by Neil Becker
Hockey has always been known as Canada's sport, yet it's been approximately 30 years since a Canadian team captured the Stanley Cup.
Hockey historians and fans alike would have to go all the way back to June 9, 1993, when in a sold-out Montreal Forum, exuberant fans celebrated after their beloved Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 to capture the Stanley Cup in 5 games.
At that time, I don’t think any hockey fan would have believed it would be the last Stanley Cup won by a Canadian franchise heading into the 2022-23 season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were another Canadian team who, during that time, seemed to be on the cusp of being a serious Stanley Cup contender.
After finishing the 1992-93 season with 99 points, the Leafs, who boasted such talents as future Hall of Fame forwards Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, opened eyes around the hockey world by embarking on a magical playoff run.
Facing the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in the Norris Division Semi-Finals, the Leafs dropped the opening two games at Joe Louis Arena before returning home to Maple Leaf Gardens. Led by the strong goaltending of Felix Potvin, the Leafs rebounded to win Games 3 and 4 by 4-2 and 3-2 scores.
Looking to take control of the series, Toronto stunned the Joe Louis Arena fans when in Game 5, they overcame a 4-1 second period deficit and pulled off a thrilling 5-4 overtime win with veteran Mike Foligno scoring the overtime winner.
Toronto, who lost Game 6 in Toronto, returned to the "Joe" for that winner-take-all Game 7. Russian forward Nikolai Borschevsky emerged as the hero when he scored 2 minutes and 35 seconds into overtime in a stunning 4-3 series-ending win.
All through the lineup, Toronto had clutch performances from players such as Wendel Clark, Glenn Anderson, Peter Zezel and a solid defence core. With the entire city rooting them on, Toronto once again went the distance in their Norris Division Finals series win against the St. Louis Blues. In making a statement, Toronto's offence was on full display in their second straight winner-take-all Game 7. The Leafs thrilled the Maple Leaf Gardens faithful by winning 6-0 and advancing to the Campbell Conference Finals against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. It was this series where Toronto's magical playoff ride came to a heartbreaking end. They lost Game 7 by a 5-4 score, which ended that quest for a Stanley Cup.
A year later, Toronto would make it to the Western Conference Finals before getting bounced in five games against the Vancouver Canucks.
Over the years, Toronto would have some solid teams built around such talents as forwards Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny and Steve Thomas, along with goalies Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, to name a few. However, they couldn't come closer to winning a Stanley Cup.
Toronto, who currently boasts such talents as star forwards Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares, along with star defenceman Morgan Rielly, have over the past several years suffered playoff disappointment which saw them lose last spring in the first round for the fifth time in six seasons. During this 30-year drought, five Canadian teams - the Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Montreal Canadiens - and, on two occasions, the Vancouver Canucks, all made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but suffered defeat.
Following Vancouver's Western Conference Finals win in 1994 against Toronto, they found themselves in what has been described as a "Classic" Stanley Cup Finals, playing against the New York Rangers.
Vancouver, who had a solid team consisting of such talented players as forwards Pavel Bure, captain Trevor Linden and goalie Kirk McLean, managed to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to force a winner-take-all Game 7, which saw the Rangers celebrate a 3-2 Stanley Cup win in a rambunctious Madison Square Gardens.
Several years later, in 2011, Canucks fans once again had reason to get excited as their team made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals. It turned out to be déjà vu all over again as they dropped Game 7 by a 4-0 score at Rogers Arena, only this time against the Boston Bruins.
The drought nearly came to an end when during the early 2000s, three Canadian teams played in three straight Stanley Cup Finals. This impressive streak started in the spring of 2004 when the Flames, who were led by Hall of Fame forward Jarome Iginla, lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals 2-1 at St. Pete Times Forum against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Due to an extended NHL lockout, the next Stanley Cup Finals occurred in 2006 when Edmonton shocked the hockey world by making it to the finals, where they also suffered heartbreak as they came up short, losing Game 7 by a 3-1 score in Raleigh North Carolina against the Hurricanes.
During the early 2000s, the Senators were building a solid Stanley Cup contending team. They had electrifying players such as forwards Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Dany Heatley, to name a few.
Ottawa, who finished second in the Northeast Division with 105 points, also had strong goaltending in Ray Emery and a solid defence core.
As Canadians from coast-to-coast rooted them on, the Senators made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost in five games against the Anaheim Ducks.
The final Canadian team to make the Finals during this current drought was the Montreal Canadiens. After finishing the 2020/21 season 18th overall with only 59 points, they went on an unexpected deep post-season run. This run saw them shock the hockey world by making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost in 5 games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Heading into the new 2022/23 NHL season, it's a sure bet that fans from all over Canada are debating on which Canadian team has the best chance to win the Cup and whether it will happen this year.
A strong argument can be made that the Ottawa Senators are now a much-improved team. Last season, after missing the playoffs, management made a statement by signing veteran UFA forward Claude Giroux to a three-year 19.5-million-dollar contract.
Another off-season move to make them better was trading for young superstar forward Alex DeBrincat.
Giroux, who was traded on March 19, 2022, from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Florida Panthers, played 75 Games last year (57 with Flyers, 18 with Panthers), totalling 21 goals and 65 points. Naturally, he will provide not only offence but veteran leadership, which will help what is a young Senators team.
Meanwhile, DeBrincat, who scored 41 goals and a career-high 78 points with the Chicago Blackhawks, was on July 7, 2022, traded from the Windy City to the Nation's Capital.
Other summer moves include signing fourth-line defensive specialist forward Tyler Motte to a one-year contract and obtaining in mid-July former Minnesota Wild goaltender Cam Talbot. Talbot is coming off a season which saw him post a 32-12-4 record with three shutouts and a steady 2.77 GAA. These key additions will be coming to a Senators team who already has a pretty impressive young core of players, such as forwards Josh Norris, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle and defenceman Thomas Chabot.
Despite the drastic improvements, Ottawa will not be a Stanley Cup contender this season. However, they have taken a giant step in the right direction, and it's quite possible they find themselves in the playoffs come April. Obviously, a giant step for a team that finished 27 points out last year.
Staying out east, there are once again Stanley Cup aspirations for the Maple Leafs. Toronto, who last season finished second in the Eastern Conference with 115 points, rolled the dice on quite the gamble when they made a trade with Ottawa for starting goalie Matt Murray. Shortly afterwards, Toronto also signed former Washington Capitals first-round pick in goalie Ilya Samsonov.
After the Leafs lost Unrestricted Free Agent netminder Jack Campbell to the Oilers, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger on obtaining the often-injured Murray, who has struggled over the last couple of seasons.
Toronto made key additions on the blue line as they signed stay-at-home defenceman Victor Mete to a one-year $750,000 contract and Jordie Benn to a one-year pact worth $750,000.
This season, expect Toronto to be a top Eastern Conference team once again. The big question is whether they can finally break that hex and get past the first round. If they do, then I seriously believe that with all their firepower, they are capable of making a run at the Cup.
Montreal Canadiens fans can expect a long season full of growing pains. Since making the Stanley Cup Finals a couple of years ago, there hasn’t been much for Habs fans to cheer about.
Coming off a non-playoff year, the Canadiens this past summer drafted first overall talented Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovsky.
They also took a gamble which could pay off handsomely when on August 18, 2022, they traded for former Calgary Flames forward Sean Monahan. Still only 27 years old, Monahan has suffered some bad luck with injuries, and last April, his season was shut down due to needing right hip surgery. Once thought of as an emerging star, last season Monahan had only eight goals and 23 points in 65 games played.
Other key additions up front include veteran Evgenii Dadonov, who is coming off a 20-goal campaign with the Vegas Golden Knights, and former 2019 Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick Kirby Dach. Dach, who is only 21 years old, is coming off a subpar season with nine goals and 26 points in 70 games. Naturally, Montreal this season expects him to take that next step.
Montreal lost some valuable pieces on defence, including hard-hitting Alexander Romanov and veteran Jeff Petry, who was stellar on the power-play. When Petry was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they did, however, get back offensive defenceman Mike Matheson who is coming off an 11-goal, 31-point season and will be a welcome addition on the Canadiens blue line.
The biggest issue heading into the season is goaltending. It’s been reported this summer that Montreal’s star goalie Carey Price will not play this season due to an injury. As a result, unless a trade is made, the Habs will be going with the likes of Jake Allen, Cayden Primeau and Sam Montembeault in goal.
This year will be about development for the young players, which include the likes of forwards Cole Caufield, captain Nick Suzuki and last year’s first overall pick, Slafkovsky.
Out west, the Winnipeg Jets didn’t make any significant off-season moves and, as a result, aren’t looked upon as a top Stanley Cup contender.
After a rather disappointing 2021-22 campaign, the Jets hired an established, experienced coach in Rick Bowness, who last year led the Dallas Stars to fourth place in the Western Conference with 98 points.
Despite having an impressive young nucleus in the likes of forwards Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois and stellar goalie from Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets still underachieved in missing the playoffs.
As other Western Conference teams made significant moves to get better, the Jets didn’t make a lot. The Jets did sign 29-year-old veteran goalie David Rittich to serve as Hellebuyck’s back-up. Last season with the Nashville Predators, Rittich played 17 games where he went 6-3-0-4 with a 3.57 GAA.
Leaving this off-season was Unrestricted Free Agent forward Paul Stastny, who produced 21 goals and 45 points last season. Along with Stastny, the Jets will also miss the offensive production of Zach Sanford, who, following a nine-goal, 21-point season, signed a one-year deal with the Predators.
Winnipeg will be looking for their 2020 first-round pick in forward Cole Perfetti to take that next step after scoring two goals and 7 points in 18 games with the Jets.
Also departing Winnipeg is last season's backup goalie Eric Comrie, who, after going 10-5-1 with a tidy 2.58 GAA, signed a two-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres in July.
There are many reasons for Winnipeg fans to be excited about their Jets. They have strong goaltending and a talented young nucleus. Saying that, they do need an offensive-minded defenceman, and it will be a few years until they emerge as serious Cup contenders.
An interesting club that should show lots of improvement this year is the Vancouver Canucks. Last year the Canucks staggered out of the starting gate with an 8-15-2 record and, despite drastically picking up their game, couldn't recover to make the playoffs.
In goal, Vancouver is set with 26-year-old Thatcher Demko, who is coming off a solid 33-22-0-7 season with a 2.72 GAA.
Up front, the Canucks added some more depth scoring in the signing of former Maple Leaf Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev, a 20-goal scorer. Another forward looking to take that next big step is 21-year-old forward Vasily Podkolzin, who opened eyes as a rookie with a 14-goal, 26- point campaign.
Vancouver, who has an impressive forward nucleus of Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boesner and J.T. Miller, should this year make the playoffs. At the back-end, they have the puck-moving talent Quinn Hughes and Tucker Poolman back.
In shifting focus to Alberta, it was quite the eventful off-season for the Flames, who lost arguably their most popular player in forward Johnny Gaudreau.
Gaudreau, who was drafted 104th overall by Calgary in the 2011 draft, is coming off a stellar season which saw him score 40 goals and 115 points. An Unrestricted Free Agent in the summer, Gaudreau, on July 13, 2022, signed a seven-year 68.25-million-dollar deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Another home-grown player who left Calgary was rugged forward Matthew Tkachuk, who was originally drafted 6th overall in the 2016 draft. Tkachuk, who totalled a career-high of 42 goals and 104 points, was on July 22, 2022, involved in a blockbuster trade with the Florida Panthers, which had star forward Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a projected 2025 first-round selection coming to Calgary. Huberdeau, the big piece of the deal, is also coming off a career season that saw him score 30 goals and record 115 points.
Another key addition came on August 18, 2022, when veteran forward and Stanley Cup winner Nazem Kadri signed a lucrative seven-year 49-million-dollar contract. Kadri, who won the Cup last year with the Colorado Avalanche, brings grit, veteran leadership and an offensive flair. Kadri is coming off a career year with 28 goals and 87 points.
The Flames have one of the league's top goaltending tandem consisting of Jacob Markstrom and backup Dan Vladar.
Markstrom, who is 32 years old, is coming off a solid season which saw him post a 37-15- 9 record with nine shutouts and a 2.22 GAA. Meanwhile, Vladar went 13-6-2 with two shutouts and a 2.75 GAA.
A convincing argument can be made among fans that either the Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers have the best chance to end that ugly 30-year Stanley Cup drought among Canadian teams.
During the summer, the Oilers went out and solidified their goaltending by signing established Unrestricted Free Agent goalie Jack Campbell to a five-year 25-million-dollar deal. The man they affectionately call 'Soupy' went 31-9-6 last season for the Leafs with a 2.64 GAA.
As hockey fans know, Edmonton has the best player in the league with forward Connor McDavid.
Coming off a 44-goal, 123-point season, the captain, at age 25, is now just hitting his prime. Another star just hitting his prime 26-year-old Leon Draisaitl, who is coming off a 55-goal, 110-point campaign.
This off-season, the Oilers regained their scoring depth by signing the likes of Evander Kane to a four-year 20.5-million-dollar pact and Jesse Puljujarvi to a one-year 3-million-dollar deal. Kailer Yamamoto, who, after producing a career-high of 20 goals and 41 points, agreed to a two-year 3.1-million-dollar contract extension in early August.
The big question heading into the season is whether Puljujarvi, who is a former 2016 first-round pick, is ready to take that next step. If the Oilers are to contend for the Cup this season, they need the big Fin to produce consistently.
No question it will be an exciting season for Canadian teams. Fans from all across Canada have reason to feel optimistic that if not this season, the Stanley Cup drought among Canadian teams should soon come to an end.