Not everyone can make the postseason. Every season sees teams end their season with their final regular season game. Some teams miss it more than others and for some long periods of time. The New Jersey Devils, for example, have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons now. Some of the People Who Matter claim that this is necessary. The result of a rebuild; a price to pay now for setting up a team for future prizes. Is that really true though? And how does this current drought for the Devils compare with other NHL teams? What can we learn from other droughts in NHL history? To answer these questions and more, let us take a deeper dive into playoff droughts among the NHL franchise.
This is a multi-part series covering the active franchises in the NHL and their significant runs of futility except for the recent teams in Las Vegas and Seattle. In Part 1, I covered the scope of this project, acknowledgments about the differences in NHL league structures and eras, and the first set of teams: the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, and Buffalo. Please review Part 1 if you have any questions with how I am approaching this issue. Part 2 covered the C-teams: Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus. Part 3 went over Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton, Florida, and Los Angeles. Part 4 detailed droughts by Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, the New York Islanders (a.k.a. Milbury!), and Our Hated Rivals (a.k.a. Smith/Sather!). Part 5 included Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and St. Louis. This part will cover the last set of teams in this series, but it is not the last part of the series: the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Vancouver Canucks, the Washington Capitals, and the Winnipeg Jets. The goal remains: to learn from what they suffered from and how they got out of it. Here is a chart of the five teams in this post of their total frequency of droughts with the Devils’ own history of playoff droughts included for reference purposes (it is a Devils site, after all).
As ever, I want to thank Hockey Reference, HockeyDB, Elite Prospects, NHL Trade Tracker, and other sources as needed for information.
The Playoff Drought Chart - Part 6
The Tampa Bay Lightning
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 15 misses out of 29 total seasons; 51.7% missed.
Current Situation: The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2020, won the Cup in 2021, and lost to Colorado in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2022. It is an excellent run amid a five-season streak in making the playoffs. Something that should continue provided they do not violate Murphy’s Law. Or get run by the band, Murphy’s Law. You know what I mean.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Tampa Bay’s longest drought was six seasons long and it ran from 1996-97, just after their first playoff appearance, to 2002-03, which was in John Tortorella’s second season. The more interesting and notable drought that I will cover is the three season stretch from 2007-08 to 2009-10. That is the end of Tortorella in Tampa and a changing of the guard from their 2004 Cup team.
You know that 2004 Stanley Cup winning team. Led up front by former #1 overall pick Vincent Lecavalier, 1998 third round pick turned scoring sensation Brad Richards, ex-Leaf Frederik Modin, former Blue (and Flame) Cory Stillman, Ukrainian sensation Ruslan Fedotenko, future Hall of Famer Dave Andreychuk, and undrafted man with tree-trunk thighs, Martin St. Louis. The Lightning had a very stout defense too, led by two-way monster Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina. Nikolai Khabibulin was the Bulin Wall in net. Torotrella told this team to play “Never scared” and they went all the way to deny Calgary in their first Cup.
Over the seasons after that, that group changed. After the lockout, Kubina signed with the Leafs, Khabibulin signed with Chicago, Stillman signed in Carolina, and Andreychuk would play what would be his final season. No matter. They still had St. Louis, Richards, Lecavalier, Modin, Boyle, and Torts. They also added a capable Vaclav Prospal in a trade. The next two seasons saw a similar template from the Lightning: plenty of scoring, a very good defense, really bad goaltending, and first round exits. The 2006-07 Lightning were nearly a top ten team in scoring and featured Lecavalier scoring 52 and 108 points with St. Louis racking up 43 goals and 102 points. They were absolutely a bottom ten team in giving up goals and Johan Holmqvist, Marc Denis, and call-up Karri Ramo failed to post a total save percentage above 90% - in a league where 90.3% was the league average for a team. The Lightning barely made the playoffs in 2007 and were dispatched in six games by the team we all love: the New Jersey Devils.
Tortorella was already unhappy with the goaltending in 2006, so to see a repeat of it in 2007 likely disappointed him and GM Jay Feaster again. With their 2006 first round selection of goalie Riku Helenius still developing (spoiler: he busted), management made the odd decision to do nothing about the goaltending in the 2007 offseason. Instead, free agency saw Feaster sign Brad Lukowich and Michel Ouellet to deals, while seeing Fedotenko and Cory Sarich sign elsewhere. The 2007 NHL Draft would provide some pain in hindsight: Feaster brought back Chris Gratton in a trade with Florida that was a 2007 or 2008 second rounder. Florida opted for the 2008 pick and used it on goalie Jacob Markstrom. But, hey, that draft class had Alex Killorn and not much else.
Meanwhile, the Lightning were getting new owners. The original announcement after the 2007 playoff exit was that Absolute Hockey Enterprises, a group led by Doug MacLean, was going to buy the Lightning and the arena. But the deal would collapse during the 2007-08 season. Good news though: There would be a new set of owners to buy the team in February 2008. The not-so-good news: It was OK Hockey - a group led by movie and TV producer Oren Koules and ex-player Len Barrie.
The 2007-08 season was also not so good. The issue was not with Lecavalier (40 goals, 92 points), St. Louis (83 points), or Prospal and Richards each putting upwards of 50 points in 62 games. The defense was tight as ever, led by Boyle, Filip Kuba, and Paul Ranger. The problem was a lack of production beyond those four forwards and the goaltending crew giving up too many goals again. Holmqvist and Ramo both finished the season below 90% in save percentage; Denis was limited to just 10 games; and Mike Smith - then just 25 - was brought in to help and he posted an 89.3% too. And the latter name came at a big cost.
You see, Richards and Prospal only played in 62 games because they were traded by the 2008 NHL Trade Deadline. Feaster was selling - and selling quite a bit. Prospal was sent to Philly for 2009 second round pick and prospect Alexandre Picard. Richards, though, that would be more impactful. Richards and Holmqvist were sent to Dallas for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, and Jeff Halpern. Richards would go on to be a very productive player for the Stars right away. Smith, well, posted a sub-90%. Jokinen and Halpern did contribute right away, but it was not enough to stem a cratering Lightning team. Neither did locking up Dan Boyle to a six-season, $40 million extension in a season where injuries limited him to 37 games. But if there’s a defenseman to secure, then that was the one on that team - injuries aside. After the trade deadline, the Lightning won just 5 games out of 18 to finish the season with a record of 31-42-9 for 71 points. A drop of 22 points and the first playoff-less season for the Lightning since 2001-02.
There was a bright spot to this lost season: the Lightning won the NHL Draft Lottery. They would get first overall in a 2008 draft class expected to be led by Steven Stamkos. Yes, this is the origin story of Stamkos in Tampa Bay. He was picked and a campaign of “Seen Stamkos” began (this was not a good campaign to promote the player). However, the brightness was dimmed shortly after this win. Tortorella was fired in early June even though he had one season left on his contract. OK, it happens as we have seen from many teams in this series. What does not happen so much was his replacement. It was decided by someone in Tampa Bay to bring back Barry Melrose to the NHL. Yes, the ESPN talking head. Melrose last coached in the NHL in 1995 for Los Angeles. His last pro job was with Adirondack of the UHL - a team he owned and that was back in 2005-06. After a decade-plus away from the NHL, Melrose wanted back and, presumably under influence from new owners, Feaster gave it to him.
Feaster was making plenty of moves, presumably to get the Lightning back to the playoffs to avoid a long drought. Before free agency began, he traded a third rounder to Pittsburgh for the rights to Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts. Right after that deal, Malone was signed to a seven-season deal worth $31.5 million. Bold decision, but OK after Prospal and Hlavac were traded away last season. He also moved a fourth rounder to Minnesota for Brian Rolston’s rights. However, those negotiations did not succeed, he hit the market, and signed a fat deal with New Jersey that Summer. OK, they tried. It was only a fourth round pick anyway. Goalie Marc Denis was bought out; which was understandable as he was not at all good in Tampa Bay. Then Dan Boyle was traded. Wait, what? Dan Boyle? Who they extended earlier in 2008?
Boyle’s contract extension did have a no-trade clause. And it was Koules and Barrie that urged Boyle to waive it for a trade. Boyle was not at all happy but did oblige. Feaster was also not at all happy about this decision either. Feaster would resign about a week after the trade was made. That trade: Boyle and Lukowich to San Jose for Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, a first rounder in 2009 and a fourth rounder in 2010. Tampa Bay’s defense was excellent as Boyle led in minutes and Lukowich was a solid supporting member on the blueline. The return was two lesser defenseman, a first, and a fourth. I would resign too if I were Feaster. (And the rumor was that if the trade wasn’t made, ownership would have forced Feaster to waive Dan Boyle. Yes, a man they just extended and was really good at hockey.) I do not get it. They gave an 11-season, $85 million contract extension to Vincent Lecavalier in 2008; it’s not like money was a big issue. But they wanted Boyle and it cost them Boyle and Jay Feaster. With Feaster out, Brian Lawton took over as GM. This is where things get weirder.
Tampa Bay’s signings in free agency included bringing in vets like Olaf Kolzig and Mark Recchi, giving $9 million over three seasons to Radim Vrbata, a three season deal to Adam Hall, and adding Marek Malik. I am not sure which ones were Feaster’s signings or Lawton’s, but it was a curious approach to add depth. What was more curious was Lawton’s trades. His first one was made near September as he moved Filip Kuba (another solid player on a very stingy blueline), Picard (one of the returns for Prospal), and that first round pick in 2009 (one of the returns for Boyle) to Ottawa for Andrej Meszaros. Meszaros was out of contract, but Tampa Bay took care of that with a six-season, $24 million contract. All this upheaval for a blueline that was otherwise rock solid, no real change in net except hoping someone plays well, and a brand new coach who was out of the NHL game for a decade. On paper, this looked too clever to be effective.
It absolutely was, too. After seasons of being one of the stingiest teams when it came to allowing shots, they became one of the loosest. Meszaros was not Boyle, and the replacements for Lukowich, Kuba, etc. were not good enough. After a couple of seasons of sub-90% goaltending from everyone wearing pads, Mike Smith at least put up a 91.6% in 41 games. The rest: 24 games of Ramo, 15 games of Mike McKenna, a spot appearance of Riku Helenius in his one and only NHL appearance, and just 8 games of 38-year old Kolzig - all below 90%. Even Smith’s improvement did not matter much with all of the extra shots coming his way. What about Melrose? He lasted 16 games as he went 5-7-4. His assistant, Rick Tocchet, took over as the interim. Under Tocchet, things did not get any better. The Lightning went 19-33-14 under him. The once vaunted offense of Tampa Bay took a big step back. To their credit, Stamkos did put up 23 goals as a rookie, Malone put up 26 goals, and Recchi even added 13 goals. St. Louis and Lecavalier were great. The rest: Nope. The Lightning were a bottom ten team in goals for and against. They even conceded 405 shorthanded opportunities in a league where the average of 341. This team finished at 66 points.
What was Lawton - or rather what was Koules and Barrie - doing during this debacle of a season? How about more deals that clearly did not make the team better. About a week before Melrose got the axe, Lawton decided to send Matt Carle and a third rounder in 2009 to Tampa Bay for defenseman Steve Eminger, noted jerk Steve Downie, and a fourth rounder. Yes, in November, Lawton moved the better NHL player in the return from the Boyle trade he made in July. The return of that deal that stuck with Tampa Bay was Ty Wishart and a fourth round pick in 2010. This was over 10 years ago and I’m mad for the Lightning fanbase here. In 2009, Lawton made a few more more deals for this team that had nothing to play for by 2009. He traded Jussi Jokinen - from the Richards trade, remember? - to Carolina for Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichar, and a fourth rounder. By the deadline, Mark Recchi was sent to Boston with a second round pick in 2010 (!?) for Matt Lashoff and Martins Karsums. Eminger did not last in Tampa Bay; he was moved to Florida for Noah Welch and a third rounder in 2009. Lawton jettisoned Kolzig with Jamie Heward, Andy Rogers and that fourth rounder from the Jokinen deal to Toronto for Richard Petiot. The best I can describe this as giving up on a young Jokinen, blowing through the Boyle trade, and re-arranging chairs on the proverbial ship. I do not know how that made the team better for the future (these moves didn’t). Likewise, I do not know why Lawton decided to give a multi-season contract to Tocchet after 2008-09. What’s next? Trading Vincent Lecavalier?
Actually, that almost did happen in June. Lecavalier’s contract extension was about to kick in. With a $10 million base salary to be paid out in each of the first three seasons. Koules, at least, was not pleased about that. So Lawton got to work on a trade. A trade that Barrie would end up not approving, leading Gary Bettman to block the deal going through. That led to conflict between the two owners. A beef that Gary Bettman had to come in to try to squash. It - and Barrie’s own money issues - would end up leading to the team being sold in 2010. The Lecavalier rumors persisted; especially as the deal was supposedly going to be Lecavalier to Montreal for Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec, and a prospect. That actually would be more of a fair return than whatever the Dan Boyle trade actually was. Plus, it would address the incredibly obvious goaltending problem the Lightning had in the mid to late 2000s. However, that trade actually would likely make Tampa Bay fans despise OK Hockey with a burning passion.
At the 2009 NHL Draft, Tampa Bay took Viktor Hedman at second overall, moved two picks to Detroit to trade back into the first round to take Carter Ashton, and the only other selection that became much of anything was Richard Panik. This and the Lecavalier deal that did not happen did not deter Lawton from going bigger in free agency. Defense was an issue? Tampa Bay signed Mattias Ohlund to a seven-season, $26.25 million deal. Goaltending? Here’s NHL minimum salary paid out to Antero Niittymaki. Prospal walked to Manhattan? Hey, Alex Tanguay, how about $2.5 million for a seaso in Tampa Bay? Matt Walker? Lock him up for four-seasons for...reasons. (Oh, and the acquired Welch and Petiot during last season also signed with new teams.) The only other moves of note were Vrbata being sent to the Coytoes for Todd Fedoruk and David Hale; and penalty machine Evgeny Artyukhin going to Anaheim for Drew Miller and a third in 2010.
There were some improvements in 2009-10 for the Lightning. The team went from allowing 2,700 shots to below 2,600. Not a big increase and still over the league average of 2,486, but an improvement. The team took 336 shorthanded situations instead of over 400. Again, not a big increase and still over the league average of 304, but an improvement. Goaltending featured Niittymaki and Smith posting total save percentages of 90% or higher. Still a team save percentage below league average, but an improvement. Stamkos was an absolute force with 51 goals and 95 points in his sophmore season, taking the point lead just ahead of St. Louis’ 94 points. Lecavalier, Malone, and Downie each scored over 20. Hedman joined the team immediately and played an average of over 20 minutes per game; Ohlund allowed Meszaros to take fewer minutes. Improvements. The result? A 34-36-12 season where a 5-10-1 March sunk their chances. The 80 points were an improvement over the prior season and the Lightning only missed the playoffs by eight points. Lawton would end up making a deal that would pay off for the Lightning in time: sending Jeff Halpern to Los Angeles for Teddy Purcell and a third rounder in 2010.
During this season, Koules and Barrie sold the team to Jeff Vinnik, the current owner of the team. Vinnik, presumably after going over what just happened under Lawton, decided he wanted his own management in charge. After the 2009-10 season, Lawton was fired, Tocchet was fired, and others in the front office were fired too. A new direction was needed. Not just someone with a name, but someone outside of the organization as well. Someone who was hungry to get into management and make a new name for himself off the ice after a long career on the ice. After four seasons of being a VP of Hockey Operations in Detroit and a GM for Canada’s national teams at the 2007 World Championships, 2008 World Championships, and 2010 Olympics, Steve Yzerman was brought in to Tampa Bay.
Yzerman’s first major move was to hire a new coach. He took a chance on Guy Boucher, who was previously the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s affiliate. Boucher was known for running a 1-3-1 forecheck, which was unusual at the time. The 2010 NHL Draft yielded Brett Connoly, Brock Beukeboom, and Radko Gudas. Ahead of the free agency period, Todd Fedoruk’s contract was bought out. Nothing to write home about, but after July 1, 2010, Yzerman gave plenty of material. First, Meszaros and his contract (with retained salary) were sent to Philly for a second round pick in 2012. That helped clear some space for Yzerman to sign goalie Dan Ellis (important as Niittymaki signed in San Jose), bring back Pavel Kubina (Kurtis Foster did sign elsewhere), and take a heap of flyers on Marc-Andre Bergeron, Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, Brett Clark, Mathieu Roy, and others. Internally, he retained Purcell, gave an ELC right away to Gudas, extended Downie for two more seasons, and locked up St. Louis for four more.
Yzerman further continued to work out of whatever moves Lawton made. Matt Walker and that four-season contract and a fourth rounder in 2011 was sent to Philly for Simon Gagne. Ineffective backup goalie, Karri Ramo, was traded to Montreal for Cedrick Desjardins. Matt Lashoff was sent to Toronto for Alex Berry and Stefano Giliati. Even if the returns were not good (Gagne and dudes), he at least showed the organization was moving on from them.
The 2010-11 season started quite well for Tampa Bay with a hot start. Things cooled off when Lecavalier fractured his wrist and missed a little over a month. The goaltending duo of Ellis and Smith were not exactly doing well. Neither would post a total save percentage over 90%; Smith was close at 89.9% and Ellis was far at 88.9%. Rather than wait, Yzerman acted. He traded Ty Wishart - another piece from that Boyle deal - for veteran Dwayne Roloson. In his age 41 season (!!), Roloson helped right the ship with a 91.2% in 34 games. The Lightning were back to winning ways in 2011. St. Louis finished with 99 points, Stamkos put up 45 goals and 91 points, and Lecavalier still put up 54 in 65 games. Gagne and Purcell each put up 17 goals and 51 and 40 points, respectively. The additions of Moore, Clark, and Bergenheim chipped in at least 29 points. The offense was stronger, Boucher’s methods led to a team far better in the run of play than under Tocchet, and the team was in a position to add at the deadline. Yzerman did just that. He traded the rights to Brock Beukeboom and a 2011 third rounder to St. Louis (this pick would become Jordan Binnington, by the way) for Eric Brewer. Brewer joined a blueline and played important minutes with Hedman. Ellis was not good, so Yzerman traded him before the deadline to Anaheim for Curtis McElhinney. Yzerman even added two undrafted players in March: Pat Nagle and Tyler Johnson. The latter would become important later.
But later would be later as the Lightning were back to where they were before this short drought where a whole lot of things changed, especially during the really short ownership of Koules and Barrie. The 2010-11 Lightning improved by 23 points to finish at 46-25-11. They finished back in the top ten in goals for and, well, not dead last in goals against (22nd out of 30). The Lightning even went on a run in the playoffs as they prevailed over Pittsburgh in the first round, swept Washington in the second, and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in Game 7 to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. A 1-0 game where the only goal was scored in the third period. Still, the Lightning were seemingly back.
Except they were not fully back. They would miss the playoffs the next two seasons as Yzerman tinkered, important players would be selected (e.g. Kucherov and Palat in 2011, Vasilevskiy in 2012) and Boucher ended up getting replaced with Jon Cooper. But a big part of the core that led and still lead the Lightning into being contenders in recent seasons was formed in this time period.
Any Other Thoughts: It is amazing to me how ownership can really foul things up if they end up being wrong. Not that Feaster was necessarily perfect, but goodness, that Boyle deal stink. Especially in light of the other moves that blew up a really good defense, which helped overcome the lackluster goaltending throughout this entire section. Despite all clear signs of goaltending being questionable, the actions made were akin to throwing crud at a wall and hoping it sticks. Offensive depth, discipline issues, and a defense getting way worse defined the short-lived Koules-Barrie-Lawton-Melrose-Tocchet Lightning. Credit to Vinnik, Yzerman, and Boucher for providing the pathway towards a real quick turnaround. Which was to actively address goaltending (they did get lucky with 41-year old Roloson being good), add depth at forward in the top and bottom six, put in a coach who could have the team play D and bringing in a reliable defensemen like Kubina and Brewer, and let Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, etc. cook. This is the kind of thing that I think really set the stage for the good reputations that Vinnik and Yzerman currently own.
The Toronto Maple Leafs
Also Known As: Toronto Arenas, Toronto St. Patricks
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 34 misses out of 104 total seasons; 32.7% missed.
Current Situation: The Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs in the last two seasons. Despite all of the money involved, the investment in all areas on and off the ice, a squad that is favorable to analytics and old-heads alike, and a team posting 57.9% point seasons since Auston Matthews arrived, the Leafs were eliminated in the first round in each of the last two seasons. They have not won a single playoff series since 2004. Some Leafs fans agonize over this. Some are grateful they are not seeing a repeat of what happened after 2004.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Toronto has been in the NHL as long as Montreal. Yet, Montreal has had more success in both winning Cups and getting into the playoffs. A big reason for this? Harold Ballard. He bought the Leafs and acted as a very cheap, contemptible, hands-on owner from 1961 to 1990. While the Leafs won the Cup four times from 1961 to 1967, the Leafs turned into a Canadian version of the Hartford Whalers in the 1970s and 1980s. Good enough to be in the playoffs most seasons and not good enough to compete and certainly not good enough to be all that memorable (sorry Rick Vaive fans). This changed after Ballard passed away and Steve Stavro took over Maple Leaf Gardens, Ltd. This company would be renamed to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment as they bought arenas and the Raptors in 1998. In 2003, Stavro sold his controlling interest in MLSE to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and resigned as chairman. Yes, this is why the Leafs SBN blog is called Pension Plan Puppets. This also led to a change in management before the 2003-04 season. Pat Quinn stayed on as head coach, but he would not be the GM anymore. John Ferguson, Jr. would take over. This is where the story begins of what would become the longest playoff drought in Maple Leafs history. A drought that Montreal has never experienced, by the way.
Of course, there was no drought initially. The Leafs were quite good in 2003-04. They went 45-24-10 for 103 points, a franchise record in points for the regular season. Mats Sundin was the leading scorer and the star of the team. The team was old, though. Ed Belfour was their top goalie and was 38. Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts were among top scorers on the team and both were 37. Owen Nolan and Sundin were over 30. Support players like Robert Reichel, Alexander Mogilny, and Bryan Marchment were all on the wrong side of 30. A 35-year old Brian Leetch and a 40-year old Ron Francis were added at the deadline. Phil Housley retired in the middle of this season too, as did Doug Gilmour before it. But the 2003-04 Leafs were here for a good time, not a long time and they even won a playoff series: a 7-game thriller over Ottawa. Alas, they lost in six games to Philly in the second round. Then a lockout took place that killed the 2004-05 season.
While a number of these vets did re-sign in 2004, only Belfour and Ken Klee was signed beyond 2004-05. This meant Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts signed elsewhere when the league resumed for 2005-06. Leetch and Mogilny also signed elsewhere in free agency. Nolan was released and inactive for 2005-06. Still, Ferguson was able to re-sign Tie Domi and Jeff O’Neill after trading a conditional fourth round pick in 2006 to Carolina for O’Neill’s rights. Holes in the lineup had to be filled. Veterans had them, so why not get some other veterans to replace them? One-season deals were given to Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Mariusz Czerkawski, and Alexander Khavanov. Ferguson also took a chance on two who were in the AHL recently: Jean-Sebastian Aubin and Mike Hoffman (no, not the good one).
By the way, you may wonder: What about prospects? The Leafs had some good finds in drafts such as Steen in 2002 (on the team) and Boyes in 2000 (already traded). The Leafs were still getting value from their 1998 draft class out of Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. And 2002 second round pick Matt Stajan was breaking through in what would be a long career back in 2003-04. Ian White from 2002 was also in the system. However, the 2003 draft class yielded only John Mitchell and the 2004 draft class was a bust although the Leafs had no picks in the first two rounds. The 2005 NHL Draft was more fruitful for Toronto: they picked Tuukka Rask in the first round and found Anton Stralman in the seventh. That you may not recognize either as Leafs is a problem for Toronto, though.
The problem for the 2005-06 Leafs, though, was the goaltending. Belfour was still the #1 goalie at age 40 and he posted an 89.2% total save percentage. Mikael Tellqvist and Aubin shared the back-up duties. Aubin did post a 92.4% in 11 appearances; Tellqvist posted an 89.5%. Defensively, Toronto was not a lock-down team so this meant the Leafs gave up 263 goals - outpacing the 254 goals scored and the 107 power play goals they rang up. The 2005-06 NHL season featured a lot more power plays - 501 for Toronto! - and the Leafs took advantage. This led to a Toronto team with 12 players scoring at least 11 goals and Tomas Kaberle missing out with nine (he had 45 power play assists. 45!). Sundin was still the leader, followed shortly by Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Kaberle, and Allison all putting up 60+ point seasons. Toronto’s offense was hot, their goaltending was not, and despite a hot stretch to end the season - the Leafs fell just short of the playoffs. The 2005-06 Leafs under Quinn finished with a record of 41-33-8 for 90 points. They missed the playoffs by two points. If only that January swoon was shorter or if they won some more games - or even shootouts - against Ottawa. Still, this team was close.
What it was not was harmonious. Pat Quinn was fired after this season. On the surface, this seems to make little sense. Quinn was the boss for seven seasons, posted winning records in all of them, and missed the playoffs just once in 2005-06. However, it was revealed that all was not well per David Staples’ article in the Edmonton Journal after the news came out. MLSE ownership was not a fan of Quinn’s style, his desire for older players clashed with Ferguson’s preference for younger players, captain and star Sundin wanted more playing time, and other players did not like his approach in the locker room. Sure, most of Ferguson’s signings did not make it through the season, but the narrative picked up that Quinn’s guys and the drafted players made that season good and not Ferguson’s signings. Allison’s 60 points in 66 games would disagree as would Lindros’ 22 points in 33 games, but sure.
In any case, Ferguson was now fully in charge. He hired Paul Maurice from the Toronto Marlies to replace Quinn behind the bench. Ferguson would then make one of the most infamous trades in Toronto history at the 2006 NHL Draft. He traded Rask, who was drafted in 2005, to Boston for Andrew Raycroft. I will pause here to let you laugh at the Leafs’ misfortune. (This is also the second one-for-one trade that blew up badly for one side in this whole post.)
The 2006 NHL Draft turned out to be a successful one for the Leafs. All but one of their selections would play at least 200 games in the NHL. The class included Jiri Tlusty, Nikolai Kulemin, James Reimer, Korbinian Holzer, Viktor Stalberg, and Leo Komarov. Something that some forget because this was also where Rask for Raycroft happened. Why trade a top prospect for Andrew Raycroft?
Because Ferguson was moving on from two old vets. Belfour’s contract had an option season in it - a holdover from the pre-cap era. Toronto did not exercise it so he would sign in Florida as a free agent. Ferguson also bought out Tie Domi’s contract, which was not a popular move. Toronto fans loved the sub-10 minutes per game Domi played in 2005-06. They were enamored with the 16 points in 77 games he (cheap)shot(ted) on the ice. Domi retired. Worse for Ferguson, his major free agent signings in 2005 all walked: Lindros, Allison, and Khavanov are gone. But Ferguson had a ideas to fill them in. Matthew Peca to come in and be a two-way leader at center; Pavel Kubina to strengthen the defense; and Hal Gill to add a big body on defense as well. Sundin wanted more playing time? He would get more playing time.
It was quickly apparent that Andrew Raycroft for Rask would be a bad trade. In 2006-07, he played in 72 games and posted an 89.4% total save percentage. He alone allowed 205 of the team’s 253 goals against. How did Aubin get 20 games? He did a lot of relief work for Raycroft. And he was even worse with an 87.6% total save percentage. Tellqvist was traded for Tyson Nash in November so he didn’t get a chance to salvage anything from either. While the power plays normalized a bit, the defense did improve with Kubina and Gill supporting Kaberle and McCabe and the offense still had 13 players put up 10+ goals. Sundin got to play at least 20 per night and he led the team in scoring again. Peca was struggling to produce and a fractured leg cut short his season. But the Leafs were a competitive team throughout the season. Unfortunately, the Islanders beat the Devils in a shootout the day after Toronto beat Montreal 6-5. This gave the Isles the one point to get into the playoffs and keep the Leafs out. Yes, the 40-31-11, 90-point Leafs were out again. A slim margin but not so small reaction.
The pressure was really on Ferguson in the 2007 offseason. The Leafs did not miss the playoffs for three straight seasons since the 1920s. Toronto needed improvements and now. Ferguson boldly traded draft capital to get a goaltender in the hopes of getting the team those extra few points they missed in the last two seasons. Toronto traded their first and second round picks in 2007 and their fourth in 2009 to San Jose for Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell. The 2007 NHL Draft class was not that impactful beyond finding Carl Gunnarsson in the seventh round. Ferguson was more picky in free agency; he signed Scott Clemmensen for depth and gave a five-season, $20 million deal to 34-year old Jason Blake. Really.
In fairness to Blake, he put on a far better season than anyone expected as he was diagnosed with leukemia prior to the season. He played all 82 games, put up 17 goals and 52 points, and won the Masterton Trophy in 2008.
With Ferguson’s job on the line, the 2007-08 Leafs needed to have a great start to keep things going. They did not have a great start. A 5-5-3 October, 4-6-3 November, and a 6-5-2 December put the job on the brink. As January was turning into a losing month, Ferguson was fired. MLSE management washed their hands of the man. Chuck Fletcher was hired as an interim while MLSE began to search for a new GM. In terms of issues, there were some new ones like a really poorly functioning penalty kill. And Sundin, who was a pending free agent and still leading the team in offense with 32 goals and 78 points that season, refusing to waive his no-trade clause by the trade deadline. There were some old issues as well: goaltending. Toskala did post up a total save percentage of 90.4% in 66 games. That is an improvement. The problem is that no one remembers that because he gave up this infamous 200-foot goal to the Isles. More seriously, Raycroft was abysmal as a backup with an 87.6% total save percentage. The Leafs were still near the bottom of the league in goals against, undercutting a good offense led by Sundin, Antropov, Kaberle, Steen, and others. The 2007-08 Leafs finished with a record of 36-35-11 for 83 points, a drop of seven points. They did not have a permanent GM, Sundin was all but guaranteed to walk, and the team was entering a new, unfamiliar territory of futility.
Fletcher did not make any big moves ahead of the deadline. He would trade Wade Belak, Chad Kilger, and Hal Gill for extra mid-to-late picks. One of them became Jimmy Hayes. After the season, he did some more significant things. Coach Paul Maurice was fired. After San Jose fired Ron Wilson after a second round playoff exit to Dallas, Toronto hired Wilson to be the new head coach. Rumors swirled about Toronto wanting Anaheim’s GM Brian Burke. It would eventually happen - but not until later in 2008. Fletcher oversaw the team take Luke Schenn at fifth overall at the 2008 NHL Draft - a result of sending the Isles their first rounder and two conditional picks. Hayes and Greg Pateryn would be picked - and Pateryn would not be a Leaf for long.
Fletcher may have not had the full-time GM job, but he clearly was not held back from spending and making moves. Raycroft was bought out and became a free agent. Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood, and Scott Clemmensen also joined other teams. Fletcher gave a one season deal to Curtis Joseph (really), a four-season deal worth $12 million to Niklas Hagman, and a bizarre four-season, $14 million deal to Jeff Finger. Amid all of this, Pateryn and a second round pick in 2010 was sent to Montreal for Mikhail Grabovski. Before the season, Bryan McCabe (and a fourth rounder in 2010) was sent to Florida for Mike Van Ryn. No Sundin, no McCabe, Joseph added, and no full-time GM yet. What would the 2008-09 Leafs even be?
The answer: not a good hockey team. Under Wilson’s first season, the Leafs were an OK team in 5-on-5. But they were awful on the penalty kill and worse in the net. Toskala was not good with an 89.1% save percentage in 53 games, the 41-year old season of Curtis Joseph yielded an 86.9% save percentage, and seven games of former draft pick Justin Pogge provided an 84.4%. Martin Gerber was a waiver-wire pick up during the season and he was the best goalie with a 90.5%. While Sundin was gone, the scoring by committee was not. Blake, Ponikarovsky, Hagman, Antropov, and Grabovski each scored 20 or more goals. Kulemin had a fine first season and he joined the seven others with 10+ goals. However samey this seems from the past three seasons, things were flipped on their head in November.
Anaheim would release Burke from his contract, which allowed Burke to join the Leafs as GM. This was MLSE’s man. This was the first American to manage to Leafs. This was a hockey man’s hockey man. A man who stated this in his opening press conference:
“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play.”
Spoiler: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. No.
When Burke did come in, it did not take long for trades to take place. Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo were sent to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak. Perhaps a mistake in retrospect. No matter. Brad May was brought in for a conditional sixth. I guess that’s truculance. By the trade deadline, Antropov was moved to New York for a second rounder in 2009 and a conditional pick. Dominic Moore was turned into Buffalo’s second round pick. The Richard Petiot deal added Kolzig, Heward, Rogers, and a fourth. Selling moves, to be sure. To Wilson’s credit, the team was at .500 in March and April, leading to a final record of 34-35-13 for 81 points. That is a bit of a step forward. But Burke was not brought in for steps forward. He was brought in for knocking the walls down or something like that.
The toughness and skill of Nazem Kadri was alluring enough for Burke to take him at seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. Everyone else taken in this draft class never really turned out. But this class was not going to be the savior. Burke was hired to be th eone and true to his truculent desires, his 2009 free agency moves were...memorable. Mike Komisarek was always seen as a tough defender; Burke gave him five seasons and $22.5 million. Ryan Hollweg and Brad May walked in free agency; time to bring in Colton Orr for four seasons. Komisarek alone will not toughen up this D; bring in Francois Beauchemin from Anaheim for three seasons at $11.4 million. Both Kolzig and Joseph retired and Gerber went to the KHL, fine, let’s sign Jonas Gustavsson out of the SHL. OK, Burke made the team tougher on paper. Better? We will see. (Spoiler: No.)
But Burke was not done yet. On July 1, effective defender Pavel Kubina and Tim Stapleton were sent to Atlanta for not-so-effective defender Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart. Later in July, Anton Stralman - after two seasons in Toronto - was sent with Stuart and a seventh rounder in 2012 to Calgary for Wayne Primeau and a second in 2011. Pogge was not good, so he was moved to Anaheim for a conditional sixth. But there was a bigger deal to be made. Burke coveted American winger Phil Kessel. It was true that after Sundin left, the Leafs would need a high-end scorer. Kessel had the talent. So on September 18, Burke made a deal with Boston that would turn out almost as badly as Rask-for-Raycroft. Burke traded Toronto’s first in 2010, first in 2011, and second in 2010 for Kessel. Burke proceeded to give Kessel a five-season deal worth $27 million. Oh, and Kessel would not start the season right away as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. No matter, Burke got his man. Boston used those picks on Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight, respectively.
That the first in 2010 turned out to be second overall should tell you how well the 2009-10 Leafs did. Kessel did lead the Leafs in scoring with 30 goals - and just 55 points. The team offense dropped off a cliff from being one of the most prolific to one of the least. They went from 13 players putting up double-digit goals to eight. Goaltending was still a sore for sighted eyes as Gustavsson posted a 90.2% in 42 games and Toskala fell to a 87.4% in 26. The power play and penalty kill were awful on this squad. The team went winless in their first eight games and never quite recovered. Injuries and deals Burke made later in this season would lead to a crummy 74-point season with a record of 30-38-14. And Burke effectively tore down what he had to start with. Just look at the following trades:
- 2006 first rounder Jiri Tlusty was traded to Carolina for Philippe Paradis. Tlusty would recover his career as a Cane.
- Burke wanted MORE TRUCULENCE and swung a big trade on January 31. He sent Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, and Jamal Meyers to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, Frederik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie. Phaneuf was a dominant defenseman in all three zones in addition to being rough and large. It was a bold move. Perhaps the right one as he averaged over 26 minutes since joining Toronto that season.
- Burke also wanted nothing more with Toskala, and who can blame him. So he traded Toskala and Jason Blake to Anaheim for J-S Giguere. Giguere would post a 91.6% in 15 games with the Leafs, so that was an upgrade in a position that badly needed it.
- Selling at the Deadline #1: Alexei Ponikarovsky to Pittsburgh for Luca Caputi and Martin Skoula
- Selling at the Deadline #2: Lee Stempniak to Arizona for Matt Jones and two late picks.
- Selling at the Deadline #3: Depth goalie Joey MacDonald to Anaheim for a seventh in 2011.
At least most of the rest of the 2006 draft class was there, plus Tyler Bozak and Luke Schenn were coming along. Still, this was a repudiation of the Ferguson Era. And the Phaneuf deal did excite the fans. And Wilson did have the squad do well in 5-on-5 despite the whole not scoring a lot and allowing too much. And Giguere could be an upgrade over the Raycroft and Toskala Errors. Maybe things would be better next season.
The 2010 NHL Draft featured a heap of pick swaps and Jimmy Hayes traded to Chicago to get Toronto into the second round and take Brad Ross. Who did nothing. The only player to come out of this class of any consequence was Greg McKegg - and even that is a stretch. At least get got Mike Brown for a fifth. Maybe that’s something? No matter, Burke was already in a free agent period state of mind. Before July 1, he took advantage of Chicago’s tight cap situation by trading Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico, and Paradis there for Kris Versteeg and Bill Sweatt. Burke signed Colby Armstrong to three by three; Brett Lebda for two seasons; Clarke MacArthur for a season; and took a chance on two more goalies: Jussi Rynaas of Assat and Ben Scrivens of Cornell. Extensions were given to Kulemin and Brown. At least he avoided trying to add more truculence and pugnacity.
The 2010-11 Leafs started off well. However, all was not well with a 3-7-3 November and a 5-8-0 December. While Kessel, Grabovski, Kulemin, and MacArthur were productive, the rest of the team was not. Versteeg would only add 14 goals and 35 points. Armstrong would put up just 8 goals and 23 points. Whatever Wilson changed in the systems went awry as the team was wrecked in 5-on-5. Kaberle and Phaneuf were not as productive as they were in the past and Schenn and Gunnarson only added so much - even less from Komisarek. Kadri was breaking into the roster but had just 12 points in 29 games. But there would be a new hope: a goaltender who would do well. 2006 draft pick James Reimer emerged in December. As Giguere and Gustavsson struggled in the 89-90% range, Reimer posted a 92.1% and would end up the leading goalie in games played with 37. Yes, the Leafs had a good goaltender to minimize some of the damage from the GAs they often allowed.
What they did not have was some patience. While the Leafs would play better in the 2011 portion of the season, Burke saw the opportunity to sell some assets. In February, he moved Beauchemin - a player he signed - back to Anaheim for Joffery Lupul, Jake Gardiner, and a conditional fourth rounder. He did not think much of Versteeg so he was moved to Philly for a first rounder and a third rounder in 2011. Another loyal soldier of the past regime was moved in Tomas Kaberle. Burke traded him to Boston for Boston’s first rounder in 2011, a conditional second in 2012, and Joe Colborne. (Aside: Why didn’t anyone at MLSE tell their GMs to stop trading with Boston). The team did continue to flourish and had a hot March with a 9-5-1 record. And thanks in part to Reimer and other improvements, the Leafs finished at 37-34-11 with 85 points. They missed the playoffs by eight points. It was progress.
Burke thought so as he did plenty to keep big parts of this group together. First, there was a NHL Draft to handle. Burke traded a 2012 second round pick to Colorado for pending free agent defenseman John-Michael Liles. Burke apparently promised to trade up in the draft and he did - turning Boston’s first and Toronto’s second round picks into Anaheim’s first rounder. The Leafs took Tyler Biggs. Anaheim took Rickard Rakell and John Gibson. (And if that wasn’t enough, Burke swapped sixth rounders with Anaheim - and Anaheim got Josh Manson with that pick. Goodness, Burke.). When free agency hit, Giguere signed with Colorado; Burke traded Lebda, Robert Slaney, and a 2013 conditional fourth round pick to Nashville for Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi (Nashville bought out Lebda); and signed Tim Connolly to two seasons worth $9.5 million. The 2011 offseason was much more known for Burke’s re-signings. Reimer earned a three season, $5.4 million contract; Gunnarsson got $2.65 million over two seasons; MacArthur got a raise to $6.5 million over two seasons; Bozak was retained for two seasons for $3 million; Liles was extended for four seasons at $15.5 million; Grabovski was extended for $27.5 million over five seasons, and Luke Schenn was given - wait, what - an $18 million deal over five seasons. It was a lot of commitment to the team that missed the playoffs by eight points last season. Would it be a good bet?
Well, the 2011-12 Leafs suggested it was not all good. The team started off hot with winning records in October and November. However, Reimer was injured early in the season, forcing the Leafs to lean on Gustavsson and Scrivens to pick up the slack. Reimer would return to action but all three posted save percentages around 90%. Still, the team found wins in the 2011 portion of the season. The 5-on-5 play improved a bit. Overall, Kessel, Lupul and Grabovski were productive; and Bozak and Phaneuf have had nice bounce back seasons in terms of points. A young Gardiner showed promise with 30 points - and outproduced Liles and Schenn. Kulemin had a rough season production-wise; Kadri did not look like he was progressing; and Komisarek was really rough out there. The team was not out of the picture - a strong power play helped, a bad penalty kill hurt. Yet, the team would hit a real slide in February. One that cost Ron Wilson his job. Burke replaced him with someone he knew quite well: Randy Carlyle. Carlyle hardly righted the ship; the Leafs finished at 6-9-3 under him; and the Leafs finished the season at 35-37-10 for 80 points. A decrease in 5 points and a playoff miss by 12. The coaching change, among other issues with the team, did not help.
And the coaching change was a point of contention. Wilson was not just fired after a losing streak in a failed bid to save the season. He was fired after receiving a contract extension in December 2011 and after multiple public statements by Burke that he was standing by Wilson. (Not to mention blaming the fans when he did fire Wilson.) It was a stunning decision that MLSE took notice after another ownership change made that Summer; Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan sold their shares to Bell Canada and Rogers Communications. This led to new people in charge who would review Burke’s work. Of course, this took place in August after the following events:
- On the second day of the 2012 NHL Draft, Burke traded Gustavsson to Winnipeg for a conditional seventh in 2013. A more substantial deal was made on the same day: Schenn to Philadelphia for James van Reimsdyk. Van Reimsdyk was about to begin a six-season, $25.5 million contract extension he got in 2011. Burke saw a scorer and flipped a young defenseman he signed to a big deal in 2011 for it.
- The 2012 NHL Draft picks: Morgan Rielly, Connor Brown, and Dominic Toninato made it out of the class - making it the best under Burke’s tenure in retrospect.
- Burke bought out Armstrong’s contract, leaving him a free agent.
- The only major free agent signings of note were Jay McClement and Mike Mottau on cheap deals.
- Burke’s focus was, again, within the Leafs and it was fairly cheap for a change. The biggest deal was Kulemin getting a two-season, $5.6 million deal. Everyone else was smaller or ELCs such as those given out to Reilly, Biggs, Komarov, and Petter Granberg.
The NHL was locked out over CBA negotiations for 2012-13, but would return to a 48-game season in 2013. Burke would not return. The new people in charge at MLSE did not think Burke did a good enough job in his tenure. Mr. Truculence found out that Truculence, Pugnacity, Big Body Presence, Etc. didn’t get Wins in the NHL back then (and wouldn’t today). He was fired on January 9, 2013 - right before the re-started season. Dave Nonis, who was in the front office, would take over as GM of Toronto. Randy Carlyle was confirmed to be the head coach. Nonis’ first major action: extending Joffery Lupul with a five-season, $26.25 million extension.
Despite getting wrecked in the run of play under Carlyle, the 2013 Leafs had the benefit of Reimer returning to the form he showed when he took over the net a few years earlier. He would post a 92.4% in 31 games and Scrivens posted a 91.5% as a backup. Yes, the Leafs got quality goaltending. It was a breakout season for Kadri and Cody Franson. Kadri finished second in team scoring with 44 points in 48 games; Franson moved up the depth chart and edged out Phaneuf for the most points among defensemen. Van Riemsdyk made an instant impact of 18 goals and 32 points; Bozak and Kulemin provided decent scoring; and Lupul put up 11 goals and 18 points in a season where he missed many games due to a fractured arm and a concussion in separate incidents. Still, the Leafs had good goaltending, good special teams (the penalty kill was outstanding), and a far better run in the standings. They would finish the season at 26-17-5 for 57 points - six points ahead of Winnipeg to take their first playoff spot since 2004. The drought was over.
The pain was not. The 2013 playoffs are infamous for Toronto fans. The Leafs played Boston. Toronto came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 with back-to-back 2-1 wins. They were up 4-1 in Game 7 in the third period. Then Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron all scored within the final 11 minutes of the game -with the last two coming within the last two minutes to force overtime. An overtime period that Bergeron won. The next three seasons would playoff-less for the Leafs, which led to the hiring of Brendan Shanahan, the hiring of Lou, the hiring of Mike Babcock, the preparation of Kyle Dubas, the clean out of the Burke and Nonis Leafs, and the arrival of Matthews. But this seven season stretch was, by far, the lowest point in the Leafs’ long history.
Any Other Thoughts: It is becoming cliche by this point, but ownership has continued to play a direct or indirect role in these droughts either happening or becoming far worse than what they were. I know John Ferguson Jr. may not be well regarded among the Leafs faithful. But the Leafs were only missing out of the playoffs by a handful of points in his first two seasons in charge. The drafts under him ended up being OK. Burke sent this squad in a different direction. For all of the bluster and talk about toughness, the Leafs certainly were not tough to play against in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Reimer’s emergence helped a lot as did the continued efforts up front to make 2010-11 more hopeful, but the organization did not address their major failures for multiple seasons until they just came across the issue. Which helped their failing in 2011-12. Getting the GM and head coaching positions right is important and it played a big role in this drought. What if Ferguson got more of a rope? What if Quinn was not pushed out? What if the team was more aggressive in getting a goaltender in how they were in moving various skaters? What if MLSE just banned Toronto from trading with Boston? I cannot help but feel that this seven-season stretch did not need to be seven-seasons long. I cannot even say this set up Toronto for their current run of form - at least not directly outside of Rielly getting picked in 2012 and perhaps the Kadri trade that would come many years later. At least truculence was a fun catchphrase word at Pension Plan Puppets for a few months, I guess.
The Vancouver Canucks
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 23 misses out of 51 total seasons; 45.1% missed.
Current Situation: The Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs for the second straight season. The Canucks did improve after the 56-game 2021 season from a 44.6% point team to a 56.1% point team. Vancouver finished with a 40-30-12 record for 92 points. They missed the postseason by five points. Having Bruce Boudreau as the coach helped. As did 30-goal seasons from J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Bo Horvat. As did a strong season from Thatcher Demko. Will the Canucks add the pieces to push through in 2022-23? We shall see, but if they do not, then they will be one step closer to doing something for the fourth time in franchise history.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Vancouver’s droughts are unusual. Their longest drought was four seasons long - and they did it three separate times. The most recent run of four misses was from 2015-16 to 2018-19. While that is recent, their one playoff appearance in the last seven seasons was in the Return to Play format. It remains to be seen if they truly improved from that era. More seasons like last one will show that they did, at least a little. Their first run of four missed seasons was in their first four seasons of existence. They suffered as an expansion team in the 70s before crawling their way up to some respectability - and falling a bit short of it throughout the decade and the 1980s. The one I want to cover is in the middle. It happened from 1996-97 to 1999-2000; shortly after one of Vancouver’s finest moments and one that would help set up the next one. This drought may as well be called the Mark Messier Drought.
Let’s go back a bit before the four seasons. From 1991 to 1994, the Canucks were quite good. Very offensive as they were led by Pavel Bure with plenty of contributions from Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall, and captain Trevor Linden. Jyrki Lumme led the defense. Kirk McLean was holding down the net. And if you loved PIMs, then you loved the Canucks. Even their Cup Finalist 1994 team had 7 players with triple digits in penalties. Pat Quinn was the coach and the GM. But as time went on, Quinn left the bench to focus on the front office. A new arena was on its way, Alexander Mogilny was acquired, the famous Markus Naslund for Alek Stojanov trade happened (Stojanov was Vancouver’s first round pick in 1991 and was a goon. Naslund, well, you’ll see.) and things were good - but not as good as they could have been. The Canucks just got into the playoffs in 1995 and 1996 and did not last long.
In order to shake things up, Quinn fired Rick Ley and replaced him with Tom Renney for the 1996-97 season. The team was more than fine offensively. Even with Bure and Linden missing stretches of the season due to injury, the team finished fifth in the league in goals for with 257. Mogilny put up 31 goals and 73 points; Martin Gelinas put up 35 goals and 68 points; Naslund put up 21 goals and 41 points; Mike Ridley put up 20 goals and 52 points; and even Bure put up 23 goals and 55 points in 63 games. Goals were not the issue. Even the defense was not too bad, as Adrian Aucoin started taking a larger role on an aging defense led by Lumme and Dave Babych. McLean, however, was not good. He posted an 88.9% save percentage in the 44 games he played. Backup Corey Hirsch was not much better with an 89.4% in 39 games. As such, the Canucks gave up 273 goals - the sixth most in the NHL. The Canucks were never out of the picture; so Quinn did not make too many deals to shake things up. He did move Jassen Cullimore to Montreal for penalty-machine Donald Brashear in November. In March, he moved Courtnall and Esa Tikkanen to New York for Sergei Nemchinov and Brian Noonan - who both did well in their short time on the team that season. The Canucks did have a woeful January and February such that an 6-1-3 run at the end of the season put them at 35-40-7 for the season. The Canucks earned 77 points and missed the playoffs by four points. It was the team’s first playoff-less season since 1989-90.
Logic would suggest that Quinn should improve the goaltending, look to get a little younger, and hope for better health to get Vancouver back in the playoffs. Quinn would sign Arturs Irbe as a free agent, so that was a move to possibly help the net. But there was a bigger target. One from New York City and Alberta. One who Vancouver fans knew all too well from 1994: Mark Messier. He was getting older, but he still had the goods. The thinking was that he could help put the team over the top with the forwards already including Bure, Mogilny, and Linden. Vancouver was excited to announce his three-season, $18 million contract in 1997. Little did they know that Messier would be the personification of a dark era in Canucks history. (That the team got nothing out of the 1996 Draft didn’t help; at least 1995 had Peter Schaefer and Brent Sopel)
Before the 1997-98 season, Vancouver debuted their Orca logo to replace the old skate logo. This was well received. Additionally, Linden gave up the captaincy to Messier. This was not at all well received. Messier regrets accepting it. Likewise, #11 was unofficially retired in Vancouver, but Messier got that too. This soured Messier to the fans - and the locker room that long trusted and listened to Linden. It created a sense that the team would change anything for Messier - the captain of the team that unfortunately denied Vancouver a Stanley Cup in 1994.
Vancouver was awful to start the season. They won three of their first 19 games. Sixteen games into that run, Pat Quinn was fired. After those 19 games, Renney was fired. It was decided that, hey, they have Messier from 1994, why not get New York’s coach from that year too? Ignoring how he left New York and St. Louis, the Canucks hired Mike Keenan as a head coach. And anyone who knew Keenan (r read Part 4 of this series) knew full well that Keenan wants to do more than coach. He wants control and he wants it his way. So he was effectively the GM too in Vancouver. It did not take too long for Iron Mike to squeeze his iron fist.
From January to the trade deadline in March 1998, Keenan did the following:
- Kirk McLean and Martin Gelinas were traded to Carolina for Sean Burke, Geoff Sanderson, and Enrico Ciccone. McLean was performing poorly again with a woeful 87.9% save percentage in 29 games. Gelinas, who was a scorer for the Canucks, was struggling with just 8 points in 24 games. Out with the old, in with some new, I guess.
- The well-traveled Mike Sillinger was traded to Philadelphia for a conditional fifth round pick. Sillinger had a good season in 1996-97. With 10 goals and 19 points in 48 games, perhaps not so much.
- Geoff Sanderson was traded to Buffalo for Brad May and a 1999 third round pick. Sanderson put up 3 assists in 9 games and barely lasted a month. The Canucks added another pair of fists. Vancouver would top 2,000 PIM as a team in 1997-98, led by Brashear’s maddening 372 PIM count. I am not sure why Keenan felt he needed more toughness to a team that would have six guys top 100 PIM. May got into 27 games for 9 goals and 12 points. Whee.
- A shrewd pickup: Peter Zezel from the Devils for a 1998 fifth rounder. Zezel would put up 17 points in 25 games.
- Another Unpopular Move: Trevor Linden to the Islanders for Bryan McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi, and a third round pick in 1999 that ended up being Jarkko Ruutu. This trade would work out for Vancouver in time. Trading away the popular Linden was not well received when it happened in February. Bertuzzi and McCabe joined the roster immediately.
- Burke was traded to Philadelphia for Garth Snow. Burke was as bad as McLean with an 87.6% save percentage in 16 games. Snow would be better with a 90.1% in 12 games.
- Ciccone was traded to Tampa Bay for Jamie Huscroft. So the McLean-Gelinas trade return was all traded by about two months later.
- Long time enforcer Gino Odjick was traded to the Islanders for Jason Strudwick.
- Long time defenseman Dave Babych and a sixth round pick in 1998 for a third round pick in 1999.
From all of these trades, you wouldn’t know that the Canucks only missed the playoffs by a few points in 1996-97. Keenan upended quite a bit. It is true that he did end the long run of losing when he arrived, there would be more losing streaks along the way to a 25-43-14 record. Bure was healthy and put up 51 goals and 90 points. Mogilny put up 45 points in an injury-shortened 51 game season. Naslund only put up 34 points in 76 games, while Mattias Ohlund (1994 first round pick) emerged to become a leader on the blueline with Lumme. Messier himself put up 22 goals and 60 points. Quite good for most players, but it was the fewest amount of points he would put up in a non-lockout season since 1984-85, when he put up 54 points in 55 games. Hardly enough to quell the disappointment of Messier’s arrival, taking of the captaincy, and (indirectly) leading to Keenan’s involvement. Despite all of the moves made and the losing, Vancouver’s offense was still good. But the team was dead last in goals allowed. Irbe did post a 90.7% in the 41 games he played in. It was when he was not playing that the Canucks were lit up - especially with McLean and Burke. The 64-point season would be the Canucks’ worst since 1989-90 - and it would not be the worst of this drought.
Keenan would be forced to be just a head coach after this season. Vancouver brought in former Vancouver director of Hockey Operations, former Hartford GM, and former NHL disciplinarian, Brian Burke to be the GM. Yes, he was bad for Toronto. He would end up being good for Vancouver. But not without some more pain.
The 1998-99 Canucks would prove to be worse than the 1996-97 Canucks. Keenan was still the head coach and Vancouver was not any better for it as the team went 15-24-6 under him. Between Burke now being GM and that record, Keenan was fired. Marc Crawford took over. Just before that happened, Burke made a massive trade that few earlier in the decade would expect. He traded Pavel Bure. Bure was unhappy with the situation under Keenan and requested a trade. Burke honored that on January 17, 1999. Bure, Brad Ference (1997’s first round pick for Vancouver), Bret Hedican (regular on the blueline), and a third round pick that would eventually be used in 2000 were traded to Florida for Ed Jovanovski, Kevin Weekes, Dave Gagner, Mike Brown, and a first round pick that would eventually be used in 2000. Bure’s absence loomed large as the offense as a whole took a nose dive. Another injury-shortened season for Mogilny kept him to 45 points in 59 games. Messier also got hurt and put up just 48 points in 58 games. The only bright spots were defenseman Adrian Aucoin putting up 23 goals and 34 points, Ohlund leading the defense with 26 minutes per night, and Naslund breaking out with 36 goals and 66 points. Meanwhile, the goaltending was still a big problem. Irbe left for Carolina in the offseason. Snow took over as the #1 guy with 65 games and a 90% save percentage. Hirsch was not that good as a backup with an 89% in 20 games. Weekes posted an even worse 86.8% in 11 games. Vancouver, once again, was near the bottom in terms of goals allowed. And under Crawford, the team really did sink as they won just 8 games under him. The Canucks finished the season at 23-47-12 for 58 points - one of the worst seasons ever in franchise history.
And to add further disappointment, Burke did Peter Zezel wrong by the deadline. Zezel requested a trade to an Eastern Conference team as his niece was diagnosed with a neutroblastoma and he wanted to be closer. Burke traded Zezel to Anaheim for future considerations. Zezel refused to report and retired on the spot. That nullified the trade. In the wake of the criticism, Burke would buy out Zezel’s contract instead. As if there was any reason to feel worse to be a Canucks fan at this time.
The finish to the Canucks’ season would set up one of Brian Burke’s crowning achievements as a general manager. The Canucks went into the 1999 NHL Draft with the third overall pick. The draft class was headlined by Patrik Stefan and the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. I’m sure the front office was agonizing over which of the three to take at third overall. Burke decided: Why not get two picks to get both Sedins? So Burke made it happen. First, he traded Bryan McCabe - a good defenseman - and Vancouver’s first round pick in 2000 or 2001 to Chicago for their first round pick at fourth overall in 1999. Chicago would use the pick in 2000. Second, he traded that fourth overall pick and two third round picks in 1999 to Tampa Bay for the first overall pick. Instead of settling for first and third and hoping Atlanta would take Stefan at second overall, Burke made one more move. He traded first overall to Atlanta presumably with the assurance they would take Stefan for second overall and a conditional third round pick in 2000. With the second and third overall picks, Burke selected Daniel and Henrik Sedin. That would at least set up Vancouver’s future. As for the 1999 offseason, the most important of Burke’s signings would be Andrew Cassels.
The 1999-2000 Canucks would be the third and final season of Messier in British Columbia. He would put up 54 points in 66 games, but his best years were well, well behind him. There were improvements to the team. Cassels was an instant hit with 62 points in 79 games. While Naslund led the team in scoring with 27 goals and 65 points, there was as much excitement for Bertuzzi putting up 25 goals and 50 points. Ohlund, Jovanovski, Aucoin, and veteran Murray Baron led a defense that gave up fewer shots than the league average. Only two Canucks broke 100 PIM: Brashear and Bertuzzi. The improved discipline meant fewer shorthanded situations to get rolled on. The offense returned to the league median. However, the goaltending was still a struggle. Snow was not as impressive, although he did finish the season with 32 games and 90.2% save percentage. Weekes was still not great as a backup. This led to Burke trading a conditional pick in 2000 to Atlanta for Corey Schwab as depth. After Schwab was bad, Burke made a more permanent move. He traded Weekes, Dave Scatchard, and Bill Muckalt to the Islanders for Felix Potvin, a second and a third round pick in the 2000 draft. Potvin would be better as he played in 34 games and posted a 90.6%. Between the Potvin acquisition and a better defense, the Canucks only finished in the bottom ten of goals allowed instead of being near or at the bottom.
This did not keep Burke from making moves. First, he moved the two picks from the Potvin trade to New Jersey for Vadim Sharifijanov. I am uncertain, but I believe he was coming off an eye injury. Second, while Mogilny put up 21 goals and 38 points in 47 games, Burke decided to move on from him. He was sent to New Jersey for Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson. Pederson did not do much upon joining the Canucks. Morrison put up 9 points in 12 games. The Canucks did get hot by season’s end to finish at 30-29-15-8 for 83 points. The Canucks missed the playoffs by four points. The team was heading in a better direction; much more than the last two seasons. And fans were likely glad that Messier’s contract was ending.
The 2000 offseason would be fairly quiet. Brad May was traded away for a conditional pick in 2001 as Burke felt fine with just one main enforcer in Brashear. Goalie Bob Essensa and defenseman Scott Lachance would be important signings for Vancouver, if you can believe it. The bigger news was that Naslund was named captain, the Sedin twins would join the squad from MODO, and the team even held training camp in Sweden. It was a new era and it would start off well enough with a winning record going into Christmas. Naslund went from strength to strength and would put up a 41-goal season to lead the team. Bertuzzi put up another 25-goal, 55-point season; Cassels put up 56 points; and a full season of Morrison yielded 54 points. Jovanovski was quite productive; the Sedins chipped in as rookies; and even Matt Cooke brokeout somewhat with 14 goals and 27 points.
Yet, goaltending remained as a concern. Potvin struggled with an 88.7% save percentage in 35 games that season. Essensa was called upon to play 39 games and he would out-do Potvin with an 89.2% save percentage. Not wanting to see the season fall short again, Burke made a bolder move for a goalie. In February, he traded Adrian Aucoin - defensive leader - and a second round pick in 2001 to Tampa Bay for Dan Cloutier. Cloutier did not exactly hit the ground running with an 89.4% save percentage in 16 games. But he was an improvement over Potvin.
It was a dramatic end of the season and Vancouver spiraled as the season came to a close. They won just two of their last 11 games. However, they did enough to just edge the Coyotes through a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot in the West. The drought was over. The Canucks made the playoffs with a 36-28-11-7 record for 90 points. Had they not struggled by the end, maybe they would have finished as high as fifth in the West. No matter, they made it. They also got swept by Colorado in the first round. But they made it. Not so coincidentally, it happened after Messier left the organization.
It would also kick off three straight seasons of playoff appearances, lead to the West Coast Express line, and be the foundation for what would be the best era in Canucks history from 2009 to 2013. Brian Burke ultimately did well in Vancouver. And,
Any Other Thoughts: Vancouver’s drought was helped, in part, by the Canucks going so hard for Messier that it messed up the dynamics of the locker room. That is damaging enough. Bringing in Mike Keenan doubled down on that, even if one of his moves did bring Bertuzzi to the organization. While he was not perfect, credit to Burke for moving on from Keenan when it was clear his coaching was not good enough, upending the roster as he saw fit, and at least making the effort to address goaltending even with some big trades. The ones he made with the Leafs ended up poorly, but the ones he made for Vancouver ended up well. It yielded Morrison, the Sedins, Jovanovski, Cassels, and Cloutier - which would set up the next chapter of Canucks hockey.
The Washington Capitals
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 15 misses out of 47 total seasons; 31.9% missed.
Current Situation: The Capitals have made it to the playoffs for each of the last eight seasons. They won it all in 2018. In true Washington fashion, they either lost in the first or second round in the other seven times. Last season, they took the last playoff spot in the East with a 100 point record at 44-26-12. And they lost to Florida. Next year: More of the same? Maybe?
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Washington’s longest drought was an eight season stretch from their first season in 1974-75 to 1981-82. The team was pathetically run in their first two seasons. Their first draft was a bust. Their first season earned just 13.1% of all possible points and won 8 games. The team was just lost. So I am going to focus on the three season drought from 2003-04 to 2006-07 instead. It is not just more relevant, but it is a good example that adding Alexander Ovechkin alone did not fix the Caps.
Why did the Caps need fixing to begin with? Ted Leonsis bought the team in 1999. The Caps won the Southeast Division in 2000-01 and 2001-02. They were coached by Ron Wilson, managed by George McPhee, and featured the likes of Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig, Ulf Dahlen, Steve Konowalchuk, and Adam Oates. They even traded for Jaromir Jagr for what turned out to be not much, and signed him to an incredibly fat $77 million contract in 2001.
Well, Oates wanted out in 2000-01 and he would be traded during that 2001-02 season. Specifically, Oates was sent to Philadelphia for prospect goalie Maxime Ouellet, a first rounder in 2002, a second rounder in 2002, and a third rounder in 2002. Given that Oates put up 68 points in 66 games, perhaps that was a questionable request to honor during the season. A season where the defense was not so strong beyond Sergei Gonchar and the goaltending beyond Kolzig was lackluster. The Caps ended up missing the playoffs by two points.
No matter, the team would surely bounce back in a fairly weak Southeast Division in 2002-03, right? They would. Kolzig had a stronger season with a 91.9% save percentage in 66 games. Sebastien Charpentier proved to be a better backup than Craig Billington. McPhee signed Robert Lang, Jagr’s teammate, as a free agent. While Jagr was only leading the team in scoring with 77 points instead of the 100+ point seasons he dropped in Pittsburgh, Lang finished second on the team in scoring - ahead of Gonchar, Bondra, Michael Nylander (acquired in 2002), and a surprising 50-point season from another McPhee signing: Kip Miller. Bruce Cassidy replaced Ron Wilson as the head coach and his first season was a success. The Caps made it into the playoffs with 92 points and lost to Tampa Bay in the first round. OK, so no drought, yet. Why bring all of this up?
Because Leonsis’ plan was not to build a team to just win the Southeast and hope they make it out of the first round. The plan was to build a contender. A dominant team. Jagr was acquired to be the centerpiece of that. Again, he was dropping triple-digit point seasons as a Penguin. Coming in to just go point-per-game for around 70+ points was not enough. It was after the 2002-03 season that the thought between Leonsis and McPhee was that they have to start over.
I presume the fact that the team was filled with veterans helped that decision. Jagr, Bondra, Lang, Kolzig, Calle Johansson, Nylander, Miller, and Konowalchuk were all 30 or over. Gonchar and Brendan Witt were in their late 20s and Halpern turned 26. Washington’s drafts from 1994 to 2001 did not yield very much talent, much less talent still on the Capitals. The 2002 class did have Steve Eminger, Alex Semin, and Boyd Gordon - and no one else would turn out. Eric Fehr would turn out to be the only find from 2003 too. So there were would be few answers in the system.
So it was time for the Caps to cut costs, tear down their aging core, and start over. How bad could it be?
Well. McPhee got to work with some smaller pieces. Johansson retired. Ken Klee left for Toronto in free agency. The rights to Dmitri Yushkevich was sent to Philadelphia for a conditional seventh round pick in 2004 - which meant nothing for the Flyers as Yushkevich would sign in Russia. McPhee would exercise one-season options on Bondra and Halpern, keep Mike Grier and Nylander for another season, and give ELCs to Semin and Gordon. Note that they were all one season deals for 2003-04. The tear down would begin more in earnest in the season.
And to help justify it, the team faceplanted right out of the gate. They went 2-7-1-0 in October. Konowalchuk and a third were sent to Colorado for Bates Battaglia and the rights to Jonas Johansson. That’s one gone. In November, they went 5-8-0-1. Cassidy would be fired by the time the Caps were 8-18-1-1. Assistant coach Glen Hanlon took over. Things did not get much better under Hanlon. They went 4-8-2 and it was apparent the 2003-04 Caps were undisciplined, their offense struggled, and the goalies were lit up. Even with Kolzig posting an 90.8% in 63 games. Then the move needed to be made to cut salaries and really tear it down. Jagr was traded to New York. The trade was one-for-one for Anson Carter, and the Caps apparently retained $4 million per season of the next four seasons. Again, Jagr was still a point-per-game player so this really served to knee-cap the Caps season further. January ended with a 5-7-2-1 record. February saw two more big moves. First, long time Capital scorer Peter Bondra was sent to Ottawa for Brooks Laich and a second rounder in 2005. By the end of the month, the Caps would trade Robert Lang. Lang was the lone bright spot remaining on the team with 74 points in 63 games at the time of the trade. He was not just the team’s leading scorer, he was the league’s leading scorer. He was sent to Detroit for Tomas Fleischmann, a first round pick in either 2004 or 2005 (Caps used it in 2004), and a 2006 fourth round pick. February would end with that trade and a 4-5-3 record for the month.
March featured McPhee dumping more players. Sergei Gonchar was sent to Boston for Shaone Morrisonn, a first round pick in 2004, and a second round pick in 2004. A day later, Michael Nylander was sent to Boston for a fourth in 2005 and a second in 2006. A few days after that, Carter (you know, from the Jagr trade) was sent to Los Angeles for Jared Aulin. Then Mike Grier was sent to Buffalo for Jakub Klepis. Washington moved their top scorers, their top defensemen, and a solid hand in Grier. No one should be shocked the Caps went 3-10-1-0 and ended the season with no wins in their last 3 games. The top three scorers on the team still with the team by the end of the season were Halpern with 46 points, Miller with 31, and Dainius Zubrus with 27. Oh, and the last two missed time due to injury too. Semin, Gordon, and Eminger all played and suffered a trial by fire. The end result: a 23-46-10-3 record for 59 points - the worst season in Caps history since their expansion days in the 1970s. Only Chicago matched them in points and Pittsburgh was worse with 58 points. Costs were certainly cut and the tear down happened real quick. Now what?
Well, the 2004 NHL Draft turned out to be a huge one for the Caps after several years of finding few NHL players in them. The Caps won the draft lottery and would get the prize to select Alexander Ovechkin at first overall. The Putinist would become a Capitals legend. The other two first round picks had value: Jeff Schultz would play 409 games and the other was Mike Green, which paid off huge (he was a great player on a really crummy Saskatoon team). They also got a couple of seasons out of Sami Lepisto, too.
Of course, this draft would not yield immediate gains as there would be no 2004-05 season. McPhee did not lock himself into anything long term ahead of the lockout. Anyone re-signed got a one-season deal and Brendan Witt went to arbitration and got a one-season deal. Which all meant nothing as the season would go away.
After the lockout was sorted and the salary cap was put into place, the 2005 NHL Draft happened. No one of significance would be drafted by Washington beyond Tim Kennedy getting 162 games with a bunch of teams not named the Caps. McPhee would be more active in free agency, emboldened by a salary cap. Andrew Cassels, Mathieu Biron, and Dave Steckel would be signed. Many Caps were re-signed; even a two-season deal for Zubrus. ELCs were handed out to Ovechkin, Green, Fehr, and Chris Bourque. The Ovechkin Era was dawning.
Ovechkin was more than worth the hype: 52 goals, 106 points, a Calder Trophy, and being named to both the All Rookie and First All Star Team. The rest of the Capitals were still kind of asleep. Kolzig was the starting goaltender and posted an 89.6% save percentage in 59 games. The 35 year old was showing his age. Oddly, he got a two-season extension during this season. Brent Johnson was picked up off waivers to be a back-up and he posted a 90.5% in 26 games - better but not enough to stop the Caps from conceding 300 goals. Hanlon’s Caps gave up 550 shorthanded situations (bro) and gave up over 110 power play goals. Defense was absolutely optional for a blueline led by Witt and Jamie Hedward. The offense, beyond Ovechkin, had its ups and downs. Zubrus had a career season and players like Chris Clark, Matt Pettinger, and Brian Willsie had productive seasons out of nowhere. However, vets like Cassels and Jeff Friesen (acquired from New Jersey just before the season) did not produce much. The young ones like Gordon, Fleischmann, and Laich were still learning. As such, the 2005-06 Caps finished well outside of the playoffs with a record of 29-41-12. They improved by 12 points and missed the playoffs by 22. McPhee decided by the trade deadline to move on from Friesen (sent to Anaheim for a second rounder) and Witt (sent to Nashville for a first in 2006 and Kris Beech).
That first rounder from the Witt deal would prove important at the 2006 NHL Draft. Washington finished with the fourth overall pick and were able to take the jelly to the Putinist’s peanut butter: center Nicklas Backstrom. With the Nashville first, they took goaltender Semyon Varlamov. And they picked Michal Neuvirth in the second round. And they hit big with their last pick, which was for Mathieu Perreault. This would prove fruitful for the future. In the meantime, McPhee opted to be a little less bold in free agency. He signed Donald Brashear and John Erskine. He had Semin coming back with a two-season deal signed in April, so I guess he did not think he needed more scoring. Halpern, Willsie, and Biron signed elsewhere. Richard Zednik was added from Montreal for a third rounder in 2007. You may have noticed none of these additions or other moves involved a goaltender. This would be a problem for 2006-07.
While Backstrom and Ovechkin would be the key men for the Capitals for a decade-plus to come, but Backstrom would not be available for this season. Semin’s return added a good one-two punch with Ovechkin. Ovechkin led the team with 46 goals and 92 points; Semin came in second with 38 goals and 73 points. Chris Clark astounded many by building on the previous season for a 30-goal, 54-point campaign and Zubrus broke 50 points again. The team scored about the same amount of goals again. Fortunately, they were not as bad on the PK and did not go to the PK as much as they did last season. Unfortunately, Kolzig was still the starter on a team that bled shots. He would post up a respectable 91% total save percentage in 54 games. His backup, Johnson, was worse at 88.9% in 30 games. As a result, the Caps finished near the bottom in goals allowed - again. And McPhee, baffingly, did nothing about it. The season was lost again, so he did some more selling. Zednik was sent to the Islanders for a second round pick in 2007. Zubrus and Timo Helbling were sent to Buffalo for Jiri Novotny and a first round pick in 2007. The Capitals finished with 70 points for another season (28-40-14), their third straight outside of the playoff picture.
At the 2007 NHL Draft, McPhee traded down from Buffalo’s first round pick to San Jose to gain a second for 2007 and 2008. And that 2007 second was sent to Philly for two more picks in a trade-down. None of them became anything. In fact, only Washington’s first pick in 2007 turned out: Karl Alzner, who was an effective defender. McPhee opted to be a bit more active in free agency in 2007. He would bring back Michael Nylander to a big, four-season contract for $19.5 million. He signed Tom Poti for four seasons at $14 million, and Viktor Kozlov for two seasons at $5 million. Plus, Backstrom would be coming to the Capitals for the 2007-08 season. Again, notice that none of these were goalies.
Kozlov would provide 16 goals and 54 points. Nylander did provide 37 points in 40 games, but injuries kept him at 40 games. Tom Poti would be among minutes leader on defense, but the story of the blueline was a big breakout season from Mike Green, who provided 18 goals (!) and 56 points. Backstrom’s first season: 14 goals, 55 assists - very nice. But the goaltending was still bad. Kolzig was still the starter, posting a 89.2% save percentage in 54 games. Even with Johnson clearing 90% with a 90.8% in 19 appearances, the Caps goalies did not help out a lot. Worse, the team started off very poorly with a 6-14-1 start. Early on, it looked like the Caps were in for another lost season. At least their new logo looked snazzy.
But in the 2007-08 season, though, McPhee would not let this slide stand. Hanlon would be fired. His replacement: Bruce Boudreau. The turnaround was almost immediate as the Caps won every single month from then on. Leading the way was Ovechkin. He was simply on another level that season. He set a franchise record for goals, broke Luc Robitaille’s record for most goals by a left winger in a season, and won the Rocket, the Hart, the Pearson, and the Art Ross with 65 goals and 112 points. The winning ways led McPhee to do some buying and finally address the goaltending by moving a second round pick they got from Anaheim in November to Montreal for Cristobal Huet. Huet would just get into 13 games but his 93.6% save percentage was an oasis in a desert of lackluster netminding. The Caps’ second round pick in 2007, Ted Ruth, was moved to Columbus for Sergei Fedorov. The veteran added 13 points in 18 games. Matt Pettinger was sent to Vancouver for Matt Cooke. The Caps were still on a knife’s edge in the standings due in part to that awful start under Hanlon. But the Caps won 10 out of 14 in March and won their last 7 games to finish at 43-31-8 for 94 points. This was enough to edge Carolina for the Southeast Division crown and keep them out of the playoffs. The Capitals were back and resembled the team that they would become for the last decade.
Again, true to franchise tradition, they had an early playoff exit. They lost in 7 games to Philadelphia. Huet, Fedorov, Ovechkin, Semin, Green, Backstrom, and Laich did well in this series. But it would be the start of a fine run of regular seasons for the next five. The drought was over and they had their foundation for the future.
Any Other Thoughts: While Leonsis and McPhee did not cut costs due to financial concerns, they took a known risk to blow it all up and start again. They got fortunate in some cases; such as winning the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery. Some deals would pay off in the long run, such as getting extra picks for Green, Semin, Gordon, and Varlamov. But it boggles my mind in retrospect that they moved all of their old core except for Kolzig. He was getting older and even his better seasons were not so good to keep him around. And keeping Johnson around as a backup was also odd. Why didn’t McPhee pull the trigger on a deal to bring in a goalie of substance until February 2008 to replace either? Perhaps this could have ended the drought much earlier, or pulled the Caps closer to the playoffs than a pair of 70-point seasons in the beginning of the Cap Era? Still, all’s well that ends mostly well in 82 games for the Capitals.
The Winnipeg Jets
Also Known As: Atlanta Thrashers
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 16 misses out of 47 total seasons; 31.9% missed.
Current Situation: The Neo Jets missed the playoffs in 2021-22 after making it in 2021. The Jets finished with a record of 39-32-11 and missed the postseason by eight points. The season saw the end of longtime head coach Paul Maurice; he was replaced by Dave Lowry during this season. We shall see whether Lowry can take this squad to another level in 2022-23.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: The first team I wrote up in this series was the New Jersey Devils and I chose their longest drought. The drought of nine seasons was absolutely impacted by the ownership drama in Denver where the Rockies were moving to New Jersey, then not moving, then definitely not moving, and only to be moving after all and everyone knew it was going to happen. Fittingly, the last team to write up in full is a franchise that had ownership issues, a team that did not want to spend, replacement owners that did not want them, and a new owner that did - in a new location in Winnipeg. One of the major lessons of this series is that ownership is really important to a team’s direction. Such is the main lesson of the seven-season drought of the Thrashers and Jets.
The Thrashers were beset by questionable management from the outset as an expansion team, but they were making improvements as the Cap Era came about. They barely missed the playoffs in 2005-06; finishing two points behind Tampa Bay for the last spot in the East.
In 2006-07, the Thrashers would actually get in for the first time. Even with Marc Savard signing with Boston, GM Don Waddell added Johan Hedberg, Jon Sim, Steve Rucchin, and Glen Metropolit to solidify the roster depth behind aces Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov, and Kari Lehtonen. Under the coaching of Bob Hartley, those aces stayed healthy and very productive: Hossa put up 43 goals and 100 points, Kovalchuk scored 42 and 76 points, Kozlov put up 28 goals and 80 points, and Lehtonen posted a 91.2% total save percentage over 68 games. The Thrashers sought to add in 2007. Vitali Vishnevski was sent to Nashville for Eric Belanger, a veteran forward. 2003 first rounder Braydon Coburn, who was still figuring out the NHL in limited minutes, was sent to Philly for veteran defender Alexei Zhitnik. Metropolit and a heap of picks were sent to St. Louis for veteran forward Keith Tkachuk. And 2005 first rounder Alex Bourret and a third in 2007 were sent to the Rangers for Pascal Dupuis for depth. Waddel wanted this team to get in - and they did. Zhitnik took on big minutes right away, joining veterans Niclas Havelid and Greg de Vries. Tkachuk was productive right away with 15 points in 18 games. Belanger added 15 points in 24 games. Dupuis, well, did not add much. But the Thrashers went 9-4-1 in March, won two of their last 3 games, and secured their first ever playoff spot by winning the Southeast Division. They earned 97 points with a 43-28-11 record. Blueland was electric, even if the Thrashers got swept in the first round. It seemed like the team was set to be competitive.
As you know, they did not. It all fell apart after 2006-07. One factor that could not be overlooked in retrospect: ownership. The team was originally owned by Time Warner, along with the Philips Arena and the Atlanta Hawks. After the merge with AOL, Time Warner was looking to sell earlier in the decade. And this put both the Thrashers and Hawks at risk of being bought and moved. To counter that, a group of business owners, local and otherwise, formed a group to buy the Hawks, the arena, and the Thrashers. This group is Atlanta Spirit. The sale was done in 2004. However, the owners were far more interested in the Hawks and the arena - and not so much with the hockey team. They took on the Thrashers because they had to, not because they really wanted to. This would be a crucial difference between why the Thrashers were picked up and moved to Winnipeg so quickly while other teams had more of a fighting chance in Arizona, Long Island, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and so forth.
So even though the Thrashers would go on to have their best seasons ever in Atlanta in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Atlanta Spirit did not necessarily empower Don Waddell to spend a lot. This also created plenty of rumors of the team moving, which certainly did not help in negotiations, particularly with players who wanted a long-term future. And, unless I’m mistaken, the lack of ownership interest did not necessarily keep close tabs on Waddell either. It was pretty much his team to run.
Waddell got even more power early in the 2007-08 season. After an offseason with a minimal draft - Atlanta spent a lot of draft capital to rent Tkachuk - Waddell saw Sim, de Vries, and Belanger go while signing Todd White to $9.5 million over four seasons and having out two-season deals to Eric Perrin and Ken Klee. In the season, Atlanta dropped their first six games. Waddell fired Hartley, the team’s most successful coach, and put himself behind the bench for the rest of the season. The Thrashers would start winning but ultimately have a streaky season. The team was around 50% until mid-February, when an eight-game losing streak all but sealed their fate to miss the playoffs. Worse, Waddell ensured this fate by trading Marian Hossa. Hossa was critical as part of Atlanta’s brief rise to relevancy. He was also a scoring machine. He had 26 goals and 56 points in 60 games when he was dealt. Hossa and Dupuis were sent to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and Pittsburgh’s first rounder in 2008. The losing would continue as Atlanta won just 5 games in from March on to the end of the season. Atlanta finished 2007-08 with a record of 34-40-8 for 76 points. They missed the playoffs by 18 points.
A big reason for that drop off was the team’s defense. They did not have much of one. They “led” the league in shots against per 60 in 5-on-5 and would concede over 2,700 shots in total. Despite Kari Lehtonen putting up a quite good 91.6% save percentage in all situations, a lot of goals were allowed. Johan Hedberg was awful with an 89.2% in 36 games and a brief 7 game cameo from Ondrej Pavelec yielded a 90.5%. All together, the 2007-08 Thrashers gave up the most goals in the NHL that season. The offense sagged, especially after Hossa was dealt. While Ilya Kovalchuk scored 52 goals and 87 points and Eric Perrin suprisingly put up 45 points, the remainder of the team did not produce a lot. Mark Recchi only got into 53 games and put up 40 points, but White, Holik, and Kozlov were showing their age. Bryan Little showed some flashes here and there in his rookie season, but nothing out of the gate.
Waddell understood that keeping those veterans in his forward core was not so beneficial on the ice or on the books. Hence, Holik and Recchi walked in free agency. The 2008 NHL Draft saw Atlanta take Zach Bogosian at third overall - and not get much else in retrospect. Bogosian would make Atlanta in the following season. In free agency, the Thrashers did sign Ron Hainsey to help the ‘D’ and Jason Williams to strengthen the offense. It took until preseason, but Waddell did swing a trade for another experienced defender. He sent Klee, Brad Larsen, and Chad Painchaud to Anaheim for Mathieu Schneider. Most of all, Waddell recognized he was not really suited for the bench. He hired John Anderson of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves to be the new bench boss. Hedberg was still in the tandem. The rest of the team remained. Would it be better?
Technically, no. The Thrashers finished 2008-09 with nearly the same record as last season: 35-41-6 for 76 points. They ended up missing the playoffs by 17 instead of 18 points. The Thrashers went from 30th out of 30 in goals allowed to 29th out of 30 in goals allowed. The defense did improve a little bit, but Lehtonen was a little lower in Sv% at 91.1%, Hedberg was still far from 90% at 88.6% for the season, and 12 games of Pavelec saw him save just 88% of the pucks. Offensively, Kozlov and White had far, far better seasons with 70+ point seasons, Kovalchuk was still the offensive leader, and Bryan Little had a breakout sophmore campaign of 31 goals and 51 points. Rich Peverley was picked up on waivers and posted 35 points in 39 games. However, the losing record meant more selling - and Waddell opted to move two of his bigger offseason additions. In January, he sent a struggling Williams to Columbus for Clay Wilson and a sixth in 2009. In February, he sent Schneider and a 2009 conditional pick to Montreal for a 2009 second rounder and a 2010 third rounder. While not massive, Anssi Salmela would be sent to Atlanta by New Jersey for Niclas Havelid and Myles Stoesz. The defense got younger but not much better. But Waddell had a larger concern coming up soon.
Kovalchuk’s contract would be expiring after the 2009-10 season. After what happened to Hossa and seeing other players leave the team instead of being locked up, the rumors were all over that Kovalchuk would be moved. Waddell did his best to disregard them as he made decisions in the 2009 offseason. Evander Kane would be taken at fourth overall, Ben Chiarot was found in the fourth round, and not much of consequence was found with the other picks. Waddell became much more active in free agency. He spent big on getting Nik Antropov on a four-season, $16 million contract. He signed plenty of depth players from Maxim Afinogenov to Anthony Stewart to Jason Krog to Joel Kwiatkowski. Recognizing the defense needed boosting, he sent Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart to Toronto for veteran Pavel Kubina and Tim Stapleton. Would the 2009-10 season be any better?
At first, the answer was yes after a 5-4-1 October and 9-3-2 November. But a 4-10-1 December returned the team to a familiar place. To give Waddell credit, his acquisitions were doing well. Antropov would go on to lead the team in scoring that season. Afinogenov would top 60 points. Kubina averaged over 22 minutes per game and added 38 points. Tobias Enstrom was still a point machine from the back, Peverley would still be a sensation that made one wonder why he was ever waived, and Evander Kane would make the team. However, it was a rough season for Kozlov, White, and Armstrong as they could not top even 30 points. Surprisingly it was not that bad in the net. Despite missing Lehtonen for much of the season due to injury, Hedberg and Pavelec would put up more respectable save percentages: 91.5% and 90.6%, respectively.
With the team stuck in a malaise and losing money behind the scenes - this would come out in public in 2011 - Waddell was driven to make two trades that would change the Thrashers as far as we knew it. One you know, one you may not.
The first was the one you likely know. Ilya Kovalchuk. The player that Waddell wanted to keep around. The face of the franchise. The top scorer, who had 31 goals and 27 assists in 49 games at the time of the deal. I presume any chance of keeping Kovalchuk in Atlanta for any long was not going to happen and not for the money he wanted that Atlanta did not want to spend. A trade was needed. Waddell discreetly negotiated the terms with Lou. The final trade: Kovalchuk, Salmela, and Atlanta’s second round pick in 2010 for Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, and New Jersey’s first and second round picks in 2010. The second is the other one. He was injured throughout the season, but Lehtonen was sent to Dallas just five days later. Lehtonen was drafted high to be Atlanta’s top goaltender to lean on and he did a good job of being that important part of the team. Even during this drought, he was not the problem. All the Thrashers got for trading the then-injured goalie: Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth in 2010.
The team did not crater after those deals, but it did not need to. They finished with a better record at 35-34-13 for 83 points and missed the playoffs by five points. But that would not be enough. Not for John Anderson and not for Don Waddell. After the season, it was determined that Waddell would be kicked upstairs to team President, Rick Dudley would take over as GM, and a new coaching staff would replace Anderson and his staff.
This did not deter Dudley from doing a lot in the offseason. Just before the 2010 draft, Dudley took the two picks acquired in the Kovalchuk trade, Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, and Jeremy Morin and traded all of that to Chicago for Dustin Byfuglien, Akim Aliu, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager. Yes, the Thrashers did not actually use their picks from trading the best player they ever had. Dudley continued on. Vishnevskiy - the player returned for Lehtonen - and a second rounder in 2011 were sent to Chicago for Andrew Ladd. Todd White would be sent to New York later in the Summer for Donald Brashear and Patrick Rissmiller. In free agency, Dudley signed goalie Chris Mason and winger Fredrik Modin among others while seeing Hedberg, Kubina, Afinogenov, and Armstrong sign elsewhere. The new coach would be Craig Ramsay. On paper, it was going to be a very different looking team.
In practice, the Thrashers were about the same in 2010-11. They finished the season with a record of 34-36-12 for 80 points. They missed the playoffs by 13 points. They gave up a lot of goals; a result of a not so strong defense and not so hot goaltending. Pavelec became the starter and, like Lehtonen before him, did quite well with a 91.4% in 58 games. Mason was like Hedberg in that he failed to post a 90% save percentage as the team’s #1B/2 goalie - he posted an 89.2%. The offense did not have a high scorer like Hossa or Kovalchuk in the past. But Ladd did put up 29 goals and 59 points, Byfuglien and Enstrom each put up over 50, and Little, Kane, Antropov, Stewart, Peverley, and Bergfors each put up at least 10 goals. So the total offense was not much worse. Despite all of the changes in the front office and Dudley’s active offseason, the Thrashers were still in the same place in the big picture.
Also, as the season went on, the GM would again sell assets knowing the playoffs were not happening. And as with past Thrashers seasons, Dudley would move on from his own moves in some of these trades. Peverley and Boris Valabik were sent to Boston for Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler - the latter being huge for the future Winnipeg team. Sopel and Dawes were sent to Montreal for Ben Maxwell and a fourth in 2011. Frederik Modin was not that effective in Atlanta, so he was sent to Calgary for a seventh rounder in 2011. Bergfors (another Kovalchuk return) and Rissmiller were sent to Florida for Radek Dvorak and a 2011 fifth rounder. Again, the Thrashers faded down the stretch to finish with 80 points and that would be it in Atlanta. Winnipeg awaited.
Winnipeg? Yes. The Thrashers were bought at the end of May 2011 by True North Sports and Entertainment. True North, led by Mark Chipman and David Thomson, had the Manitoba Moose and an arena ready for a NHL team in a market hungry for a return of NHL hockey. They failed to get the Coyotes back to Winnipeg in 2009. Meanwhile, an opportunity opened for them in Atlanta in 2011. In January 2011, a lawsuit was filed among the Atlanta Spirit ownership group. It came out that Spirit were looking to sell the Thrashers over the last six seasons and sued then-former owner Steve Belkin, whose shares were bought out. It also came out that they claimed to have lost over $130 million since 2005 due to the Thrashers. The team was put up for sale shortly after. True North acted quick. The Spirit were looking to dump the Thrashers anyway (remember: they did not want them immediately), and so the sale was done very quickly. The Thrashers were going to move to Winnipeg as early as the 2011-12 season. The 2010-11 season would be the last in Atlanta. Just like that. No final game in Atlanta like the Rockies had in Denver in 1981. No send off or fan protest or . It was over.
The team got a brand new look, a brand new name in the Jets, a brand new logo, and a brand new front office. Dudley’s contract was bought out and Kevin Cheveldayoff would take over as GM. Craig Ramsay was let go and Claude Noel, formerly of the Moose, would be the head coach. The 2011 NHL Draft was the first set of actions taken as the Jets. They took Mark Scheifele at seventh overall, picked Adam Lowry in the third round, and found no one else that would make the NHL in any meaningful manner with their other picks. At least one tradition from Atlanta would hold for a little longer. Free agency saw a little more action. Not so much with the free market. Their biggest deal handed out was a $1.125 million deal over two seasons to Aaron Gagnon. Who? Exactly. (Kyle Wellwood at $700k turned out to be better business.) Internally, though, money was spent. Ladd received a fat, five-season, $22 million contract. Wheeler received $5.1 million over two seasons. Bogosian got about the same. The plan for 2011-12 was to basically to see what they got from Atlanta and work from there, albeit with new people in charge.
The 2011-12 season did see some positives from the squad from Atlanta. Wheeler broke out with 47 assists and 64 points to lead the team. Kane put up 30 goals and 57 points. Byfuglien put up 53 points in 66 games. Ladd added 28 goals and 50 points. Wellwood surprisingly put up 47 points. The defense was tighter under Noel, which had to have been good for the goalies. The not-so-positives: Antropov only put up 35 points, Enstrom fell to just 33 points, 2010 first rounder Alexander Burmistrov was struggling, and the goaltending was not so good. Pavelec posted a 90.6% save percentage in 68 games and Mason finished below 90% at 89.8% in 20 games. New name, same problem: giving up a lot of goals and not scoring nearly enough to overcome it. The Jets finished 2011-12 at 37-35-10 at 84 points, just behind Tampa Bay in a tiebreaker situation. Still missed the playoffs by eight points. (By the way: Winnipeg would be in the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference for this and next season. Re-alignment took place after that.)
Cheveldayoff saw this result and figured, well, not to change a ton. The 2012 NHL Draft would prove fruitful as they picked Jacob Trouba at ninth overall and found Connor Hellebuyck in the fifth round. The GM also moved a conditional seventh rounder in 2013 to Toronto for Jonas Gustavsson - which meant nothing to the Jets as he would sign with Detroit in free agency. Hence, Cheveldayoff signed Al Montoya as goaltender depth among bigger contracts given to Alexei Ponikarovsky (one season, $1.8 million) and Olli Jokinen (two seasons, $9 million). Mason was at least gone. Cheveldayoff opted to spend much more money keeping the players he had on the team. Wellwood got a raise to $1.6 million. Pavelec was given $19.5 million over five seasons. Jim Slater somehow got three seasons for $4.8 million. Tobias Enstrom was given a $28.75 million contract extension for five seasons. The biggest deal went to Evander Kane: six seasons for $31.5 million. Clearly, Cheveldayoff liked the core he got from Atlanta.
The lockout shortened season would see the Jets be on the playoff bubble throughout the 48-game season. Ladd went off with an 18-goal, 46 point season; Wheeler scored 19 goals and 41 points; and Kane racked up 17 goals and 33 points. Little and Byfuglien chipped in over 20 points. The remainder was not as productive, although Enstrom did only play in 22 games due to injury. Jokinen and Ponikarovsky did not add much; Ponikarovsky would be sent back to New Jersey for a seventh rounder in 2013 and a fourth rounder in 2014. Pavelec (90.5 Sv%) and Montoya (89.9 Sv%) were not much better than Pavelec and Mason last season. The result was another season of scoring a decent amount and allowing far too much. The difference was that this team was truly close to making the playoffs. They finished with a 24-21-3 record for 51 points. They missed out by four points. Alas.
Cheveldayoff decided to be a bit more aggressive in the 2013 offseason to improve the squad. He sent a third and fifth in 2013 to Chicago for Michael Frolik. He sent a second in 2014 to Minnesota for Devin Setoguchi. At the 2013 NHL Draft, the team would pick Josh Morrissey, Nic Petan, Eric Comrie, Andrew Copp, and Tucker Poolman for the future. But, again, the main theme of the Cheveldayoff Era continued with another year of expensive contracts handed out to Thrashers who followed the team to Winnipeg. Wheeler got a huge, six season $33.6 million contract. Bogosian topped that in terms of gross total with a $36 million, seven season contract. Little got a big $23.5 million deal over five seasons. Even Grant Clitsome got a seven-figure deal with a three-season, $6.2 million contract. Montoya was also resigned, a good thing as Montoya would have a great season did.
Oh, the Jets are now in the Western Conference in the Central Division. This would be a problem in 2013-14. The Central Division was very, very strong that season. The Jets would need to be in great form to keep up. They did not. They were not necessarily bad, but they were breaking around even when they needed to excel. In January, Cheveldayoff decided to make a change. At 19-23-5 and after a five game losing streak, Claude Noel was fired. His replacement: straight from the KHL and loaded with NHL and AHL experience, Paul Maurice. The move worked initially as the Jets won four straight and went into the All Star Break back in the playoff picture. Only to fade out in March and ultimately miss the playoffs with a record of 37-35-10 for 84 points. They missed the playoffs by 7 points. Because the Central was so strong, the Jets finished last in the division.
As far as the season itself, it was another season like the previous two in Winnipeg. A decent offense, led by Wheeler, Little, Byfuglien, and Ladd. Jokinen rebounded a bit and Frolik chiped in 42 points. Scheifele and Trouba made the team and contriubuted 34 and 29 points, respectively. Enstrom did have a down season for only 30 points. Kane put up 19 goals and 34 points in 63 games - and had some issues that warrant its own paragraph. Still, the Jets offense was around league median when it came to scoring. In terms of giving up goals, they gave up a lot. The defense was OK, Montoya posted a great 92% total save percentage in 28 games, but Pavelec struggled. He put up a 90.1% save percentage in 57 games; not what you want to see from a highly paid starting goaltender in a league where the league average was 91.1%. Oddly, Cheveldayoff made no moves during the season to change the direction of the team beyond the coaching change. So what was going to change?
How about Kane? He was developing well in Atlanta’s final two seasons and broke out with the Jets as a scorer. But he was missing games due to injury. And he was accused of assault, though there were no charges. And he ended up being a healthy scratch near the end of the season by Maurice. And Noel would discuss that he was a bit of a challenge. On the surface, it seemed like the social media star was getting a raw deal from more “traditional” fans. It would be found out that some of his own teammates were not fans of Kane. Especially Dustin Byfuglien. This would come to a head in the 2014-15 season.
Before that season took place, it was another Cheveldayoff Offseason. Draft picks yielding some players? Only one in 2014, but he would shine in the future: Nikolaj Ehlers. Not spending a lot of money on external free agents? True, though he got a little spendy giving Mathieu Perreault a three by three contract. Internal free agents? Spend, spend, spend. No huge contracts this time, but plenty of re-signings at minimal salaries. Chris Thornburn was retained for three by $3.6 million, Michael Hutchinson was given two seasons, Frolik was kept for $3.3 million, and Ehlers got an ELC right away. Cheveldayoff committed to this core he largely inhereted from Atlanta. Would a fourth time be the charm?
Yes. It would be. For 2014-15, the defense would be stingier and the goaltending would be far better. Pavelec seemingly sorted out his game and posted a great 92% save percentage in 50 games. Hutchinson took over for Montoya as his backup and posted a 91.4% save percentage. The Jets finally had a season where they were not in the bottom third of the league in terms of goals against. On the contrary, they gave up the ninth fewest in the NHL. The offense was mostly the same. Ladd, Wheeler, and Little led the way. Scheifele would join them with strong contributions from Frolik, Perreault, and Lowry. Byfuglien was still racking up the points, whilst Enstrom fell below 30 points and Trouba played more minutes. While October was not a good start, November, December, and January seen Winnipeg put up winning records. They were in the mix. A big change would need to be made though.
Based on this timeline of events, the best I could work out was that Kane was playing through a shoulder injury. This did not become a known issue until after he showed up in a tracksuit, which was against team rules, a few days earlier. After warming up, Byfuglien chucked the tracksuit into the shower to “send a message.” Clearly, Kane figured out he wasn’t well liked among his teammates. So he revealed his injury, he was placed on IR, he chose to have surgery, and Cheveldayoff figured enough was enough - and decided to move him.
The trade itself was massive. Remember that Cheveldayoff gave Kane and Zach Bogosian huge contracts. Kane was still a scorer; he had 10 goals and 22 points in 37 games in 2014-15. Bogosian, however, was taking on big minutes but behind Enstrom and Byfuglien. With Trouba on the come up, I think the GM figured it was best to move on from him too. So Cheveldayoff packaged Kane, Bogosian, and Jason Kasdorf to Buffalo for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, and a first round pick in 2015. This trade did not harm the Jets. They finished February at 3-2-2 and went on to go 8-6-0 in March. Stafford added 9 goals and 19 assists in 26 games, and Myers took over Bogosian’s minutes. With the Jets competing for a playoff spot, Cheveldayoff made the rare decision to make some other moves before the deadline. He moved late picks for Jiri Tlusty from Carolina and swapped Carl Klingberg to New York for journeyman Lee Stempniak. The Jets kept on flying on the back of Actually Good goaltending and a solid squad. They finished the season strong with a record of 43-26-13 for 99 points. Good enough for fifth in the Central - and the second wild card in the Western Conference by four points. The Jets have finally made the playoffs. The franchise ended its drought since 2007, which featured a tear down driven in part by an ownership group that didn’t care, a new set of owners moved them within a Summer from Georgia to Manitoba, and extended by a GM that kept the core and kept rolling with the same group until choosing well with Maurice and the goalies variation seemingly lucked into a good season.
The playoff run was short and brutal. Anaheim swept them. And the Jets fell back for another two seasons until the emergence of Connor Hellebuyck, Nikolaj Ehlers, and the picks of Patrik Laine (2016 first rounder) and Kyle Connor (2015 first rounder). Somehow, Maurice would be the coach and Cheveldayoff would be the GM throughout it all. And this elevation yielded just three playoff appearances in the last five seasons. Even the neo Jets are as mid as the original franchise.
Any Other Thoughts: The Jets may have “made it” with Atlanta’s core, but the whole process of getting into the playoffs was delayed by sticking to it while rolling the dice on goaltending and not moving the needle really on offense. Maurice did a good job to get as much as he could out of them that Noel could not. The Atlanta portion of this drought was sad and the issues with Spirit likely tied Waddell’s hands up; although, I wonder how things would have been different if Dudley and Ramsay came in earlier. The Jets portion makes me wonder how Kevin Cheveldayoff still has a job. He locked up his guys and watched them stay in place until Pavelec and his backup played exceptional hockey. It took Kane being a problem in the locker room to adjust that core. I wonder how a different, more aggressive or creative GM would have done. Maybe these Jets would have a better fate than their previous incarnation. Alas.
Your Take So Far
This is the last of the teams posts. There was a lot to cover. Two massive droughts in Toronto and Atlanta/Winnipeg. A short but somewhat painful time in Tampa Bay that led to Steve Yzerman’s emergence. A period of infamy in Vancouver featuring the weepy Mark Messier. A reminder that drafting one of the best players of his generation is not going to immediately turn around a team in Washington. A lot of lessons can be learned from these five teams alone.
At the least, I hope you enjoyed diving back into the various team histories of the NHL. If nothing else, it is a good way to spend the quiet part of the offseason before the real action starts up in September. I learned quite a bit myself and had some of my own preconceived notions smashed. The final part to this series will be on Sunday and will be a selection of key lessons from all 30 droughts covered that I think apply to the current New Jersey Devils. Which is the purpose of this whole series. Even if the team does not heed them, we - the People Who Matter - can recognize these lessons and use them in how we desire this team to get better from their current four-season-and-counting playoff drought.
In the meantime, what have you learned from this look back at the playoff droughts for the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, and Thrashers/Jets? What did you takeaway about those various situations in terms of how they got there and how they did (or did not) get out of them? Did I miss any important details about each of these team’s droughts that have significantly contributed to their struggle or how it ended? If so, what were they? Are you looking forward to the final part (which will be far shorter than the other six parts)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these playoff droughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.