Down Goes Brown: Ranking NHL’s ‘can’t-win-the-big-one’ all stars

The Capitals fans are out to prove they can provide just as "special atmosphere" as in Vegas, and players are definitely feeling the buzz being back in Washington for Game's 3 and 4.

Alex Ovechkin has heard it for just about his entire NHL career: He can’t win the big one.

Sure, he can rack up the stats and personal accolades during the regular season, winning Rocket Richards and Hart Trophies almost at will. But when it’s all on the line, either in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics, he can’t get it done. Everyone knows it. He’s basically the NHL’s poster child for coming up small when it matters most.

But now, Ovechkin has finally led the Capitals to the final, and he’s three wins away from a championship. He and the Caps will have their work cut out for them against the Golden Knights, but they’ve defied expectations all spring. And if they do pull it off and Ovechkin gets his skate with the Cup, the NHL’s can’t-win-the-big-one squad will need a new leader.

So today, let’s run through the rest of the NHL and figure out which players are in the best position to take over Ovechkin’s role as the star player who just doesn’t have what it takes to earn a ring. As it turns out, there are plenty of candidates. We’ll count down 10 options.

10. Patrick Marleau, Maple Leafs

Marleau’s name doesn’t come up all that often in these discussions, partly because he seems like such a nice guy. But the reality is that he’s now 20 seasons into his career and is still chasing his first championship. Most of that time was spent with the Sharks, a team that’s established a reputation for falling short of expectations in the post-season. This year, Marleau made the jump to the Maple Leafs in what some saw as an attempt to get closer to that elusive ring, only to see San Jose go further into the post-season than Toronto did.

Marleau’s playoff numbers are reasonably good, down only slightly from his regular-season production, and he’s at least played in a final. But with over 1,500 career games played without ever winning the sport’s ultimate prize, he has to be on our list.

9. Pekka Rinne, Predators

There are a couple of goaltenders who’ll rank higher on our list than Rinne, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But the Predators’ star is well worth a mention, even on the heels of what figures to be a Vezina-winning season.

Rinne has had some very good playoff runs in his 10-season career, including last year’s trip to the final that saw him post a .930 save percentage. But others have been decidedly average, and he’s coming off a rough 2018 run that ended in disaster, with him yanked from Game 7 against the Jets after giving up two softies in just over 10 minutes. That’s the kind of performance that creates questions even after an excellent season, and it will be interesting to see how much confidence the Predators still have in their suddenly beleaguered star.

8. Maybe nobody?

Hear me out. Maybe the whole “He can’t win the big one” narrative was fatally flawed from the start, not just for Ovechkin but for everyone it was ever applied to. And maybe instead of looking for an heir apparent for Ovechkin’s crown, we should use his appearance in the final as an excuse to drop the whole concept altogether.

There’s a case to be made that this all makes at least some sense in other sports. In the NBA, one player really can singlehandedly change a team’s fortunes, as we’re seeing right now, and that might make it OK to point out the star basketball players who haven’t managed to lead a team to a championship. In the NFL, where quarterbacks have so much control over the game’s outcome, the “can’t win the big one” label could be fair game for Dan Marino or Tony Romo or (for a time) Peyton Manning.

But hockey? Hockey is the ultimate team game. We tell ourselves that all the time, especially at this time of year. It’s the hardest trophy to win in all of sports; it takes 20 men to lift it, and all of that. But then when a player like Ovechkin comes along, we expect him to be able to win or lose a Cup all by himself. It doesn’t make sense.

What changed about Ray Bourque that finally let him win a Cup at the age of 40 after two decades of falling short? It wasn’t his character or his effort level or his commitment. It was his team! He orchestrated a trade to a better team, with better players around him. Add in a few clutch goals and a little bit of luck, and he’s getting the Cup from Joe Sakic while everybody cries.

It worked for Bourque. It never quite did for Jarome Iginla, or Marcel Dionne, or Gilbert Perreault, or the Sedins. That’s life. But it shouldn’t be seen as a mark against any of those players, just like it shouldn’t for Ovechkin or whoever else. So let’s knock it off.

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7. Steven Stamkos, Lightning

Stamkos is a relatively new addition to the discussion, largely because he still has so much of his career ahead of him. Still, it’s hard to deny that he’s beginning to gain a reputation as a playoff disappointment. He’s been part of some excellent teams in Tampa, and has been to the conference finals on three occasions. He came within two wins of a Cup in 2015. But so far, no ring. (And thanks to an ill-timed injury, no Olympic gold either.)

What’s worse is that unlike some players on our list, Stamkos really has put up sub-par numbers in the post-season. He’s scored at a rate of 0.52 goals-per-game in the regular season, but that plummets to 0.33 in the playoffs. And the numbers get worse when the stakes are highest — Stamkos has appeared in a half-dozen Game 7 showdowns in his career without recording a point. That includes the Lightning’s loss to Ovechkin and the Capitals this year, in what could end up feeling like the passing of an unwanted torch.

It still seems too early to slap the “can’t win” label on the 28-year-old Stamkos, but others are at least trying it on for size. At the very least, it’s a situation that could start to wear on the Tampa star if the Lightning can’t break through over the next few years.

6. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers

Other than Ovechkin, there’s a solid case to be made that Lundqvist is the most-accomplished active player without a Cup. He’s done just about everything a goaltender can do over the course of his 13 seasons in New York, including win a Vezina. If his career ended today, he’d be an easy call as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But he still hasn’t won a championship, despite coming agonizingly close in 2014. Right now, it’s an open question whether he’ll get another shot, as the Rangers embark on a rebuild that the 36-year-old Lundqvist says he’s willing to ride out. It’s looking more and more like he could end his career by assuming Curtis Joseph’s spot as the best goaltender to never win a Stanley Cup. That means he pretty much has to be in the conversation.

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5. It should probably just be “nobody”

Really, what are we even doing here? Henrik Lundqvist can’t win the big one? The guy has an Olympic gold medal and is at least in the conversation as the greatest Game 7 goalie the NHL has ever seen. If he has to be in the conversation, maybe the conversation is a bad idea.

Let’s go back to Ovechkin, and compare the numbers to the perception. Since he broke into the league in 2005–06, Ovechkin ranks third in playoff goals scored, trailing only Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He’s passed five players on that list this spring, including Marleau, Henrik Zetterberg and Patrick Kane. And that’s despite never having been out of the second round until this year. On a goals-per-game basis, no player in the cap era with at least 50 playoff games under his belt scores as often in the post-season as Ovechkin does.

And it’s not like he’s just picking his spots. He scored in his very first playoff game. He scored twice in his first series-clinching win. He had that famous duelling hat tricks game with Crosby, and had five goals and 10 points in the fateful 2010 series against the Canadiens that still somehow seemed to seal his reputation. Admittedly, his Game 7 numbers haven’t been great, but they’re not bad, and he had the winning goal against the Lightning this year.

And that’s the goal people will latch onto, because we’re supposed to believe that something changed for Ovechkin this year. He adjusted his approach, or upped his effort level, or “figured it out,” whatever that means, and that’s why this year was different.

We love those redemption stories. But maybe they’re all nonsense. We might have to accept that Ovechkin was always a good player, just like all the guys on this list are good players, but that we’re so addicted to this one particular narrative that we force it on whoever comes closest to fitting it, even if we know it doesn’t really work. It all feels kind of disingenuous. Maybe we should just stop.

4. Rick Nash, Bruins

Nash has played for three teams and will likely join a fourth this summer, but has yet to shake his reputation as a playoff underperformer. This year didn’t help; he managed three goals and five points in a dozen playoff games with Boston, which likely isn’t what the Bruins were looking for when they coughed up a first-round pick to rent him for the stretch run.

Nash’s lack of production in the post-season has been the source of debate for years. Some point to his underlying numbers, which would suggest that he’s a good player who’s had some bad luck at the worst times — for example, his shot rate remains pretty much unchanged in the playoffs, and he’s led the league in post-season shots twice in his career. Others see him as a classic case of a guy who can’t score when the games get tighter, settling for non-threatening shots from the perimeter instead of paying the price for dirty goals.

As always, the truth is likely somewhere in between. But at 34, Nash is running out of time to prove his critics wrong.

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3. Roberto Luongo, Panthers

We’ll give Luongo the edge over Lundqvist in the goaltending battle, for a couple of reasons. First, Luongo is older, and therefore presumably closer to the end of his career. And while Lundqvist’s playoff track record is mostly strong, Luongo did have that infamous wobble against the Bruins late in the 2011 final. That left him one win shy of a ring, and he hasn’t been close since.

Still, Luongo has won a gold medal as Team Canada’s starter, and he’s had some strong post-season runs. He’s already fourth in career wins, and will likely pass Eddie Belfour for third spot next season, so suggesting he’s now a winner seems harsh. Mix in one more playoff win back in 2011, and we’re not even having this conversation. But that win didn’t happen, and hockey can be a cruel game, so here we are.

2. We really should be going with “nobody”

Sure, there’s something psychologically satisfying about pointing to a player — especially a big star with a monster contract and a mantle full of individual awards — and assigning their lack of team success to some sort of critical character flaw. It gives the hero a personal challenge to overcome, complete with a dramatic real-world deadline for doing it (which would explain why we love it so much when a guy like Bourque finally gets his Cup in his very last game).

And if the player has been slotted into something closer to a villain’s role, even better, since the can’t-win label lets the audience feel like there’s a sense of justice in the world that keeps the undeserving from winning out in the end. In a sport that increasingly feels unpredictable to the point of being almost random, it’s comforting to think that some players don’t win because they just don’t want it badly enough. It’s not hard to understand why fans like to talk about the game this way.

But none of that makes it true. At best, the whole thing is overly simplistic and misleading. At worst, it’s lazy and might even be outright dishonest. We can do better than this. It’s time to ditch it and move on.

1. Joe Thornton, Sharks

If he wanted to win as badly as he wanted to grow a funny beard, he’d have a Cup already, am I right?

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