As many established championship-calibre teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins tranced into the Second Round of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the North Division has completely defied expectations since the puck dropped on this year’s postseason. The North Division upsets of the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers, respectively, have raised interesting questions in a postseason that’s otherwise gone pretty much as planned.
North Division Upsets Create Absence of Top Players
Four of the most dynamic players this season — Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, and Leon Draisaitl — are all no longer playing hockey. Both the Leafs and Oilers have significant dollars devoted to top stars. Hypotheses of teams not being able to win with big contracts are flying around. As more players are demanding market value of over $10 million per season, it’s a valid question.
For Matthews and the Maple Leafs, this is a pattern of five straight first-round losses. However, they’ve yet to make it through a series, as the favourite, with a healthy roster. Similarly, for the Oilers, inexperience is a factor. McDavid had only made the playoffs once prior to this season, and their dominant play was shut down by one of the best, if not the best goalie in the league in Connor Hellebuyck.
It all calls into question – is there a formula for building a champion? Do these teams need to make major changes to adhere to it? Or is it wiser to stay on the path of most resistance, grinding out continuous losses until a breakthrough?
How To Build a Champion
Recent champions, such as the Lightning, St. Louis Blues, and Washington Capitals, would seem to suggest that staying the course can have a big payoff despite nearly a decade of disappointment. Despite being on a shorter timeline, a couple of former New York Islanders champions would seem to agree.
“You know what, we had a couple of teams in 1978 and 1979 that we really thought we were right there at that point, especially in ’79 when we won the Presidents’ Trophy. We thought we were on our way, but the playoffs are so totally different”, said Bobby Nystrom. “When we lost in ’79 to the Rangers, I thought for sure they were going to change a lot of people on the team. I have to compliment Bill Torrey and Al Arbour for being patient and when they picked up Butch and Kenny, that made a big difference. All the guys came together really, really well. We went out together at night, you know. We had a good group.”
Despite not being directly comparable to the Leafs’ and Oilers’ situations, another former Islanders teammate in Clark Gillies agrees: “I agree totally with Bob, it was a real learning process for us. It took losing those two years against Toronto and the Rangers. It took losing to help us figure out what we needed to do to put the effort in to win.”
Moving Forward in the North
There’s a path forward in the playoffs for the Habs, but not a very wide one. Betway has Montreal at 15.00 outright to win the Stanley Cup, the lowest odds of the remaining teams due to trailing 1-0 in their Semifinal series against the Vegas Golden Knights.
It sounds ridiculous, maybe even insane. But many other stars have had repeated defeat in their career before success was found. Despite being the neutral take here, it’s possible that maybe all Matthews and McDavid need is just one more year. After all, victory does wash away the stings of defeat. Just ask Alex Ovechkin.
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