The Toronto Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles to win the AL East last Wednesday, clinching a playoff berth for the first time since winning the World Series in 1993. Y’know what else hasn’t happened since 1993? A Canadian team winning the Stanley Cup. 22 years is long enough, so let’s briefly discuss who has the best chance this season.
The Leafs made a splash this summer convincing Mike Babcock to be their head coach, but I’d be shocked if even Babcock could turn a team who’s top centre is either Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri into a playoff contender. I expect the Leafs to fall faster in the standings than they do from the trees these days.
The Oilers were very busy this summer, making improvements on the ice in Cam Talbot, Andrei Sekera, and of course Connor McDavid. But it may be the off-ice personnel that raise belief in the Oilers once again. The addition of Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan behind the bench means that playoff hockey may be on the horizon in Edmonton. I may be a hopeless romantic and willing to give up my degree to watch playoff hockey one last time at Rexall Place, but still.
Moving on down the highway to Calgary, we find a team that made a playoff push for the ages last season, going 12-5-3 in their last 20 games without their captain and Norris trophy frontrunner Mark Giordano, who they lost to injury. They bring back a very similar group this year and added a big name in Dougie Hamilton, but their biggest question mark is between the pipes. They signed UFA Karri Ramo to a one year deal, while veteran Jonas Hiller has one year left on his contract, and Joni Ortio, who is considered as the future starter, has yet to be sent down. There’s no way of telling who their number one is going to be this year. Assuming they find a solution, and apply a bit of elbow grease like last year, Bob Hartley may lead the Flames back to the postseason.
The Flames’ opening day opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, enter a year that might be the beginning of a transition. They traded Eddie Lack on draft day, leaving the number one job to 35 year-old Ryan Miller. Joining Ryan Miller at 35 are the Sedin twins, who can still put up big points, but have two years left on their deals. Their window may be closing fast, but with a returning core that’s been deep in the playoffs before the Canucks can make an improbable run at the cup. And I hope they don’t.
In Winnipeg, Jets fans finally got to experience playoff hockey after 19 years of waiting, but they’ll have to wait a little longer to see their first win. A sweep by the Ducks wasn’t all that surprising, but to make the playoffs was a big step for the Jets. They’re in the toughest division in the league, and will need young studs like Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, and Tyler Myers to step up. If Byfuglien can be the force we’ve seen in the past and their goaltending can be steady, they’ll prove that last year was not a fluke, and we’ll see the whiteout again this spring.
The Senators had a handful of pleasant surprises last season. Mike Hoffman scoring 27 goals and 48 points in his sophomore season, Mark Stone leading the NHL in rookie scoring, and of course the Hamburglar Andrew Hammond going 20-1-2 to start his career. With Erik Karlsson coming off his second Norris season, and the potential of Bobby Ryan getting back to his former 30-goal scoring form, the Senators look poised to make a run in a rather lackluster Atlantic division.
The Canadiens made another good run last year, after winning the Atlantic division despite being 18th in the league in scoring, they lost in the second round to the eventual East champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They extended Alex Galchenyuk’s contract, which should relieve an aging Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov, and when you have the best goalie in the world, you give yourself a pretty decent shot. I give the Habs, the last team to win it, the best chance to bring Stanley’s mug back north of the 49th.