The Old Guy Without A Cup is one of playoff hockey’s best traditions. Every season, right around this time, fans start hearing about the grizzled veterans on the remaining teams that are chasing the very first championship of their NHL careers. Some have had agonizing near-misses in the past; others have never even come close. In many cases, the drama is unmistakable because we know that this is probably their last chance.
The Old Guy Without A Cup, or OGWAC for short, makes for a great story. They’re easy for fans to root for, and can serve as inspiration for their teammates. Over the years, it’s even become tradition for the winning captain to seek out his team’s OGWAC for the honour of receiving the first handoff.
Ray Bourque is probably the best OGWAC story of all-time; back in 2001, it was almost impossible not to cheer him on as the then 40-year-old defenceman chased his first title in what would be the final season of his 22-year career. When he finally got it, hockey fans were treated to one of the era’s most emotional moments.
Other memorable OGWACs include Lanny MacDonald in 1989 and Teemu Selanne in 2007. Last year, it was Kimmo Timonen, the 39-year-old veteran who’d never won a thing over the course of his long career, right up until Jonathan Toews handed him the Cup.
This year, as always, there are a handful of candidates in the running to be this year’s feel-good story. We’re obviously looking for guys that are old, which we’ll define as 33 and up. They also need to playing an active role in their team’s Cup hunt; you’ll occasionally see a scratch earn OGWAC status (like Denis Savard in 1993), but it’s rare. And bonus points will be awarded for near misses and adversity faced along the way.
With all that in mind, here are the ten best OGWAC candidates left standing in this year’s playoffs.
10. Steve Ott, St. Louis Blues
The notorious pest is in his 13th NHL season, almost all of them spent doing the thankless work of a third or fourth-liner. He’s also a divisive player, one who proudly plays the agitator role, has been suspended multiple times and once thought it would be a good idea to do this.
Near misses: Ott’s longest run came as part of the Stars team that made the conference final back in 2008.
Adversity tracker: It’s probably fair to say that Ott is one of the most hated players in the league. Does that count as adversity? I’m not sure it does.
Bottom line: A big part of any OGWAC story is the player being fun to root for, which will disqualify Ott in the eyes of many fans. But if you can talk yourself into the whole “guy you love to hate” thing, you might be able to get on board.
9. Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars
Spezza hasn’t hit our 33-years-old cutoff yet, but he likely will by the time the Stanley Cup is won, so he qualifies. Still, it’s almost impossible to think of him as “old”. This guy was a K-Mart model as a kid, and he still looks exactly the same today.
Near misses: Spezza was a key part of the Senators run to the final in 2007, and was a rookie on the 2003 team that lost a heart-breaking conference final to the Devils.
Adversity tracker: He’s battled injuries for much of his career, including back problems that cost him most of his 2012-13 season.
Bottom line: Spezza checks most of the OGWAC boxes, but as long as his back holds up he seems like a guy who has lots of hockey ahead of him. He makes the list, but we can’t rank him that highly.
8. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
This is another case where it feels like we’re stretching the “old” criteria; Rinne is only in his eighth full season in the league. But he turned 33 this season and the shelf life for a starting goaltender can be dicey, so he slips in under the cutoff.
Near misses: He’s yet to make it out of the second round.
Adversity tracker: Rinne has had to battle through hip problems, including surgery in 2013 and complications that cost him most of the 2013-14 season.
Bottom line: For some reason, goaltenders don’t often get much OGWAC love. Rinne wasn’t the best goalie candidate heading into the playoffs – that would have been Roberto Luongo – but he’s the last one standing.
7. Vernon Fiddler, Dallas Stars
Fiddler’s the classic under-appreciated OGWAC. He’ll turn 36 on Monday and is in his 13th season, and has never been a star or spent much time in the spotlight. Given his role, that’s just fine – guys like Fiddler are at their best when you don’t notice them.
Near misses: This is Fiddler’s fifth trip to the playoffs. But until the Stars knocked off the Wild, he’d never won a round.
Adversity tracker: He’s an undrafted free agent who started his pro career in the ECHL and didn’t earn a regular NHL job until he was 26.
Bottom line: Fiddler doesn’t have the star power of a Bourque or MacDonald, or even Spezza or Rinne. But he’d be a solid pick.
6. Paul Martin, San Jose Sharks
Martin is one of those guys who you just kind of assume has a Cup already, since he broke in with the pre-lockout Devils and then moved on to the Crosby-era Penguins. But he just missed both times, arriving one season too late to enjoy the Devils’ Cup in 2003 and two seasons after the Penguins’ title in 2009.
Near misses: When he’s not being the guy who shows up just after the party shuts down, Martin has been to the playoffs 12 times. His longest run came with the Penguins in 2013, when they went to the conference final.
Adversity tracker: Nothing really stands out, although he did miss the 2010 Olympics after breaking his arm.
Bottom line: It’s hard not to root for a guy who’s spent most of his career surrounded by teammates with Stanley Cup rings to finally get one of his own. The Sharks are deep on OGWAC candidates, including Joel Ward and some other names we’ll get to in a bit, but Martin is worthy choice.
5. Mike Fisher, Nashville Predators
Fisher has somehow managed to look exactly the same for the last decade, so it’s easy to forget that he’s been in the NHL since before the turn of the century. The well-respected veteran is a month away from turning 36, has one year left on his contract, and is coming off the least productive full season of his career, so may be running out of chances.
Near misses: This is Fisher’s 11th trip to the playoffs. His longest run was reaching the final with the Senators in 2007 before losing to the Ducks.
Adversity tracker: He was an Ottawa Senator during the height of the Battle of Ontario.
Bottom line: Fisher’s a strong candidate on a team that’s weirdly packed with them. (Other Predator OGWACs who didn’t make our list include Barret Jackman, Paul Gaustad, Eric Nystrom and Mike Ribeiro.)
4. Jason Chimera, Washington Capitals
For a team that’s never won the Cup, the Capitals are surprisingly low on OGWAC candidates. Most of the core are still 30 or under, Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik already have rings, and Brooks Laich… well, poor Brooks Laich.
But Chimera qualifies, and he’s a decent pick. The team’s oldest player, Chimera turned 37 on Monday and is in his 15th NHL season, having also played for the Oilers and Blue Jackets.
Near misses: This is his eighth trip to the playoffs. He’s never been past the second round.
Adversity tracker: You saw the part about playing for the Oilers and Blue Jackets, right?
Bottom line: Chimera is exactly the sort of long-suffering grinder who can be fun to root for.
3. Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars
Yes, Ruff is a coach, and coaches don’t usually earn OGWAC status. But occasionally, a coach just gets that vibe. We saw it with Pat Burns in 2003, Darryl Sutter in 2012, and Jacques Demers in 1993. And you could make a very strong case for Lindy Ruff this year. Not only is he in his 18th year as a head coach, but he also had 12 years as a player. That’s three decades without a Stanley Cup.
Near misses: Ruff’s longest run as a player was to the third round as a rookie in 1980. He was an assistant with the Florida Panthers when they made their miracle run to the final in 1996. Three years later, he was the head coach in Buffalo when this happened.
Adversity tracker: Other than over three decades of frustration and losing your best chance on the most controversial goal in NHL history? Not much.
Bottom line: The longevity and near-misses make Ruff an excellent candidate, and allow him to edge out Washington’s Barry Trotz as the year’s top coaching OGWAC.
2. Marek Zidlicky, New York Islanders
At 39, Zidlicky is the second oldest player left standing in this year’s postseason (he’s three months younger than Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen, who has a ring from the 2006 Hurricanes). With his play fading and his contract expiring after this season, this is almost definitely his last shot at a Stanley Cup.
Near misses: Zidlicky came within two wins of a Cup as a member of the Devils in 2012, his only other trip past the first round before this year. He’s also played in three Olympics without winning Gold.
Adversity tracker: He was a sixth-round pick in 2001 who didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 26. He’s battled concussions over the years, including one that ended his season last year with the Red Wings. More recently, he’s been struggling, and may be replaced in the lineup once Ryan Pulock returns from injury.
Bottom line: Zidlicky makes a great candidate – with the caveat that he’s still in the lineup by the time the final rolls around. That seems iffy these days. Then again, the same was true for Timonen last year, and he returned to the lineup in time to get his skate with the Cup.
In fact, from his age to his history to his position, Zidlicky is basically this year’s Timonen. And that makes him the best candidate on the board, except for one. Well, two.
1. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
Call it a cop out, but there’s really no way to pick one of these guys over the other. They came into the league together as the top two picks of the 1997 draft. They’re the franchise leaders in games and points. Both have worn the captain’s ‘C’ in San Jose; both have been stripped of it.
Most importantly, both have become synonymous with the Sharks’ history of regular season success followed by inevitable playoff disappointment. Both have reputations for coming up small when it matters the most. In both cases, those reputations are largely unfair, but such is life as a franchise player.
This year has felt like a bit of a redemption tour for both players as far as public perception goes, as the Sharks’ new role as underdogs has reduced the focus on unfulfilled expectations. But the “can’t win the big one” reputation is a tough one to shake… at least until you win it all.
Near misses: This is Thornton’s 15th trip to the playoffs and Marleau’s 16th; neither has ever been to a final.
Adversity tracker: Fair or not, the two players have worn much of the blame for the Sharks’ failure to win the big one. The pair have been rumoured to be on the trade block for years, and Marleau seemed on the verge of being shipped out earlier this season. For his part, Thornton has had to occasionally fire back at critics, including his own GM.
Bottom line: Marleau and Thornton are the easy OGWAC call this year. The only question is which one would get the Cup handoff from Joe Pavelski first. At the rate the Sharks are going, we may be a few weeks from finding out.