Canadian sports storylines to watch in 2018

Yahoo Canada Sports

2018 is set up to be an exciting year in Canadian sports. Here are the top storylines to watch out for over the next 12 months.

Will a Canadian team play for the Stanley Cup?

Morgan Rielly .. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Morgan Rielly .. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s been six years since a Canadian team last played for the Stanley Cup and 24 since one hoisted it, but that drought could very well end in 2018.

Things aren’t looking as promising as they were before the season started when many had the Oilers pegged as a Stanley Cup contender, but all hope is not lost.

The Winnipeg Jets have one of the most potent attacks in the NHL and are finally getting competent goaltending, while the Maple Leafs have shown glimpses of dominance. Calgary is the only other Canadian team that appears to have a shot at the post-season, although it’s hard to fully count out the Oilers with Connor McDavid leading the way.

As things stand at the end of 2017, you probably shouldn’t plan any vacations to Winnipeg or Toronto in June. The Jets will be in tough in the grueling Western Conference, and the Leafs will have to go through the NHL-best Lightning out East. But nobody expected the Senators to take the Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final a year ago, so anything can happen.

Will PyeongChang 2018 be Canada’s best Olympics ever?

Mark McMorris is one of several high-profile Canadians athletes ready to take the Olympic stage. (Photo by Daniel Milchev/Getty Images)
Mark McMorris is one of several high-profile Canadians athletes ready to take the Olympic stage. (Photo by Daniel Milchev/Getty Images)

Everything will have to go right for Canada to set new highs in PyeongChang. Even then, a little luck will probably be needed as well.

The best ever Olympic performance by the Canadian team came on home soil in 2010, where they took home 26 total medals, including 14 gold — both record highs. In 2014, Canada undershot its projected total and came home with 10 gold and 25 overall, which was the second biggest haul for the country. Until this week, when Canada was rewarded bronze in luge after Russia was stripped of its medal for doping.

As of Nov. 1, Canada is projected to win 31 total medals and five gold, according to Gracenote Sports’ Virtual Medal Table, which takes into account recent results to determine monthly projections. Gracenote estimated Canada would win 33 total medals and 11 gold in Sochi.

But when you break it down, it doesn’t seem far fetched that Canada could set a new high in 2018. Between Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Kailie Humphries, Mikael Kingsbury, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters, Max Parrot and Mark McMorris, the curling teams, the hockey teams and the wealth of talent in the various speed skating distances and disciplines — including two brand new events — Canada should be able to come close to matching its gold output from Vancouver. And given that Canada fell short of projections in Sochi and yet was only one medal shy of matching its best-ever Games, a new high in total medals seems to be within reach.

Will the Blue Jays trade Donaldson?

The Toronto Blue Jays have a major decision looming with slugger Josh Donaldson. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Toronto Blue Jays have a major decision looming with slugger Josh Donaldson. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It’s never easy to part with one of the best players in the game — and one of the best in franchise history — but it’s absolutely the smart thing to do for the Blue Jays.

Josh Donaldson is eligible to become a free agent after the 2018 season and is going to become a very rich man. The Blue Jays are trending downwards with an aging roster and several holes to fill while playing in the toughest division in baseball. When you factor in president Mark Shapiro’s track record in Cleveland of trading veterans for futures, the persistent courting by the St. Louis Cardinals, along with potential cost-cutting with a sale of the team possibly looming, this looks like the end of the road for Donaldson in Toronto.

It’s not all bad, though. Shapiro made a number of deals during his time in Cleveland that contributed to the team’s rise as one of the best in the American League. With a trade chip as valuable as Donaldson, the Blue Jays should be able to bring back a quality return that could help set the team up for long-term success.

Will Denis Shapovalov surpass Milos Raonic?

Can Denis Shapovalov outdo his incredible 2017 season? (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Can Denis Shapovalov outdo his incredible 2017 season? (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

At the beginning of the year, the big question in Canadian tennis was whether Milos Raonic could finally break through and win his first major. He was the No. 3 player in the world coming off his best season which included a trip to the Wimbledon final. With a little good fortune, it wasn’t inconceivable to think that 2017 might just be his year.

Denis Shapovalov wasn’t even on the radar entering 2017 despite his success on the junior circuit. He was ranked 250th in the world and expectations were essentially nonexistent for the blossoming 18-year-old.

It’s amazing how much can change in a year.

Raonic, despite a good start to his campaign, was felled by injury once again and by season’s end was ranked No. 24. Shapovalov, on the other hand, emerged as the country’s breakout athlete of the year thanks to an impressive run that included big wins over notable names, none bigger than his victory over Rafael Nadal in the Round of 16 at the Rogers Cup.

Raonic still represents Canada’s best chance to win a single’s Slam, particularly on the grass at Wimbledon, but injuries are a legitimate concern for the Thornhill, Ont., native, who will be 27 when the season starts. With his flashy and aggressive style of play, Shapovalov has put himself in position to be the face of Canadian tennis for a long time. If Raonic once again struggles with injury, and Shapovalov continues to build off his 2017 success, there could very well be a changing of the guard in 2018.

Will Ricky Ray retire?

Ricky Ray is contemplating his CFL future. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Ricky Ray is contemplating his CFL future. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Ricky Ray has the chance to do something that every athlete dreams of: to go out on top and retire a champion.

The 38-year-old, who is scheduled to become a free agent, admitted he’s considering doing just that, and rightly so.

Ray is coming off his fourth Grey Cup title, and perhaps his most impressive considering the injuries he endured over the previous two seasons and Toronto’s expectations entering the year. He finished second to Edmonton’s Mike Reilly for the Most Outstanding Player Award, the third time he’s been runner-up. Unless he plans on coming back for multiple seasons and can maintain his level of play, he won’t catch the CFL career leaders in touchdowns or passing yards. Nothing he can do in 2018 will change the 15-year veteran’s status as one of the best ever to play the game.

If Ray decides to give it another shot in 2018, it will be for the love of the game and to defend a title. That’s a decision that he’s earned, and one that won’t be easy to make. But given how good of a story Ray wrote in 2017, it seems only fitting that he caps it off with a perfect ending.

What’s next for Georges St-Pierre?

Georges St-Pierre’s UFC future remains uncertain. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Georges St-Pierre’s UFC future remains uncertain. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

With his win over Michael Bisping in November, Georges St-Pierre cemented his reputation as the greatest UFC fighter of all time.

If he decided to walk away for good in 2018, it would be hard to blame him. Complicating matters is St-Pierre’s health, which forced him to vacate the middleweight title and put on hold any future fight plans.

But if the 36-year-old does return in 2018, the only bouts that make sense are a welterweight fight with champion Tyron Woodley or a mega-fight with Conor McGregor. Woodley makes more sense on paper, but McGregor would likely be the biggest money fight in UFC history.

Although the payday and the challenge of facing the biggest star in MMA would be tempting for GSP and the UFC, it could be a while before that comes to fruition.

McGregor is feeling the heat to defend his lightweight title against a worthy challenger in Tony Ferguson, while the welterweight division is backed up with Tyron Woodley on the shelf with an injury and Rafael Dos Anjos also in line for a title shot. Plus, Dana White seems adamant that St-Pierre’s next opponent will be either Woodley or interim middleweight champ Robert Whittaker.

For now, St-Pierre can rest up and get treatment for his condition while waiting for the dust to settle in the two divisions before deciding what he wants to do next. That’s if he decides to return at all.

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