The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets seem to be the only Canadian NHL teams that know what they’re doing, and are poised to break their country’s long Stanley Cup drought. But here’s why Winnipeg will win it first.
In FanSided’s NHL Face-Off series, two writers argue two sides of a hot-button hockey issue. We’ll post both pieces, and then our NHL editor will evaluate the arguments and determine a winner.
Even though Canadians presently make up 45 percent of the NHL, no Canadian team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993. Plenty have come close — the Vancouver Canucks saw their city go up in flames twice after they failed to win it, while the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were one win away from hoisting the Cup before they started their decade of futility.
Hope seemed to spring eternal last year when five Canadian teams made the playoffs. But the Oilers, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens will all miss it this year now that the poor roster construction their respective GMs have done has caught up with them. And since the Canucks and Flames can’t get out of their own way, Canada’s chances of seeing a Stanley Cup winner rests squarely on the shoulders of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets.
The biased Canadian mainstream media, which devotes roughly 98 percent of its time to covering what the Leafs do, will have you thinking they’ll be the ones to break the Cup drought. But I’m here to tell you that the Jets, who are more balanced and well-constructed, will pull it off first.
While both teams have an outside chance of winning it this year, they are a victim of the NHL’s flawed playoff system. The Leafs will most likely have to face two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, the two best teams in the West, the Jets and Nashville Predators, would have to get past each other in the second round. That being said, the Jets look more poised to take a deep run over the Leafs.
One reason the Jets’ roster is more well-constructed than the Leafs’ is because they didn’t have to go scorched earth to form their core. When they drafted Patrik Laine, they were only a year removed from a playoff appearance and many of their pieces — such as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers — were already in place.
Laine has proven to be even better than advertised, as some people believe he has what it takes to be the next Alexander Ovechkin. Of course, that comparison has led smug Leafs fans to make this joke:
The Jets didn’t have to overhaul their roster after missing the playoffs in 2016-17 because they believed in the players they had. All they needed was improved goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck, and now that he’s given it to them, it’s no surprise that they are where they’re at right now.
Spearheading the Jets’ movement is a coach who Leafs fans know well: Paul Maurice. He oversaw the Leafs for two seasons in which they missed the playoffs, one of them by a single point. He was largely given an unfair shake, but in Winnipeg, we are seeing what Maurice can do with talent at his disposal, as he does an excellent job of line-matching.
In Laine’s rookie season, much was made of his chemistry with Scheifele. But this season, the team has split the two up — and it has worked wonders. Laine’s goals per game average has gone way up now that he’s matched up against opposing second lines, while Kyle Connor, Schiefele and Wheeler have become one of the best top lines in hockey. Having Bryan Little on the third line is a huge asset, while Adam Lowry and Joel Armia can grind you out defensively on the fourth.
While the Leafs and Jets are evenly matched as far as forward depth is concerned, the Jets have the clear advantage on the blue line. One team rolls out Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak on the right side, while the other rolls out Byfuglien, Myers and Joe Morrow. Winnipeg’s reliable defense has kept Hellebuyck’s workload down — despite the fact that he’s started the same amount of games as Frederik Andersen, he has faced almost 200 fewer total shots than him.
The last point of comparison between the Leafs and Jets is their general managers. Both have done a great job of getting their teams to this point in their development. But while Lou Lamoriello was aggressive in stripping away their previous core, he’s been fairly passive in building this one. The biggest piece he brought in via trade outside of Andersen is, arguably, Connor Carrick. And for the second consecutive trade deadline, he paid a second-round pick for a fourth line center.
Kevin Cheveldayoff, meanwhile, has been far more aggressive in making trades when his team is in the midst of a playoff push. Getting Myers and Armia for Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian in 2014-15 was a huge coup, and while they got swept out of the first round, they have become solid foundational pieces for the Jets. This season, Cheveldayoff really went for it at the deadline when he brought in Paul Stastny who figures to be a lot more useful in the playoffs than Tomas Plekanec.
The Takeaway Point
In conclusion, while the Leafs are likely another center or defensive overhaul away from winning a Stanley Cup, the Jets have all their pieces in place, save for maybe another winger. And although Leafs fans have every reason to be optimistic now, nothing would remind them that they’re the same old Leafs more than seeing Paul Maurice win a Stanley Cup before Mike Babcock.