Auston Matthews watched the NBA champion Raptors parade through the streets of Toronto and couldn’t help but wonder.
What if instead of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, it was him and his Maple Leafs teammates celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1967?
”I definitely get stuck thinking about stuff like that,” Matthews said. ”You kind of picture yourself in that situation.”
Matthews first wants to picture the Maple Leafs on a long playoff run after three consecutive first-round exits. For Toronto and all seven Canada-based NHL teams, this season is about taking the next step, whether it’s into Cup contender status, into the postseason or a long-term rebuild.
The Maple Leafs with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front and a retooled blue line featuring former Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on paper look like the best hope to end Canada’s Cup drought that dates to 1993. But they play in arguably hockey’s toughest division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the improved Florida Panthers , so they can’t really be judged until they get into the playoffs and show what they can do.
”Obviously the Achilles heel has been that first round for us,” Matthews said. ”It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it. For us obviously it’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – the same team, same result. So for us just making sure that everybody’s really focused and dialed in and ready to kind of get over that hump.”
Toronto lost to Boston in Game 7 of the first round each of the past two seasons. The Bruins got to Game 7 of the Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.
”They were that close,” Matthews said. ”It’s always in the back of your mind kind of that `What could have been.”’
Out West, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are each coming off disappointing first-round defeats and have high expectations of burying those memories and advancing further this spring.
”We never really found that level that we did two years ago when we made it to the conference finals, and we need to get back at that,” Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. ”We need to find that and we need to find it earlier. I’m excited for this year and I think the guys are, too.”
The Jets traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers, lost Tyler Myers in free agency and are dealing with the possibility that Dustin Byfuglien could retire. The uncertain futures of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor add to the uncertainty in Winnipeg.
”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Ehlers said.
The Montreal Canadiens just want to get back to the playoffs after missing in two of the past three seasons. They haven’t won a round since 2015, and forward Max Domi can’t imagine what his first home playoff game will be like in a city starved for it.
”I watch videos all the time of people with their iPhones at a live Bell Centre Montreal Canadiens game in the playoffs and just visualizing how cool that would be,” Domi said. ”It’s a dream of mine.”
Carey Price, who in 2015 won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender, is the biggest reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the odds and make the playoffs.
”He’s the best goalie in the world for a reason,” Domi said. ”It’s a major confidence boost, for sure. He’s outstanding.”
The Edmonton Oilers have one playoff appearance in 13 years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They have a new general manager in Ken Holland, a new coach in Dave Tippett and new questions about captain Connor McDavid coming off a knee injury. Of course, the biggest question in Edmonton is if this once-proud franchise can put it all together and stop wasting McDavid’s prime.
”We all get frustrated at times,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”You’re kidding yourself if you say it doesn’t. We’ve got to find our way out of it. There’s no point dwelling on it, no point getting down about it. You’ve just got to push through and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it together.”
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson gives the Vancouver Canucks hope that they can return to prominence with a new wave of young talent. It’s still a process for Vancouver, which will need to build up some more talent before contending.
Defenseman Thomas Chabot’s $64 million, eight-year extension is similarly good news for the Ottawa Senators that a rising star wants to stay there and be part of the solution. The Senators need a handful more players like Chabot before they can reach the playoffs again.
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