The exercise was simple in nature, but proved difficult in practice. We asked five stars at this week’s NHL-NHLPA Player Media Tour to anonymously rank the seven Canadian teams in projected order of finish for the upcoming season.
Three had skin in the game. Two did not. They answered honestly anyway, some not picking their own team as No. 1.
The result: four different first-place predictions. The only common thread was that all five players picked the Vancouver Canucks to finish seventh.
“Jeez, it’s tough. It’s a tough question,” Nathan MacKinnon said. “It sounds funny, but I think they’re all kind of equal. Every team has their own star. I can’t believe it was only two years ago [that] all seven missed the playoffs.”
Yet, here we are, from Canada’s Lotto 7 to the brink of the next golden age of Canadian hockey in the NHL.
“It looks like it,” Mark Scheifele said. “It’s an exciting time for us.”
“It is,” Jonathan Drouin concurred. “The Canadian teams are good. All around the league there are good players, but the Canadians – there are great players on every team.”
Think about it: When was the last time you could go into a season saying it’s not inconceivable for three of the four conference finalists to be Canadian? It’s never happened, and the last all-Canadian Stanley Cup matchup was the Flames versus the Canadiens in 1989.
Thank the Lord (Stanley) for ping pong balls and prodigious young talent.
Connor McDavid wants to see some silverware before he’s willing to put such a lofty title on this next handful of years. That the brake pumping is coming from the player who said again Wednesday he’s not the best hockey player in the world maybe shouldn’t be all that surprising.
“It’s tough to call it the golden age at all,” McDavid said Wednesday. “I think back to the Oiler era, the big rivalries with Calgary and Winnipeg. Hard to say. But there’s a lot of talent in the Canadian cities.”
McDavid isn’t wrong though: 2018 will in fact mark 25 years since Stanley last resided in his home and native land.
So, this season may not yet be the dawn of the next golden age, but it is definitely the golden age of Canadian optimism.
“It will be fun to watch,” McDavid said. “Look at the Battle of Alberta. It’s definitely picked up, and Calgary added a bunch of new pieces. It will definitely be a good test for us.”
The reasons for optimism are almost boundless. Consider that arguably the best player at all three positions calls Canada home: Carey Price, Erik Karlsson and McDavid.
Canada has the arguably best one-two scoring punch (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), the best blueline (Calgary), the best blossoming star (Auston Matthews) and maybe even the best pure goal scorer (Patrik Laine) in the league. It might even have the best lottery odds (Canucks).
Perhaps the biggest reason for a sunny outlook is that the cores of the Canadian-based teams are mostly all between the ages of 20-24. They’re probably going to be good for a while.
One player (from an American team) in an anonymous ESPN.com poll projected Matthews will be the best player in the NHL within the next four years, surpassing McDavid. The Maple Leafs received multiple votes as a team “ready to surprise,” as if they didn’t surprise enough last year.
In two short years, the dynamic has changed dramatically in most divisions.
“You’re not looking at the Kings and Ducks being No. 1 or No. 2 anymore,” Johnny Gaudreau said of the Pacific. “It’s Calgary and Edmonton, hopefully. You see the Canadian teams, the playoffs and the pushes they’re making. It’s great for the sport.”
Even in a city like Winnipeg, one of two Canadian teams to miss the postseason last spring, the optimism is off the charts. The Jets had two players inside the Top 12 in league scoring – and that didn’t include Laine or Nik Ehlers, who are knocking at that door.
"I don't want to just be No. 7 in scoring," Scheifele said. "I want to be at the top."
The Winnipeg centre said the Jets are “right up there.”
“We have some buzz around us – maybe a lot more in Winnipeg than around the hockey world. I think we’re all feeling that pressure to do some big things this year,” Scheifele said. “We know that we’ve got to make the playoffs. It’s not that we hope to make the playoffs; we need to make the playoffs.”
If the Jets can do that, it is not unreasonable to imagine the Stanley Cup bracket to be filled out with six Canadian teams among the 16 playing for the prize.
Any myriad of things can happen over a 1,230-game slog that lasts six months with 31 teams logging nearly 1.4 million miles in the air. But the future maybe hasn’t looked this bright since the Stanley Cup stayed in Canada consecutively from 1984 through 1990.
“It’s exciting,” former Oiler Jordan Eberle said. “As a Canadian, there’s definitely a lot of excitement around the possibility of bringing the Cup to Canada. It’s just good for hockey that Canadian teams are starting to be good again.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli