SEATTLE – Watching the just-completed opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs underscored again how difficult it is to win a championship.
Or, at least, to plan on winning one. There’s a difference. And one of which Kraken fans should take note.
We saw five opening-round series go to Game 7, the second most in NHL history. Among survivors, we have the treat not only of a Battle of Florida between the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers but also the first postseason Battle of Alberta since 1991 between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
The remaining series will see Colorado play St. Louis and Carolina face the New York Rangers.
If you can pick a clear Cup favorite, you’re better at this than me. Florida, Colorado and Carolina finished 1-2-3 in the standings, and none has proved all that capable of escaping the second round of late. The Panthers finally made it beyond Round 1 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 gassed 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-cap league designed to prevent repeat winners and promote parity.
And that reality bumps up against the oft-expressed desire of teams and fan bases hoping to build lasting success through the slow but steady construction of a championship-level core. After all, if championships are elusive by design, then can lasting success truly be defined by winning titles?
And if we accept that teams can no longer realistically plan for lasting championship-level success – especially not in the NHL – then sacrificing years on end to build that core seems particularly futile.
Part of me wonders whether sustained success is being improperly defined by attaching the “championship” dimension. Sure, the ultimate goal of every player and fan is winning it all. But the critical question is whether pro sports teams – given the quest for parity by modern leagues – are capable of successfully planning to regularly win championships.
I mean, the Lightning might be the best team of the past 30 years and yet will probably have their Cup streak halted at two. And in today’s NHL, that’s as good as it gets.
A curious narrative I saw pushed by some at season’s end was how the Vegas Golden Knights missing the postseason for the first time was somehow a victory for the Kraken way of doing things. To wit: The Golden Knights pushed salary-cap limits in making one Cup Final, a second conference final and four postseasons in their first four years in the league.
That strategy has caught up to them. The NHL disallowed a cap-preserving March trade of forward Evgenii Dadonov, preventing Vegas from adding reinforcements and causing it 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 could prove superior to what the Golden Knights just accomplished. “Get back to us four years from now, and we’ll see which way was better” is the prevailing sentiment among some.
Well, um. OK, I guess we’ll see.
Honestly, aside from winning a championship by Year 5, I don’t see how the Kraken prevail over Vegas in a battle of five-year expansion plans. Just to match the Golden Knights, they’d have to make the playoffs the next four seasons, win three rounds in one of those years and two in another.
I’d argue that the Golden Knights merely reaching the playoffs four times in four years might soon become how “sustained success” is defined in this league.
So the Kraken won’t necessarily be the better franchise if they spend four or five losing seasons accumulating draft picks and building toward having a playoff team – the way Buffalo, New Jersey and Detroit are trying to do.
Sure, it’s possible a future Kraken playoff team will be of championship caliber and maybe even win a Cup. But it’s just as possible, given modern NHL design, that they end up like the Maple Leafs and get repeatedly bounced from the opening round.
The lesson here? Don’t dump on Vegas for making the present count. It’s possible to do both: Make the interim years interesting while building toward an elusive championship that may never happen.
The Golden Knights, as mentioned, already made the Cup final once. That’s as many appearances as the San Jose Sharks have in a highly successful first 30 years of their existence.
As for conference finals, the Colorado Avalanche haven’t been to one in 20 years, even with the elite team they’ve produced the past five seasons.
Even Toronto’s ordinarily angst-ridden fan base seems to be concluding that the playoffs are a crapshoot. There has been surprising pushback in recent days from Leafs Nation against dismantling its team’s player core, front office or coaching staff despite a sixth consecutive early exit.
And championship runs sometimes emerge from nowhere. St. Louis never expected to win its first Cup in 2019, given its last-place standing midway through the season.
Montreal backed into the playoffs the final two days of last season, then shockingly came within three wins of a title.
So if the Maple Leafs can plan and plan and still not reach a Cup final for 55 years while the Canadians can just stumble into one, sacrificing half-decades to build a championship level core seems somewhat misguided. If the realistic goal is merely making the playoffs and then rolling the dice, well, it shouldn’t take four, five or seven losing seasons to build a team capable of that.
Thankfully, the Kraken aren’t talking five-year plans. General manager Ron Francis has been clear he hopes for significant summer improvements. Make the right moves, and the Kraken could at least be knocking on that playoff door less than a year from now.
And in a league in which even elite teams often struggle to win a round or two, walking through that playoff door might be as far as the Kraken’s planning can realistically take them before the rest is left largely to chance.
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