Since the NHL expanded the playoff format to include 16 teams, only twice has the Stanley Cup champion from the year prior failed to make the post-season. If the Kings become the third, they have to hope they react like the Devils of the ‘90s and not the Hurricanes of the ‘00s.
In 1994-95, the New Jersey Devils took their Eastern Conference final appearance from the year prior to the next step. They defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games and then went on to capture the Stanley Cup with a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings.
The next year, however, the Red Wings came within two wins of returning to the Stanley Cup final while the Devils became the first club since the NHL expanded to a 16-team playoff format to miss the post-season the year after being crowned champions.
In 2006-07, the Carolina Hurricanes became the second team in the 16-club playoff era to fail to reach the post-season the year after championship glory. And, after Tuesday’s loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Los Angeles Kings, winners of two of the past three Stanley Cups, are on the brink of becoming the third team to go from top of the heap to outside the sweet 16. For the Kings’ sake, though, they hope their fate is more in line with the Devils than the Hurricanes.
After missing the playoffs the year after the Stanley Cup, the changes weren’t incredibly significant for the Devils, much like they won’t be for the Kings. It’s due to different circumstances – New Jersey didn’t have to deal with a salary cap – but Los Angeles’ roster is just as stacked as the Devils’ roster was in 1995-96 when they missed the post-season.
That season, the Devils trotted out a lineup that included Bill Guerin, Petr Sykora, Scott Niedermayer, Bobby Holik and Scott Stevens with Martin Brodeur in goal. The only big name the Devils really lost from their Cup run was Claude Lemieux, who was shipped to the New York Islanders for Steve Thomas, who would end up leading the Devils in scoring 1995-96. Even after missing the playoffs, the only names traded out of the Swamp were Stephane Richer and Corey Schwab.
It wasn’t anything other than a few untimely slumps that kept New Jersey out of the post-season. Coach Jacques Lemaire was rewarded with some good faith and, in 1996-97, the Devils were back atop the Atlantic Division with a roster that looked very much the same as the one that had won the Cup two years prior.
By keeping the core together, the team stayed successful. It was the perfect piece of zero-panic leadership from management and a sign of confidence in the team that led to greater things. New Jersey proceeded to own their division for the next three seasons and would win two Stanley Cups and three Eastern Conference championships in the next seven campaigns.
For the Hurricanes, however, the playoff victory left the team a shell of what it was. The biggest loss was that of veteran leadership – each of Mark Recchi, Aaron Ward and Doug Weight found jobs elsewhere following the Cup win. In addition, Martin Gerber, who had lost his job to Cam Ward, left for Ottawa, while Matt Cullen joined Ward as a New York Ranger. The Hurricanes have seen a gradual decline since their Stanley Cup victory.
In the two seasons following the championship, Carolina narrowly missed the post-season. While coach Peter Laviolette kept his job with the team, he would lose it after the Hurricanes stumbled out of the gate in 2008-09. Paul Maurice, now the Jets’ bench boss, took over coaching duties and got the Hurricanes into the post-season where they were swept in the Eastern Conference final to the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
By the time the Hurricanes made their playoff appearance that season, the only mainstays from the Cup roster were Eric Staal, Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour, Erik Cole and Cam Ward. Cullen was back in the fold by then, having been traded back to Carolina, but the defense corps looked almost entirely different.
Since that one post-season appearance, the Hurricanes haven’t been back. It’s now seven straight seasons without playoff hockey in Carolina and this season hasn’t been pretty. Now, the only remaining players from the 2006 Cup team are Staal and Ward.
That’s why Los Angeles has to hope things turn out more like they did for New Jersey than the fate Carolina has suffered. Would the Kings get nervous and bounce GM Dean Lombardi or coach Darryl Sutter from their posts after this season? That’s highly unlikely. Even if there’s a rocky start next year, Lombardi and Sutter masterminded the team that brought Los Angeles two Cups in three seasons, and the club will have some faith. And, even with some roster turnover bound to happen due to the salary cap crunch, the lineup won’t be vastly different next season or the season after.
The Kings have found themselves in exclusive – yet undesirable – company. Now the hope is that missing the playoffs was an aberration, like it was for the Devils, and not the norm, like it has become for the Hurricanes.