Kings give hope to No. 8 seeds in NHL playoffs
The Los Angeles Kings gave hope to every future No. 8 seed in the NHL playoffs after becoming the first such seed to win the Stanley Cup. (Reuters)
Brian Burke was right.
The former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was right about a lot of things: he was right about a lot of players who form the core of the 2013 Leafs and he was right about bringing in coach Randy Carlyle, who has helped the team make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
He was also mostly right about the fate of the eighth seeds in the Stanley Cup playoffs when he offered this memorable quote:
“I’m not interested in making the playoffs unless it is a part of a championship. It seems a mile away. That is the goal. Not to get in the eighth spot, get your ass kicked and stand up here and say: ‘Yeah, but we were in the playoffs.’ I’m trying to build a championship team.”
But last year’s Los Angeles Kings gave hope to every eighth seed that might sneak into the playoffs, becoming the first such seed since to win the Stanley Cup since the league adopted the current playoff format.
The Kings now stand as the patron saints of every underdog and will give hope to this year’s eighth seeds that nothing is impossible. There’s no question the Kings were a talented team that underachieved and a couple of key events happened that helped drastically change their performance arc during the season. GM Dean Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray and brought in Darryl Sutter and made the trade for forward Jeff Carter, who scored eight goals and 13 points in their playoff run.
The results of playoffs past since the start of the salary cap era in the 2005-06 season don’t bode well for this year’s top finishers in each conference, either.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL for the first half of this season, going 21-0-3 on their way to earning the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were the best team in the second half, going undefeated in March and winning 21 of 24 games at one point to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East.
But the fact of the matter is there has been only one top seed that has won the Stanley Cup in the salary cap era: the 2008 Detroit Red Wings.
“The eighth seed is in survival mode for the last couple of months of the season,” offered one pro scout. “They’re just trying to survive night after night. Every game has mattered for them for a while.
“That first seed has a lot of pressure on them to easily win. Once they lose a game against an eighth seed, the pressure really mounts.”
Another scout pointed to just that scenario happening to the Washington Capitals in 2010. They won the East with 121 points. The eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens had 88 points and got into the playoffs by virtue of the loser’s point in overtime of the last game of the regular season against the Leafs.
“The Caps just looked like a team that got tighter and tighter as that series went on and they looked like they couldn’t beat (Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav) Halak. They were outplaying and outshooting the Habs and losing. You could see the frustration building with every save Halak was making.”
There are a couple of big reasons for the gap narrowing between the first and eighth seeds in the NHL.
The introduction of the salary cap, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman loves to point out, has led to parity. With the Leafs making the playoffs this season, all 30 teams have now participated in the post-season in the salary cap era.
In the decade before the start of the salary cap era, there was a reason why teams like the Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars dominated. They spent the most money. Even the Leafs could buy their way into the post-season dance.
“There’s no more Red Wings of the ’90s,” said one NHL executive. “The Red Wings are the best example of that. Look at them now. They’ve always done a pretty good job of drafting, but they were always able to spend at the trade deadline to give those guys more support. When it came to free agents, they could always hang onto their guys because they would just pay them whatever it took to keep them. You can’t do that now. Now you have to choose.”
Another big difference in the salary cap era has been the leveling of the ice in the blue paint in the NHL. In the years immediately preceding the cap era, if you had a Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour or Patrick Roy in net you were pretty much assured of being a contender and being almost immune to upsets.
When those guys lost in the first round, it was an upset. In Roy’s case, for instance, he lost in the first round of the playoffs only three times in his 17 trips to the post-season. In 40 playoff seasons between the three of them, they lost in the first round 10 times for a .750 winning percentage in the first round.
Consider in the 14 years before the salary cap was implemented, from 1991-2004, there were eight goaltenders who won Cups led by Roy and Martin Brodeur with three each. Tom Barrasso won a couple with the Pittsburgh Penguins (’91 and ’92) and Chris Osgood won two with the Red Wings (’97 and ’98) and singles went to Hasek with the Wings, Mike Richter with the New York Rangers, Belfour with the Dallas Stars and Tampa’s Nikolai Khabibulin.
Since the salary cap was implemented, there has been a different goaltender win every Cup. Seven Cups, seven goaltenders. All of them won their first Cup save one: Osgood, who had been part of two previous Cup winners in Detroit.
“There used to be a huge difference from the top three goaltenders to the next three,” said one Western-based pro scout. “Now it’s hard to find a team with no holes. Most teams in the league have a chance if they get on a roll and chemistry starts.”
That’s what this year’s eighth-seeds will be hoping.