When the Montreal Canadiens made the Stanley Cup final last season, it marked the first time a Canadian NHL team had advanced to the brink of championship in a decade (since the Vancouver Canucks fell short in 2011) and provided a chance for Canada to win its first Cup since 1993. Although Montreal ultimately lost — and has started off this season horribly — there are a few solid candidates to pick up the torch from the Habs and try to end this Canadian Stanley Cup drought once and for all.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Stanley Cup odds: 12 percent to make Final; 6 percent to win Cup
Why they might win: Their talent is top-tier. Just among their skaters, the Leafs have a “big five” — Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and (when healthy) Mitch Marner at forward and Morgan Rielly on defense — that few other teams can match. Only the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers can also say they have at least five qualified skaters with a position-relative Game Score2 of at least +0.40 per game like the Leafs do. Add in goalie Jack Campbell, who is currently leading the NHL with a .939 save percentage, and the Leafs have received no shortage of elite production this year, even by the standards of a team premised around its star power.
Why not: We’ve seen this movie before. The talented Leafs entered each of the previous three seasons ranked no lower than fourth in preseason Stanley Cup odds (according to the Vegas bookmakers), and each time they found a way to screw things up. This year’s formula is slightly different than in the past, which could offer hope for a different ending — or just more heartbreak. Instead of mostly relying on a powerful offense, Toronto now ranks 13th in scoring but third in fewest goals allowed per game — which is on track to be its best defensive finish since 1992-93. While that might sound like a better mix for the grind-it-out nature of the NHL playoffs, Toronto’s defenders still allow plenty of dangerous chances; they’ve just been bailed out by Campbell posting a save percentage 21 points better than his previous career norm, which may not be sustainable. Although the Leafs’ gifted scorers have also recently begun to pick up the pace, Toronto fans can still be excused for watching this group with only the smallest amount of cautious optimism.
Stanley Cup odds: 10 percent to make Final; 4 percent to win Cup
Why they might win: They’re in an elite statistical club. With a league-best +28 goal differential in 26 contests, the Flames are leading a group of just four teams this season that have outscored opponents by at least a goal per game. Historically speaking, 27 percent of teams with a goal differential of at least +1.0 per game have gone on to win the Cup. The last time Calgary maintained a goal differential that large came in the 1990-91 season, the tail end of a dominant four-year stretch that saw the Flames win 66 percent of their games, outscore opponents by 1.2 goals per game and capture the Stanley Cup in 1989. This year’s version might not quite belong in that conversation yet, but it’s already notable that the Flames have spent nearly a third of the season playing like one of the best teams in hockey, powered by a deep cast of contributors3 and the brilliant chemistry between stars Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau.
Why not: This is a new development. To put it mildly, the Flames were not one of the league’s powerhouses last year. Calgary fired coach Geoff Ward after a rough start to the 2020-21 season, failed to break .500 under his replacement (current coach Darryl Sutter), allowed more goals than it scored and ultimately missed the playoffs.4 The team also had a negative goal differential in 2019-20, only winning a postseason series thanks to the NHL’s expanded-field bubble format, and it was quickly dispatched from the first round of the playoffs in 2018-19 after a similar out-of-nowhere rise during the regular season. While Gaudreau (age 28), Lindholm (27) and Tkachuk (23) are all at ages where simultaneous career years wouldn’t be surprising, the Flames’ Elo ranking has lagged their rank in goal differential because the team’s track record did not suggest that this kind of breakout was imminent.
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Stanley Cup odds: 9 percent to make Final; 4 percent to win Cup
Why they might win: They have a historic offensive duo — and more. The Oilers’ chances have long revolved around the dominating pair of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, a couple of all-timers who have combined for nearly 1,200 points in their seven seasons together in Edmonton. And the two have arguably never been better than they are right now. While McDavid continues to be the league’s best player, capable of goals like this (and this) whenever he touches the puck, Draisaitl is tied with his teammate in the scoring race and is tracking for new career highs in points and Relative Game Score per game. That alone would be enough to power a solid offense like the ones Edmonton has had in the past, but the Oilers have also gotten strong contributions at that end from their supporting forwards (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljujarvi) and top defensemen (Evan Bouchard, Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse). And a power play that was already the league’s best is humming along at a would-be record-breaking 32 percent success rate. Scoring 0.63 goals-per-game above average, this is easily the best offense Edmonton has had in the McDavid/Draisaitl era.
Why not: The defense and goaltending are leaky again. The other theme of the McDavid/Draisaitl era in Edmonton has been subpar defense, with the team allowing 0.14 more goals per game than average from 2015-16 through 2019-20. That seemed to improve last year; the Oilers were actually better than average at keeping the puck out of the net in 2020-21, at least until they were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by Winnipeg while allowing 3.5 goals per game. But the defense has slipped back below average this year, with Edmonton’s D allowing the NHL’s eighth-highest rate of high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes and primary goalie Mikko Koskinen struggling to keep his save percentage above league average. (Granted, backup Stuart Skinner has fared much better in net to start the season.) In addition to sustaining the improved offensive support for McDavid and Draisaitl, Edmonton will need better defense to avoid déjà vu come playoff time.
Stanley Cup odds: 3 percent to make Final; 1 percent to win Cup
Why they might win: They’re probably better than their mediocre record. Once upon a time, the Jets seemed like the Canadian team most likely to end the Cup drought, when in 2017-18 they came within three wins of making the Final. Ever since, though, Winnipeg has engaged in a long slide into mediocrity, landing them with their current 12-13 record and just a 45 percent chance of making the playoffs.5 But all is not as bad as it may seem on the Manitoba prairie. The Jets are one of just 12 teams who score more goals per game — and allow fewer — than the league average, and they also rank seventh in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 (a proxy for puck possession). The forward quartet of Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois is somewhat Leafs-esque in its quality,6 while Josh Morrissey, Nate Schmidt and Neal Pionk are all solidly above-average on the blue line. And goalie Connor Hellebuyck is still reliable in net, even if his save percentage is down some from the previous two seasons. Individually, the parts are here to sum up to a greater whole than the Jets have shown so far this season.
Why not: Their ceiling remains limited. As balanced as the Jets still are, they have not played like a true contender in a very long time. For instance, it’s been 966 days since Winnipeg carried an Elo rating of at least 1540, which isn’t even an especially high mark — it would rank 10th in the league right now. They have been remarkably consistent over that span, dropping below a 1500 Elo for a grand total of just two games, but this core has mostly settled into a pattern of decent-but-not-great performance that can be hard to break out of. Toss in below-average special teams (a middling power play and truly horrible penalty kill), and the Jets are facing an uphill battle to make the postseason, much less win the Cup.
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