Maple Leafs Hardly Alone In Regular Season Futility

You’ve seen the promos on Sportsnet and CBC, and you’ve gotten the emails inviting you to playoff drafts, be they for brackets or for individual scorers.  The 8-9 week odyssey that leads to a Stanley Cup Champion and awful, scraggly beards, facial cuts galore, and hackneyed debates about the order in which the Cup should be handed out amongst veteran players on the proposed winning team — they’re all upon us.

Despite the dream of equality and parity the modern-day NHL provides, and the overtime/shootout loss points tightening up the standings in both conferences, and making it difficult to either rule teams out of playoff races for the first 60-65 games or so and certainly leading up to the halfway point, it’s equally tough to differentiate between the mediocre teams to the lousy ones.

There are powerhouses, no question.  But what about the other end of the standings, and the teams that seem utterly incapable of putting together any kind of consistent window of winning, let alone qualifying for the playoffs? 

Sure, the Cup champ has been from only Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston in the past six seasons since the Penguins & Red Wings made back-to-back Finals against each other, but many teams, including and maybe, most prominently the Maple Leafs, have with precision (not the good kind!) missed the playoffs and cost their owners tens of millions of dollars, and yet, saved their fans that same amount of money in the process of spending on playoff tickets, merchandise (specially-marked and notably marked-up!), parking, and concessions.  This doesn’t even take into account the well-worn tradition of travelling on the road to watch YOUR team in the playoffs, or the more far more common practice of filling up bars and restaurants and creating a buzz in that team’s city.

We all know there are things that do separate a Leafs’ fan’s misery from those of other clubs.  Not winning the Cup Final since 1967 is one thing, but not getting even to the Final itself is equally another.  Philadelphia has lost their past SIX attempts in the Final, and are a terrible 8-24 in Cup Final games in those series.  But surely getting there that many times and the memories of victories in 1974 and 1975 are preferable to a near half-century drought.

Vancouver has made the Cup Final in 1982, 1994, and 2011, and come up short each time.  But despite the recent agony of 2011, when the series looked over after the first two games, I still maintain there are some amazing memories from each of those springs — Roger Neilson, the terrible towels, Pavel’s magic of 1994, the heart-stopping Blackhawks conquest of 2011 — and surely, you wouldn’t trade those moments for a great big box of numbness and irrelevance.

The Maple Leafs will miss the playoffs for the eleventh time in the past 12 seasons — not a single player remains in the NHL from the last Leaf team to win a playoff round, winning Game 7 against Ottawa on April 20th, 2004.  That might suggest part of the issue in itself, given that’s only a dozen seasons ago, and that ’04 team was quite veteran-laden and stocked with players in the twilight of their career, several of whom (Francis, Leetch, Nieuwendyk to name three) were acquired with costly high draft picks and headed out the door.  You know the story, and the critiques are fair.  Far, far too often, the Maple Leafs sacrificed long-term gains, for short-term returns, and still failed.

I’ll write more on the 2013 Maple Leafs playoff team in the weeks to come, but the barbs I don’t think are fair suggest that that team didn’t deserve to make the postseason on its own merit, and that they only did because it was a 48-game season, and there were no crossover games against the Western Conference.  The rules were the rules, and the Leafs were 6th in goals scored, 13th in goals against, 8th in team save percentage, and (luck factors into every team in every season, we know this) a bizarre 1st in the NHL in shooting percentage and PDO.  They were the fifth seed and cleared the playoffs by six points (and would have owned the tiebreaker) over the East’s 9th place team, the Winnipeg Jets.

But, despite the misery associated with this time of year for Leafs’ fans, they’re nowhere near as alone as they think.  In fact, there’s far more traffic on the Island of Playoff Misfits than you’d have believed before reading this:

Consider the “woeful consistency” of the following NHL clubs:

Edmonton — The poster-child for those who love to yell and scream that there’s no magic elixir to build through the draft. Their last playoff game was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in Raleigh, North Carolina on June 19, 2006. The game ended in a 3-1 Hurricanes win, a game in which only 8 of the 36 skaters who played in it, still are current NHL players.  The Oilers, infamously, have drafted in the 1st round (in order) from 2007 onward: 6th, 22nd, 10th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd, and 1st again last year with the McDavid selection.  They seemed poised and focused (ahem…) to pull off another pick as high as 1st, and no lower than 5th.

Carolina — That same Hurricanes franchise is about to (quietly, mind you) miss the playoffs a seventh consecutive season, and for the tenth time in the past eleven seasons, with an oddball, fluke-in-retrospect trip to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals the only postseason accomplishment since that Cup win. In contrast, the Hartford Whalers, though only winning 18 of the 50 franchise playoff games they ever played, never missed the postseason more than five times in a row.  Admittedly, the Whale often qualified in an era when 16 of 21 clubs did so.

Buffalo — This spring will be the 5th year out of the postseason consecutively, and seventh in the past nine.  The Sabres made 1st-round exits against Philadelphia in 2009, and Boston in 2008 — a series I feel the Sabres could have won without a costly injury to Thomas Vanek early in it.  The 2009 Flyers series saw the Sabres up 3 games to 2 headed to OT at home in Game 6, but a Ville Leino OT winner forced the series back to Philly, and the Flyers won a non-competitive Game 7 5-2 en route to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in thirteen seasons.

Calgary — Last year’s surprise playoff squad in the Western Conference had virtually no staying power this season, and despite there being progress in terms of trading for, and drafting young talent, the Flames took a major step backward this past season, and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.  The signs of life were magnified last spring with their first playoff round win since the 2004 Western Conference Finals, beating a Vancouver squad that looks to have some very long years ahead after being a very consistent winner from 2009-2012.  Though not listed here, the Canucks haven’t won a playoff round of their own since the 2011 West Finals when they obliterated San Jose in five games, and have lost 14 of the past 17 playoff games they’ve played.

New Jersey — What?  Do they really belong here with these other miscreants?  Kinda, yeah.  One of the strangest postseasons this century, would be those of 2012.  The New Jersey Devils faced defeat in overtime to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise in Game 7 — they got an double OT goal from Adam Henrique to survive (after a G6 OT win on home ice forced the Game 7), and followed that close call up by winning eight of the next eleven playoff games against Philadelphia and the Rangers combined. Their trip to the Stanley Cup Final was equally odd, losing Games 1-3 to the Los Angeles Kings, winning the next two, and succumbing in Game 6 to the Kings in Newark.  But, that spring aside, the Devils have missed the playoffs four straight seasons, one shy of the franchise mark for futility, when they missed five seasons in a row following their move from Colorado beginning in 1982-83.

Atlanta/Winnipeg — Is the honeymoon officially over now?  Or will we not even know until the Draft Lottery and the possibility Winnipeg could draft a future superstar, as they did with Dale Hawerchuk at #1 overall in 1981? Either way, despite the four extra games last spring (a 1st-round sweep vs. the Ducks) and the first playoff hockey in Winnipeg since their final (for a while…) season in 1996, I don’t think there’s a Jets fan, giddy, of course, at NHL hockey being back in 2011, who would have thought no playoff games won, and only four played in five seasons would be an acceptable result.  Add to this, it is utterly incomprehensible the Thrashers/Jets franchise has NEVER won a playoff game in sixteen years of existence, despite having made 6 Top 5 draft picks (two #1s and two #2s, no less).  

Winnipeg/Arizona — See the fluke that was the New Jersey Devils of 2012, and compare the bizarre run the 2012 Coyotes went on — after losing their first seven playoff series since arriving in Arizona, the Coyotes put together a magical four weeks of postseason performances, icing the Blackhawks in 6 games, and then hammering the Predators in 5.  They were the higher seed against the #8 Kings in the Western Conference Finals, but were outscored 8-2 in two home losses, and went rather politely in five games.  Despite missing the playoffs by three points in 2013-14, and a fast start last fall, this season will see the Coyotes miss the playoffs for the tenth time in thirteen years, and with only one season of nineteen in which they advanced past the first round.

NY Islanders — The worst may indeed be over for the Isles.  They’re a fun team to watch, Garth Snow’s early critics have settled down, if not vanished, and barring a late collapse in the next several days, the Isles will make the postseason for the third time in four years.  That said, when you own the dubious distinction of having the longest postseason drought without a series victory, you can’t claim immunity from being on this list.  The Isles haven’t won a postseason round since the 1993 Patrick Division Finals (Patrick!  That long!) when they shocked Pittsburgh in OT of Game 7, preventing the Pens from winning a third straight Cup (still incredible it happened with no Pierre Turgeon after the ugly Dale Hunter cheapshot), and opening up a huge door for the eventual Cup Champs from Montreal.  Since that night, the Islanders have fallen in EIGHT straight series, winning only eleven playoff games in the past sixteen seasons.  This spring holds some hope things will be different in their first year playing in Brooklyn.

Any comfort in all this, Leaf fans?  Potentially not, but as many have written about on this website, and especially so in the last few months, the worst may indeed be over.  There are eight other franchises documented above who haven’t really figured out this “successful playoff thing” over large pockets of time in this century, and even in the latter years of the previous one, and as the Maple Leafs start to collect young assets, flip veteran players for more picks and younger players, and establish consistency in the front office and now behind the bench, a number of the teams listed are either having trouble figuring out how to do such things, or as of yet, unaware that they need to.

  • Jeremy Ian

    “woeful consistency” — great category.

    Good piece. The Islanders and Devils did surprise me in this pack, at first blush.

    There are a number of lessons in this history clinic.

    One is that the goaltending foundation matters a lot. That fluky Coyotes run and the Devils in 2012 were all on account of Smith and Brodeur; Smith played extremely well, but well over capacity, and Brodeur was on his last fumes.

    The team that did have solid goaltending but still managed to be consistently woeful was Buffalo. The team in front of Miller in 08/09 should have done better.

    So, lesson for the Leafs?

  • Jeremy Ian

    Gotta feel bad for Edmonton. I mean, they’re starting a rebuild all over again after 10 straight playoff no shows.

    I hate them for doing nothing will all those 1st overall picks but you gotta feel bad for them too.

    As for the Leafs, I’ve drank 39 glasses of the kool aid. I’m fully on board with the Shanaplan. I will wait patiently another 2-3 years for playoffs.

  • Gary Empey

    What a great read on just how many franchises can’t get out of the gutter.

    Nicely done, Brady. Your former radio station isn’t the same without you. You were hands down their best host! Hope you’ll be back there or elsewhere soon!