Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Remembering each year’s ultimate playoff losers (and why the 2019 Penguins could top them all)

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the concept of a postseason’s biggest loser. Maybe it has something to do with being into my fourth decade of cheering for a team that never wins the Stanley Cup, but I’ve never bought into the idea that one team wins, 15 teams don’t, and all those losers are basically in the same boat of leaguewide failure.

Nonsense. Not all losers are created equal, and some come closer to the Cup than others. Obviously, the team that loses in the final is a near-miss, one their fans will probably always remember. But depending on how you look at it, other teams could claim to have come close too.

And then you’ve got the other side of the coin: The one and only one team each year that has the worst possible playoff experience. That’s the one I’ve always been interested in.

Specifically, I’m looking for the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that won the Stanley Cup.

That’s a lot of losses. In fact, the first time you read through them all, it feels like too much losing to cram into one postseason. But it all adds up. We’re looking for the team that suffers a first-round exit at the hands of an opponent that goes out in the second round. And then the team that beat that team goes out in the third round. And that team goes to the final, where they lose to the Cup winner.

It all leaves that first team as far from the Cup as possible. Four degrees of playoff failure. The ultimate loser. A quad fraud. The tetrad of bad.

OK, maybe the name needs work, but I love the concept.

Let’s say you’re a team like this year’s Maple Leafs or Jets. Sure, you’re disappointed by a first-round exit, one that initially made you feel like you were still a long way away from contending for a Stanley Cup. But what if the Bruins or Blues go on to win it all? That changes your perception. Now, you gave the eventual champs all they could handle. If you really wanted to, you could tell yourself that you might even have been the second-best team in the entire playoffs, one that just had the bad luck to run into a tough early matchup with the eventual champs.

But if you’re the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the Stanley Cup winners? There’s no sugar-coating that. You were miles away from winning anything. You lost as badly as you could possibly lose.

Or at least, that’s what I always thought. But this year, the concept is getting a new twist that I’m almost afraid to bring up. You know how you’re not supposed to talk about a pitcher taking a perfect game into the ninth inning? That’s where I’m at on this. It’s almost too wonderful to mention. But I wouldn’t be much of a journalist if I didn’t talk about an important developing story, and besides, I know from my recent Twitter mentions that many of you are already on top of this one. So I might as well spit it out.

Ladies and gentlemen, we might actually see the first ever case of a team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the Stanley Cup champions.

That is insane. It shouldn’t be mathematically possible for us to be anywhere close. And yet here we are. And it’s made even better by the identity of the team that might pull it off: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They were swept by the Islanders in Round 1. Then the Islanders were swept by the Hurricanes in Round 2. The Canes were swept by the Bruins in the conference final. If Boston goes out in four straight in the final, the Penguins will have finished as far from the Stanley Cup as is even theoretically possible. They’d basically be 0-for-16. If it happens, I’m pretty sure the entire league has to fold.

Needless to say, I am way too excited about this possibility. I’m not going to go as far as to ask the Bruins to come right out and throw the Cup final, because that would be ridiculous. But if they lose the first two games at home then yes, they should absolutely throw the Cup final. Just devote the rest of the series to hanging a historical embarrassment on a longtime rival. As the song goes, the chance may never come again.

Of course, if the Bruins refuse to play along and actually win the final, that will let the Penguins off the hook entirely. Instead, this year’s ultimate loser honors would go to the Flames, since they lost to the Avs who lost to the Sharks who lost to the Blues. Still fun, but not quite as mesmerizing as the possibility of the quattro-sweep.

As we all wait with bated breath to see which scenario plays out, let’s take a few moments to celebrate the history of the NHL’s ultimate playoff losers, dating back to the first four-round playoff back in 1975.

The recent history

By definition, the quadruple loser has to come from the opposite conference as the eventual Cup winner, so the last few years have been dominated by the West.

Last season, it was the Avalanche who earned the honors – they lost to the Predators, who lost to the Jets, who lost to the Knights, who lost to the Capitals. In 2017, it was Sharks; they lost to the Oilers, who lost to the Ducks, who lost to the Predators, who lost to the Penguins. And in 2016 it was the Wild, thanks to their loss to the Stars, who lost to the Blues, who lost to the Sharks, who lost to the Penguins.

So already, we can start to get some clarity on one of the questions that you may have been wondering about: Does any of this actually matter? And the answer: Apparently not!

The Avalanche followed up their nightmare playoffs by having pretty much the same season, making it back to the wild card this year. The Sharks rebounded to become one of the league’s best teams. The Wild are currently not that. Three teams in, and we’re already all over the map.

That’s where any reasonable person would probably give up on the whole concept. Gentle reader, I am not that reasonable person. We’re just getting started.

Going back a few years, we get to the 2015 Islanders, who lost to the Capitals who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Lightning who lost to the Blackhawks. That one nearly pulls off the opposite of this year’s Penguins scenario, as the first three series were all seven-gamers. Alas, the final only went six.

Next comes a three-year run of dominance by the Atlantic division, who give us the 2014 Red Wings, 2013 Canadiens and 2012 Bruins. Skip a few years and you get to the only repeat winner of the cap era, as the Bruins show up again in 2008.

Other cap era teams include the 2006 Stars, the 2009 Blues, the 2010 Senators, the 2011 Coyotes and our first team that no longer exists: the 2007 Thrashers, who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Sabres who lost to Senators who lost to the Ducks. Considering that Atlanta team was also swept in four straight and was making the only playoff appearance in Thrashers history, and it might well stand as the single worst example of the ultimate loser phenomenon ever. You know, until this year’s Penguins.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sharks vs. Blues: Which franchise holds the crown for making its fans miserable?

We may be just a few days away from deciding the most important title in the NHL.

No, not “Stanley Cup champion.” Those come and go. This is something bigger and more enduring. We’re talking about the title of the most miserable franchise in the entire league. Which team has done the most to torture its fan base over the years?

For a long time, there was a fairly easy answer. It was the Washington Capitals, a franchise that had built a reputation for finding new and exciting ways to raise expectations and then brutally crush them. Whether it was blowing 3-1 series leads, or losing quadruple overtime game sevens, or winning Presidents’ Trophies only to lose to a hot goalie or to the Penguins or to a hot goalie on the Penguins, the Capitals were the undisputed kings of hockey misery.

But then last year, it all came crashing down. They actually went out and won a Stanley Cup. It was confusing and even a little frightening. And it left the hockey world wondering: Which team has the best claim to the vacated throne?

The Canucks certainly have a strong case, one bolstered by nearly a half-decade without a title that includes two heart-breaking Game 7 losses in the final. The Sabres would be right there with them, with a Cup-losing goal that shouldn’t have counted highlighting their resume. The Maple Leafs could be in the mix too since their last Cup came before most of today’s fans were alive. Maybe you work in some consideration for fans in places like Winnipeg, Minnesota or Ottawa.

But the two teams that have to be near the top of just about any list are the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks. Those two teams have spent the last few decades doing what miserable teams do: Being pretty good just about every season, convincing their weary fan base that this just might be the year and then having something horrible happen to crush those hopes and dreams.

As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan, I know a thing or two about misery. And I think there’s a strong case to be made that when it comes to taking over the Capitals’ crown, the Sharks and the Blues are the two best candidates we have. But which one should earn the honors? That’s a tough call. As we wait for the two teams to face off in Game Six of the Western Conference final, let’s compare their cases in a head-to-head battle with even bigger stakes.

How long are we talking about?

True misery isn’t a short-term game, but a slow drip that builds over time. It’s not about a moment or a series or even a season. We’re looking for decades here.

The Sharks: San Jose entered the league as an expansion team (sort of) back in 1991, which doesn’t seem like all that long ago to some of us but actually puts the Sharks right around the middle of the current league in terms of longevity in their market. We are all so old.

They were historically awful for their first two years. But when you’re talking about their history of misery, you’re really starting the clock right around 2001, when they crack the 90-point mark for the first time and start heading into the postseason with expectations. That kicks off a long run of regular season success that’s still going to this day, with only two playoff misses in nearly two decades. But of course, no Cup.

The Blues: The Blues came into the league in the 1967 expansion and were the first quasi-success story among the half-dozen new teams. They won the all-expansion West Division in each of its first three years, earning trips to the Cup final each time but never winning. They didn’t have much success in the 1970s but had turned things around by the start of the 1980s.

That’s when the Blues really became the Blues – which is to say, a perfectly respectable regular season team that never seemed to do all that much in the playoffs. From 1979-80 through to the 2005 lockout, the Blues made the playoffs every year. That’s 25 straight seasons, the same as what the Red Wings pulled off in their much-hyped streak. And yet I’m guessing some of you may have never even heard of the Blues streak because it didn’t deliver any Cups or even any final appearances and only two trips out of the second round. The St. Louis Blues: Just kind of there™.

Misery edge: This one’s a pretty easy call as (furiously punches numbers into his calculator) 52 years is more than 28. The Sharks’ case here is that they may have had more seasons with serious expectations; they’ve had nine 100+ point seasons since 2001, compared to eight for the Blues since 1980. But St. Louis still takes this one.

Signature heart-breaking moment

Every truly miserable fan base has a few of those plays that they still can’t watch without wanting to whip the remote through the TV.

The Sharks: This ends up being a tougher call than you might think, for reasons we’ll get to down below. But for sheer hands-over-head disbelief, it’s hard to beat the way they were eliminated by the Canucks in the 2011 conference final.

That’s just the hockey gods toying with you right there.

The Blues: It’s the opening round of the 2000 playoffs and the Blues have just captured their first and only Presidents’ Trophy. They’re heavy favorites over the eighth-seeded Sharks, but the underdogs have stretched the series to a seventh game. And then, with seconds left in the first period in front of 19,000 stunned fans, this happens:

That ends up being the winning goal and the best season in franchise history ends in Round 1.

Misery edge: For creativity, it’s the Sharks for sure. But for actual psyche-scarring misery, the Blues get the nod here.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Not another replay review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Oh god we have to talk about expanded replay again don't we?
- The best way to react to a waved-off goal
- The week's three comedy stars introduce a new culinary term
- An obscure player who committed mid-game murder
- And a look back at the immediate aftermath of the craziest brawl in NHL history

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Puck Soup: No glove, no love

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We break down last night's blown OT call
- The Bruins on the verge of sweeping the Hurricanes
- An NBA-inspired media meltdown
- Ralph Krueger takes over the Sabres
- What's the hockey equivalent to the Bret Hart/Tom Magee match?
- I put my undefeated quiz streak on the line
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Which of the 15 draft lottery teams should consider trading their picks?

There are two annual traditions when it comes to the lottery picks in the NHL draft. The first is that fans and media get very excited about the possibility of at least a few of those picks being traded, either in the weeks leading up to the big day or (even better) in dramatic draft floor blockbusters. Trade rumors are catnip for all of us, so we come up with all sorts of scenarios and possibilities and argue back and forth over which ones are the most likely to turn into reality.

The second tradition is that just about none of those rumored trades ever actually happen.

That’s the reality of the modern NHL, where trading is a dying art at the best of times and teams have been taught to treat picks in the top half of the first round like gold. This is a league where young talent is more important than ever before, and the best way to get it is to hold onto those precious picks.

But while it’s exceedingly rare to see a high pick get traded in between the lottery and the draft, it’s not unheard of. It happened in 2017, when the Rangers got the Coyotes’ seventh-overall pick for Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. The Bruins acquired the 13th and 15th pick back in 2015 in separate deals involving Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, although that didn’t work out great for them in the end. And there was the big draft floor deal in 2013 that sent Cory Schneider to the Devils for the ninth-overall pick, leading to the best Gary Bettman trade announcement ever.

But high picks being traded in advance remains a rarity, and trades involving the very top picks are all but extinct. We hear the rumors every year, but they almost never come true.

Well, maybe that’s because NHL teams just need a little bit of encouragement. So today, let’s make the case for each of the 15 lottery teams to trade their pick for immediate help. We’re not interested in seeing teams shuffle picks around to move up or down a few spots – we want to see a bold move by a team looking to get better right now by swapping their choice for veteran reinforcements. And since most of these teams have plenty of room for improvement, that should give us at least a chance to make a decent case.

Can we pull it off? It’s going to be easier for some teams than others, but let’s see what we can do. We’ll work our way down from the worst of the lottery picks to the top of the draft.

#15 – Montreal Canadiens

The case for a trade: We’ll start with what should be, in theory, the easiest trade to sell you on, if only because it would involve the least valuable of the lottery picks. And the case here is a relatively straightforward one: The Habs are pretty good, and should be focused on getting better right now instead of waiting around for some middling first-rounder to make his NHL debut a few years down the road. After all, you don’t swallow big-dollar contracts for 30-something stars like Shea Weber and Carey Price without taking on at least some sense of urgency.

If you prefer a more positive spin, we could remind you that the 2017 Lightning barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and then went to the conference final in 2018, while the 2018 Blues barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and are in the conference final right now. Well, the 2019 Habs barely missed the playoffs with 96 points. They may not be as far from contending as you think they are.

Is it convincing?: It’s not a bad start. (And fair warning, if you’re already rolling your eyes at the thought of a team like Montreal even considering this sort of deal, you may just want to bail on the rest of this piece.)

The pessimist view is that Montreal isn’t as close to contending as their 2018-19 season suggests, and still have to get past Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, plus a potentially improved Florida team. But assuming that Marc Bergevin thinks he already has a solid foundation in place here, it might be worth it for him to find out what he could get if he dangled that 15th pick.

#14 – Arizona Coyotes

The case for a trade: It looks a lot like the Canadiens – good team, already close, so worry about making the leap right now instead of stockpiling another prospect you won’t see for a few years.

Is it convincing?: If anything, it’s a better case than Montreal’s. The Coyotes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012, and you’d have to imagine that ownership is watching what’s happening in Carolina these days and thinking “Why not us?”

On top of that, remember that the Coyotes are one of the few teams that’s actually pulled off this sort of move before, having dealt that seventh-overall pick for veteran help a few years ago. I’m not sure if that makes a move more likely (because they’ve shown they’re willing to do it) or less likely (because it didn’t necessarily work last time). But the idea is at least in play.

#13 – Florida Panthers

The case for a trade: And here’s the third of our three “decent teams that might want to win right now” entries. Except this time, we know that there’s no “might” about it. Dale Tallon has all but called his shot for this offseason, and you have to figure that Joel Quenneville didn’t choose the Panthers because he was in the mood for a lengthy rebuild. The Panthers want to get better right now, and anything that gets them there should be on the table.

Is it convincing?: Sure. The only question is whether trading a first is the Panthers’ best path to immediate help. They may prefer to wait and see how free agency shakes out, and if so then this year’s pick will be out of play (and next year’s probably goes in). But the Panthers have a history of at least talking about moving much higher picks than this one, so this is a situation worth watching.

#12 – Minnesota Wild

The case for a trade: They looked good at times during the season and only missed the playoffs by 10 points, which isn’t insurmountable. With a veteran roster and a new-ish GM who hasn’t really put his stamp on the team just yet, they might decide that immediate help would get them back to the postseason.

Is it convincing?: Lord no. The Wild desperately need to start restocking the system and looking down the road. We can scratch this one off the list.

#11 – Philadelphia Flyers

The case for a trade: Are the Flyers rebuilding? They’ve never had that bottom-out season, but they also haven’t been to the second round in seven years. They seemed to buying into the patient approach, right up until their patient GM was fired for being too patient. They’ve changed coaches twice and remade the front office in the last year, and teams don’t usually do that if they’re planning to stay the course.

Is it convincing?: There has to be at least a part of the Flyers’ brain trust that sees division rivals like the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Islanders having success and thinks “on paper, we’re at least close to those guys.” Still, this feels like a team that would be better off just banking a solid prospect and then seeing where the Carter Hart era takes them.

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