“We don’t know what next year is going to look like.”
It’s a refrain we heard frequently throughout this disjointed NHL offseason. Indeed, it was only in the last 30 days that the league settled on its divisional alignment and schedule. With preseason games scrapped, tonight’s slate will mark the first time in 107 days that NHL players are on the ice for any sort of competitive contest.
It was Sep. 28 when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars in Edmonton to capture the long-delayed 2019-20 Stanley Cup. The odd timing of last season and the delayed start of this one have perhaps distorted our sense of just how long the offseason was for the two finalists.
The Stars’ opener was pushed back to next week because of COVID issues, but the Lightning will drop the puck on their season on Wednesday following a break of only 106 days after ending the last one.
With work stoppages and/or COVID altering or (cancelling) six NHL seasons since 1991-92, offseasons of differing lengths are hardly unusual. The Lightning’s break from the end of last season to the start of this one is not the shortest for a Cup Finalist in league history – but it’s not far from the top of the list.
Of the seven teams other than the Lightning listed above, only the 1999-00 Dallas Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final following their abbreviated offseason – and they fell short. One season after winning its only Cup, Dallas lost an exhausting Final to New Jersey, in which Game 5 and the decisive Game 6 went triple overtime and double OT, respectively.
While that Dallas team had a strong regular season – 102 points and a division title – two of the other Cup winners on our list had poor seasons following shortened offseasons. The 1995-96 New Jersey Devils and 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes didn’t even reach the playoffs, and both played poorly in the latter stages of the season: The Devils went 5-8-1 in their last 14 games, while the Hurricanes stumbled to the finish line with a 2-5-0 mark. The notion that playing a lot of hockey over a span of a couple of seasons can take its toll would seem to be accurate here.
Other than those two clubs, only one other defending champion in the last half century, the 2014-15 Los Angeles Kings, has failed to reach the playoffs. It’s not hard to find a connection between an especially short break between seasons and a poor showing as defending champ. En route to the 2014 Stanley Cup, that LA team won a conference final in dramatic fashion over the other defending champ on our list, the Chicago Blackhawks. After winning the Cup in a shortened 2012-13 campaign, Chicago had a solid regular season in ’13-14, finishing third in a very competitive Central Division. The Blackhawks were favored in the West Final against the Kings but lost in a Game 7 overtime.
Among the teams to follow Stanley Cup Final losses with short offseasons, two of them are noteworthy. The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2013-14 Boston Bruins were very successful in the regular season, both winning the Presidents’ Trophy. The Red Wings set an NHL record (since tied) with 62 victories, while the Bruins – with the chance to add to their win total in shootouts – claimed 54 wins. Yet neither club reached the Stanley Cup Final. Detroit dropped a six-game Western Conference Final to the league’s second-best regular-season team (and eventual Cup winner), the Colorado Avalanche. Boston’s 2014 playoff exit came one round earlier and might have been a bigger surprise: a Game 7 second-round loss on home ice to the Eastern Conference No. 4 seed, the Montreal Canadiens.
Those Detroit and Boston teams finished a combined 44 points ahead of the teams that knocked them out of the postseason – both of whom were, at least at the time, their archrivals. Whether it was the short rest going into the season or simply the level playing field when hated enemies meet (“throw out the records. . . “), those were series defeats suffered by teams that had to be seen as favorites to at least reach the Final.
It’s worth noting that Detroit’s ’95-96 record of 62 wins was tied two seasons ago by a Tampa Bay team that finished 21 points ahead of the second-best team – and then was shocked in a first-round four-game sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets. That flameout gave Tampa Bay a bitter 168-day offseason, which ultimately fed into last season’s title run.
It’s not to suggest that an early playoff exit is the prescription for success in the following season – but perhaps teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and St. Louis, who exited in the qualifying round or first round last August, have reason to be optimistic in 2021.
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