Inside the NHL
Watching the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs that just ended once again underscored just how difficult it is to win a championship.
Or, at least, to plan to win one. There is a difference. And one that Kraken fans should consider.
We saw five first-round series go to Game 7, the second-most in NHL history. Among the survivors, we were treated not only to a battle in Florida between the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, but also the first battle in Alberta in the playoffs since 1991 between the Flames of Calgary and the Edmonton Oilers.
The remaining series will see Colorado take on St. Louis and Carolina take on the New York Rangers.
If you can pick a clear Cup favorite, you’re better than me. Florida, Colorado and Carolina finished 1-2-3 in the standings, and neither has proven capable of escaping the second round lately. The Panthers finally made it past the first round for the first time since 1996.
As for Tampa Bay, the team that beat the Maple Leafs 2-1 in Game 7 in Toronto looked depleted and nothing like the champions of the previous two seasons.
Which brings us back to today’s topic: the difficulty of capturing championships in a salary-capped league designed to prevent repeat winners and promote parity.
And that reality clashes with the oft-expressed desire of teams and fans who hope to build lasting success through the slow but steady building of a championship-level core. After all, if championships are elusive by design, then can enduring success really be defined by winning titles?
And if we accept that teams can no longer realistically plan for sustained success at the championship level — especially not in the NHL — then sacrificing years to build that core seems especially futile.
Part of me wonders if sustainable success isn’t defined incorrectly by attaching the “championship” dimension. Of course, the ultimate goal of every player and fan is to win it all. But the crucial question is whether professional sports teams – given the quest for parity in modern leagues – are actually able to successfully plan to consistently win championships.
I mean, the Lightning may be the best team of the past 30 years and yet their cut streak will likely be snapped at two. And in today’s NHL, that’s as good as it gets.
A curious narrative I saw pushed by some at the end of the season was how the Vegas Golden Knights missing the playoffs for the first time was sort of a win for the Kraken way. To wit: The Golden Knights have pushed the limits of the salary cap by appearing in a Cup Final, a second Conference Final and four playoffs in their first four years in the league.
This strategy caught up with them. The NHL declined a March trade that preserved forward Evgenii Dadonov’s cap, preventing Vegas from adding reinforcements and causing them to miss the playoffs by three points.
The narrative regarding the league’s two most recent expansion teams seems to be that the Kraken’s slower way of building might prove superior to what the Golden Knights have just accomplished. “Come back to us in four years, and we’ll see which way was the best” is the prevailing sentiment among some.
Well, uh. OK, I guess we’ll see.
Honestly, other than winning a championship in year five, I don’t see how the Kraken trumps Vegas in a battle of five-year expansion plans. Just to tie the Golden Knights, they would have to make the playoffs in the next four seasons, winning three innings one of those years and two the other.
I would argue that the Golden Knights only reaching the playoffs four times in four years could soon become the definition of “sustained success” in this league.
So the Kraken won’t necessarily be the best franchise if they spend four or five losing seasons racking up draft picks and building a playoff team –– like Buffalo, New Jersey and Detroit are trying to do.
Of course, it’s possible that a future Kraken playoff team could be championship caliber and possibly even win a cup. But it’s just as possible, given the modern design of the NHL, that they end up like the Maple Leafs and get rebounded repeatedly in the first round.
The lesson here? Don’t trust Vegas for making the giveaway count. It’s possible to do both: make the middle years interesting while progressing towards an elusive championship that may never happen.
The Golden Knights, as mentioned, have made the Cup final once before. That’s as many appearances as the San Jose Sharks had in the first 30 years of their very successful existence.
As for the Conference Finals, the Colorado Avalanche haven’t made it in 20 years, even with the elite team they’ve produced for the past five seasons.
Even Toronto’s usually anxious fan base seems to conclude that the playoffs are a game of dice. There has been a surprising backlash in recent days from Leafs Nation against the dismantling of their team’s core players, front office or coaching staff despite a sixth straight early exit.
And championship races sometimes emerge out of nowhere. Saint-Louis did not expect to win their first Cup in 2019, given their last place in the middle of the season.
Montreal slipped back in the playoffs the final two days of last season, then surprisingly found themselves within three wins of a title.
So if the Maple Leafs can plan and plan and still fail to reach a Cup Final for 55 years when the Canadiens can just stumble on one, sacrificing half-decades to build a championship-level core seems somewhat unwise. If the realistic goal now is just to make the playoffs and then roll the dice, well, it shouldn’t take four, five, or seven losing seasons to build a team capable of that.
Luckily, the Kraken don’t talk about five-year plans. General Manager Ron Francis has made it clear that he expects significant improvements this summer. Get it right, and the Kraken could at least be knocking on the playoff door in less than a year.
And in a league where even elite teams often struggle to win a round or two, getting through that playoff door could be as far as the Kraken’s planning can realistically take them before the rest is largely gone. left to chance.