Nick Wass/Associated Press
I’ve been following hockey and the National Hockey League for a while now. For the past 10-15 years there’s seemed to be two teams that have somewhat mirrored each other in terms of success. It’s the two teams whose games I watch every night, the Washington Capitals and the San Jose Sharks.
The title people tend to slap on these two teams is “underachievers”. Both of these franchises have been Stanley Cup contenders for a long time and, while one has had a little more success during that span, both have very little to show for all their regular season success. I know it has to be tough for Washington Capitals fans right now. Coming off back-to-back President’s Trophy-winning seasons and playing like a legitimate threat for most of the season and, yet, the team can’t get past the second round of the playoffs. I also know fans of one team don’t like fans of other teams complaining about their club’s lack of success, particularly when your team has clearly had more difficulty.
Then again, after this season’s playoff failure from the Capitals, most people think their window to win a Stanley Cup has closed. As a San Jose Sharks fan, I can relate to the “closed window” theory. The Sharks’ window has closed several times over the past six or seven seasons and here they are years later and the Sharks are still considered contenders in the Western Conference. I’m going to tell you how many times the Sharks were told their window had closed and they should “blow up” their team. Maybe after reading this, Caps fans will realize that it’s not over for this franchise and this group of core players.
The Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09. They lost in the first round of the playoffs that season. That started a trend in which the best team in the NHL would lose in the first round in three of the next four years. San Jose followed that up with back-to-back Conference Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011, losing both times. It was expected the Sharks would remain contenders, especially since they acquired Brent Burns in the 2011 off-season. After an up-and-down 2011-12 season, the Sharks were quickly brushed aside in the first round by the St. Louis Blues in five games.
That was the first window that supposedly closed. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were older, the team was getting worse, and the team had to go in a new direction. The next season (the lockout-shortened 2012-13) began and it was a lot of the same. An inconsistent and old team just hanging on.
San Jose then made some trades at the trade deadline that season and they rebounded. That playoff season, they swept the Vancouver Canucks and took the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the second round. Not many people expected that sort of rebound. The very next season, the Sharks won 51 games and finished with 111 points, tied for fourth-best in the NHL. The window had supposedly closed two years earlier, but they had reloaded and come back.
Then came the reverse sweep in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Up 3-0 in their first round series versus Los Angeles, the Sharks couldn’t find a way to finish the job. It was believed Thornton and Marleau and the team’s core could not lead a group to the Cup. The Sharks’ front office believed they still had a good team, and gave it another go the next season with the same roster. They failed to even make the playoffs in 2015. Many believed it was over, finally over. Thornton and Marleau were in their mid to late thirties, they had lost defenseman Dan Boyle due to age and regression, and now they didn’t even have a goalie after longtime starter Anti Niemi left. They missed the playoffs. People were calling for the team to Blow. It. Up. Start over, move on.
Sharks general manager, Doug Wilson, however, did not blow it up and made some moves in free agency, acquired a new starting goalie in trade. Lo and behold the Sharks made the Stanley Cup Final the very next season, seven years after they were supposed to. The window closed two or three times in that time frame, yet the Sharks finally got to the Final. They still didn’t win the Cup, but they didn’t give up on the core of Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Burns, and Logan Couture.
The Capitals’s window has pretty much followed the same path. Since they made the playoffs in the Ovechkin Era (2007-08), they’ve had the same core players over the last decade, save for a few leaving whether through trade or free agency (Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Troy Brouwer…). But, the Capitals have had four coaches in that time (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, and current bench boss Barry Trotz). The Capitals have won numerous division titles, and the aforementioned three President’s Trophies, and have also developed newer members of their core (Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Braden Holtby to name a few). Since Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan took over three years ago, the team has seen itself reemerge as a legit Cup contender.
Is it a perfect comparison, Sharks and Capitals? Not really. Washington has won three President’s Trophies and can’t get past round two and the Sharks have won just one President’s Trophy and have three Conference Finals appearances and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. But having followed both these teams for about 10 years, I can’t help but look at them and think they have similar stories.
My point? The Capitals have to keep building around Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Braden Holtby. As long as they have those guys, they’ll be a good team and they’ll have a shot.
Maybe they have to tinker with some smaller things. The Sharks have stripped the captaincy off two of their stars, Marleau in 2009 and Thornton in 2014. They gave it to someone in 2015 who most thought was the best leader on the team, Pavelski, and the first year with the “C” he leads the team to the Stanley Cup Final.
Perhaps the Caps need to take the letter from Ovechkin. Maybe they need to let him worry about putting up goals and points. Give the “C” to someone else who might be a better leader. I’m sure it sucks. Back in 2005 to 2008, I bet Capitals fans couldn’t even see because the glare from several Stanley Cups were blinding them. It was the same for the San Jose Sharks. They acquired Joe Thornton, they acquired Dan Boyle, they had Marleau, they acquired Burns, and developed Pavelski, Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It seemed as though Stanley Cups were bound to happen.
I know the Sharks still don’t have a Stanley Cup to show for their efforts, but they were told by many fans, media, and analysts to stop trying back in 2012 and 2014. They stuck with it, and years later made the Stanley Cup Final. Even if they were dominated in that Final, they still took the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games and most of the games in that series were close (in terms of the score).
I can’t help but compare these franchises. The Capitals are a little bit behind, but they aren’t that far off from the Sharks of 2012. Stars are starting to creep into their early thirties and they have multiple playoff failures. The Capitals, in my opinion, can keep this group of core players. What did the Sharks do? They changed their supporting cast, they got younger, they got faster. They also changed leadership. In 2014 they took away the captaincy from Thornton, they let go of Dan Boyle, and now the leaders of the Sharks are Pavelski and Couture, along with Burns and Vlasic.
I know I’ve started to ramble a little bit, but I think this argument holds some truth to it. This probably isn’t the best thought out piece ever, nor the best written. This is simply just one fan of an underachieving team saying to other fans of an underachieving team that there is hope.
You never know how the path to a Stanley Cup Final will unfold. Just because one window has closed doesn’t mean another won’t open very quickly.
By CJ Witt