Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Long View

In 1986, the Detroit Red Wings won 17 games.

That isn’t a misprint, and it wasn’t an abbreviated season. The Red Wings won 17 games in an 80-game season. Their best player was a 20-year old who managed to dress for only 51 games that season. You might have heard of him – Steve Yzerman. But let’s leave him out of this conversation. We’re looking at teams, not players.

The Wings followed up that abysmal season with some wandering in the desert, achieving a level of mediocrity that saw them average 38 wins a year over the next nine seasons, making the playoffs eight times, but not winning a Cup and getting to a Cup final once.

Then in 1996 they won 62 games, to this day a franchise and league record. They also lost in the Western Conference final. One might call that “disappointing.” But in 13 seasons since, including that 62-win campaign, the Red Wings have reached the 50-win mark six times (the last four in a row), the 100-point threshold 11 times (the last nine in a row), and have won the Stanley Cup four times (this year’s outcome for a fifth still in doubt).

The Wings did it with an elite player subordinating personal statistics for team success (that Yzerman guy) and developing a system that identified talent, nurtured it, and sent it on a conveyor to the parent club that replenished it and made it a perennial championship contender, even when that Yzerman fellow hung up his skates.


On November 19, 1983, the Edmonton Oilers defeated the New Jersey Devils, 13-4.

That’s not a misprint, either. The loss dropped the Devils to 2-18-0 on their way to their own 17-win season. It prompted the Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky to remark that “it's time they got their act together, they're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice.”

It took awhile. It would be nine more seasons before the Devils reached the 40-win mark in their history. But even doing that, it would be another two years before they would win their first Stanley Cup, in 1995. In the 14 seasons starting with that first Stanley Cup win , the Devils have had fewer than 40 wins once (not including the 22 wins in a 48-game season 1995 before winning the Cup). They’ve had fewer than 100 points only three times (not including that 1995 season), and they’ve won three Stanley Cups with another Stanley Cup finals appearance on top of that.

They did it by developing a system and building it around a player – a goaltender in this instance (Martin Brodeur) – making them one of the most consistent of teams over the past 15 years, one that is always mentioned among Stanley Cup contenders.


In 1990, the Quebec Nordiques won 12 games.

Nope, not a misprint, and that was an 80-game season, too. If the New Jersey Devils were “Mickey Mouse,” it would be hard to find a cartoon character that could have accurately resembled the Nordiques. Shoot, they only won 16 games the next year and 20 the year after that. But after that 20-win season in 1992, the Nordiques consummated what is one of the biggest heists in trade in NHL history. They traded Eric Lindros to Philadelphia for five players, a first round draft pick, $15 million (when $15 million was real money in sports), and future considerations that might have included the future rights to Pat’s King of Steaks, for all we know.

Adding assets to a team that already included a 22-year old phenom by the name of “Sakic,” the Nordiques won 47 games the following year. But playoff success would be longer in coming. It took them three more years before they won a Stanley Cup (unfortunately for the fine people of Quebec, they did it in Colorado in their first year after having moved the franchise). But starting with that Stanley Cup year, they would win at least 40 games in 11 of the next 12 seasons, reached the Western Conference finals six times, and won two Stanley Cup. While their star appears to have faded, the Colorado Avalanche was also one of those teams on most experts’ short list of Stanley Cup contenders for a dozen seasons.

They did it by making a shrewd decision with respect to personnel when they were at their lowest. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were the cornerstones of those perennial contenders from Denver (not to mention another move later – that for Montreal goaltender Patrick Roy).


The point is that these things take time, even under the best of circumstances. A lot of experts, so-called, didn’t expect the Capitals to make the playoffs last year, especially after their awful start. That made making them something of a bonus and a playoff loss in the first round less painful. The team had the look of overachievers.

This year, the expectations brought on by that playoff performance in 2008 were higher – much higher. And that makes this year’s second round exit bitter in a way that last year’s wasn’t, tainted with the whiff of disappointment, of – yes – underachievement.

But this is a team two years removed from back-to-back 70-point seasons. Detroit waited 11 seasons after that 17-win debacle before winning a Cup. It took New Jersey 11 seasons to go from “Mickey Mouse” to the penthouse. It took Quebec six years and a move to Denver to win the prize. Folks forget that once upon a time, these teams were truly, epically, legendarily bad.

There aren’t any guarantees here. The Capitals could become the perennial disappointment that are the San Jose Sharks – a team of immense talent and promise that goes quick and quiet every spring. Or they could be the modern reincarnation of the St. Louis Blues that made the playoffs every year for a quarter century (from 1980 through 2004), but which never won a Cup and advanced to a conference final only once.

But there isn’t anything about this team to suggest that it will not be better next year, even with the difficult personnel decisions that lie ahead. The Caps have a good core group, they have role players who contribute, and they might have the deepest pool of goaltending prospects in the league. If these Caps realize their promise, build on their disappointments, and win a Stanley Cup (or two, or three) while being a perennial contender, these days – not to mention the 70-point seasons – will be a dim memory, if not forgotten all together.

Like that 17-win season for those Red Wings…