The wait is over.
After countless restarts and rebuilds, of preaching patience and drafting and developing, the time has come: there is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender coming out of Canada.
Well, two of them actually.
Winnipeg or Toronto. Take your pick. Or better yet, pencil them both in for the first all-Canadian final since Calgary played Montreal in 1989. It could happen. And for once, it’s not just wishful thinking.
A year ago, five of the seven Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs, with the Edmonton Oilers reaching Game 7 of the second round and the Ottawa Senators coming within a double-overtime goal of advancing to the final. This year, it’s down to just the Jets and the Maple Leafs. But while there is a lack of quantity, the two teams certainly make up for it in quality.
The Jets, who will play the Minnesota Wild in the first round, finished with the second-best record in the entire NHL this season. The Maple Leafs, who will play the Boston Bruins, had the third-most points in the Eastern Conference and this season set franchise records for both wins and overall points.
According to Bodog betting site, the Jets are 8-to-1 favourites of winning the whole thing. The Leafs are 11-to-1. Only a handful of teams (Nashville, Tampa Bay, Boston, Vegas and Pittsburgh) have better odds, all of whom Winnipeg and Toronto can — and have — beat during the season.
This might be the best chance since Vancouver lost in seven games to Boston in 2011 of a Canadian team ending a championship drought that has now stretched on for 25 years. That is, if Winnipeg and Toronto don’t stub their toes and bow out in the first round.
“I like expectations,” Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello told Postmedia News. “We expect a lot out of ourselves — and rightly so. And we want our players (to have those expectations) too. What we have to do right now is avoid any distractions and focus on the way we have to play and the way we have to play collectively.
“We have played well. We have played well against good teams, so we do know we are a good hockey team, but the playoffs are a different season. Everything is new. None of the points that you had during the season — as far as players go — matter. It’s just the score at the end of the game. That’s all that matters. You have to win four games to win a series.”
The thing is, expectations have been noticeably measured in either market. If people are planning parades, the permits are being date-stamped for 2019 or beyond.
Maybe it’s because Toronto has to go through the buzzsaw that is the Bruins, who finished one point back of the top-seeded Lightning, while a trip to the final for Winnipeg would include beating the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Predators in the second round. Maybe it’s because both rosters are still so young and inexperienced. Or maybe it’s because this is still all so new.
A year ago, Toronto qualified for the playoffs for only the second time in 12 seasons and lost to Washington four games to two. In Winnipeg’s only playoff appearance, the team was swept by Anaheim in 2015.
There is a reason for fans to be guarded. Success is still a relatively new concept.
For the Jets, just winning one game would be an improvement. After all, this is a franchise that has gone a collective 0-8 in playoff games, including their 11 years as the Atlanta Thrashers. The Leafs, whose championship drought goes back to 1967, haven’t won a playoff round since 2004.
And yet, neither team should be content with just getting to this point. If this year’s Oilers showed the hockey world anything, it’s that the window of opportunity can shut as quickly as it opens.
“We’re living in the moment and that’s the most important thing for us right now,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told Postmedia News. “The more you can stay conditioned to do that in (respect) to this journey and see where this journey takes you, I think you set yourself up for success in the future. But the moment you start paying a little too much attention to the future, the moment will pass you by.”
The Jets and Leafs play in different conferences, but they have similar approaches when it comes to how they were built and what they built.
Both are three lines deep, with 1980s-era offences that had Winnipeg and Toronto amongst the top-three in goals per game, as well as top-five power plays. While the Leafs had three 30-goal scorers and seven 50-goal scorers, Patrik Laine finished second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 44 goals and Blake Wheeler had 91 points for the Jets.
And thanks to above-average goaltending from Toronto’s Frederik Andersen and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, both teams tied with the fourth-best save percentage.
This didn’t happen overnight. Not counting Thrashers draft picks Toby Enstrom and Bryan Little, the Jets (11) and Leafs (10) feature a ton of homegrown talent.
In 2014, Toronto selected William Nylander eighth overall, one spot ahead of Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers. The following year, the Leafs drafted Mitch Marner fourth and the Jets got Kyle Connor at No. 17. Then came the big one: Auston Matthews went first overall in 2016, followed by Laine at No. 2.
This was a process. At times, it was painful.
Mark Scheifele, who was Winnipeg’s first-ever draft pick in 2011, spent the following two years in junior and two more years of being called a bust before enjoying his first breakout season. Nazem Kadri, who was drafted in 2009, did not have his first 30-goal season until last year.
The Leafs went through Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and three different coaches to get to this point. There were times when Cheveldayoff was criticized for sitting on his hands, for not making the splashy trade or for sticking by head coach Paul Maurice for too long. But it was a course he believed in, and one the players also trusted.
“I think for me the biggest thing is looking at the players we’ve signed extensions with and talked to over the years, be it Blake Wheeler or Bryan Little or Dustin Byfuglien who committed to staying with us. Those are the guys that drive me every single day,” said Cheveldayoff, who traded a first-round pick for Paul Stastny at this year’s deadline. “It takes time and it takes commitment and ultimately it takes belief. It’s not a fluke that young players have been able to contribute and contribute well and feel confident.”
While the Capitals and Sharks are possibly looking at this year as being perhaps their last kick at the can, Cheveldayoff said the Jets are “just scratching the surface.” Lamoriello echoed those comments, saying this year’s Leafs are better and more experienced than the team that qualified for the second wild card spot on the final day of last season.
Next year, when Toronto’s Matthews and Marner and Winnipeg’s Laine and Connor will still be on their entry-level contracts, could be even better. But don’t expect the players to wait around.
“Right now, I don’t look at age or youth. I look at the abilities that the players have,” said Lamoriello, who won the Stanley Cup in New Jersey in 1995 with a team that included a 21-year-old Scott Niedermayer, a 22-year-old Martin Brodeur and 23-year-olds Bill Guerin and Bobby Holik. “We’re in a different era, as far as talent and style, and right now we feel good about who we are and what we have. What we have to do is just go out and execute and do it collectively.”
In other words, it’s time to start planning the parades. That’s plural.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @michael_traikos
The Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, who feature a ton of homegrown talent, are shining of examples of why drafting and developing is so important. Here is a look at the combined 21 players that the teams produced on their own, with each player’s stats this season.
Patrik Laine, forward, 19 years old
2nd overall (1st round), 2016
82GP 44G 26Ad 70PTS
Kyle Connor, forward, 21
17th overall (1st round), 2015
76GP 31G 26A 57PTS
Jack Rosolovic, forward, 21
25th overall (1st round), 2015
31GP 5G 9A 14PTS
Nikolaj Ehlers, forward, 22
9th overall (1st round), 2014
82GP 29G 31A 60PTS
Josh Morrissey, defence, 23
13th overall, (1st round), 2013
81GP 7G 19A 26PTS
Andrew Copp, forward, 23
104th overall (4th round), 2013
82GP 9G 19A 28PTS
Tucker Poolman, defence, 24
127th overall (5th round), 2013
24GP 1G 1A 2PTS
Jacob Trouba, defence, 24
9th overall (1st round), 2012
55GP 3G 21A 24PTS
Connor Hellebuyck, goaltender, 24
130th overall (5th round), 2012
44-11-9, 2.36GAA, .924SV%
Adam Lowry, centre, 25
67th overall (3rd round), 2011
45GP 8G 13A 21PTS
Mark Scheifele, centre, 25
7th overall (1st round), 2011
60GP 23G 37A 60PTS
Auston Matthews, forward, 20 years old
1st overall (1st round), 2016
62GP 34G 29A 63PTS
Mitch Marner, forward, 20
4th overall (1st round), 2015
82GP 22G 47A 69PTS
Travis Dermott, defence, 21
34th overall (2nd round), 2015
37GP 1G 12A 13PTS
William Nylander, forward, 21
8th overall (1st round), 2014
82GP 20G 41A 61PTS
Andreas Johnsson, forward, 23
202nd overall (7th round), 2013
9GP 2G 1A 3PTS
Morgan Rielly, defence, 24
5th overall (1st round), 2012
76GP 6G 46A 52PTS
Connor Brown, forward, 24
156th overall (6th round), 2012
82GP 14G 14A 28PTS
Josh Leivo, forward, 24
86th overall (3rd round), 2011
16GP 1G 3A 4PTS
Nazem Kadri, forward, 27
7th overall (1st round), 2009
80GP 32G 23A 55PTS
Leo Komarov, forward, 31
180th overall (6th round), 2006
74GP 7G 12A 19PTS