Inspired by Sports Illustrated calling the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros on a magazine cover three years earlier, I predict that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup in 2020.
The premise of the original 2014 Sports Illustrated article was that the Astros’ talented young core would be reaching their prime together in 2017, which turned out to be extremely accurate. The same can be said for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2020. Auston Matthews (current age 20), Mitch Marner (20), William Nylander (21), Morgan Rielly (23), and Connor Brown (23) are just getting started with their promising NHL careers. Zach Hyman (25), Nikita Zaitsev (26), Nazem Kadri (27), Jake Gardiner (27) and Frederick Andersen (28) will also still be in their prime years in 2020.
TSN recently ranked the Leafs’ core under 24 years old as the best in the NHL, and that core will lead the Leafs to a championship in 2020.
The Four-Year Basement-to-Stanley-Cup Theory
The Maple Leafs aren’t the first team to have Stanley Cup aspirations just a few years after being at or near the bottom of the standings. Past teams that have struck gold with a top draft pick and then gone on to win the Stanley Cup have done so in exactly four years.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup four years after drafting Sidney Crosby, the Chicago Blackhawks four years after drafting Jonathan Toews, and the Los Angelas Kings four years after drafting Drew Doughty. While they weren’t top draft picks, the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup four years after picking Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. For the Maple Leafs, Matthews was drafted in 2016, which makes the magic four-year mark the 2020 Stanley Cup.
Admittedly, there are plenty of holes in the theory. One could argue that the Penguins won the Cup five years after Evgeni Malkin was drafted or the Blackhawks won the cup three years after Patrick Kane was drafted. There’s also the fact that plenty of superstars don’t win the Stanley Cup four years after being drafted (Steven Stamkos and John Tavares are good examples). So it’s not a perfect, but the four-year theory can’t be completely ignored.
Why Not Sooner for the Maple Leafs?
While non-Leafs fans have already decided that I’m wrong, Leafs fans are wondering, why not sooner? After all, the Leafs made the playoffs just one year after drafting Matthews, are near the top of the standings now and at one point had the highest odds of winning the Stanley Cup this year.
The issue is defence. While a team can outscore its problems for a short period of time, defence still wins championships in the end. The past 20 years of Stanley Cup champions have taught us that a fantastic defence can make up for a bad offence (looking at you, Los Angeles Kings), but a fantastic offence has only been able to make up for an average defence.
Here is a look at the past 20 years’ worth of Stanley Cup champions and their regular-season rankings in goals for and goals against:
As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are in the bottom third in goals against and shots against. No team has won the Stanley Cup in the past 20 years being ranked that low.
Between now and the 2020 Stanley Cup, that defence can be improved significantly. Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Connor Carrick and Travis Dermott are all still developing, and 2017 first-round draft pick Timothy Liljegren is the best defence prospect the Leafs have had in years.
There is also potential to improve via trade or free agency. It may be a long shot but Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are all set to become unrestricted free agents in 2019. There is also the potential to trade the abundance of wingers the Leafs currently possess for help on the back end.
Why Not the Edmonton Oilers or Arizona Coyotes?
The Maple Leafs aren’t the only team with a young core that could reach its prime in 2020 (current ages in brackets):
- Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid (20), Leon Draisaitl (22), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (24), Kailer Yamamoto (19), Jesse Puljujarvi (19), Darnell Nurse (22), Oscar Klefbom (24), Adam Larsson (25).
- Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller (19), Max Domi (22), Jakub Chychrun (19), Christian Dvorak (21), Brendan Perlini (21), Christian Fischer (20), Dylan Strome (20), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (27), Derek Stepan (27).
When Sports Illustrated predicted the Houston Astros would win the World Series in 2017, they were terrible at the time and had been for a while, so the aptest comparable in the NHL would be the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with Arizona, and the primary reason I am not choosing them for the 2020 Stanley Cup, is resources. According to the Coyotes’ salary cap data, they are spending $16 million below the cap, and I don’t see them spending to the cap ceiling anytime soon. Almost the entire core mentioned above will need new contracts in the next two to three years. Will Arizona be able to retain them all? I say no.
As long as the Edmonton Oilers have Connor McDavid, they will have a chance.
If you believe the four-year theory, watch out for the Oilers in 2019, but a disappointing start to the 2017-18 season has significantly dampened expectations for this team both this year and long-term. General manager Peter Chiarelli does not manage value well, overpaying Leon Draisaitl and overpaying for Adam Larsson and Griffin Reinhart.
Again, as long as the Oilers have McDavid, they will have a chance, but when it comes to predicting the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions, I have much more faith in the Maple Leafs’ management team than that of the Oilers.
Win One for Marleau
The Maple Leafs’ core will remain intact for a number of years, but some veterans will move on from the team. James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore, Eric Fehr, Roman Polak, Curtis McElhinney, Jake Gardiner, and Ron Hainsey will all be unrestricted free agents within the next two years. Many of that group will not be re-signed and will be replaced by free agents or current members of the AHL’s first-place Toronto Marlies.
One veteran that is signed through the 2019-20 NHL season is Patrick Marleau. Marleau is on a 35-plus contract which protects him from being bought out, and he has a full no-movement clause, so chances are he will be in Toronto for the 2020 playoffs. If the Leafs do win the Stanley Cup that year as I predict, Marleau will be 40 years old and in his 21st NHL season. Future Maple Leafs captain Auston Matthews will lift the Cup, pass it to Marleau, and he will carry it into retirement.