With eight teams left in the NHL playoffs, it’s still too early to start worrying about potential final matchups or Conn Smythe favourites. But it’s not too soon to start thinking ahead to one of the league’s best annual stories: the Old Guy Without a Cup.
Rallying behind the Old Guy Without a Cup (a.k.a. the OGWAC) is one of hockey’s great playoff traditions. Ray Bourque is probably the greatest OGWAC of all-time, finally capturing his first Stanley Cup at the age of 40 in what would turn out to be the last game of his career. Lanny McDonald’s 1989 championship was another classic OGWAC story, as was Teemu Selanne’s in 2007.
Last year it was Ron Hainsey, making his playoff debut as a 36-year-old. Like many OGWACs, Hainsey also received the honour of the first Cup handoff. There’s a good chance that this year’s playoffs end with a similar scene, since there are potential Old Guy stories lurking on almost every team left standing. But which one is the best?
Let’s define an “old guy” as someone who’s at least 35 or has been in the league for the entire salary-cap era. We’re also looking for players with a chance to actually be in the lineup for that Cup handoff, so we want guys who have either played in this year’s post-season or are likely to suit up soon.
That narrows our field a bit, but we’ve still got a decent group to choose from in this year’s OGWAC crop. Here are the 10 best remaining candidates, counting down to the best possible story.
We’ll call this one a tie so we can squeeze both Sharks into our top 10. Maybe that’s a little cheap, but both guys deserve a spot so here we are.
Ward didn’t become a full-time NHLer until he was 27, so even though he’s only been in the league for a decade he’s older than you probably think at 37. He’s had a few second-round exits over the years, and was part of the Sharks’ run to the final in 2016, so he’s had a taste. And his contract is up this year, meaning there’s no guarantee he gets another chance.
Meanwhile, Martin shows up on this list every year, and every year I have to double-check that he actually belongs here. Didn’t he win at least one Cup with the Devils or Penguins somewhere along the way?
Nope, although he just missed a few times — he debuted in New Jersey a season after their 2003 Cup win, then arrived a year after Pittsburgh’s 2009 title and left a year before they won again in 2016. To make matters worse, he had a front row seat to that last one, since it came against the Sharks.
Maybe he’s due. We also can’t rule out the possibility that he may be cursed.
Hartnell’s 36 years old and has been in the league since 2000, so he certainly fits the OGWAC profile. He’s also had a near-miss, coming within two wins of a Cup with the 2010 Flyers, and he’s another guy whose contract is expiring after this season, so this might well be his very last shot.
All that said, two things keep Hartnell from ranking higher on our list. First, the Predators are among this year’s deepest OGWAC teams, with two more strong candidates to consider. And Hartnell isn’t playing much so far in this year’s playoffs, appearing in just a single game so far, so there’s a good chance he wouldn’t even be in the lineup for a Predators’ Cup win.
Coburn barely sneaks onto our list by virtue of having played a few games during the 2005-06 season. But the Lightning are young enough that they don’t offer us much in the way of candidates – Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan are both older than Coburn but didn’t enter the NHL until a year later, and our only other option is third-string goalie Peter Budaj.
So we’ll let Coburn represent Tampa. He’s a decent choice, with 120 career playoffs games on his resumé, including two unsuccessful trips to the Cup final. He’s a little young to rank much higher than this, but he’s worth rooting for.
No. 7: Pekka Rinne, Predators
For whatever seasons, we’ve never really had a great goalie OGWAC story. The closest we’ve come is probably Dominik Hasek in Detroit in 2002, while Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo would make for excellent candidates if and when their teams get back into the playoffs.
But for now, Rinne will have to do. And he’s not a bad pick – while he’s only in his 10th full season, he’s older than you’d think at 35, and he already has last year’s near-miss under his belt. The Predators are well-represented on this list, and would have a tough first-handoff choice to make if they won it all. But Rinne would certainly be in the running.
Yes, the grey-haired Ovechkin qualifies for our list despite being just 32 years old; he’s been in the league since 2005 and is appearing in his 10th NHL post-season.
It probably feels like more than that, given how much time has been spent dissecting the Capitals’ various playoff failures. (Guilty.) Ovechkin has taken more than his fair share of blame for those failures, which comes with the territory when you’re the team’s captain and highest-paid player. But it’s not like he disappears in the post-season; among active players, his 53 playoff goals rank behind only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg in the cap era. That’s not bad, considering those guys have the advantage of occasionally making it past the second round.
OK, that may have been harsh, but the point remains — Ovechkin plays well in the post-season, but it’s never translated into a deep run. He’s either going to break through and get his Cup someday, or he’ll retire as easily the greatest player to end his career without one. Those are some high stakes, and the only thing keeping Ovechkin from a higher spot on our list is that he’s young enough that a sense of this-may-be-it urgency hasn’t really kicked in yet. But it’s not all that far off.
Hendricks is a classic old-school pick. He was a longshot to even make the NHL, and didn’t earn full-time duty until he was 28. He spent most of his career with the Capitals and then the Oilers, so it goes without saying that he’s never come close to a Cup. And he’s the sort of heart-and-soul guy that teammates tend to love.
On a young Jets team packed with guys who figure to have plenty of chances to come, he’s the oldest guy on the roster by three years, and a great candidate for a first Cup pass.
Much like Hendricks, the 36-year-old Engelland doesn’t carry much in the way of star power, but he’s the sort of veteran that teammates would love to see get a long-overdue lap with the Cup. He’s yet to get that opportunity, despite spending the first five years of his career with Penguins — he made his debut the season after their 2009 Cup win, and departed in 2014 to narrowly miss their recent repeat.
To up the emotional ante, Engelland is a longtime Las Vegas native who started the season by delivering a poignant pregame speech at the home opener after tragedy struck the city. Seeing him end it by accepting the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman would be just about perfect.
No. 3: Mike Fisher, Predators
At nearly 38 years old, Fisher has been around forever — he literally made his NHL debut in the previous century. We had him ranked high on last year’s list, and he came within two wins of getting his Cup. That seemed like it would be his last chance, and he’d retire without a ring. He actually did, only to make a surprising mid-season comeback for (presumably) one last shot.
This is Fisher’s 13th playoff run, and ninth trip to at least the second round. He’s been to the final twice, with last year’s Predators and the 2007 Senators, and his 142 career post-season games ranks eighth among active players. So he’s certainly paid his dues. If the Predators can win it all, he’d be a classic first-handoff guy, and could end his career with a storybook championship.
Nash isn’t all that old — he’ll turn 34 during the Stanley Cup final. But he’s been in the league since 2002, making this his 15th season. This won’t be his last chance at a championship, but at some point the clock does start ticking.
What moves Nash up our list is the narrative that’s surrounded him during the second half of his career. After rarely making the playoffs in Columbus, Nash headed to New York and was part of a team that made several long runs. But his playoff numbers were usually disappointing — he entered this year with only 15 goals in 77 post-season games. That story continued in the first round, where he managed just one goal in seven games against Toronto.
Nash’s lack of playoff production has always been a bit of a mystery. It’s not like he disappears during the playoffs — he’s led the league in post-season shots twice in his career. But the puck just doesn’t seem to go in for him. Is it bad luck? A change in playing style? Is he one of those guys who wilts in the big moments?
Nobody seems to be quite sure, and Nash has reached the point in his career where we shouldn’t be expecting him to dominate. With an expiring contract, he’s probably a short-term fit in Boston, and you could see him entering the phase of his career where he becomes a hired gun who bounces around the league in search of that perfect fit that finally delivers a championship.
Or he could just get it this year with a very good Bruins team. He had two goals in the opener against Tampa, so maybe he’s finally headed for that playoff hot streak we’ve never quite seen from him. If so, he might end up engraving his name on the Cup while erasing a few narratives along the way.
No. 1: Joe Thornton, Sharks
This is a bit of a tricky pick, given that we haven’t seen Thornton in this year’s playoffs yet. He’s been out since January with a knee injury, and despite taking warmups and being described as day-to-day, he hasn’t suited up yet. There’s no guarantee that he’s ready to play this round, and if he suffers a setback it’s possible we don’t see him in this year’s playoffs at all.
But even with all those caveats, Thornton still takes top spot on our list, because if and when he does step on the ice he’ll immediately become one of the best OGWAC stories of the last decade. He’s pretty much the ideal candidate in the Bourque/Selanne/McDonald mold — he’s an aging superstar and first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s won everything but a Cup. He’s had his near-miss, losing in the 2016 final, and at 38 he has to be getting dangerously close to the end of the road. Mix in his recent transformation into one of the league’s most entertaining characters, and he’d be the sort of story that just about everyone could get behind.
The bad news is that Thornton’s Sharks may be the longest shot left in this year’s tournament; despite a 100-point season, they finished behind all seven other teams that are left, and their road to a championship looks awfully daunting right now. Nobody would blame you if you wanted to hold off on getting too invested here for another round or two, or at least until Thornton shows us he can actually play. But when it comes to ranking this year’s OGWACs, Thornton is head and shoulders (and beard) above the field.