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 compare with the other NHL teams? What can we learn from other droughts in NHL history? This is the final part of the series that looked more closely into a notable run of futility for 30 out of 32 NHL teams, so we can answer those questions more directly in this post.
This is the last of a multi-part series where I covered at a big-picture level notable playoff droughts in the histories of all active NHL franchises except for Seattle and Las Vegas. I ended up writing way more than I expected (as usual) because I eventually learned by Part 2 how crucial the context and details of transactions, personnel changes, and especially ownership issues were crucial to understand how a team went without the playoffs for three to eleven seasons were to explain these droughts. It was not as simple as: Be bad, then draft well, then be good. Not at all. There was a lot more to the stories of each franchise. Quite a few were a result of ownership related issues, be it from a lack of money, a certain direction decided upon by ownership, and, in one case, an ownership group that didn’t want the team. Others were expansion teams who languished for more than just a few seasons while others became competitive much more quickly. Others were extended by over-reactions or a lack of action in addressing the team’s issues. In this part, I want to highlight the major lessons that I took away that I think is important for hockey fans to understand. Especially the People Who Matter as the Devils are at risk of being out of the playoffs for a fifth-straight season for the second time in franchise history. A run of futility that most NHL franchises have not seen multiple times.
Ultimately, this was a project meant to dig in deeper to the larger questions I’ve received over the years that I could not answer comfortably. Is what is happening to the Devils common? How did other teams get into their droughts and get out of it? How long should a rebuild take? I don’t think I can still fully answer the last one; it does depend on the situation. However, parts 1 through 6 cover how other teams faltered and how they rose from their drought. And for the first question, historically, a lot of teams have not had what the Devils are doing twice, much less twice in a row. Check out this frequency chart of playoff droughts for all 30 teams covered in this series. (Also: this answers the second question of how this drought compares with others.)
The Playoff Drought Chart in Full
As you can see, the Devils having a drought of 5 seasons or long is not that unusual. However, only two other teams can claim of having two of them - Chicago and Our Hated Rivals - and they had one (1) run longer than five. That is unusual. Once you get beyond six seasons, the number of teams that ever had that many dwindles. (And Detroit may be the first to get past seven twice at their current rate.) The further you go, the more rare it is. Which makes Buffalo ongoing run of futility a real nightmare to behold. And this is not even noting that some franchises never have faltered for that long like Montreal, St. Louis, or even Minnesota. (I’d add San Jose but I think Mike Grier is going to have to suffer like Detroit is suffering first.)
Of course, some additional teams can claim that time has long since healed some of those long droughts. Namely Boston, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and maybe even the New York teams and Toronto.
The Index of Posts
For those who missed the earlier parts of this series, here are links to the other six. The first one goes over the approach to this series. The other five are more in-depth into those teams.
- Part 1: Introduction, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Buffalo
- Part 2: Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus
- Part 3: Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton, Florida, Los Angeles
- Part 4: Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, New York Islanders, Our Hated Rivals
- Part 5: Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis
- Part 6: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, Washington, Winnipeg
The Two Biggest Lessons to Learn
If there is anything else I want to highlight from this series that I learned and had reinforced in going through all these teams, then these two lessons are it. These are the two biggest takeaways from this series that I hope hockey fans (and other sports fans) take away from this.
1. IT REALLY DOES START FROM THE TOP: OWNERSHIP HAVING THE RIGHT DIRECTION AND PUTTING IN THE RIGHT RESOURCES IS CRUCIAL
When you think of ownership issues, then you may immediately think of what has happened in Arizona or Buffalo. Or, if you have a better memory, the issues with the Islanders in the 1990s, Pittsburgh and Ottawa in the early 2000s, or Chicago’s ascendency after Bill Wirtz passed away. These are all true. But there was many more examples of droughts that happened and/or extended where ownership involvement played a role. And it was not as simple as the owner not having money or being intentionally cheap. Just off the top of my head: Ottawa’s Eugene Melnyk was cheap and was a PR nightmare – but he also saved that franchise from moving out. Pittsburgh was saved by Lemieux but the heavy debts and arena issue led to a tear down of an otherwise competitive team to save money. MLSE’s changes on the board led to Pat Quinn being dumped for John Ferguson Jr, who was then later dumped for Brian Burke on a truculence kick, who was then later dumped for David Nonis. St. Louis’ change in ownership to Dave Checketts led to John Davidson being given the team presidency – and overruling GM Larry Pleau, which certainly did not yield immediate gains. Likewise, a power play led to an inexperienced Joe Sakic taking over as GM in Colorado – which looks great now, but absolutely was not when it happened. When Koules and Barrie owned the Lightning, deals were made to move core players who were still great and it took Barrie blocking a Vincent Lecavalier trade that eventually led to Jeff Vinik buying the team. Philadelphia missed the playoffs for a couple of seasons for the first time ever and reacted by moving heaven and earth to get Eric Lindros – who did not immediately solve the problems that, say, a slight re-tooling of the roster would have done – because Ed Snider wanted Lindros that much. The Islanders had an owner that wanted to sell, nearly got an owner who was a fraud, and then had owners who wanted to make money off the Isles and buy other teams before getting a pair of owners who actually had money and was willing to spend it. All the while, Mike Milbury was told to keep to the budget and let him trade, trade, and trade otherwise future important players away. The Thrashers became the Jets because Atlanta Spirit didn’t even want the Thrashers to begin with; which certainly played a role in the malaise the organization had after their one playoff appearance. Washington’s drought that yielded Alex Ovechkin was driven by an agreed upon decision by owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee that the team wasn’t good enough for what they were paying, so they tore it down. This is not even the full list of ownership issues involved throughout this series, but they are clear examples of how ownership issues can play a role in a team’s lack of success. That I can name several of them immediately and in various ways speaks to how involvement (or lack thereof)
It may be cliché, but it is very true in hockey. The organization’s culture and business practices are driven from the top of the organization. The owner is responsible for ensuring the organization has the resources to succeed. That means having the money and the willingness to spend it to ice a competitive team and support that team as much as possible. That means securing facilities, which is why arena issues can get tied into ownership problems that end up impacting the team on the ice. Perhaps most importantly, they must establish the leadership structure of the team and empower people accordingly. This means playing a role in terms of who is the President of the team, the GM, and being involved in other high-level personnel decisions. Even players, depending on who it is. How they (or who they delegate) establish the structure and select the right people for president, GM, and management roles will greatly impact whether a team is competitive or not. Especially if those roles are given the responsibility to hire coaches, hire support staff, and acquire players as they see fit.
Does this apply to the Devils organization? Absolutely. In the team’s longest playoff drought, the ownership of the Colorado Rockies changed hands multiple times, alternating between owners who wanted to move the team to New Jersey and others who did not – but ultimately did given their sales to the former. This killed the interest in addition to the team not being any good. This also led to ownership not willing to spend or make the effort to improve the team. After the sale to Dr. McMullen and the move to East Rutherford, the Devils were stable. But the decisions in terms of who to manage the team did not work out well and would not be resolved until Lou Lamoriello was hired and put his stamp on the team immediately. Which was rewarded with the team’s first playoff appearance and, perhaps more importantly, a clearer direction for a Devils franchise that was flailing in the Patrick Division for years prior.
The good news is that ownership does not appear to be a current concern for the Devils. Josh Harris and David Blitzer are supremely rich. While not in the public eye, they have signed off on big money acquisitions from acquiring P.K. Subban and his massive contract in a trade, signing Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes to big extensions, and giving Dougie Hamilton a massive contract in free agency among other moves on and off the ice I can name. As far as I can tell, they are not so directly involved that they are telling the GM what to do instead of letting the GM manage the squad their way. If there is a fault with HSBE, then it is in who they named to these roles. They chose Ray Shero and his staff to rebuild. Clearly, that rebuild did not end the way one hoped for back in 2015 and 2016. They chose Shero’s assistant GM, Tom Fitzgerald, to take over full-time after firing Shero. Fitzgerald has made plenty of praise-worthy moves, but the teams under him have finished among the worst records in franchise history. Jake Reynolds is the team President; however, I don’t know how involved he is in terms of on-ice matters. Short of a massive scandal for Harris and/or Blitzer, I do not see ownership as an issue beyond who they selected to manage the team. If they’re truly not meddling, then great. But that does not absolve them with their selection of Fitzgerald if the team continues to suffer in the bottom third of the NHL.
2. DO NOT BUY INTO “THE PROCESS,” THE CYCLE, ETC. NOT ALL DROUGHTS ARE THE SAME. NEITHER ARE THE RESULTS
There is a prevailing belief that a team has to blow up the roster, sell current assets for future ones, and build from there. It does happen. The Devils did so. Does it have to happen? No. Not at all. And it does not have to be for a specific length of time either. Anyone who tells, argues, preaches, or demands this is not worth your time. They do not know what they are talking about. If anything, it excuses bad management. And this is not a fan-only thinking. Even hockey management believes this – or at least enough to try to rationalize why the team stinks for years under their command. Once again, here’s the Kevin Lowe clip. He knows something about winning. He knew little about building a winner.
The statements by Craig MacTavish and Lowe are telling in that we have two clear, undeniable Hockey Men™ in Actual Power of a Professional Hockey Team explaining away the sad state of the Oilers’ affairs. It’s something I expect to hear from a fan at a game or on Twitter or on a forum or a blog like this one, not someone who can actually do something about it. And it is not even true. They didn’t end up in the desert of playoff-less hockey because of the “price they paid in the past.” The video was from 2013. If they paid the price, it was for a 2006 Cup run seven seasons earlier. Yes, it stunk that Chris Pronger wanted out. A good management team would be able to figure out a Plan B and mitigate that loss. Especially seven seasons later from that nevermind the 1980s or 1990s. And especially after multiple seasons of high draft picks, free agency periods, and opportunities to make trades. Yes, you cannot predict injuries (many teams) or locker room issues (e.g. Karlsson-Hoffman in Ottawa, Kane in Winnipeg and San Jose) or players underperforming or wanting out (e.g. Bure in Vancouver, Jagr in Washington). You still have to deal with it to put a competitive team on the ice like all of the other teams in the NHL. That’s part of the job of being a GM. That’s life, really. And, yet, fans, broadcasters, pundits, and even people in hockey management spew this rationalization. It now reads and sounds to me more like a coping mechanism.
Three modern examples in favor of this thinking are Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington. Pittsburgh and Chicago did draft their core with a run of high picks, which are unlikely to be repeated given the changes to the draft lottery. But, to reference Ben Massey, they did not draft Crosby/Kane/Ovechkin and BAM Stanley Cup. Those organizations had to do a lot more to get out of the basement and back into the playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s case, they had their drought as a result of previous ownership not having the money to fund the team, Lemieux and Burkle picked up the pieces, and had to go cheap while negotiating for a new arena – one that had a legitimate threat of leaving if they did not get one. Chicago was in their position as a result of a cheap, behind-the-times owner literally passing on and replaced by a more forward-thinking and aggressive owner. Washington. What’s more is that those teams were not just their drafted stars and a bunch of dudes. All three did not skimp on getting veteran players and role players to support the drafted core. Especially Chicago, given how young that group still was in 2010. They did not stay with coaches or personnel if better could be had. Even if things improved with Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh fired him for Dan Bylsma. Even if things improved under Denis Savard, Chicago found a new level under the now-disgraced Joel Quenneville. Washington would not have found their holy grail until they eventually hired Barry Trotz. Their GMs managed some tight gaps and had to find ways to stay competitive, whether it was finding a diamond in the rough with late draft picks, developing players to needed roles in their system (Tampa Bay is a current example of this succeeding), and leaning on pro scouts and analysts to identify the players they need to succeed and GMs willing to go get those players. Chicago may be in a rebuilding mode now, but they remained relevant for over a decade. Pittsburgh and Washington may not be getting any younger and yet they are still racking up triple-digit point seasons and being players in the playoffs. Those three are examples of good management making the team good; not just drafting well. If drafting well was all it took, then we should be talking about the 2000s dynasty of the New York Islanders.
Of course, the best example against success being cyclical or a result of a process of intentional failure are the Boston Bruins. Ever since an eight-season drought in the 1960s, the B’s missed the playoffs just seven times since then. Sure, there have been some mediocre seasons where the playoff structure allowed for mediocre or worse teams to get into the postseason. There have also been periods of being a contender. Even with criticism of drafts and other management decisions, the Bruins have not had a significant drought in five decades and counting. It is a result of getting the right people to manage the team, ownership supporting those people, and constantly re-tooling instead of settling with a squad (something the neo-Jets were/are guilty of, among others). They are the living proof against the idea that a team goes through periods of failure and periods of success. They are a current example that, no, a team does not have to suffer for an extended period of time to be a contender or even just a playoff team.
I repeat: There is no rule that a team has to be bad after being good for a while. Or that being bad for a while will mean they’ll be good in the future. Management of the salary cap, the roster, the draft, etc. can lead to droughts. As does ownership issues and other factors that can impact a team’s direction. They can even extend droughts; just look at poor Buffalo. And in the cases of those who got out of them, it took multiple decisions by management beyond just getting a bunch of prospects to develop to end them. There is no time limit for how any of it goes. There is no five-year plan or x-year plan or set length of time that futility can last. Again, Buffalo is still enduring the longest playoff drought in NHL history. Unsuccessful management, especially with ownership issues, will do that. More perceptive and thoughtful management (and some luck) will make droughts very short, if at all. That’s the truth. It all has to be decided upon and formed by management, it just doesn’t happen at a given point after some good to great drafts and a reformed roster. The Process, the cycle, the “you have to pay the price for past success” concept is not a guarantee. It is a mistake to think so. It simply isn’t so and NHL history shows that. I almost want to just link to this video the next time I read something to that effect.
Does this apply to the Devils? Absolutely. Take whatever Tom Fitzgerald says with a grain of salt when goes on about “pillars” (what he calls the core players of the team) and trying to make the team better. Focus on the actions and results, instead. And, again, I note that for all of the rebuilding, the Devils have yet to actually get the results they presumably intended to get. If you want to disagree, then I suggest looking at the records before raising your disagreement.
Other Lessons to Takeaway
I learned plenty of other things in this series that I think hold value for Devils and hockey fans alike.
MAKING THE PLAYOFFS IS NOW AN ACHIEVEMENT AND SHOULD BE SEEN AS SUCH.
Back in the 1980s with a 21-team NHL, it was common for average or below average teams to make the 16-team playoff. You just had to be fourth or better in a division of four to six teams. As the NHL expanded, the overall talent pool got deeper and stronger, and the rewards for games changed, being an average team has not been enough to make the postseason. 50% or 55% point percentage teams rarely get in, if at all in these modern times. You need a team to earn over 90 points, even 100, to get in these modern times. Accordingly, making the playoffs should be seen as an achievement.
Even if a team is not a contender, getting into the playoffs is a vital step forward to becoming one. Some teams have made up some massive gaps in points from season to season (see: Colorado), but getting into the playoffs after a drought is an actual event that a team and fanbase can (and does!) appreciate. And making it one time just ends a drought. Getting to the playoffs in the following season is not a guarantee, even with largely the same team (see: the current Jets, Columbus’ breaking of their drought, the Devils). That speaks to how challenging it is to qualify for a playoff spot now compared to what it was 40 years ago. I can understand older fans who grew up with the older systems thinking that it isn’t so with all of the mediocre and worse teams getting into the playoffs. Those times have changed, though, and so should perceptions about making the playoffs.
In the earlier days of this blog, a common lament I would get is how the Devils needed to go on a run. A frustration was building for a team that was very good in the regular season but bowed out of the playoffs in the first or second round. I get it. I wanted a Cup too. If I could tell younger me what I know now, then I would share a whole lot of things. With respect to the Devils, I would tell younger me to appreciate the playoff appearances as it is a whole lot better than not making it at all. This lesson absolutely applies to the Devils.
THE CUP IS THE GOAL – BUT NOT OFTEN ACHIEVED RIGHT AFTER A DROUGHT ENDING, IF AT ALL.
Sometimes, the playoff drought for a team could provide the means for future success. The key word is sometimes. Yes, droughts provided the players for Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington that ultimately played key roles for their Cup wins. Only that Pittsburgh and Chicago certainly did not get it right away and it took Washington over a decade to get into the Finals, drawing a supremely unlikely opponent in the expansion Golden Knights in 2018. In the case of Washington (and maybe even St. Louis in 2019), the amount of time between the run of failing and the ultimate success is large enough such that many other management decisions since then – drafts, free agents, trades, off-ice personnel – had to have played a significant role in those championship teams being formed. This absolutely applies to the New Jersey Devils. It is true that some players from the dark days of the 1980s were a part of that 1995 team, with Ken Daneyko and John MacLean playing valuable positions among others. But it took Lou; a heap of coaching changes before settling on Jacques Lemaire; a slew of moves that added Claude Lemieux, Stephane Richer, Neal Broten; some good to great draft classes; Martin Brodeur’s ascendency in 1994; Toronto being terrible for a 1991 first round pick to become third overall for Scott Niedermayer; St. Louis tampering with Brendan Shanahan that led to Stevens being picked; and other valuable decisions that formed the 1995 Cup winning team. It was not as simple as “team was bad for nine seasons, then they got better.”
Further, for some organizations, some droughts ended with a better hockey team – but not one with the Cup. Columbus, Calgary, Atlanta/Winnipeg, Florida, and Philadelphia certainly have not done this after their respective droughts. There is no guarantee it will happen for Buffalo, Ottawa, Anaheim, or San Jose when it ends. The argument that a team needs to miss out for a future run at the Cup may have been more applicable in a six-team NHL with four playoff teams. It is far less so now, especially given how tough it is to make the playoffs. And you need to be in the playoffs to have a chance at winning one, of course. I recommend fans focus on the team getting to that point before worrying about what they could or could not do in the playoffs they have not yet qualified.
By the way, between the second big lesson and this one, I have to write: No, it’s not necessarily true that a team has to be bad first before they can win future prizes, ultimately the Stanley Cup.
YOU CANNOT JUST DRAFT YOUR WAY INTO SUCCESS ALONE (OR INTO FAILURE).
You can absolutely draft the core that leads a team success. You can draft the generational player(s) to take the team to the next level in time. You can draft the players to help support the team’s depth down the line. I recommend that a team does all that. Poor drafts can catch up to a team and hurt the cause of keeping the team competitive or building them up. What can’t be done is that a team cannot just draft well and get good on that alone. The Islanders under Milbury drafted quite well. Very well in some years. However, what made Isles fans gnash their teeth, was that Milbury acquired great young talent or drafted it – and moved them out either to make a budget or chase some other player that would end up not being as good. The Isles drafted well amid their drought – and it did not really help them get out of it. As a counter example, look to the Calgary Flames. The Flames have drafted poorly throughout their playoff drought (and in general, their drafts have often stunk). But they rose up out of their drought through their many trades and signings working out. It is not easy, but it can be done. For a less extreme example, the Nashville Predators struggled to attack amid their expansion-driven drought. They did not draft a high end talented scorer in those years. They eventually got out of their drought – and never drafted the scorer they still needed. It is valuable to draft well and ultimately a plus. But it alone is not going to save or doom the team. I mean, Calgary did get out of their situation.
For the Devils, this is another applicable lesson. There is reason to be excited about the team’s prospect pool. It is better than what it was a decade ago. As a result of being out of the playoffs in every season except one since 2013, the Devils have a wealth of talented players of all kinds under the age of 25. Of course, time is marching on, and those young players picked in 2014 through 2016 are aging out of that designation. That the Devils have remained out of the playoffs in every season except one since 2013 is a great example about how drafting alone will not make a team much better. Even if the players picked are first line centers or future blueline leaders and so forth; the current Devils are proof that it alone is not enough to put a competitive team on the ice. That requires management being good enough to make good decisions for free agency, trades, and off-ice personnel. At the least the good drafts (or the perceived to be good drafts) can help with that and that it is not a hindrance for putting a competitive team on the ice.
BAD GOALTENDING CAN SINK A TEAM. SO CAN A BAD OFFENSE. AND A BAD DEFENSE. YOU NEED ALL OF IT TO BE AT LEAST SOMEWHAT DECENT TO SUCCEED.
The current Devils know all too well how important it is to have good goaltending. Several of the teams’ droughts covered had goaltenders who were just not up to league average in their respective eras. Some teams tried to move on from them, such as Toronto’s infamous attempts with Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala. Others just stuck with them for reasons I do not quite understand; such as Washington sticking with Olaf Kolzig despite moving out their other veterans. So there is evidence that good goaltending absolutely helps and plenty of droughts feature bad goaltending.
However, what surprised me was that a lot of those droughts also featured some teams with really lackluster offenses and defenses. Sometimes teams with poor goaltending and production. Florida had very good goaltending with Roberto Luongo during his tenure of their drought, and the defense just got blasted such that a 92+% was not good enough to keep the team from bleeding goals. Plenty of teams had offenses that finished below the league median and often hit near bottom. Even in the “dead puck” era, you still need to score to win and turn those one or one and ENG goal losses into overtime or wins. If you want a team to get better, more needs to be done than just get good goaltending and hope that alone has enough. Remember: The Rangers ended their drought not just with Henrik Lundqvist coming into the NHL and being a star right away, but with Lundqvist and an offense led by a near-MVP season by Jaromir Jagr too.
Obviously, this applies to the Devils and this is the area that I think Fitzgerald is struggling with. Moves have been made to address the goaltending, but they clearly have not worked out for reasons in and out of the team’s control. But more needs to be done with the production of goals. Sure, health would be great; but that’s an issue for every team to deal with. The Devils’ power play in recent seasons have been abysmal. The team’s depth in scoring and winger play has needed improvement. If the Devils need to be at or near 100% health to have a competent amount of offense and a defense to support the goaltenders, then it is not likely going to be good enough. If both gets better, then the Devils should have a better record. If not, then the drought continues.
PERSPECTIVE IS A GOOD THING - AND CAN AVOID A LOT OF PAIN.
It is very easy to try to rationalize a season or two ending at Game #82 instead of the playoffs. Some of it makes sense. Injuries are out of one’s control. The structure of the playoffs or the division or conference may not be favorable. However, there is a huge difference between missing the playoffs by fewer than 10 points and missing it by more than 20. It is important for all – owners included – to recognize that missing it by a small margin is still progress and not necessarily the sign of needing to treat it like a big rebuild and requiring massive changes. This was especially the case for Philadelphia, who barely missed the playoffs in four out of the five-season long drought and still treated it like it was a need to rebuild. Which did not really improve their overall position. They were a consistent playoff team with an occasional playoff run before that drought and they were a consistent playoff team with an occasional playoff run after that drought. A little perspective from the Sniders could have avoided some pain.
This also means not falling in love with a core and hoping they do just enough to get in, which was featured in the current Winnipeg Jets’ drought; and honestly assessing and addressing the problems with the team (e.g. Toronto, Washington, Carolina for most of their failing run) instead of just changing other parts of the team for good or bad. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about whether a GM should be fired as a team struggles. Some have changed and it turned out for the better. Others changed and it turned out for the worse – leading to another change. Others didn’t change at all. However, in several of these droughts, I kept wondering how come those involved then what I could see just by looking at season results now. Having an honest perspective will help lead to better decisions by management or at least fewer rash ones that could end up causing more trouble than it is worth.
In the case of the current Devils, their drought has not had them miss the playoffs by a little bit. They missed it by a lot. While it is possible to make up over 30 points between two seasons, it is difficult. It is hard to believe they can make such a jump short of everything going the Devils’ way from health to fortune to streaks and so forth. Other organizations would not have been so patient given the Devils’ current situation after spending eight of the last nine seasons outside of the playoffs. We shall see if ownership being patient is a sign of a more measured take at the bigger picture or turns out to be another error in judgment.
THERE IS VALUE IN HISTORY.
The old cliché is that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. There is a little more to it than just knowing what happened in the past. Recognizing what other teams have struggled with and the mistakes they made can help lead one to make decisions to avoid those mistakes and mitigate those struggles. The NHL has underwent a lot of changes in its century-plus history. It is tempting to say that the NHL of 2022 is so different from what it was in the 1960s through 2004 that it does not matter much what happened there. While I tended to pick more contemporary examples of playoff droughts to at least acknowledge the real constraint of the salary cap, there was plenty of common failings – sources and symptoms - in sports management in the past. An owner that does not want to spend or cannot spend held teams back even in the six-team era. Drafting and developing players has become crucial, but it was an inefficiency that teams took advantage of in the past. Decisions to name former players or retread personnel for GM and coaching roles can and has blown up on teams then as it can today. Just look at Detroit’s drought in the 1970s for an example of that. Or whenever Mike Keenan joined a team post-Manhattan. Or Toronto dumping Ferguson for Brian Burke. The larger point is that looking back at the wealth of history among the different NHL franchises can help one understand that what is happening to the Devils may become unique in terms of length but not at all unique in what their issues are. Many other teams have struggled with poor goaltending, lackluster offenses, bad coaches, and GMs that make good on-paper decisions that do not end up good on the ice too. Learning what happened to them and how they get out of it may provide something more reasonable to hope for with the Devils than just be better. It can also avoid clownish takes like needing to be bigger or tougher; the Brian Burke Leafs alone showed there’s no winning in truculence.
HOCKEY IS ULTIMATELY A RESULTS-ORIENTED BUSINESS.
The whole reason why fans, broadcasts, talking heads, and so forth debate, argue, discuss, worry, and wish as much as we do for our teams is to achieve a later goal of being successful team. Why do we want our team to draft well? To have young players on relatively cheap deals and develop them to become contributors in the future to help win hockey games. Why do we get anxious for free agency? Because whoever the GM signs will be called upon to help the team win hockey games. And whoever is gone may hurt that cause. Why do we lament bad coaching, bad special teams, bad players, etc.? Because it keeps the team from winning games. Why do teams spend as much as they do for players, coaches, analytics experts, managers, trainers, etc.? To help directly and indirectly win games. All of this plays a role in winning games. Even with acknowledging that the organization will need time to do that, there needs to be a clear pathway for winning games in the future.
Accordingly, this is why these droughts can be painful, even if they are just three seasons long. It can and has caused GMs and other front office personnel to be fired. It has led to coaches and their staffs being fired. It has led to players being traded away or not brought back. It can ultimately waste excellent seasons by players when they are younger and have less mileage on the body. It can even lead to fans giving up on the team and potential fans to not give the team even a chance to learn to like them. There is a real human cost in being an unsuccessful period in a sports world where time is limited enough as-is (players get older/more injured, the game changes, etc.) and entertainment options are vast (fans can more easily ignore the local team than ever before). This is why it is important that long-standing droughts need to be ended sooner rather than later. And the histories of other teams, contemporary and otherwise, show that it can and has been done.
This is also why I really do think the 2022-23 Devils have to be a whole lot better than the last two seasons; otherwise Lindy Ruff and/or Tom Fitzgerald are in trouble. As Mike wrote around the time Part 1 went up, it is indeed difficult to believe that this season will be different after the last two. I want it to be different. I really would not like another lost season in Newark. I would prefer Ruff and/or Fitzgerald to not get canned for continuing to fail to put a competitive team on the ice. I take no joy in the thought of it happening. Such a change, even justified, would mean that the Devils will have new people in charge with their own direction, their own ideas, and their own leeway to extend the current drought to improve the team they see fit. And if they can do it, then they would be proven right to do so even if it means more years wasted in the process and leads to a sub-optimal position for the organization. Again, hockey’s a results-oriented business. But I would not like HSBE to have to take a third crack at it if the current regime can get it done. This is why I firmly believe the pressure is on in Newark.
ONE LAST THING, THEY SHOULD KNOW BETTER AND YET…
One of the common messages I keep reading here and elsewhere online ends up being a smug appeal to authority. Something like “They’re NHL scouts, so they would know better than us.” Or “They have experience and you don’t, so what do you know?” Or “You’re just a fan/blogger/complainer/negative person, you’re not in charge – they are.” Among the People Who Matter, there is a fascinating devotion to Tom Fitzgerald and/or Lindy Ruff despite the fact that the Fitzgerald’s two seasons as GM and Ruff’s two seasons as head coach has been awful. I would imagine there is a similar, vocal section of the fanbase that likes what management is doing regardless of whether it has been good or not. OK.
I would love to agree with the sentiment. Those in a GM position should know better than the common fan. They have assistant GMs, analytics personnel, front office personnel, alumni, the head coach, the head coach’s staff, a scouting department, the players themselves, and many others to help them make decisions about the organization. They have access to information, data (including interpolations and models), and personnel and personal knowledge that you and I likely do not have and may never have to assist in their decision-making process. They presumably have the backing of ownership, either directly or indirectly through a team president or ownership board. A GM should be able to make far better decisions than you and I should be able to do with respect to the organization.
And yet, when I was writing up surface-level views of 30 teams and notable playoff droughts that they have, I was constantly wondering “What in the world were they thinking?” How could some teams not recognize that an offense finishing, say, 25th in Goals For needs more than draft picks developing and minimal signings to boost it up? How could some teams recognize that a team with two goalies posting overall save percentages of 90% or worse were holding the team back? How could some teams be so quick to move on from some players but less so with other players? How could some be so aggressive with moves to a fault and others be so passive that one wonders if ownership told them that they could only re-sign players (looking at you, Cheveldayoff)? How could some teams keep a GM through most of their tough times without seemingly realizing the GM’s actions and inactions were a reason why they were there? Sure, I have the benefit of hindsight. But I am pretty sure that being in the bottom five in GF and GA in a given season on top of missing the playoffs by 20 or more points does not need a lot of digging to know if the team as built was good or not. Even without current knowledge, I really do think some of the team’s droughts I wrote up did not need to be as long as the droughts ended up becoming.
I actually agree that the Hockey People™ should know more than you and I. They have access to so much more. That some have failed, are failing, and will fail significantly enough that you and I can point out the issues and even point to some solutions general (e.g. fix the goaltending) or more specific (e.g. trade for goalie X) should remove the mystique of being a GM or working in the front office of a team. They may be the authority, but by no means are they special or should be trusted without unless they have proven as such. And even that does not last forever either. If you’re unsure about that, then I ask you to watch the Kevin Lowe clip again and then tell me how he (and MacTavish) just knows better than you and I just like he knew something about winning.
This series would have not been possible without the archived information at Hockey Reference, HockeyDB, Elite Prospects, NHL Trade Tracker, and even Wikipedia pages with their links to notable news and events (some of which has expired). I want to thank everyone who has read some or all of this series so far. You know what major takeaways I have from this series. What did you learn from the various teams discussed in this series? What are the most applicable lessons of these for the Devils? Will the Devils heed some of these lessons? Did any of your misconceptions changed like they did for me? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this series in the comments. Thank you for reading.