NHL's Playoff Losers hope to finally escape Stanley Cup futility

1:51 | NHL
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Tuesday April 11th, 2017

The Wild are a changeling child where the switch worked out, a little like the Indianapolis Colts, who were replaced in Baltimore by the original Cleveland Browns (now the Ravens), and where the teams in both places have prospered. In the 24 years since the Minnesota North Stars hauled themselves to Dallas and dropped the whole North business, they have won a Stanley Cup, and the Wild, an expansion franchise, have improved all the way to regular-playoff-participant standing. Which is where the parallels with the Colts become problematic for Minnesota. For years the Colts failed in the playoffs because they couldn’t defeat the Patriots.

This is the kind of thing that happens. In the late 1980s, Michael Jordan’s Bulls couldn’t get past the Pistons. In the case of the Wild, the role of the Patriots and the Pistons has been played largely by the Blackhawks. Last year, however, Minnesota departed in the first round, losing in six games to, as fate would have it, the Stars. So now, as the 2017 postseason begins, there is a term that fits the Wild, and it is a burden, and it is a burden not unfamiliar to people like Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan.

Playoff Loser.

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As long as we determine success and failure by rings—or, in this context, by Cups—there will be good teams that get marked as Playoff Losers. This distinction seems sharper in hockey, largely because the Stanley Cup is so talismanic. When it became clear to Hall of Famer Raymond Bourque that he would never get his name inscribed on the great silver Precious with the Bruins, he (politely) forced a trade to Colorado in 2000. (He and the Avalanche finally won the Cup in ’01.) A ring is something you can lose because you tossed it into the wrong drawer. But your name on the Cup is forever.

Defining success by championships is never really fair. Jordan was the NBA’s best player while he was losing to the Pistons, and he was the NBA’s best player when he was winning his six titles. Manning was a great quarterback when Bill Belichick was driving him crazy early in his career, and he was a great quarterback when he finally got past New England in 2006 on his way to a Super Bowl championship. Nevertheless, they were defined in an unflattering way before they proved that they could lead teams to the ultimate prize. This gets to be a terrible burden, year after year, until you can put it down, and some players never do. Wilt Chamberlain actually won a couple of championships, and yet he was seen as a Playoff Loser for all those times he succumbed to Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s.

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Certainly, the Wild had a successful regular season, but none of that matters as their first-round series against the Blues gets under way. Minnesota is, of course, far from alone in this predicament. Towering above the Wild—and above the Predators and the Blues and the other members of the postseason petrified forest—are your Capitals.

The parallels between Washington and the titleless Bulls are compelling. Both were regular-season juggernauts. Both were built around a transcendent individual talent—Jordan in Chicago and Alex Ovechkin with the Caps. In MJ’s first three seasons, the Bulls never got out of the first round of the playoffs. In the next three they couldn’t get past the Pistons. There was serious talk that, for all his talent, Jordan lacked some essential something, or his team did, or both. That talk proved to be, well, premature.

Ovechkin and Washington seem stuck in that spot right now. Since he joined the team in 2005–06, the Capitals have regularly passed the 100-point barrier in the regular season. In that same stretch they haven’t just failed to play for the Cup—they also haven’t even made the Eastern Conference finals. In ’09–10 the Caps earned 121 points and lost in the quarterfinals to Montreal. Last year they put up 120 and fell in the second round to Pittsburgh. Ovechkin’s big championship run used to feel inevitable, but now 12 years later it feels long overdue.

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In the iron calculus of defining success by what happens in the playoffs, making the conference finals—and performing well onceyou get there—can turn a Playoff Loser into a Team on the Verge. This becomes even more secure if the team wins the conference and loses in the finals. (Right, Sharks?) But only winning the Cup can really kill off the Playoff Loser stigma. All the questions are answered and all the problems solved—at least for a while.

The next stop on the unflattering narrative train doesn’t occur until a franchise has gone a few decades without winning it again. The Rangers lived through that, and so did the Red Wings. For further details you can consult the Maple Leafs, a charter member of the NHL whose surprising run to this year’s postseason has a lot of hockey pundits treating them as if they were an expansion team—like, say, the Wild—that has struck the motherlode. That’s because Toronto hasn’t won a Cup in 50 years.

Everything old is new again, but futility can live forever.

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