This year has seen a renaissance in the long, barren landscape of Cleveland sports. Though the Indians came up just short in the Fall Classic, their impressive season combined with the Cavs ending the city’s championship drought brought joy and relevancy to a fan base that had been desperately lacking in both for a long time.
As Cleveland finally broke through, I began to think, who could be the next Cleveland? What suffering fan base could be the next to find several of its teams competing on the biggest stage? While it’s hard to find a group who has suffered in the way that Cleveland has, plenty of cities have been waiting for a long time for a return to prominence. Here are three cities that have the potential to make a Cleveland-like leap soon.
The Twin Cities haven’t seen a championship since 1991, when the Twins won the World Series (but Minnesota is home to some really nice uniforms). The Twins also won in 1987 and took the American League Pennant in 1965. But the Timberwolves and Wild are still looking for their first titles, and the Vikings haven’t won one since 1969, before the Super Bowl even existed.
While the Twins remain a work in progress, the market’s three other teams offer hope for a bright future. The Vikings, Timberwolves and Wild have the tantalizing potential of youth as well as the slow build of sustained success.
The Wild currently leads the NHL Central Division. Minnesota possesses the third best goal differential in all of hockey, while ranking fifth in goals per game and fourth in goals against. Goalie Devan Dubnyk currently boasts a 1.51 goals-against-average and a .948 save percentage, both good for fifth-best in the league. Ryan Suter is one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL, and the offense has plenty of firepower in guys like Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Jason Zucker. The Wild has a great offensive-defensive balance, solid goaltending, and a good mix of veteran presence and youthful potential. A fifth straight playoff appearance seems like a foregone conclusion.
To get to the promised land, though, head coach Bruce Boudreau will need to shake his penchant for early playoff exits. Parise and Suter are aging and have contracts that could complicate efforts to retool. In other words, the Wild needs to take advantage of its current window.
The Twin Cities are home to another first-place team in the Vikings. New acquisition Sam Bradford has played well for the Vikings, tossing eight touchdowns and only one interception. Stephon Diggs has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and the offense is doing enough to win games.
More importantly, the Vikings have arguably the best defense in the NFL. They rank first in yards against and are only surrendering 14.9 points per game. The defense is tied for most takeaways and leads the league in turnover differential. That is a proven recipe for success.
That suffocating defense makes them an immediate threat. It also gives the relatively young offense a chance to develop. It is a bit early to put the Vikings on the short list of Super Bowl favorites, but their smothering defense and careful offense will have them in the mix.
The Wolves are the furthest away from being ready to compete for a title, but when you look at their roster, it is hard not to picture the possibilities. The roster contains two No. 1 overall picks (Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns) and a fifth overall pick (Kris Dunn). Their leading scorers, Wiggins and Zach LaVine, are each 21. Their leading assist man, Ricky Rubio, is 26, and the 22-year-old Dunn leads the team in steals. Towns averaged a double-double as a rookie and is putting up 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists so far this season. Both Wiggins and Towns won Rookie of the Year honors, boot.
This roster has some growing to do, but its potential seems almost limitless. If the Wolves can keep this group together, it won’t be long before they are making some noise in the NBA.
Toronto last hoisted a trophy in 1993 when the Blue Jays won the World Series in dramatic fashion. The Raptors have yet to reach the NBA Finals, and the storied Maple Leafs haven’t been much of a compelling story in a while, seeing as they last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
In 2016, the Blue Jays reached the ALCS for the second straight season but failed to reach the World Series each time. This offseason, they could possibly lose Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, but they’ll still have Josh Donaldson and some of the best pitching in the American League. Baseball is conducive to quick fixes, so the Jays should be able to fill in the holes where they appear and remain in the playoff mix.
The Raptors are coming off three consecutive playoff appearances and a trip to last season’s conference finals. Kyle Lowry has blossomed into an All-Star in Toronto, and his backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan is one of the best scorers in the league. Jonas Valanciunas is one of the more underrated big men in the NBA. The Raptors will be among the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference Finals again. Unfortunately, they have LeBron James in their way, but the Raptors should at least be in position to do battle with the best and try to earn their first title.
The Maple Leafs are one of the most storied franchises in the NHL. Their 13 Stanley Cups are second only to the Canadiens. But their current 48-year drought is the longest in the NHL. That drought is unlikely to end this season, as the Leafs find themselves at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, but there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
Rookie Auston Matthews burst onto the scene, scoring four goals in his debut. His six goals lead the team, and he is second in points with 10. Leading scorer William Nylander (four goals, seven assists) is just 20 years old. Toronto is also getting meaningful minutes out of guys like Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Conner Brown and Zach Hyman, all of whom are under 24. The future is bright.
Head coach Mike Babcock brings a Stanley Cup pedigree to the Leafs’ bench. He won a Cup with the Red Wings in 2008 and has guided Team Canada to two Olympic Gold Medals. The Leafs brought in General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who orchestrated the Devils’ mini-dynasty in which they appeared in five Stanley Cup Finals and won three. With Babcock behind the bench, Lamoriello pulling the strings, and Matthews and Nylander leading the way, Toronto’s drought could be over in the near future.
Washington, D.C. Metro Area
The Nation’s Capital hasn’t seen a title since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1991. The Capitals have yet to win a championship, and the Wizards’ drought dates to 1978, when the then Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games to win the Larry O’Brien. Meanwhile, the Nationals have become a perennial contender but have yet to reach a World Series.
The Nationals have made three playoff appearances in the past five years, yet they failed to advance in each appearance. They will open the 2017 season as favorites to repeat as NL East champions and be on the short list of World Series favorites, but there are plenty of questions for next season: Stephen Strasburg’s health, Jayson Werth’s age and a possible regression from Daniel Murphy, to name a few. Regardless, pitching depth and an expected bounce-back year from Bryce Harper have the Nats in position to make another run.
The Redskins are a bit of an enigma. One minute they look poised to take the next step, and the next they look like a complete mess. They made a surprising run to the NFC East title last season only to lose to the Packers in the playoffs, and Washington is 0-3 in the postseason since 2007.
The Skins need the real Kirk Cousins to stand up. If he can play consistently the way he did last year, Washington will be right in the mix in an open NFC. If he continues to turn the ball over the way he has this season, the emerging pieces around him get wasted.
The Capitals have only missed the playoffs once since 2007-08. Despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy twice in that span, they have failed to reach the conference final. Luckily for fans in Washington, the Caps should once again threaten for a division crown and earn another shot to overcome their playoff demons. They have arguably the best player on the planet in Alex Ovechkin, while Marcus Johansson has been stellar this season. They have capable producers in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom and experience in guys like T.J. Oshie, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Goalie Braden Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a rock behind the Washington defense, and combined with the rest of the pieces, the Capitals start the season as a Stanley Cup favorite. It will be up to them to put past playoff failures behind them. They should probably try to do this while Ovechkin is still Ovechkin, as age starts to creep up on this current group.
Maybe another candidate emerges from the shadows, or maybe some combination of the teams listed here put it together and lead their cities to a Cleveland-like rebirth. Either way, it will be fun to watch.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.