It looks like the 2009 NHL playoffs will feature a few new teams for a change.
That’s because four of the five clubs with the longest active playoff droughts are currently holding down a post-season position.
Chicago, Columbus, Florida, Los Angeles and Phoenix haven’t made the playoffs for at least five seasons, but look for some long-awaited breakthroughs this year.
As NHL teams neared the 50-game mark, the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Panthers and Coyotes were among the top eight clubs in their conference; only the Kings remained on the outside looking in.
For the Panthers and Jackets, a post-season berth would be especially satisfying. Florida hasn’t qualified for the playoffs in seven seasons, since the spring of 2000; the Panthers haven’t won a playoff round since their surprise run to the 1996 Stanley Cup final. Columbus, meanwhile, joined the NHL in 2000-01 and has never qualified for the post-season.
More importantly than their plight this year, a taste of the playoffs – and preferably, some success – would help re-establish the Cats and Jackets in their local markets and give them something to build on moving forward.
The Hawks, Coyotes and Kings are attempting to snap five-season playoff droughts; Chicago and Phoenix were looking good, sitting fourth and fifth in the West. Los Angeles was in 12th place, six points out of the playoff race, but with seven teams separated by only two points (from fifth to 11th place), it’s not so much the points, but the number of teams the Kings have to jump over.
And speaking of jumped-over teams, how about this oddity: None of the past four Eastern Conference representatives in the Stanley Cup final are currently in a playoff position. Pittsburgh (2008), Ottawa (2007), Carolina (2006) and Tampa Bay (2004) have a lot of work to do if they want to return to recent glory.
SEVEN FORTY MEN
In the real world, they’d be physical specimens worth marvelling, the objects of envy and wonder.
But in the world of professional hockey, they’re just old.
By my count, there are seven NHLers of at least 40 years of age in the NHL right now.
There’s Chris Chelios, of course, somehow still playing at, uh, 47 years old. Ye olde Redd Wyng sustained a fractured leg in training camp and has dressed for just nine games this year. Maybe Chelios, who played for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics, has his eyes on 2010 in Vancouver.
The next-oldest NHLer is Claude Lemieux. At 43, and after five-and-a-half years out of hockey, Lemieux convinced the high-flying San Jose Sharks to give him a mid-season shot.
After a month or so in the American League, Lemieux was called up prior to the all-star break and has played three games on the fourth line. He hasn’t scored, but doesn’t have to – the Sharks want him to infect the rest of the team with his intensity and desire.
Wouldn’t it be something if Lemieux won his fifth Cup – with a fourth team – after a half-decade off the ice?
In Tampa Bay, the Lightning signed a pair of 40-plus wingers last summer in Gary Roberts (42) and Mark Recchi (41). Roberts, who said earlier this season that he plans to retire at the end of the year, has been out since late November with an elbow injury.
He’s reportedly close to a return, but with two goals – both scored in the same game – and three points in 19 contests, the old warrior is finally showing his age.
In 50 games, Recchi has 11 goals and 33 points, third-most on the team. But he’s a club-worst minus-14 and doesn’t fit in with Tampa’s youth movement.
It wasn’t an all-bad idea to bring in some wily old vets to show the young Bolts how to win…it just didn’t happen to work out very well.
Curtis Joseph returned to Toronto in the off-season, coming home to the team he backstopped in the late 1990s. At 42, though, Joseph is no longer in his prime and it’s painfully obvious.
Joseph relied on his athleticism and reflex quickness in his younger days; unfortunately, that quickness has eroded and, with Justin Pogge slated to get a few starts, Joseph might not play another game this season.
Another player returned to his previous team when Brendan Shanahan, 40, signed with the New Jersey Devils in mid-January.
New Jersey drafted Shanahan second overall in 1987 and he played four seasons for the Devils before St. Louis signed him as a restricted free agent in 1991 (the Devils were awarded Scott Stevens in arbitration).
Shanahan scored a goal in his first game back with the Devils; his return also marked 6,500-plus days between games for the same NHL team, a league record.
Finally, the defenseman with heart. That would be Buffalo Sabres blueliner Teppo Numminen, 40, who missed all but one game last season after undergoing heart surgery, but still has played more NHL games than any other European player.
Of the seven NHLers aged 40-plus, none have had a particularly big impact on their team. Recchi has contributed in Tampa, Numminen helps stabilize Buffalo and perhaps Shanahan will help spark New Jersey’s offense, but it’s not like those guys were unfairly held out of the All-Star Game or anything.
In the end, Lemieux has the best shot at a meaningful role. His grit and general nastiness might be the missing ingredients in San Jose; plus, you can’t get more well-rested than “retired in 2003.”
Sam McCaig, the editor of the The Ultimate Book of Hockey Lists, is The Hockey News’ senior copy editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
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