It’s mid-September with training camp just around the corner, a time when optimism abounds in every NHL city in one form or another. That holds especially true for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers, and with good reason. Both teams look like they have a chance to be Stanley Cup contenders. Think back over the last decade or so and let that sink in for a minute.
What about a Toronto-Edmonton Cup final in 2018 or 2019? Is it likely? I don’t know about that. Is it possible? I bet if you took a vote of both long-suffering fan bases here and now, the answer would be “yes.” We’ll see. What I do know is anybody suggesting such a thing just two or three years ago would’ve been laughed off as delusional, given the sad sack state of both franchises.
Yet, here were are. Out in Toronto, with Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs coming off a 95-point season, long-time columnist Steve Simmons is daring to dream about the possibility of a Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs – if not now, then not that far down the road. Here in Edmonton, many fans are thinking much the same thing about Connor McDavid and the Oilers, who are coming off a 103-point campaign.
Edmonton’s first playoff appearance since making the Cup final in 2006, a second-round loss in seven games to the Anaheim Ducks, came on the heels of 47-26-9 record. That marked a 33-point improvement over the 31-43-8 record they managed in 2015-16 and a 41-point gain over their 24-44-14 record of 2014-15. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, made the playoffs for just the second time in 12 seasons. They went 40-27-15, good for a 26-point improvement over 2015-16 (29-42-11) and a 27-point gain on 2014-15 (30-44-8). Both outfits, clearly, have pulled themselves out of the ditch.
PIE IN THE SKY?
Simmons, who is one of those Hogtown writers who regularly rubs Oiler fans raw (and who I seldom agree with), is certainly all-in on coach Mike Babcock and the unquestionably talented young Maple Leafs. Here’s a snippet or two of his take Monday about the team he covers. For context, the entire item is here.
“You can see a Stanley Cup from here. Maybe for the first time since the Stanley Cup season of 1967, you can see it. You can envision it. You can believe in it. You can close your eyes and actually picture Gary Bettman calling Auston Matthews — assuming he will eventually be granted the captaincy — to come up and grab the Cup. The Toronto Maple Leafs: future Stanley Cup champion.
“This isn’t a dream or a joke, it’s a path. It’s a destination. The seemingly impossible eventually becoming possible. For most of our lives, we haven’t known anything like this at all. You could hope, but it was never realistic. You could predict, but it wasn’t logical. There hasn’t been a Maple Leafs team in 50 years that looked to be the anywhere near the part of a champion in September — and even that old 1967 team, and they were old, didn’t begin the season as any kind of favourites.”
It’s been a long time between sips of champagne in both cities. Replace 1967 with 1990, when the Oilers hoisted their fifth Cup, and Matthews with McDavid, and a lot of fans around here feel the same way about the Oilers, even if they’re not spinning it into column form like Simmons has. For the first time in a long time, I don’t think the notion of either team contending, if not this season then in the next two or three, is ridiculous. There is work to do for both teams, of course, but it’s no joke.
ON THE RISE
The arrival of an established winner behind the bench like Babcock was the beginning of the turnaround for the Maple Leafs, but it’s the core of young talent – namely the trio of Matthews, a 40-goal man last season, William Nylander and Mitch Marner – that’s the real reason for optimism. Toronto’s best players are their young players. There is, at long last, something to build around, even with a blue line that looks thin to me.
Much the same thing here in Edmonton. The arrival of GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan after years of instability in the front office and behind the bench was a start. That said, the Golden Ticket that landed McDavid was the game-changer. Then, there’s the emergence of Leon Draisaitl and Oscar Klefbom and the additions of Cam Talbot, Patrick Maroon and Adam Larsson. This is the best core group the Oilers have had since the 1980s.
Yes, there are holes to fill on both rosters, and that process will continue when training camp opens, but there’s reason to believe with the cornerstones pieces in place – McDavid and Draisaitl, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. That’s a pretty talented group right there, no? Of course, teams like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks aren’t going to stand around and let the Maple Leafs and Oilers blow by them. No chance.
Sad sacks no more, these outfits. There is hope in Hogtown and expectations in Edmonton — the likes of which we haven’t seen in years and years. A Cup for one of them this season? We’ll see about that. Contenders? Yes.