There’s an old saying that goes the darkest hour is just before dawn. Looking back at the history of the NHL or the history of any professional league for that matter, we see that this cliché often rings true. The speed with which franchises can turn their fortunes around can sometimes cause whiplash. One year a team is out of the playoffs early, their record way under .500; the next year they’re making a run at the Cup.
Now there are of course those teams that seem perpetually stuck in darkness, and I know sometimes it seems like the Caps are one of them. But let’s not forget it wasn’t so long ago that this team, while not necessarily a powerhouse or Cup contender, was at least a perennial playoff participant. So was Philly, by the way, something quickly forgotten when you see them wallowing at the bottom of the league. LA also made a splash for many years, albeit thanks to the help of a certain #99.
And it works both ways. Just think back to how pitiful most of the Southeast Division used to be – after all, even the Caps used to beat those teams fairly consistently. It all goes in cycles. Draft position, key free agent pickups, coaching changes, all can be the impetus for a team to rocket to the top...or plummet to the bottom.
I was doing a little digging and I came across Mike Vogel’s season review from the 2003-04 campaign. Ah, the year of the fire sale. Lowest prices, biggest deals...everything MUST GO! If you've somehow blocked it out, here's a recap:
- The Caps started the season with a payroll just over $51 million (!!)
- After winning the season opener, they would drop the next 8 and would never crack the .500 mark
- First to go was Konowalchuk, who was traded to Colorado for Bates Battaglia and prospect Jonas Johansson
- On December 10, Bruce Cassidy was replaced by Glen Hanlon as coach of the Caps but it failed to ignite the team
- By mid-January the team was 13 games under .500 with the second worst record in the NHL
- Jan 23 - the Caps exorcised some evil, sending Jagr to the Rangers for Anson Carter
- Feb 18 - Peter Bondra was sent to Ottawa in return for Brooks Laich and a 2nd round pick in 2005
- Feb 27 - Robert Lang traded to Detroit for Fleischmann, a 2004 1st round pick and a 2006 4th round
- Mar 3 - Gonchar sent to Boston for Morrisonn, '04 1st and 2nd round
- Mar 4 - Nylander followed Gonchar to the Bruins, returning a 2nd round pick in 2006
- Anson Carter was then sent to LA for Jared Aulin, followed by Mike Grier's trade to Jakub Klepis
- Despite the roster shake-up the Caps won only 2 of their last 14, limping into the lockout-induced break
“This spring marks the second straight year that two teams have come from nowhere to compete for the Western Conference championship. Last year the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim improved by 26 points and came within one victory of winning their first Stanley Cup title. The Ducks went up against the Minnesota Wild in the conference championship series. Minnesota improved by 22 points and reached the conference finals in its first-ever postseason appearance. Both Anaheim and Minnesota went from missing the playoffs to competing for the conference title in the span of just a year.”It’s an interesting stat. It becomes more interesting when you look at the paths of the Flames in 2004 and the Oilers two years later. Then think about the fact that right now the two finalists from last year are on the cusp of being or have already been eliminated from the postseason – which if it happens, as I mentioned before, would be an NHL first. It’s a graphic representation of how quickly things can change.
How quickly? Well, let’s do a little case study, shall we?
- in 2002-03 the Flames finished with a record of 29-36-13-4 for 75 points and 5th place in the Northwest Division, missing the playoffs
- in 2003-04 they finished with a record of 42-30-7-3 for 94 points, good enough for 3rd place in the division. They then completed an improbable playoff run, pushing the Tampa Bay Lightning to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
IMPROVED BY 19 POINTS, STANLEY CUP FINALISTS
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
- in 2001-02 the Bolts had 69 points, posting a 27-40-11-4 record and finishing 3rd in the division out of the playoffs
- in 2002-03 they finished with 93 points for first in the division, going above .500 for only the second time in franchise history and subsequently going to the postseason for only the second time in franchise history. They lost in the second round to the Devils.
- in 2003-04 Tampa finished with a franchise record 106 points. They posted a record of 46-22-8-6 for first place in the division and rode the wave all the way to the Stanley Cup
FROM 1997-98 TO 2002-03 THE LIGHTNING WENT FROM 44 POINTS TO 93 POINTS
- in 2003-04 the Oilers missed the playoffs; the following year they pulled a Calgary and made a surprising run all the way to the Finals, where they also forced a Game 7 against the Hurricanes
- in 2003-04 the ‘Canes finished under .500 with a record of 28-34-14-6, earning 76 points and finishing out of the playoffs
- in 2005-06 Carolina improved to 52-22-8, picking up 112 points for the Southeast Division title and winning the Stanley Cup in 7 games
36 POINT IMPROVEMENT IN ONE SEASON
- in 1995-96 the Sens finished with a record of 18-59-5, earning 41 points and coming in dead last in the Northeast Division
- in 1996-97 they picked up 77 points with a record of 31-36-15, earning their first playoff berth in franchise history
36 POINT IMPROVEMENT IN ONE SEASON
- in 2003-04 the Sabres ended the season with 85 points and in 5th place in the division, missing the playoffs for the 3rd consecutive season – that’s the first time they missed the postseason in consecutive seasons since 1985-87and the they longest streak in franchise history
- in 2005-06 they set a franchise record for wins with 52, posting 110 points and losing to the eventual Cup Champs in the conference finals
25 POINT IMPROVEMENT IN ONE SEASON
- the Preds missed the playoffs the first five seasons of their existence
- in 2002-03 they finished 4th in the Central Division with 74 points
- in 2003-04 they improved to 91 points and earned their first playoff berth, losing in the first round
- in 2005-06 they posted a franchise-best 106 points but again lost in the first round
- this season they already have 101 points with 7 games remaining, clinching a playoff spot and battling for the Presidents’ Trophy
17 POINT IMPROVEMENT OVER 1 SEASON, 32 POINT IMPROVEMENT OVER 2 SEASONS
- After losing in the conference finals in 2000-01, a season that saw the Penguins finish with 96 points and a record of 42-28-9-3, the Penguins began trading away players, starting of course with Jagr
- from 2001-02 to 2005-06 the Pens finished last in their division and never had more than 69 points over those four years – that includes the last two seasons where they had 58 points each year
- as the 2006-07 season draws to a close the Penguins are fighting for 1st in the division and are on pace for a 3rd-5th place finish
ON TARGET FOR AT LEAST A 40 POINT INCREASE IN ONE SEASON
And that brings us to...
- the Caps picked up 19 wins through their first 160 games and missed the playoffs in each of their first 8 seasons, never cracking the 70 point level
- in 1981-82 the Caps had a record of 26-41-13 for 65 points, 5th in the Patrick Division and out of the playoffs for the 8th consecutive year
- in 1982-83 they finished 39-25-16 for 94 points, their first season with a record over .500. They finished 3rd in the division and earned their first playoff berth, kicking off 14 consecutive seasons of postseason appearances
- that streak ended in 1996-97 when the Caps finished 5th in the Atlantic, posting a 33-40-9 record for 75 points
- the next year they bounced back and completed an incredible run to the Finals, where they were swept by Detroit
After this season the Caps will have missed the playoffs 4 of the last 5 seasons. The climb to the top takes patience, good draft history, and a little bit of luck. Most of the pieces are in place, though. The question becomes what will the club do in the offseason and throughout the next season to insure that the evolution continues...