The 2023-2024 NHL season has given four Canadian franchises hope of breaking Canada’s 30-year Stanley Cup drought. That’s correct, Canada’s four Stanley Cup contenders.
After 48 games, the Vancouver Canucks are shockingly in first place in the NHL. Winnipeg is only four points behind them, with two games in hand.
The Edmonton Oilers have miraculously overcome a putrid start and are riding a franchise-record 16-game winning streak. Despite inconsistent play, the Maple Leafs are still in the top half of the league’s standings. Which of these contenders has the best chance of bringing Lord Stanley back to Canada? Let’s discuss…
Let’s start in net, where the newly-extended Connor Hellebuyck is enjoying a Vezina-caliber season, boasting a .924 SV% and a 2.20 GAA. Backup Laurent Brossiot has a .926 SV% and 2.07 GAA himself. Not exactly numbers you expect to see from a backup goaltender.
This leads me to the team’s defence. Before Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Bruins, the Jets had gone 34 straight games without giving up more than three goals. They played 14 straight without giving up more than two goals, flirting with NHL records in both cases.
This is complemented by an offence that is spoiled with both elite scorers and impressive depth. Led by Mark Schiefele (41 points in 41 games) Nik Ehlers, and Kyle Connor, the Jets have nine forwards with 20 points or more. Breakout seasons from youngsters Cole Perfetti and Gabe Vilardi – acquired in the Dubios trade – have helped replace the production lost with the departures of Wheeler and PLD.
In the playoffs, excellent goaltending, strong team defence, high-end forwards, and depth production are paramount for any team looking to make a long run. Winnipeg has it all going for them. They are the most well-rounded team in Canada, and the most well-equipped to snap the Stanley Cup drought.
It’s hard to believe how the Oilers season has gone so far. They fired Jay Woodcroft after a dismal 3-9-1 start. Since then, they have gone 26-6-0 to climb out of the basement into a comfortable playoff spot. Despite being 12 points behind the Canucks in the standings, there are reasons to believe the Oilers are a stronger Stanley Cup contender.
Let’s start in goal where Stuart Skinner has established himself as Edmonton’s bonafide number-one goalie. During their 16-game winning streak, Skinner has rattled off 12 straight wins for the Oilers. He hasn’t given up more than two goals in the last 11 games. The Oilers would still be wise to add depth in goal before the trade deadline. Regardless, Skinner has given the Oilers nation confidence he can backstop them during a long playoff run.
With 42 points in 43 games, Evan Bouchard has attracted the most attention of Edmonton’s defensemen. However, last season’s acquisition of Mattias Ekholm has made the biggest difference for Edmonton defensively. Ekholm gives the Oilers a shut-down defenseman who can eat up minutes and tough assignments. The Oilers record with Ekholm in the lineup demonstrates just how valuable he’s been. Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, and Vinny Desharnais round out a big, mean defensive core that is built to wear opposing forwards down in a playoff series.
Of course, Edmonton’s biggest strength is their firepower up front. Beyond the continued, expected domination from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman’s 26 goals have him on pace for nearly 50 on the year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has taken a step back after his 104-point season in 2022-2023 but is still producing at just under a point per game clip. Forward depth is another position the Oilers may choose to strengthen at this year’s deadline, even after adding Corey Perry to their lineup this week.
It might seem bold to put the top team in the league third on this list, but hear me out. The Canucks have had almost everything go right for them this year. They have Vezina and Norris candidates in Thatcher Demko and Quinn Hughes, as well as two forwards in the top ten of the NHL for points in JT Miller and Elias Pettersson.
Sometimes though, having everything go right in the regular season no longer matters when the playoffs start. Take last season’s record-setting Boston Bruins team for an example. The Canucks currently lead the league in goal differential above expected, according to TopDownHockey. So far, Vancouver has continued to pile up wins, laughing in the face of those who claimed they would regress. The question is whether they can sustain it.
One reason the Canucks could maintain their torrid pace is Thatcher Demko. Demko has shown flashes of being an elite goaltender in the past, but this season he’s hit a new level. Demko has a .920 save percentage, with five shutouts in 35 games played. To put that in perspective, Demko had three shutouts in his career coming into this season. If one player can help the Canucks avoid the dreaded regression, look no further than their netminder.
Defensively, the Canucks are a lot like the Oilers, except even bigger. Captain Quinn Hughes is the superstar of the group, and he’s reached epic heights this season with 62 points in 49 games. Filip Hronek has been a star too, with his 36 points already putting him just two behind his career-high. The rest of the defence is massive and nasty, but they can play too. The addition of Nikita Zadarov was a proactive and frugal move from Vancouver’s front office to add defensive depth and toughness.
Up front, similar to the Jets, the Canucks have a rare combination of top-end talent and fantastic depth. The Canucks have an astounding 10 forwards with 20 points or more. This doesn’t include Pius Suter, who scored a hat trick Wednesday against St. Louis. Brock Boeser has already set a career-high with 30 goals after his hat trick in the Canucks comeback victory on Saturday night.
The third line of Garland-Blueger-Joshua has been a force. Sam Lafferty, acquired from the Leafs for a measly 5th-round pick has 10 goals. The Canucks already boast arguably the deepest forward group in the league, and they are likely to add to that before the trade deadline. Even if their puck luck regresses, Vancouver is still going to be a handful for whoever they draw in the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are the only team on the list you could argue isn’t a Stanley Cup contender. They have been inconsistent, battling poor goaltending, shaky defending, and a lack of depth scoring. Despite these well-documented shortcomings, the Leafs remain a borderline top-10 team in the league, and there are reasons to believe they could round into form for a run in the playoffs. So are they one of Canada’s Four Stanley Cup Contenders?
In net, Martin Jones has filled in admirably for an injured Joseph Woll and a struggling Ilya Samsonov. Without Jones, the Leafs could be out of a playoff spot entirely right now. The recent play of Ilya Samsonov however, highlighted by a 32-save shutout of the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday, is the biggest reason for optimism. If Samsonov can regain his 2022-2023 form, it changes everything for the Leafs.
The back end is certainly a concern for Toronto. If they decide to be aggressive at the deadline, a defenseman has to be priority number one. While first-time all-star Morgan Rielly has continued to pile up points, his pairing with TJ Brodie has been poor defensively. Brodie’s struggles are a major problem for the Leafs, who typically rely upon him as their most dependable shut–down defenseman.
Jake Mccabe has been solid in his first full year as a Leaf. Simon Benoit has been a much-needed value find for Brad Treviling’s front office. The rest of the Leaf’s defense has been unreliable, highlighted by concerns with Mark Giordano’s ability to keep up at age 40. The Leafs will likely need reinforcements as well as better play from their current defenseman to right the ship defensively.
Offensively it’s a familiar story for the Leafs, they have the best goal-scorer in the league in Auston Matthews. William Nylander is on a 100-point pace and Mitch Marner is over a point a game with 53 points in 47 contests. Otherwise, it hasn’t been pretty for the Leafs. John Tavares has struggled with just one point in his last 10 games. New additions Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi have combined for just 10 goals.
Youngsters Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies have had great moments but they are still adjusting to being full-time NHLers. The Leafs are lucky to have enough firepower to get them into playoffs without much from their depth players. Should they start getting contributions at the right time, these regular-season statistics won’t matter. Bertuzzi and Domi’s recent performances in the playoffs suggest they could turn it on when it matters most for the Leafs.
A lot would need to happen for this Leafs team to make a long Stanley Cup run, but as the Panthers showed us last year, it’s possible. All Toronto fans need is a little hope to beleaf.
Make sure to check out Area 51 Sports Network as we get into the unofficial second half of the NHL season.
Are these Canada’s Four Stanley Cup Contenders? Which Canadian franchise do you think has the best chance to break the drought?