sedin) being gone and having that void to fill,’' Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. ''We know where we’re at as a team, we know what we have to do and we know that we got young guys coming up that are going to have to try to prove themselves as everyday NHLers.’'
Montreal has a potential star in third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi and can always dream big because of goaltender Carey Price.
''He’s the best goalie in the world,’' forward Max Domi said. ''It’s going to be awesome to have him back there.’'
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno