Rick Zamperin: Maple Leafs under more pressure than ever to win Stanley Cup

Fresh off winning the franchise’s first NBA championship, there is no question the Toronto Raptors are on top of the world. They are world champions, of course.

The Raptors not only played in the NBA Finals for the first time, they ended up beating the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors and capped off their monumental achievement by celebrating with about two million fans in downtown Toronto on Monday.

Meanwhile, at the very same Scotiabank Arena the Raps call home sit their MLSE brethren, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs not only hold the longest Stanley Cup drought among NHL teams (52 years and counting) they are the only MLSE-owned team that has not won a championship in recent memory.

The Raptors just did it. The Toronto Marlies won the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup in 2017-18. The Toronto Argonauts most recently won the Grey Cup as Canadian Football League champions in 2017, the same year Toronto FC captured its first MLS Cup.

So you can imagine that when Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, head coach Mike Babcock and the team’s scouting department huddle together this weekend in Vancouver for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the pressure will be on.

Having just watched the Raptors celebrate with the Larry O’Brien Trophy and knowing that three players (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and yet to be signed restricted free agent Mitch Marner) will soak up nearly 40 per cent of their salary cap next season and beyond, the Leafs have quickly run out of mulligans — and I’m not referring to the ones we all use on the golf course, although Toronto has spent enough time on the links over the last few decades that I doubt they have any of those left, either.

The 33-year-old Dubas isn’t scheduled to make the team’s first selection this weekend until No. 53 overall in the second round, unless he can swing a deal to move up in the draft. But even so, he won’t be drafting a player that is going to improve Toronto’s Stanley Cup chances when their drought reaches 53 years in 2020.

So the Leafs must hope that Matthews, Tavares, Marner (unless he sits out for the entire season because of a contract dispute) and other key contributors like Morgan Rielly and Frederik Anderson find an even higher gear to their game if they have any hope of holding their own championship parade.

If not, come next spring, the Leafs will once again be tossing out the latest version of their Stanley Cup parade route.

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