How long must a team suffer? How long has a team suffered? This is the second of several posts looking into the playoff droughts of 30 of the 32 active NHL franchises to figure out what went wrong and how it ended. This post covers Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus.
Not everyone can make the postseason. Every season sees teams end their season with their final regular season game. Some teams miss it more than others and for some long periods of time. The New Jersey Devils, for example, have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons now. Some of the People Who Matter claim that this is necessary. The result of a rebuild; a price to pay now for setting up a team for future prizes. Is that really true though? And how does this current drought for the Devils compare with other NHL teams? What can we learn from other droughts in NHL history? To answer these questions and more, let us take a deeper dive into playoff droughts among the NHL franchise.
This is a multi-part series covering the active franchises in the NHL and their significant runs of futility except for the recent teams in Las Vegas and Seattle. In Part 1, I covered the scope of this project, acknowledgments about the differences in NHL league structures and eras, and the first set of teams: the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, and Buffalo Sabres. Please review Part 1 if you have any questions with how I am approaching this issue. In this part, I will cover a notable drought from each of the five C-teams in the NHL: the Calgary Flames, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The goal is to learn from what they suffered from and how they got out of it. First, a chart with the Devils’ own history of playoff droughts included for reference purposes (it is a Devils site, after all).
The Playoff Drought Chart – Part 2
The Calgary Flames
Also Known As: Atlanta Flames
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 18 misses out of 49 total seasons; 36.7% missed.
Current Situation: After missing out in 2021, the Flames not only made the playoffs but won the Pacific Division with 111 points from a record of 50-21-11. They did lose to their hated Alberta rivals in the second round.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Part 1 ended with Buffalo, a team that was a regular fixture in the postseason for the most part until the last decade. The Flames have a similar profile. Even when in Atlanta, they only missed the playoffs twice, and once was more or less due to the playoff structure in 1974-75 where an 83-point team missed out – a team nine points better than their 1973-74 team did qualify for the playoffs – because they finished fourth in the Patrick and only the top three in their division would qualify. They would rebound and remain in the mix after their move to Calgary. Unlike Buffalo, the Flames peaked in the 1980s and won their first and only Stanley Cup in 1989. The team would be regularly in the playoffs until their first and longest prolonged drought of 7 seasons. This drought ran from 1996-97 to 2002-03.
In the 1995-96 season – an infamous one for New Jersey – the Western Conference was weak. Despite finishing below 50% in points, a 34-37-11 team finished second (!) in the Smythe Division and qualified for the playoffs. This was under Pierre Page, former Flames assistant coach and Quebec’s GM and head coach in the 1990s. The team was led by Theo Fleury, dropping 40 goals and 96 points to lead the team in scoring; with plenty of support from German Titov, Michael Nylander, Phil Housely, Gary Roberts, and the first full season of 1992 first round pick Cory Stillman. Goaltending was not great with a team save percentage just a touch below the league average, but they only allowed 240 goals and that was good for eighth in the league. They got swept by Chicago, but even the sweep had a glimpse of the future. They debuted an 18-year old forward named Jarome Iginla. During this season, legendary center Joe Nieuwendyk was in a contract dispute with the Flames. Rather than pay him what he wanted, Calgary traded him to Dallas for Iginla and Corey Millen. As much as fans may have disliked the trade, Iginla was one to watch for the future. A future that could still include the likes of Fleury, Nylander, Roberts, Housely, and so forth.
Here’s the thing with Calgary: their drafting was not that good in the 1990s. Here is a list of draft results from HockeyDB. Since their 1990 draft class, led by swapping with New Jersey to take Trevor Kidd over Martin Brodeur, the Flames have drafted just one goaltender that actually played a significant amount of time in the NHL. Only that the Flames never signed Craig Anderson and so Anderson re-entered the draft in 2001 and started his career in Chicago. I would argue the Flames have not selected a significantly good goaltender since Mike Vernon, which was way back in 1981. No, I’m not counting Kidd, 2002 sixth rounder Curtis McElhinney, or 2011 sixth rounder Laurent Brossoit. Certainly not 1998 fourth rounder Dany Sabourin, who played just 57 games in the NHL.
It was not much better for skaters. Better, yes, but not by a ton. Since picking Stillman at sixth overall in 1991, the only “scoring” forward that turned out for them was the very overage Titov in 1993 and you would have to wait until 2002 for the nearly 0.5 point-per-game rate of Matthew Lombardi. No drafted forward would break 0.5 points per game until Mikael Backlund in 2007. Depth and “character” forwards? Sure, Calgary found a few of those. Scorers? No.
Defensemen were a bit more successful from Calgary picks drafted one of the few good players in a very weak 1996 class in Derek Morris. They also found some lesser known names who at least made the NHL and stuck around for a while in Jamie Allison, Denis Gauthier, Kurtis Foster, and Toni Lydman (he was quite good, 847 games too). You could add Robert Svehla, although it was almost all for Florida.
If Calgary found a lot of anything in most of their drafts from 1990 to 2002, then it was a lot of busts and misses on prospects. To be fair, prospect development to this day remains more of an art than a science. Sometimes, the player just is not that good or does not develop. Sometimes, the player gets the wrong instruction and advice to develop. Sometimes, the environment is not the best and development stalls. It is not as simple as giving a young player ice time and let them grow. There is more involvement in that. In other words, I do not know if the pick itself ended up being bad or the development made it bad. Still, there were a lot of picks going awry by Calgary in the 1990s.
For example, look Calgary’s top picks from 1992 to 2002. They were, in order, winger Jesper Mattsson (never played in the NHL), winger Chris Dingman (fourth liner, played just one full season for Calgary), defenseman Gauthier (554 games, averaged around 17-18 minutes in 384 games with Calgary), Morris, center Daniel Tkaczuk (19 GP, 11 points), winger Rico Fata (230 NHL games, 63 points, just 27 games and one assist for Calgary), winger Oleg Saprykin (137 points in 325 NHL games, 76 and 187 for Calgary), goaltender Brent Krahn (1 NHL game, with Dallas in 2008-09, gave up 3 goals on 9 shots), winger Chuck Kobasew (601 games, 210 points), and Eric Nystrom (593 NHL games, 123 points, 204 games for Calgary and 39 points). Outside of Morris, this is a handful of depth players and outright busts. And it was not much better beyond the first round, either. The Flames’ drafting was not successful and that contributed and even prolonged this 7-season drought for the Flames.
While there was no cap, getting prospects into the NHL was cheaper than getting free agents and less volatile than swinging trades to get top-end players. Remember that Nieuwendyk was traded as a result of a contract dispute? At around the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Canadian dollar became very weak. So much so that there was a legitimate concern that the only Canadian teams that could prosper were the big market teams in Toronto and Montreal. As a result, plenty of the Flames that were important in the 1990s and even on that 1995-96 team would not be Flames for long. Housley hit free agency in 1996 and signed with Washington. Many trades were done, recorded fairly deep into the Calgary archives at NHL Trade Tracker. In the 1997 offseason, Kidd and Roberts were sent to Carolina for Andrew Cassels and J-S Giguere (remember this fact in a few paragraphs). Additionally, Robert Reichel was sent to the Islanders for Marty McInnis, Ty Garner, and a sixth rounder. In 1998, Sandy McCarthy and picks (one that became Brad Richards) were flipped for Jason Wiemer; Titov and Toss Hlushko was sent to Pittsburgh with David Roche and Ken Wregget coming back. In 1999, Michael Nylander was sent to Tampa Bay for enforcer Andrei Nazarov. Also in 1999, Dingman and Fleury were sent by the deadline to Colorado, where they got back Wade Belak, Rene Corbet, a second round pick, and future considerations that somehow turned into Robyn Regehr years later. Not that the 1995-96 team was particularly good, but most of the core of that group was gone before 2000. Although Housely came back via a waiver pick up in 1998, he was not what he once was, and he went to Chicago in a waiver draft in 2001. Due to the lackluster drafting, they did not have the younger players in their system ready to replace those more established veterans. And concerns about the Canadian dollar meant free agency was not always an option as well as keeping players. The Flames were in a position to suffer.
And suffer they did. The Flames finished 1996-97 with one of the least productive offenses in the NHL (214 goals, 23rd out of 26) and league median goals allowed at 239. Iginla finished second in Calder voting to Bryan Berard, but the 50-point season from him showed he could be a future producer. Iginla absolutely did. Yet, the Flames ended up losing more pieces as Iginla would develop so the offense did not become prolific. The last few seasons of Fleury in Calgary and a couple of seasons of Marc Savard and Valeri Bure helped. But they would all be gone by the end of this seven season run of failure.
Worse was the goals allowed. Back in this “dead puck” era, a team did not need to score a ton to win. If they could limit the opposition from attacking, then they had a chance – if they had the goaltending support to do it. New Jersey had it with Brodeur. Buffalo did it with Hasek. Calgary, well, here are their goaltending tandems complete with ages and total save percentages in this seven-season run from Hockey Reference:
- 1996-97: 24-year old Trevor Kidd (55 GP, 90%), 27-year old Dwayne Roloson (31 GP, 89.7%), 28-year old Rick Tabaracci (7 GP, 91%)
- 1997-98: 29-year old Tabaracci (42 GP, 89.3%), 28-year old Roloson (39 GP, 89%), 22-year old Tyler Moss (6 GP, 89.2%)
- 1998-99: 26-year old Fred Brathwaite (28 GP, 91.5%), 34-year old Ken Wregget (27 GP, 90.6%), 21-year old Giguere (15 GP, 89.7%), 23-year old Moss (11 GP, 92.2%), 20-year old Tyrone Garner (3 GP, 83.8%), 29-year old Andrei Trefilov (4 GP, 86.9%) (Note: This team’s 90.6% save percentage did not keep them from giving up 234 goals, the sixth most in the NHL. Defense was weak for this and the next season.)
- 1999-2000: 27-year old Brathwaite (61 GP, 90.5%), 37-year old Grant Fuhr (23 GP, 85.6%), 22-year old Giguere (7 GP, 91.4%)
- 2000-01: 28-year old Brathwaite (49 GP, 91%), 37-year old Mike Vernon (41 GP, 88.3%)
- 2001-02: 31-year old Roman Turek (69 GP, 90.6%), 38-year old Vernon (18 GP, 89.9%), 34-year old Kay Whitmore (1 GP, 85.7%)
- 2002-03: 32-year old Turek (65 GP, 90.2%), 31-year old Jamie McLennan (22 GP, 89.2%)
This may shock you but from 1997-98 and 2002-03, the Flames were in the lower half of the league in goals allowed in each season. Remember: This team had Giguere – but they did not believe in his bright future and shipped him off to Anaheim for a second round pick in 2000. I will also remind you that they also drafted Anderson in 1998, did not sign him, and so he re-entered the draft in 2001 and soon after began is two-decade plus career. Calgary had two answers for their goalttending problem and ultimately passed on both. Hence, the trades and signings to bring in vets like Wregget, Fuhr, and Vernon along with giving Brathwaite and Roloson shots. The team did start to stabilize the goaltending position when Turek came in – after five straight playoff-less seasons – but it was not enough to stem the bleeding of GAs.
I will note that all this time, there were also plenty of changes behind the bench. Missing the playoffs in 1996-97 meant the end for Page. Brian Sutter was brought in and he lasted three seasons where the Flames became leakier in terms of both goals and shots allowed. Don Hay was hired for the 2000-01 campaign and the defense did get stronger, but the offense was lacking in talent with few contributors beyond the new forward core of Iginla, Savard, Bure (who was traded to Florida at the 2001 Draft), and Stillman – who would be shipped off the St. Louis by the deadline. Hay was fired during the season and replaced by Greg Gilbert. Despite a 4-8-2 run, he was given a chance as a full time head coach. While Calgary would make some marginal gains, they finished about the same. Early in the 2002-03 season, the team fell out of the gate, did not improve much under interim #1 Al MacNeil, and in came Darryl Sutter – yes, the current head coach of the Flames – as interim #2. The GM position saw less movement, but Al Coates gave way to Craig Button in 2000, who was replaced after the 2002-03 season by Darryl Sutter. Yes, he became head coach and GM after that season.
All this time, the team eventually became known for Iginla and whomever else happened to be there. Which is a bit similar to Johnny Buyck’s run with the Bruins’ own playoff drought and still sad as Iginla would put in some awesome seasons for nothing more than a slightly later first round pick. One that Calgary often did not hit on until 2003 (Dion Phaneuf). Especially in the 2001-02 season where Iginla was the league’s leading scorer (goals and points with 52 and 96, respectively) and narrowly fell short of winning the Hart Trophy to Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore (it came down to first place votes breaking the tie). Yes, the Flames had a Hart-caliber season from a top forward and the Flames still missed the playoffs by 15 points and finished fourth again in the Northwest Division. I suggest that Devils fans should read that again with 2017-18 on their mind.
The drought was a result of a not-so-good team failing to improve through the draft, not winning enough deals to get better, and unable (or unwilling?) to keep players beyond Iginla to develop. This may surprise you but the Flames did not return to the playoffs in 2003-04 because of prospects developing like wildfire or some big free agent signing. The catalyst was the acquisition of a good goaltender that was not in their 30s. San Jose had Evgeni Nabakov leading their goaltender and had a younger, talented Finnish goalie named Miikka Kiprusoff. Sutter noted this, saw that Turek was not really the answer in net, and sent a second round pick for him in November 2003 to beef up a goaltending position then shared by Turek and McLennan. (The pick ended up being used to pick Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, so the Sharks benefitted from the deal too.) To say it was a success would be an understatement.
While the 27-year old Kiprusoff only played 38 games for the Flames in 2003-04, he was arguably the best goaltender in the NHL when he played. He posted a mind-boggingly good 93.3% save percentage. It was so good that he came in second place in Vezina Trophy voting and fourth in Hart Trophy despite playing just 38 games. McLennan and Turek turned in better seasons with 91% and 91.4% save percentages, respectively. This led the Flames from being in the bottom end in goals allowed to allowing the third fewest with just 176. A massive improvement that drove a big improvement for a team stuck with 70-point seasons for six out of seven straight seasons. (The exception was 67 points in 1997-98) A 41-goal season from Iginla (who finished second for the Hart) plus a heap of 10+ goal seasons from six other forwards helped the offense improve a bit. Sutter had the team grind out wins and so the Flames made the playoffs with 94 points and a third-place finish in the Northwest Division. The playoff run that followed ended up being legendary and cemented Iginla’s, Kiprusoff’s and Sutter’s place in Flames lore along with a C of Red. (This 2006 ESPN article by Greg Johnson about Sutter gives a good sense of his reputation then.)
Any Other Thoughts: The Flames are an example of a team that did not follow what most fans expect a bad team to do to go from being bad to being respectable enough to make the playoffs. They did not build through the draft. They certainly did not bring in free agents to supplant While they “sold” off established players, it was not often for picks or prospects in return. In fact, the Flames traded their way into their drought, throughout their drought, and even out of their drought, largely thanks to the Kiprusoff deal. Seriously, pages 7 through 10 of the Flames’ section at NHL Trade Tracker covers this drought and Coates, Button, and Sutter were busy. It certainly is not an ideal or recommended way of doing business. A team with legitimate concerns about their finances and even future based on the nation’s currency should be doing their best to get most out of their draft picks. Calgary, well, did not either by who they picked or how they developed.
Yet, they remain as an example that a team does not need to follow the blueprint of be bad, get younger / eat bad deals for picks, obtain prospects and draft well, and develop prospects to hopefully get wins in the future. Success can come from moving talent and to (eventually) find the ones that can at least commit to a certain style. And it can be sustained too. The Flames would make the playoffs four straight times after the salary cap was put in from the 2005-06 season to 2008-09. Which even included coaching stints from Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan. They also narrowly missed out in the Brent Sutter era from 2009-10 to 2011-12 as the team posted 90, 94, and 90 point seasons. So it was not like this approach was just for a flash in the pan run to the Finals. Speaking of Brent Sutter, let us go to Carolina now.
The Carolina Hurricanes
Also Known As: Hartford Whalers
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 25 misses out of 42 total seasons; 59.5% missed.
Current Situation: The Hurricanes were seen as contenders last season and won the Metropolitan Division with a record of 54-20-8 for 116 points. They, unfortunately, lost in the second round to Our Hated Rivals. Carolina has made the playoffs for four straight seasons.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: The Brent Sutter ended in New Jersey due to a massive choke job at the Rock in Game 7 against Carolina. I and about 16,000 of the People Who Matter (There were some Canes fans there) left angry, upset, profane, and irate. Carolina would go on to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009 where they were swept by Pittsburgh. Still, some of the heroes from the 2006 Cup run like Eric Staal and Cam Ward were still young. Veterans like Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour , Matt Cullen, and Erik Cole were around. Head coach Paul Maurice salvaged the season from a lackluster start under Peter Laviolette and went on a run to the ECFs. It looked good for Carolina in the short term that they could remain competitive.
It would be their last playoff appearance until 2019.
If the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL were “mid,” then the Hartford Whalers were “below mid” in the NHL. They made the playoffs despite a 27-34-19 record in 1979-80 and then missed the next five. They never went beyond the second round and even that only happened once in 1986. The Whalers finished with more than 90 points just once and missed the playoffs in their final five seasons in Hartford. Yes, I agree, the logo is clever with its “hidden” H. Yes, Brass Bonanza is a nice song. This team was not really any good no matter what the older fans and hockey hipsters claim. Moving to Carolina was among the best things that ever happened to the franchise. Their Finals appearance in 2002 and Cup win in 2006 cemented that. Unfortunately, a playoff drought of nine seasons straight did little to wish for the nostalgia of the late 1980s, unsuccessful as they may have been. It is a bit harsh but it is a results-oriented business.
The thing about Carolina’s drought is that they were never really all that awful. Whereas Calgary kept finishing below 50% in points percentage for seven straight seasons, the Canes at least broke NHL .500 in six out of their nine playoff-less seasons. They came close to ending the drought very early as the 2010-11 team that earned 91 points missed the playoffs by just two points. There was no real bottoming out of the team. Maybe there should have been? It is easy to say in retrospect but there were reasons in most seasons that the team was not that far off.
In 2009-10, Ward was still good with a 91.6% total save percentage, Ray Whitney was still solid and productive at age 37, and the team got a lot of production out of Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen. 2007 first round pick Brandon Sutter started breaking into the lineup. Offensively, they were around the middle of the league. Special teams were just a bit below league average, but the non-Ward goalies were not good. Manny Legace was not that good in his 28 appearances, Justin Peters was not that hot either, and Michael Leighton’s 7 games played yielded an 84.8%. The team’s 5-on-5 play under Maurice’s first full season was not that good either. Improve that and get some better goalies to support Ward and there you go.
In 2010-11, well, the 5-on-5 play did not improve all that much. Or at all, really. The team bled a lot of shots. And the #2 goalie was Peters, who posted an 87.5% total save percentage in 12 appearances. No matter. Ward played 74 games and stopped 92.3% of all the shots against. 2010 first round pick Jeff Skinner made the team, put up 31 goals and 63 points, and won the Calder. Staal was still great. Tuomo Ruutu was putting in work along with Jokinen and Cole. Sure, the power play success rate was not hot at 15.9%, but the team only missed out by two points. A couple of breaks here and they’re in.
In 2011-12, the team came out of the gate poorly with Maurice. They fired him and put Kirk Muller in charge. The team finished with 82 points, but hey, the flop under Maurice put them behind the 8 ball. Power play was not as bad. Ward, well, he took a bit of a step back with a 91.5% save percentage in 68 appearances. And 10 games from veteran Brian Boucher posting up an 88.1% really hurt here and there. And Jokinen, Skinner, Ruutu, and others took a step back in production too. And 5-on-5 play was still a weakness. But give Muller a full season and we’ll see.
In 2013, the 5-on-5 play took a big step forward. It was positive and made the Canes a difficult opponent at even strength. What was not as difficult was putting pucks past the goalies. Ward played just 17 games in the 48-game season and posted a 90.8% save percentage. Peters was sub-90% in his 19 games with an 89.1%. And Dan Ellis was brought in and put up a 90.6% in 19 games. In other words, this team bled goals. While they signed Alexander Semin and traded for Jordan Staal, only five players put up 10 or more goals in 2013: the Staals, Semin, Tlusty, and Skinner. League median goal production plus the second most goals allowed equals missing the postseason. Fix the goaltending and they’re good, right? (By the way, what do you mean Jokinen was traded?)
In 2013-14, the Canes signed Anton Khudobin as a free agent to help the goaltending position out. He was quite good with a 92.6% save percentage in 36 games. Ward got to play 30 games and posted an 89.8% save percentage, which was quite bad. Peters ended up getting 21 games and posted a 91.9%. The hero of the past, Ward, was the weak link. Not that the power play (14.6% success) or the offense as a whole (205 goals scored, 23rd in the NHL) were strengths. While Skinner rebounded to put up 33 goals and Eric Staal was still producing, Tlusty was not as productive, Semin and Jordan Staal put up 40-ish point seasons. 19-year old Elias Lindholm made the team but produced just 21 points in 58 games. And the 5-on-5 play took a little step back too. This would be the final season of longtime GM Jim Rutherford, who managed the team since 1994. Franchise legend Ron Francis would take over. Can he get more scoring? Would he stick with Kirk Muller as head coach? Can he move on from Ward in net?
In 2014-15, those answers were No, No, and No. The 2014-15 Hurricanes scored just 188 goals, 27th most in the NHL. Only Eric Staal scored more than 23. Skinner and Lindholm came close. But the offense lacked a significant producer. 21-year old rookie Victor Rask may have a future, but Tlusty and Semin were fading and the depth scoring led by Nathan Gerbe is not good. Bill Peters replaced Muller and he had the Canes return to the top ten in 5-on-5 play. At least this made Carolina tough to play against. Except if they got through to the goalie. Khudobin did not repeat his 2013-14 season and ultimately became the #1B/#2 option with 34 appearances and a 90% total save percentage. Ward was better with a 91% total save percentage and played in 51 games. Still, the gains in letting up goals did not offset the lack of production and so they lost a lot, earning just 71 points. This would be the low point of the drought, record-wise. But it is not lost. Ward bounced back, Eric Staal is still good, Skinner and Lindholm and Rask are the future. Maybe Francis can get some more talent. Something. Anything.
In 2015-16, the team improved by 15 points. They still missed the playoffs. But they were tough to play against. They were still a good team in 5-on-5. They kept oppositions to relatively few shots. But the offense was still lacking punch. Skinner took over as leading scorer. Rask and Jordan Staal put up 21 and 20 goals. Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin emerged on the blueline. But Eric Staal…he was not good and traded to New York. And would sign with Minnesota in July. And the team’s power play remained below league average and the offense did not even crack 200 goals as a team. Khudobin was moved for one game of James Wisniewski and Eddie Lack was brought in for picks to be Ward’s #2. While this was not bad – Ward played 52 games and put up a 90.9%, Lack played 34 and put up a 90.1%, it was again not enough to get the wins and one of the remaining heroes of 2006 was now a Ranger. Francis, is this going to lead to better things?
In 2016-17, a new era was sort of dawning. Peters was still behind the bench, but the team became a top-ten team in 5-on-5 play. The PP was a little bit better. The team scored more than 200 goals. Skinner put up 37 goals. A rookie named Sebastian Aho broke on the scene with 24 goals and 49 points. Slavin emerged as leader of the blueline. They acquired another young scorer with potential in Teuvo Teravainen. Why did they finish about the same? Oh, the goaltending. Ward played 61 games and put up a 90.5% total save percentage in a league where that was becoming not good enough. Lack played 20 games and was a little worse at 90.2%. Leighton returned as depth and put up an 87% in 4 games. Prospect Alex Nedeljkovic was not quite ready but did one game in relief. Still, the team was still outscored and while the goaltending was not bad, it was not enough to turn some of those 31 losses and 15 overtime/shootout losses into wins.
In 2017-18, a new owner emerged. Tom Dundon became the majority owner in January 2018. Meanwhile, the Canes were still mostly in the same place as the last two seasons under Peters. While very, very good in 5-on-5 play, the team was lacking elsewhere. Special teams finished below the league average. The team as a whole shot at 8.1% and the league average was 9.2%. The team save percentage finished below 90%. Not satisfied with Ward, who is 33 at this point, the team traded for and signed Scott Darling to a big four-season contract. He posted an 88.8% total save percentage in 43 games. He would be dumped on Florida after next season and get bought out. Ward played in 43 games put up a total save percentage of 90.6% – better than Darling but not all the good. The offense was led by Aho, Teravainen, a 36-year old Justin Williams, and Skinner, Staal, and Lindholm who were mainstays at this point. The team need something else to go their way other than being really good in the run of play in 5-on-5 to be successful. Would they find it next season?
In 2018-19, they would! After 2017-18 and a ninth-straight season, Peters and Francis were also fired. Rod Brind’Amour went behind the bench as head coach. Don Waddell would take over as GM. They found that while Francis and Peters left a good base to work with, there was never that next step taken to turn those 35-36 win seasons into much more. The 5-on-5 play remained a strength flexed by Brind’Amour. Some bold moves were made by Waddell. Lindholm and Hanifin were sent to Calgary for Michael Ferland, Adam Fox, and Dougie Hamilton. Ferland and Hamilton fit right in on the Canes. Hamilton in particular added to an already young and talented blueline led by Slavin, Justin Faulk, and Brett Pesce. Skinner was moved to Buffalo for a prospect (who was dumped on Florida) and picks. Rask was moved to Minnesota for Nino Neiderreiter during this season, who made an instant impact with 30 points in 36 games. 2018 first round pick Andrei Svechnikov showed the promise of future scoring with a 20-goal season as an 18-year old. One of two big developments was Aho, absolutely glowing up with a 30-goal, 83 point season – the best by any Cane since Eric Staal.
The second was that Cam Ward was no longer the goaltender. Carolina let him hit the market and he signed with Chicago as a free agent. The 2018-19 season would end up being his last in the NHL. The only remaining member of the 2006 team was Justin Williams, who playing captain and was quite good still at age 37 with 23 goals and 53 points. In Ward’s place, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney took most of the goaltending duties. Mrazek put up a 91.4% in 40 games, McElhinney put up a 91.2% in 33 games, Darling suffered through 8 games with a 88.4%, and Nedeljkovic would get his first NHL start and stop 24 out of 26 shots. The goaltending was in form and to a respectable level that led to more wins.
The Canes won 46 games, earned 99 points, finish fourth in the Metropolitan, and returned to the postseason. It was not just a short trip either. They beat Washington in 7 games in the first round. They swept the Isles in the second round. They got swept by Boston in the ECFs, but they were back. They have had a foundation to be more than just playoff visitors. Now they are contenders – for now, at least.
Any Other Thoughts: This drought needed to be summarized season by season to really get a sense of how things were. Carolina never bottomed out and built from scratch. There was enough in most seasons to believe the team was not that far away. There were even some improvements, such as Carolina becoming a difficult team to play against among Peters – something continued under Brind’Amour. The team hit well on some prospects and even incorporated them into their lineup at a young age. Their drafts during this drought yielded some big successes , but getting Skinner, Faulk, Hanifin, Slavin, Rask, Pesce Lindholm, Svechnikov and especially Aho were excellent either for the Canes or future deals. There was a good foundation, but they were undercut by something – whether it was goaltending, shooting percentage, special teams, or a combination of some of those and more. Still, it was far from unmanageable.
If there was a common thread among all of this, then it was a lack of willingness to be bold and move on from the past. While they moved on from some of the 2006ers (and brought back Williams by the end of this drought), they did not get enough as they could from Eric Staal, they held onto Ward despite a noticeable decline, and they struggled to get support for the offensive players that were producing (e.g. E. Staal, Skinner) and goaltending to ultimately supplant Ward. They were close with Khudobin in 2013-14, but I think that 2014-15 season scared them off. This was a team that needed to take some risk to improve the team, but Rutherford and Francis did not make it so. And Maurice and Peters only took the team as far as they could anyway. Fortunately for the Hurricanes fans, the drought did not leave a team needing to be blown up and risen from the ashes. They just needed those pushes to get the team to a better place – and they got it in 2018-19. Devils fans should recognize that as another pathway to a better future along with Calgary’s constant wheeling and dealing, as much as I do not recommend it.
The Chicago Blackhawks
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 32 misses out of 95 total seasons; 33.7% missed.
Current Situation: The Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the second straight season, the third time that has happened in franchise history. With new management and the team having traded Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach, it is thought that the team is going to undergo a rebuild. This two-season drought may become much longer soon.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: The longest playoff drought in Blackhawk history was from 1946-47 to 1951-52. They finished sixth out of a six-team NHL in five out of those six seasons. While they made the playoffs in 1952-53 by finishing fourth, they went back to finishing dead last for another four straight seasons and missed a fifth straight right after. That is really bad for a six-team league with no cap, free agency, or even a player’s union to deal with (the NHLPA formed in 1957). There are echoes of this kind of run in what would be the final years of Bill Wirtz’ ownership of the team.
The Blackhawks had an incredible streak of playoff appearances from 1970 to 1997. Some were just barely to get in. Others saw the Blackhawks win their division. But when it ended, the team seemed directionless. Their first playoff drought after 1997 lasted four seasons featuring five different coaches and three different GMs. But the team went 41-27-13-1 for 96 points in 2001-02 and all seemed to be better for a moment. Eric Daze was scoring. Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Phil Housley and Michael Nylander were still contributing as vets. Jocelyn Thibault and Steve Passmore provided good enough goaltending. this did not last. The drought to summarize here then came – a five-season run of futility from 2002-03 to 2007-08.
As much as 2001-02 was seen as a success, the team crashed hard in the following seasons under Brian Sutter. 30 wins and 79 points in 2002-03, 20 wins and 59 points in 2003-04 (the worst record by points percentage since the 1950 droughts), and 26 wins and 65 points in 2005-06. After 2002-03, Mike Smith gave way for a third run at GM by Bob Pulford, and that gave way to Dale Tallon after the 2005 lockout. Tallon would be the one to help get the Blackhawks out of this. But prior to his arrival, all was not well in Chicagoland.
As the team was falling down again, frustrations mounted. This archived article by Peter Keating in ESPN Magazine back in 2004 explained why the Blackhawks were the worst franchise in sports – and it all started from the top with Bill Wirtz. Keating’s article hit on what most fans with Chicago were upset about. For decades, Wirtz blacked out games locally to try to increase attendance for a then-crummy hockey team. This failed. The changes behind the bench and in the front office represented chaos instead of anything resembling a desire for improvement. Some of those late 1990s drafts did not hit on many prospects; although it would be more fruitful in the 2000s. This meant more of a reliance on veterans that were willing to come to Chicago or dumped there. Not that they paid particularly well given Wirtz’ apparent cheapness. My read is that Bill Wirtz was not the easiest to work with given all of these issues.
That said, the seeds were in place for a turnaround in time. From 2002 to 2007, Chicago would draft players that would go on to launch the Blackhawks back to the top. Duncan Keith and James Wisniewski in 2002. Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, and Dustin Byfuglien in 2003. Dave Bolland and Troy Brower in 2004 (Cam Barker did have that one good season in 2008-09). Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2005. And the important selections of Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Patrick Kane in 2007. While some of the picks under Tallon’s regime did not yield much (the 2006 and 2007 draft classes yielded very little outside the first round), the talent they did hit on was crucial.
In the interim, Tallon went into the cap era and brought in talent to help the team along. While Kyle Calder and Mark Bell did their best, the acquisitions of Patrick Sharp and Nikolai Khabibulin would be better in the long run as these prospects started getting into the lineup. Firing Trent Yawney after a 7-12-2 start and hiring Denis Savard at least showed the fans that someone in the organization understood history. Getting Martin Havlat in 2006 certainly helped the offense as he would be a significant scorer in his three seasons with Chicago, injury shortened as his 2007-08 was.
And the germination of those seeds took place in that 2007-08 season. Towes and Kane joined the roster and immediately became impact players; Kane led the team in scoring in his first season with 71 points. He easily won the Calder that year, by the way. Sharp put up 36 points. Keith and Seabrook were big-minute defensemen at this point. Dustin Byfuglien put up a surprising 19-goal, 36 point season as a defenseman. Robert Lang was signed as a free agent and the 37-year old put up 54 points and yielded a trade to Montreal in September. The improved offense put the Blackhawks in the top ten for goals scored (239, 10th). Giving up goals was still an issue. Khabibulin put up a total save percentage of 90.9% in 50 games and Patrick Lalime was even worse as a backup with an 89.7% total save percentage in 32 games. Still, Chicago won 40 games and missed the playoffs by 3 points. Given the personnel involved, it did not seem like an exception from bad seasons. Something major was happening at the Madhouse on Madison.
But that was not the only development for 2007-08. Bill Wirtz passed away on September 26, 2007, just before the start of the 2007-08 season. Rocky Wirtz took over as owner and made immediate changes to how business was done. TV coverage of games were renewed, first with select games and the blackout policy was eliminated in full for 2008-09. John McDonough of the Cubs was brought in as team president and did a lot to re-sell the city on the Blackhawks. Legends like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita wanted nothing to do with Bill Wirtz. They were acknowledged and returned, in a way, to the organization with Rocky. The perception of the Blackhawks changed almost overnight. They went from a team stuck in the past with a tight fist over the wallet to a team that could be run like a franchise could be run in the 2000s. The rebuild efforts that began with Tallon were hastened as the team looked to improve quickly. The 88-point season in 2007-08 was a sign that the future really was bright for the Blackhawks.
It came to fruition in 2008-09. The team ended a five-season playoff drought with huge 46-win, 104-point season that saw them finish second in the Central Division. Tallon continued making moves. Toews became team captain. Tallon fired Savard just four games into the season and replaced him with Joel Quenneville. Goaltending saw an improvement as Cristobal Huet replaced Lalime as a #1B goalie to Khabibulin’s #1A, who had his own rebound at age 36 with a 91.9% total save percentage in 42 games. Havlat returned for a full season and led the team in scoring ahead of Kane and Toews. Kris Versteeg emerged as a rookie and put up 22 goals and 53 points. Scoring defensemen Brian Campbell had a big first season in Chicago. Andrew Ladd was picked up for Tuomo Ruutu and he added more offense. Dave Bolland emerged with 19 goals and 47 points, what would be the best season ever in his career. While his point totals dropped, Patrick Sharp still put up 26 goals. The Blackhawks were a top ten team in both goals for and goals against. They were becoming a favorite with their young core. The playoff run in 2009 further yielded fruits of excitement. Chicago beat Calgary in 6 games in Round 1, Vancouver in 6 in Round 2, and while they lost to Detroit in 5 in the Western Conference Finals, the thought was that this young Chicago team would be contenders sooner rather than later. The rebuild was a success; the drought was over.
Any Other Thoughts: Chicago’s second drought in the 2000s could be seen as a continuation of the previous drought not long before it. However, this one really hit a tipping point with ownership issues. Sports organizations are often defined from the owner down. If the owner wants a certain move to be made, then it typically happens. The owner is ultimately in charge. Bill Wirtz represented an ownership style that fell way out of fashion and when the team’s success faded fast after a long run of playoff appearances, the cheapness to players, alumni, and fans became more noticeable and more of a reason to be angry at the Blackhawks. Or worse, ignore the Blackhawks. It is harsh to state that an owner passing away was a big turning point for the organization, but it really was.
With respect to the five-season drought on its own, it followed the common blueprint of a rebuild. Team fell to rock bottom and got high draft picks. Team drafted prospects with the hopes they could be important players. As they broke into the NHL and acclimated themselves to the league, the team was better for it. However, it is not that simple.
One of two key differences for Chicago is that some of those picks turned out way better than anyone expected. Keith, Toews, and Kane are future Hall of Famers, Seabrook probably will get his number retired, and while he emerged after the drought, Crawford will be well thought of in Chicago – even if he was not a regular by the time the drought ended. Plenty of other solid hands were picked to make up the roster that would break through in 2008-09 from Versteeg to Byfuglien to Brouwer to Bolland. While he was not drafted, Sharp was an important player too. But the big hits being better than some expected then really hastened the Blackhawks’ ascent.
The second was Tallon bringing in additional talent to support those prospects. Getting someone like Khabibulin, Havlat, Huet to replace Lalime, getting a season of Robert Lang to contribute at age 37, and swapping Ruutu for Ladd turned out very well and helped Chicago become competitive in a short amount of time. Replacing Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville turned into a masterstroke. These decisions, among others, absolutely helped Chicago find their way. Under Tallon, they went from 65 to 71 to 88 and then 104 points. The rebuild was not something to hand-wave away awful seasons. There was objective proof of progress under Tallon. Patience was rewarded for a change. Tallon did more than let the young ones grow; he gave them the support they needed to thrive.
Obviously, the drafts would yield the long term success Chicago was hoping for; but the work of Tallon led to the improvements to help those prospects succeed and help a fanbase desperately hoping for better times post-Bill Wirtz. The major lesson is that the traditional rebuild can happen in a few seasons if things work out well with draft picks and the right moves are made to support them as they enter the league. Both are necessary.
The Colorado Avalanche
Also Known As: Quebec Nordiques
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 15 misses out of 42 total seasons; 35.7% missed.
Current Situation: The Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2022. They won 56 games, earned 119 points, made the playoffs for a fifth straight season, and won the ultimate prize. Fun fact: The 2021-22 Avalanche beat out the 2000-01 Avalanche by one point for the best record in their franchise history. Colorado went 16-2 to win the Stanley Cup. The 2021-22 Avalanche is arguably the best team in the franchise’s history. WHA included.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: It was a surprise to me how often Quebec was in the mix. Sure, they hold the franchise’s longest drought at 5 seasons from 1987-88 to 1991-92. A dreadful run that saw them go 12-61-7 in 1989-90 and likely drove Eric Lindros to infamously declare that he would not report to Quebec if they drafted him first overall in the 1990 NHL Draft. One epic trade with Philadelphia later, the Flyers were missing the postseason while Quebec returned in 1992-93 with a huge 104-point season, missed out in 1993-94, and returned in 1995 before the move to Denver. There, the re-branded Avalanche, were not only in the mix but contenders.
Of course, nothing gold can stay and the notable drought to learn from is their last one: a three-season drought from 2014-15 to 2016-17. The Avs never missed the playoffs more than once until a three-season drought from 2010-11 to 2012-13. But the 2013-14 campaign was not a case of just barely getting in. No. Franchise legend Patrick Roy replaced Joe Sacco behind the bench and bossed an Avs team to a stunning 52-22-8 record. An achievement that saw him win a Jack Adams Trophy. The Avs draft picks from the 2000s and their three playoff-less seasons led the way to a first place finish in the Central Division, just ahead of really strong St. Louis and Chicago squads. The young guys Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon – who won the Calder at age 18 – were 60-point players. The 2009 picks of Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, and Tyson Barrie all had big seasons with Duchene leading the team in points and O’Reilly dropping 64 points. The “veterans” of Paul Stastny and Erik Johnson were excellent. Semyon Varlamov put in his best season as a starter (92.7% total save percentage in 63 games) and in the NHL until the 2021 season. J-S Giguere provided solid backup work. They even got Alex Tanguay back for a bit and he put up 11 points in 16 games. The Avs were rolling. Until the playoffs where they got upset by Minnesota in 7 games. Still, the Avs were in a great position to be a contender to hang with St. Louis and Chicago in the Central.
There was a bit of drama in the front office after that season. Joe Sakic, franchise legend, essentially benefitted from a power struggle to get control of the team in 2014 after Josh Kroenke – a relative of team owner Stan Kroenke – took over as team President. Greg Sherman was out as GM and Sakic replaced him despite a whole lack of experience. No matter, Sakic
Then they missed out in 2014-15, the beginning of their most recent and the drought to focus on in this post. The team gave up 220 goals in 2013-14. They gave up 227 in 2014-15. Varlamov was not as dominant but an overall save percentage of 92.1% is quite good. Calvin Pickard got into 16 games and did quite well with a 93.2% save percentage. Reto Berra got into 19 games and he was good too. Giguere retired and it was fine. Goaltending was not the issue. Offense, on the other hand, was. And, really, head coach Patrick Roy.
In 2013-14, the Avs scored 250 goals. That’s quite a lot. The Avs also shot at 8.8% in 5-on-5 play, the second best shooting percentage in the NHL that season, and had the fifth best success rate on power plays. However, shooting percentage is not often repeatable and it absolutely was not in 2014-15. The power play had about as many situations but only scored 37, which led to the 29th best success rate in the NHL. The 2013-14 Avs did not have great on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play; something that the Avs overcame by just lighting the lamp. The 2014-15 Avs shot about the same in 5-on-5, but they were even worse in 5-on-5 play. Which means fewer shots, giving up more opportunities, and so a team cannot always outscore their problems. As such, the 2014-15 Avs scored just 209 goals. A big reason that they went from 52 wins to 39. And it definitely was a frustration to see MacKinnon have a sophomore slump, Duchene and O’Reilly score a bit less, and even marvel that Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay helped but it was not enough. Losing Stastny to free agency in 2014 did not help either. But the 5-on-5 on-ice rates and big drop on the PP showed a coaching staff – which did not change – whose strategies were not definitely not helping the cause.
The following season saw another big change. O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn were shipped out to Buffalo for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher, and a pick – which was flipped to San Jose for more picks. They also signed Francois Beauchemin and Blake Comeau. Sakic handed Johnson a huge contract extension of $42 million over 7 seasons (which is entering its final season now). Dave Farrish replaced Andre Tourigny as an assistant. Despite the actions, the result was about the same in 2015-16. The team still bled attempts and shots against in 5-on-5 play. The shooting percentage was still relatively good but now down to 7.7%. The power play was better, but man advantages cannot overcome struggling at the most common situation in hockey. However, the goalies were not as good. Not bad, but Varlamov dropping to a 91.4% total save percentage was not a positive. While Berra and Pickard still did well at 92.2% percentages, they did not often lead to wins as the offense still put up just 212 goals. MacKinnon returned to form, but that form was a 50-point season and not a 60-point season. In fact, no one on the Avs broke 60 points; Duchene was the closest at 59 points. The Avs won 39 games, finished with eight fewer points, missed the playoffs again, and Roy was done.
Sakic’s second season saw a worsening team. He chose an AHL head coach to replace Roy and get the team back on track: Jared Bednar. Bednar led Lake Erie to the Calder Cup in 2016. Given what we know now, Bednar would be a great pick up. Not so in 2016-17. The Avs absolutely cratered in 2016-17. They went from 82 points to 48. It did not even start that badly. The team seemed OK until about December. Then everything fell apart as the team fell to 22-56-4. Terry Frei’s post-mortem article in the Denver Post about the season did not hold back and noted the following while pointing out other awful Denver pro sports seasons for context:
- Bednar was hired late in August and did not have a chance to bring in his own staff or put in his own systems. That would explain the team still being crummy in 5-on-5 play. A problem that was exacerbated by a shooting percentage of 6.29%.
- Varlamov suffered groin injuries in the season and so only played 24 games. When he did, he posted up a total save percentage of just 89.8%. This also meant Pickard had to play most of the games. In 50 games, he posted up a 90.4% save percentage. Frei pointed out that they were hung out to dry a lot, which tracks with the aforementioned terrible 5-on-5 performances.
- Speaking of injuries, Erik Johnson missed a little under half a season, which took a toll on a defense that asked a lot from Beauchemin and Zadorov – who could not fully replace him.
- At least Mikko Rantanen (picked in 2015, four spots after you know who) played a full season and scored 20 goals to lead the team. Not that 20 is a lot or good that he out-scored MacKinnon, Duchene, Landeskog, Iginla (who was dealt to Los Angeles at the 2017 deadline), and others. Speaking of picks, 2016 first rounder Tyson Jost was given a few games by season’s end.
- Special teams were awful.
- The team had six losing streaks.
- The team was also near the salary cap ceiling so they were often stuck with what they had.
This was very much a season busted by Murphy’s Law. It was also Sakic’s third season and it was a miracle he did not get ousted for all of this alone. The team hit a low point. Then, they had a turnaround for the ages.
Ahead of the 2017-18 season, Sakic made some moves that would end up helping the cause. Jonathan Bernier was signed to back up Varlamov. Bernier turned in a 91.3% save percentage as a 100% healthy Varlamov returned to form. Alexander Kerfoot signed with Colorado as he hit free agency after college. Kerfoot helped a crew of depth scoring to supplant the offense. Matt Duchene wanted out of Colorado. It took until November for a three-team trade that saw Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, and a pick come back. While Duchene was seen as a big loss, the offense was super-charged thanks to Nathan MacKinnon putting up a Hart-level campaign of 97 points. Rantanen turned out to be super productive with an 80-point season. Landeskog returned to the realm of 60 points. Bednar had the chance to replace all of Roy’s assistants – even goalie coach Francois Allaire – and put in his own tactics. The team was still not that good in 5-on-5 play, but their shooting and their special teams rebounded. The team rarely had losing streaks and kept finding results. Colorado improved by an incredible 47 points and made the playoffs in 2018. They got eliminated in six games to Nashville, but the best was yet to come out of that three-season drought.
Any Other Thoughts: It is tempting to just combine the two three-season droughts before their current run of success. However, that 2013-14 season was too good to just ignore or pass over. The second three-season drought in the 2010s for Colorado was an example of how a team can suffer from not having everything go their way and not changing enough when warranted. I can understand one run-back season under Roy after 2013-14. Two? I can understand feeling good about Varlamov, Pickard, and Berra. But when it went south, it needed to be addressed more clearly than using their previous system. I can understand crediting the core of MacKinnon, Landeskog, Rantanen, Varlamov, and Barrie to drive their way out of the drought. But those were picks made earlier, Duchene was an important part of their other success (and whatever good things amid those three seasons of downturn), and the only pick in this drought that turned out to be good at all was Rantanen. The 2014 class was a bust. The 2015 class is just Rantanen and some guys with some cups of coffee in the league. The 2016 class just has Jost, who is a NHLer but hardly the kind of player you wanted at 10th overall. Makar was picked in 2017 but did not join the NHL until after the drought in the 2018 playoffs. The Avs did not draft their way out of this three-season drought.
The Colorado cratering in 2016-17 was a case of a lot of things going wrong and the re-birth in 2017-18 was a case of a lot of things going right. Sakic had his job saved by the latter and now looks brilliant as that season led to a run of form that just won a Stanley Cup. I am not sure this is a good model for a rebuilding team to follow. Sure, there are smaller lessons like hiring a new head coach with enough time to get his preferred staff and systems in place, or do not just give up on younger players if they had some less-than-ideal seasons of production (read: MacKinnon). But the big takeaway is that there is not much of one here no matter how much one wants to claim there is. The core of that 2017-18 team was mostly on that 48-point team in 2016-17, and they just collectively had a far better and healthier season. Maybe that does not yield 47 points on its own but that accounted for a lot of it. I am not sure how another team can repeat that if they do not have that core or are building it from scratch. Then again, this is a franchise that just does not have a lot of prolonged runs of futility in its history.
The Columbus Blue Jackets
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 15 misses out of 21 total seasons; 71.4% missed.
Current Situation: The Columbus Blue Jackets just missed the playoffs for the second time in a row. This keeps Columbus as one of three NHL teams that have not missed the playoffs for just one season. Columbus finished sixth in the Metropolitan in 2021-22 with a record of 37-38-4 and 81 points. It remains to be seen if they will make further gains under Brad Larsen.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Columbus has only made the playoffs six times in franchise history. There is no shortage of options. However, I have not done an expansion tale yet and the longest drought in Columbus history – seven seasons – was from their creation as a franchise. It would be easy to wave this one away. Expansion teams were made up of players other teams did not want or made deals to get them to take lesser players. Expansion teams had no prospect pool or farm system; they had to build a whole organization from scratch. Plus, Columbus started in the Central Division, which was ruled by Detroit and included St. Louis, Chicago, and a Nashville team finding its way after its own expansion season in 1998. It was a tough draw for Columbus. Then again, Minnesota joined the NHL at the same time as Columbus, also got thrown into the Western Conference, and made the playoffs in their third ever season. I am not so sympathetic to Columbus being real for seven straight seasons as a result.
One of the main reasons why Minnesota were competitive more quickly than Columbus was leadership. Minnesota hired Doug Risebrough as their first GM and Jacques Lemaire as their first head coach. Risebrough was a GM with Calgary from 1991 to 1995, where the Flames finished last in the division in 1991-92, but jumped to second in 1992-93, and won the Pacific in 1993-94 and 1995. When he was let go, he joined Edmonton in an executive position and helped them succeed in the late 1990s. Lemaire had loads of rings as a player, had one from New Jersey in 1995, was the face of the Neutral Zone Trap, and his approach to defensive hockey and getting a team to commit to the system led his reputation. Minnesota hired a GM and a head coach with past success with turning teams around.
Columbus hired Doug MacLean and Dave King as GM and head coach, respectively. MacLean was never a GM at the NHL level until Columbus hired him. His claim to fame before then was being the head coach of the 1995-96 Florida Panthers that went to the Stanley Cup Finals. He lasted in Sunrise until 23 games into the 1997-98 season. He was a GM for the Adirondack Red Wings for a pair of seasons prior to his coaching job in Florida. King was a head coach for Calgary for three seasons after spending much of the 1980s and early 1990s with the Canadian national team. King became an assistant coach with Montreal after he was let go from the Flames and got his second job with the Blue Jackets. Neither MacLean or King were known for how they did business at their positions or what they would do. This would set the Blue Jackets on a different path from the Wild.
Columbus could brag a bit after the first season. They finished with a better record than the Wild and finished last in the Central due to a tiebreaker with Chicago. Ron Tugnutt and Geoff Sanderson were better than expected to help the Blue Jackets earn 71 points. This would be the best season with King as coach, and before the salary cap came into play. There would be four seasons of just plain awful hockey from Columbus.
You may be thinking: Wait, wouldn’t the Blue Jackets have some tantalizing young talent from being so awful? They would. Rostislav Klesla at fourth overall in 2000, goaltender Pascal Leclaire at 8th overall in 2001. Rick Nash at first overall in 2002, Nikolai Zherdev at fourth overall in 2003, Alexandre Picard at eighth overall in 2004, and Gilbert Brule at sixth overall in 2005. Problem is that only three out of those six ended up being good – Nash was fantastic. Picard and Brule were disappointments and Leclaire, well, I’ll get to him in a bit. Plus, the Blue Jackets did not find anyone of significance beyond the first round until 2005 with Marc Methot in the sixth round in 2003 and Tim Jackman in the second round in 2001. And even those stretches to call them significant, much less for Columbus. Remember that the Blue Jackets were an expansion team. Even before the salary cap, hitting on picks to build a prospect pool and farm system would have been important. Columbus did not do so in that department until the mid-2000s. And because the team was so awful, these first round picks often jumped to the NHL at ages 18 and 19.
This meant these rosters really needed to be carried by whatever veterans they could find. The early years leaned heavily on Geoff Sanderson, Espen Knutsen, Mike Sillinger, Ray Whitney, Andrew Cassels, and David Vyborny. By the way, most Underrated 2000 NHL Player lists should probably have Vyborny included. It was not until the 2003-04 season where Nash broke out with a 41-goal, 57-point season to lead the team in scoring and Zherdev crossed the ocean to finish third on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 34 points in 57 games. Still, much of the roster was filled with reclamation projects (Manny Malhotra! Alexander Svitov!) and veterans still kicking around the league. As the salary cap era began, Columbus was able to pull in some names like Jan Hrdina, Sergei Fedorov, Adam Foote, and Bryan Berard for a bit. The team still stunk but at least they were finishing the 70 point range. I’m not sure how that necessarily helped the youth. It certainly did not help the offense as they scored over 200 goals just twice in this seven-season drought that began the Jackets’ existence.
I’m sure the constant changes behind the bench certainly did not help. King was the head coach until a 14-20-4-2 start in 2002-03 was seen as time for a change. MacLean went behind the bench himself and bossed the Blue Jackets to a record of 15-22-4-1 under him. Hardly an improvement. I will give MacLean credit for firing himself as head coach in 2003-04 after a 9-21-4-3 start. He named one of King’s assistant coaches who stayed on after King was let go: Gerard Gallant. Yes, Gallant got his start in Columbus. The remainder of 2003-04 was not good but finishing with 16-24-4-1 was at least more successful than the start. In 2005-06, Gallant bossed the team to 35-43-4 and a third place finish in the Central Division. They gave up a ton of goals – a previous franchise high of 276 until last season’s Jackets smashed it with 297 – but they scored over 200 so they hung in some games. Maybe the team was finally heading in the right direction. And so MacLean and leadership raised their expectations.
This meant when the Blue Jackets started at 5-9-1 in the 2006-07 season, Gallant was fired. His interim replacement, Gary Agnew, lasted just five games with a 0-4-1 record. But MacLean needed to let him go to take advantage of an opportunity. Earlier that season, Philadelphia fired Ken Hitchcock after a 1-6-1 start. MacLean saw an experienced head coach, one with a penchant for not taking a lot of guff and defensive hockey, and one with some success from his time in Dallas and three 100+ point seasons with Philly. Hitchcock joined the Blue Jackets and the team went 28-29-5 under him to end the season with 73 points. Still not a playoff season, but not a return to the earlier days. Hitchcock would get the Blue Jackets to the proverbial next level – and with his tendency for few goals allowed – even at the cost of few goals scored.
This would be welcomed for the Columbus organization, who still has not sorted out its goaltending issue by this point. At the expansion draft, there was some buzz about 23-year goalie Marc Denis being a shrewd pick. A young goalie to build around. That went out the window when 33-year old Tugnutt outperformed him and Denis did not even reach 90% total save percentage. Denis was a bit better and Tugnutt was worse in 2001-02, but Tugnutt was still the better goalie. Denis was given a chance to be the full starter and appeared in a stunning 77 games in 2002-03. He posted a 90.3% total save percentage and his backup, J-F Labbe, was not good. Veteran Fred Brathwaite was brought in for 2003-04 and he was a bit better than Labbe as a backup. Denis had his best season ever with a 91.8% total save percentage. Perhaps Denis would finally be the started Columbus needed. Then came 2005-06. He played the most games with 49, but only posted a 90% save percentage. Remember when Columbus drafted Leclaire at eighth overall in 2001? He got his first real chance in the NHL and put up a 91.1% in 33 games. Sure, the team gave up a ton of goals but they also gave up a ton of shots. Still, it was clear that the 23-year old Leclaire would be the way to go, right? So MacLean thought at he traded Denis to Tampa Bay for Frederik Modin and goalie Frederik Norrena. In 2006-07, Norrena ended up having to get into 55 games and posted a 90.4% and Leclaire struggled and played in just 24 games for a 89.7%. Spot appearances from Ty Conklin and Brian Boucher were generally awful. In 2007-08, Leclaire had his best season ever in the NHL with a 91.9% total save percentage in 54 games and was a big reason for Columbus to give up just 210 goals that season. But like Denis, it would not last.
But it was all too late for Doug MacLean. Hitchcock would turn out to be the right coach. And Leclaire’s 2007-08 would validate the trust put into him. But ownership had enough of the drought. After six seasons of missing the playoffs by large margins, he was fired in April 2007. Before the 2007 NHL Draft, longtime Edmonton assistant GM Scott Howson was hired as the Columbus Blue Jackets GM. Howson got right to work. After a draft where they picked Jakub Voracek at seventh overall (and no one else turned out well for Columbus), he signed Michael Peca and Jan Hejda for support
Still, the team was seemingly in a better spot. The team went from giving up over 2,700 shots two seasons ago to over 2,200. The team cut down its goals against by over 60. The team’s main issue became scoring goals as they finished dead last in the NHL in 2007-08 with 190. Rick Nash brought 38, Zherdev rebounded after a difficult 2006-07 season to put up 26, and only three other players broke double digits in goals. Despite the pop-gun offense, the Blue Jackets grinded their way to a 34-36-12 record for 80 points. It could have been more but a poor March and an injured Leclaire undercut any late hopes for the playoffs. The eight point improvement still showed that Hitchcock’s methods were working. The goals against dropped, the defense was much tighter, and perhaps Leclaire was finally playing the goalie of the future that some expected Denis to be. The team just needed to find more support for Nash and Zherdev. Howson would find it in 2008 and also get fortunate with another emergence from the system.
First, the moves. Columbus traded Adam Foote to Colorado before the 2008 NHL Trade deadline for two conditional picks: a first and fourth rounder. At the 2008 NHL Draft, Columbus flipped that first to Philadelphia for R.J. Umberger. Umberger had a fine season of 26 goals and 46 points, a level of production he would continue to have for the Blue Jackets for the next few seasons. Zherdev had past issues with contracts and attitude, so he and Dan Fristche was moved to New York for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. Tyutin would immediately lead the blueline in 2008-09, taking pressure off of Klesla and Hejda. In free agency, Howson signed Mike Commodore and Kristian Huselius to big deals. Commodore joined Tyutin as a minutes-leader on the blueline; and Huselius put up 21 goals and 56 points in his first season with the team. Prospects started coming up: Derick Brassard emerged to put up 10 goals and 25 points in 31 games; and Voracek put up nine goals and 38 points in 80 games. But the biggest emergence was in net: Steve Mason.
Leclaire’s injury in the 2008 portion of 2007-08 was a continued sign of things happening to Leclaire. Health was an issue for the goalie. While Mason had knee surgery at the beginning of this season, Leclaire’s injuries opened the door for Mason to get a call up and perform post-knee surgery. Mason was on fire the moment he stepped on the ice. He won the Calder with 61 games played, 33 games won, 10 shutouts (!!), and a total save percentage of 91.6%. His performances had Columbus in a playoff position by the All Star Break, something they would maintain. Leclaire, in his 12 games, posted an 86.7% – which was worse than the spot duties of Norrena, Wade Dubielewicz, and Dan Lacosta. Mason took the crease. This led Howson to one his mid-season trades: Leclaire and a second rounder to Ottawa for Antoine Vermette, who put up 13 points in 17 games. That boosted the offense along with another deal that brought Jason Williams to Ohio. By season’s end, the Blue Jackets were 41-31-10 with 92 points with 223 goals allowed and 220 goals scored. This was enough to be among the league median teams for the first time ever; and enough to qualify for the playoffs. The drought was over. The Blue Jackets finally can say they were a competitive team.
Unfortunately, this did not last. Detroit swept Columbus in the first round. In 2009-10, the team took a step back. Mason was not nearly as good as the GA count swelled. While Nash, Vermette, Huselius, and Umberger led the offense, the GF count dwindled. Hitchcock was fired when the team was 22-27-9 and turned to his assistant, Claude Noel, to take over. The team finished fifth in the Central with a record of 32-35-15. It would be the first of a four season drought that would end in 2013-14.
Any Other Thoughts: It is true that expansion teams often start crummy and get better. However, Columbus is an example of how not having the right personnel in important positions to run the team can prolong that crumminess. Minnesota made the playoffs in their third season. Ottawa, who started off legendarily terrible, made the playoffs in their fifth season. Nashville got in their sixth season. Columbus’ seven-season drought to begin their NHL life featured lackluster management, multiple coaches with little stability, a team changing up their main roster except in net where they hung on to Denis and Leclaire just a bit too much based on what they did/could do in spots, and drafts that did not yield a lot of players beyond that first round – which was not always successful either. Imagine if Columbus started with someone who was previously a GM or a head coach with more experience and a defined direction? Maybe they would have started off better and not be one of three teams who have missed the playoffs for over 70% of their existence. Alas.
Your Take So Far
I know what you just read was a whole lot, but to fully understand the stories of each of these team’s stretches of futility, context and plenty had to be covered. If nothing else, I hope you learned a little something about what each team went through. Whether it was Calgary trading their way through their problems, Carolina being not terrible but not good enough for a decade, Colorado’s short but memorable blip after Patrick Roy’s one good season, Chicago rising up from past ownership and management holding them back, and Columbus starting off on a wrong foot and sticking with that foot for six seasons. Also, if nothing else, you may want to accept the reality that a playoff drought is not the same a rebuild effort and getting out of the drought may mean something plus or in place of being bad, getting picks, and BAM! Stanley Cup. Peep the link for a tease for Part 3.
There is going to be a lot more to come and many more different situations. The next part will be all about Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton, Florida, and Los Angeles. One of these five teams had the most important playoff drought in my life. Two of these five rarely had long playoff droughts. One is about to set a new franchise record now, but their previous failure is more alluring in its own way. And the remaining one is another sad Columbus/Buffalo like story.
In the meantime, what have you learned from this look back at the playoff droughts for the Flames, Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Avalanche, and Blue Jackets? What did you takeaway about those various situations in terms of how they got there and how they did (or did not) get out of them? Did I miss any important details about each of these team’s droughts that have significantly contributed to their struggle or how it ended? If so, what were they? How do you think they compare with the Devils’ own struggles? Are you looking forward enough to Part 3, which could be coming sooner than you think? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these playoff droughts in the comments.