The primary focus of the NHL these days is plotting a course around these moving goalposts that will allow the league to crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion. Somehow, some way, some time.
The nonexistent 2004-05 campaign — a blank line in the history books due to a labour dispute and a lockout — remains a sore point. It deprived some team we’ll never know of a champagne shower and a parade.
Since 2005-06 and the dawn of hockey’s salary-cap era, fans have seen their share of mini dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. There have also been a number of frequent contenders that did find a way to lift that silver jewel once in recent times but came agonizingly close to making it a trend (St. Louis, Boston, Washington, Anaheim, Detroit).
And then there is a third group of powers that stands out over the past 15 years: the best teams not to win a Cup in the salary-cap era.
Here’s a look back at the most competitive organizations since 2005 who have consistently been in the mix but have (so far) had their cap-era Cup dreams dashed.
While the current Senators are embracing the rebuild like a favourite teddy bear, Ottawa has frequently been able to claim status as Last Canadian Club Standing since the 2004 lockout.
Before all the stars scattered, the Sens came excruciatingly close — one overtime goal away — from eliminating the eventual champion Penguins in the thrilling, seven-game 2017 Eastern Conference Final.
In all, they’ve played in 15 post-season rounds in the cap era and came within three wins of glory in 2007. Those Sens dropped just three games total as they eliminated Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo before running headfirst into the juggernaut Ducks.
“To have a team where you know you have a chance to win, it just makes you that much more focused as a player,” Jason Spezza reflected last week on Hockey Central at Noon. “It still kind of haunts me to this day.
“It was a five-game series, but the games were a lot closer. We had two 5-on-3s in Games 1 and 2 and didn’t capitalize, and it ended up haunting us to lose both games [by scores of 3-2 and 1-0, respectively] in Anaheim to start. Still to this day I think about how we could’ve approached things maybe a little differently. Those are the things as a player that you never forget.”
This 20-year-old franchise loves to hang a good banner but has so far been denied the proudest one.
Incredibly consistent and committed to icing a contender in the cap era, Nashville has missed the dance but thrice in the past 15 post-seasons after missing out in its first five years as an expansion team.
From 2016 to 2018, the Preds won at least one playoff round three springs in a row, captured the organization’s first Presidents’ Trophy (2018) and posted a 14-8 record in the 2017 post-season, coming up two painful games shy of hockey’s ultimate prize.
Nashville’s 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in that infamous, decisive Game 6 was fraught with controversy. Referee Kevin Pollock’s premature whistle on a loose puck in Matt Murray’s crease prevented a Nashville scoring opportunity that almost certainly would have resulted in a goal. Later, Patric Hornqvist’s Cup-winning goal was made good with just 95 seconds left in regulation despite Nashville’s challenge of goaltender interference. (Carl Hagelin added an empty-netter.)
At the time of the 2020 pause, the up-and-down Predators had won three straight and rallied into another playoff position, based on points percentage.
The locked-out 2004-05 season snuffed out a four-year run of qualifying for the playoffs in Vancouver, but it also acted as a starting point for another solid run from 2007 to 2015, in which the Canucks made the dance seven times and won six series.
A stellar core, led by the Sedin twins up front and Roberto Luongo in the crease, was the winningest outfit in hockey in 2011 and 2012. Over two wonderful/horrible seasons, Vancouver amassed 105 regular-season victories, captured back-to-back Presidents’ trophies, and watched it all end in Game 7 misery as the city burned.
While Father Time and inevitable decline broke up the band, the Canucks of the early 2010s will go down as one of the most dominant compositions of hockey players to come up just a wee bit short. For our money, the 2010-11 Canucks were the best single roster not to go all the way in this era.
Recency bias has us framing the Rangers as a group in reset, but from 2006 through 2017 New York qualified for the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons, winning 11 series in the process.
Backstopped by future first-ballot Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist, the 2012 to 2015 Blueshirts averaged a third-round appearance four years running.
The 2014 edition lost the final to the Los Angeles Kings, and the 2015 outfit snagged the Presidents’ Trophy with a 53-22-7 record before succumbing to the young, electric Lightning in a seven-game Eastern Conference Final.
While King Henrik, 38, has just one more season on his contract, a new wave of Rangers led by Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Igor Shesterkin has given hope New York might be able to party like Messier in the not-so-distant future.
On a recent Zoom call with reporters, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said it was during the 2015 Cup Final that he first saw where the sport was headed — and it was a blue streak in the blueprint of the Lightning.
Fast to grasp the fast, Jon Cooper’s brand of Tampa Bay hockey (aided by former GM Steve Yzerman’s brand of cap management, with a secondary assist to no state tax) has made the sport soar through the South.
The Lightning were the last team to hoist the chalice before the salary cap and have long been pegged by critics as a smart bet to lift the next one.
Since 2011, the Bolts have reached the Eastern Conference Final four times, thrice losing in Game 7 to the eventual Cup champs (Boston, 2011; Pittsburgh, 2016; Washington, 2018). In ’15, underdog Tampa had the savvy Blackhawks on the ropes, leading the final 2-1, before Chicago battled back with three straight, narrow-margin victories.
That pain was matched by the shock of 2018-19, when the record-breaking, Presidents’ Trophy–winning favourite posted a silly 62-16-4 regular-season record only to get swept by the Blue Jackets in Round 1.
Cooper believes that disappointment has steeled his group, preparing them well for another contending run in 2020 — if COVID-19 permits.
If disappointment had a colour, it would be teal.
Think about all the greatness and all those playoff beards wheeling around the Silicon Valley ice over the past decade and a half.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, Jumbo Joe and the Sharks have qualified for the playoffs an incredible 13 out of 14 times. That bar-setting run of consistency features eight 100-point regular seasons, 14 post-season series victories, four trips to the Western Conference Final, one Presidents’ Trophy (2009), and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final (2016).
No wonder Doug Wilson is the second-longest-tenured GM in the league.
In the spirit of twisting the knife, nine times in the cap era the Sharks have been eliminated in a Game 6 or Game 7. On seven occasions, they’ve been eliminated by an eventual Cup finalist — four times by the champion, as was the case last spring in a nail-biter versus the St. Louis Blues.
“All you gotta do is get in” has become a popular axiom when speaking of Cup chances. Just don’t say that to Sharks fans.