Inside the NHL
Six months after the National Hockey League regular season launched, what puck aficionados routinely refer to as “the real season’’ begins this week.
The playoffs are a grueling two months for a league with arguably no peer in North America when it comes to parity once the postseason begins. The NHL long ago shed itself of the Stanley Cup dynasties that permeated its landscape from the 1940s onset of the Original Six era right on through the early 1990s.
While we can debate whether Major League Baseball enjoys better regular-season parity, the playoff ledger has tilted hockey’s way the past two decades.
No NHL team has gone to three consecutive finals since the Edmonton Oilers did it 34 years ago, in stark contrast to NFL’s New England Patriots and NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers being in the midst of such runs while MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers are vying for a third World Series appearance in a row.
Only one NHL franchise — the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins — has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since 1998. The Penguins also were the only NHL team to reach consecutive finals over that 21-year span, while the NBA has had eight such finalists, MLB five and NFL four.
Finally, only four NHL teams since 2000 that finished first overall in the regular season have gone on to claim a Cup title. The NBA had nine regular-season champs claim a league title in that span, the NFL had seven and MLB five.
So, while teams like the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have enjoyed multiple championships the past decade or so, the days of a lone NHL franchise ruling everyone for consecutive years on end are long gone.
We’ve heard ample attempts at explaining it, from the NHL adopting a salary cap after the 2004-05 lockout to the sheer length of a more-physical postseason exposing weaknesses previously hidden.
There will be locally-tinged playoff story lines to follow, starting with Stanwood and Everett product T.J. Oshie and his defending Cup champion Washington Capitals, who open against the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ll be challenged in the Eastern Conference by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who play Columbus after becoming the second team in NHL history to reach 62 victories in a season. The Lightning feature forward Tyler Johnson from the Spokane suburb of Liberty Lake.
Johnson tied his career high with 29 goals this season as the Lightning ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy for the top overall regular-season record. Oshie scored 25 goals for the Caps, who started slow but won 16 of their final 23 games to claim the Metropolitan Division crown.
The Western Conference’s top team was the Calgary Flames, who now face Colorado and feature another Spokane-area graduate in Derek Ryan. The plugging centerman, who spent much of his pro career in Austria and with the Hurricanes before joining the Flames this season, scored 13 goals and had a second consecutive 38-point campaign.
Finally, a Bonney Lake product with zero goals might see playoff action with the San Jose Sharks, who open against the 2018 Cup finalist Vegas Golden Knights. After three NHL appearances last year, Dylan Gambrell played eight games for the Sharks this season but has yet to log an NHL point.
The Sharks last week sent Gambrell back down to the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda, who just made the AHL playoffs. But there’s a decent chance Gambrell could rejoin the Sharks this postseason, especially given his strong game last week in a defeat against Calgary.
Some non-Washington natives with Seattle Thunderbirds connections to watch include reigning NHL Rookie of the Year Mathew Barzal, whose Islanders led the Metropolitan Division much of the year before the Capitals took over. Barzal’s teammate, defenseman Thomas Hickey, also played for the Thunderbirds.
Former T-Birds forward Shea Theodore notched a career-high 12 goals and 25 assists for the Golden Knights and played three games in the finals defeat against Washington, scoring once.
Brenden Dillon had a solid season on defense for the Sharks, appearing in 80 games.
Finally, future Hall of Fame candidate Patrick Marleau — the most decorated ex-Thunderbird of all-time — tries yet again for his first Cup victory, this time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto is in tough against first-round opponent Boston and hasn’t made the Cup final since 1967, while Marleau made it once with the Sharks in 2016.
Onetime Everett Silvertips defenseman Ryan Murray remains out indefintely for the playoffs with Columbus after sustaining an upper body injury.
At first glance, Johnson and Oshie appear to have the edge at hoisting the Cup. But as mentioned, recent history has not been kind to teams trying to repeat as champions or parlay regular-season titles into something more meaningful.
Sure, the salary cap had something to do with it, making it difficult to horde talented players for years. The cap came on the heels of the NHL becoming the last major pro sports league to embrace true free agency, which began the dispersal of players away from championship cores.
Throw in the vanishing of the “territorial exemption’’ rule from decades prior, which gave Original Six squads any amateur player within 50 miles of their home rink, and it becomes clear why NHL champions no longer repeat as automatically.
The last true NHL dynasty — by definition of three or four consecutive years at the top — was the New York Islanders, who won four consecutive championships from 1980-83 and made a fifth consecutive final in 1984 before being dethroned by the Edmonton Oilers. Those Oilers, who’d lost the 1983 final to New York, went on to win four titles in five years and a fifth in seven seasons.
Finally, the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s passed for a new generation’s definition of a dynasty with three finals appearances in four seasons and victories in 1997 and 1998. But seriously, the true championship dynasty thing is done.
With four best-of-seven rounds and up to 28 playoff games for the Cup winner, this becomes a war of attrition the deeper a team goes, and luck can factor in. Tampa Bay, which went 24-3-4 in one-goal games this season — including 7-3 in five-minute overtimes and 6-1 in shootouts — risks being exposed by pucks suddenly bouncing the other way or by depleting playoff overtimes that can drag on for hours until somebody finally scores.
So, this really is a new season. And while there will likely be some local connection hoisting the Cup, history tells us regular-season results won’t be of much help in figuring out who that will be.