February 27, 2009
Curses have been a part of sports forever. In New York there was the "Curse of 1940" for the New York Rangers; in Boston, it was the "Curse of the Bambino" until the Red Sox exorcized it in 2004; Chicago has the "Curse of the Billy Goat."
A more recent phenomenon, which has slowly made its way into "curse" status, is the one afflicting teams that reach the Stanley Cup finals and then lose. This "runners-up curse" has been in effect since the 1997-98 season after the Washington Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. In 11 seasons, only one Cup bridesmaid, the 2000-01 Dallas Stars, has won a playoff round. The others have either lost in the first round or not qualified at all for the postseason.
We asked some bloggers whose teams fell victim to the Stanley Cup "curse" about the year after their finals trip: what went wrong; advice for last year's runner-up, the Pittsburgh Penguins; their own superstitions and more.
Joining us are Cherry Bomb (CB) of Scarlett Ice, an Ottawa Senators blog; Dave Olesky (DO) from Die by the Blade, a Buffalo Sabres blog; J.P. Press (JP) of Japers' Rink, a Washington Capitals blog; and Kent (KT) from Five Hole Fanatics, a Calgary Flames blog.
Describe the expectations you had for your team on opening night the season after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
(CB-Ott): We're really going back for this, aren't we? Basically, I had really high hopes for this team. The Senators were perfect coming out of the preseason and the team really didn't look all that different from the SCF team. John Paddock was the head coach. He was Bryan Murray's guy and the players were familiar with him. It looked like there was no hangover to speak of and it wasn't out of the question to think that a repeat trip was within reach. It might have been a bit of a stretch and the team would have to work extra hard, but it wasn't completely out of the question. I was certainly tentative for the most part since playing the Ducks had highlighted just how many weaknesses this team still had.
(DO-Buf): The expectations in Buffalo were high following the Stanley Cup season. Looking back, the expectations were probably unrealistic because the Sabres were seventh place in the Eastern Conference the year they went to the Cup. Fans have a tendency to get caught up in the moment instead of looking at things realistically. Despite the short turnaround between the Stanley Cup Finals and the beginning of the next season it was the longest summer in Sabres history or at least it felt that way. I don't need to remind anyone how that Stanley Cup ended in the third overtime of Game Six. Everyone just wanted to move on to the next season and get another chance to play for Lord Stanley's Cup.
(JP-Wsh): Expectations were definitely high, but probably unrealistically so (and it might not have even been "expectations" as much as "excitement"). I mean, when the Caps went to the finals as a No. 4 seed after the top three seeds lost in the first round. A lot of things went right for them that Spring, but they weren't an "up and coming" team by any means, so there was probably little reason to expect much improvement a season later.
(KT-Cgy): My expectations were tempered with the realization that a final one year does not mean instant success the next. Plus I had, you know, an entire lockout to get some perspective on the issue.
Comparing the Stanley Cup run and the season afterward, what went wrong?
(CB-Ott): Too much went wrong. The team was lethargic and I think they certainly tuned out the coach eventually. They had a great first month or so and they let it go to their heads. They started believing their own hype and didn't think they needed to work hard to remain competitive.
(DO-Buf): I think the biggest reason the Sabres lost to the Flyers in the first round the following year was simple ... they played against a better team. It wasn't much different than the year before, when they went to the cup but in 1999 they got hot at the right time and in 2000 they suddenly got really cold when the playoffs started. It took only five games for the Flyers to dispose of the Sabres and Buffalo scored only eight goals in those five games.
(JP-Wsh): What didn't? The scoring, which wasn't impressive to begin with, disappeared (Peter Bondra led the team with 31 goals; Brian Bellows was second among forwards with 17) and the team got real old, real fast --- they had 15 players in their 30's play at least 20 games.
(KT-Cgy): The Flames actually improved during the regular season and finished first in the division. Calgary's main issue that season was a lack of scoring, one that came back to bite them in the ass during the first round against the Ducks.
Play GM for a moment and go back and change two things during the season after the SCF.
(CB-Ott): I really don't want to have to talk about Ray Emery anymore but I wouldn't have let his behaviour slide. He's a very capable and competitive goalie but since it was clear that Paddock wasn't dealing with his behaviour in the right way, then Murray should have either dealt him earlier or sit him down, anything to make sure he was working hard and contribute positively.
I would have also addressed the defence a lot sooner. I know that Murray had tried to trade Redden but couldn't because of his NTC but now it's gotten to the point where the blue-line is substantially weaker. I think alternatively, a lot of guys got big money contracts due to that successful run when it maybe wasn't all that deserved. Now there are players who are overpaid due to one great run and that can't be moved.
(DO-Buf): Darcy Regier has been known recently for not making moves but in 1999 and 2000 he was active at the trade deadline trying to improve this team. It's difficult to criticize what Regier did to try and improve the team the following season. He went out and got Doug Gilmour who had plenty of playoff experience and brought in Chris Gratton as well to add some toughness for the playoff run. If there was one thing that could have been done differently it would have been to sign some free agents in the off-season and allow the team to mesh together for the entire season instead of making so many deadline deals.
(JP-Wsh): Geez... I can hardly remember back that far, but "scoring winger" would have to be at the top of the list, and "keep Andrew Brunette" might be second.
(KT-Cgy): 1.) I would have been more proactive about pursuing another legitimate top 6 forward for the club. The Flames had Daymond Langkow and Jarome Iginla getting things done from the top line that year, but not much else. They added Kristian Huselius around December, which helped, but it wasn't enough to really flesh out the club's lackluster forward depth.
2.) I would he hung on to Steven Reinprecht. Mid-way through the year, Sutter became dissatisfied with back-up Philippe Sauvé, so he moved the two aforementioned players to Phoenix for Brian Boucher and checker Mike Leclerc. Boucher didn't prove to be any better in the back-up role and Leclerc was oft injured and just another big-bodied support player on a team that already had enough of them. Reinprecht, on the other hand, is a legit offensive producer when he's healthy.
The trade gave the Flames nothing in terms of return and diluted an already thin talent base.
What do you think has been the biggest reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins have fallen on hard times this season?
(CB-Ott): For very similar reasons as to why the Senators have fallen on hard times: two or three big talent, big name players and no help from the rest of the team.
(DO-Buf): I think that this has been over-analyzed by many of the so-called experts. They want to blame the coach, the young captain or even the dreaded Stanley Cup Hangover. The answer is staring us right in the face ... it's the players. Not the players that are playing but rather the players who aren't or weren't playing this season. Why aren't more people talking about the loss of Ryan Malone? All he did last season was score 27 goals and 51 points. How about the absence of Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar from the Pens lineup? Both defensemen scored 12 goals last year and this season they have both been out of the lineup. (Ed. Note: And now one of them is traded.) These are tough players to replace and the Pens have proved just how difficult it is. I didn't even mention Marian Hossa because he was picked up at the deadline but you get the point.
(JP-Wsh): Leadership. Losing Roberts, Malone and Armstrong (I know he was gone at the deadline) were big losses, and, frankly, it doesn't appear as if Sid is up to the challenge of filling that void.
(KT-Cgy): I think Pittsburgh caught Lightning in a bottle last year: the SV% and SH% for the club were sky high and bound to come back down to earth. The losses of Ty Conklin, Marian Hossa and the injuries to Gonchar and Whitney probably hurt a lot too.
Why do you think Stanley Cup finalists have such a hard time even just making the playoffs the following season?
(CB-Ott): Hard to say and I think it's different for different teams but I think the magic of a Stanley Cup run sort of forces GMs to start giving out big money, unmovable contracts and not pay attention to the support that is required for the team to be successful. They're under the impression that if the make-up of the team doesn't change that they'll be able to repeat that success. But other teams know their shtick now and the book is out on their style. It's how such a talented line of Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson manages to get shut down and rendered completely ineffective at times.
(DO-Buf): Ah...the dreaded Stanley Cup Hangover. There are many theories on why this is the case and the one that is used most often is fatigue. That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Does anyone really believe that professional athletes are fatigued from playing extra games and having less time off?
I think that mentally the players feel like it will happen easier this time. They get a bit of an invincible feeling instead of laying it all on the line like they did the first time. Once they realize what is happening it is sometimes too late and that might be the case with the Pens this season.
(JP-Wsh): It's easy to blame the shorter off-season, but I think that to get so close only to lose is a big psychological hit -- you look back on 100 or so games and have nothing but disappointment to show for it. Teams try to convince themselves that getting so close only makes them hungrier for the Cup itself, but when that next season starts and you're looking at 100 or so games ahead before you get a shot at redemption, it's a lot to try to focus on each of those games and perhaps hard to avoid the feeling that because you're the reigning Conference champ, the regular season will somehow be easy. And it's not.
(KT-Cgy): There's likely something to the "hang-over" of playing well into the summer I'm sure. However, I think we're just talking about chance here: half the teams in the league don't make the post-season and there's a lot than can happen (injuries, trades, UFA losses) that can sink a club into the bottom half of the NHL.
What's your biggest hockey superstition and/or curse breaker?
(CB-Ott): To stop doing whatever superstitious ritual I was doing before because the magic has obviously worn off.
(DO-Buf): Hockey is supposed to be a sport of superstitions and yet I don't have too many. Maybe it's because the regular season is so long but in the regular season I have none. The playoffs well that is a different story. I have to wear a Sabres jersey for every playoff game with no exceptions. I'm ashamed to admit this but the jersey of choice the last time the Sabres were in the playoffs was a Maxim Afinogenov jersey. I'm more ashamed to say that during the Cup run in 1999 it was a Brian Holzinger jersey. The other superstition is the location I watch the game. I try to pick a spot for game one and stick with it. It doesn't matter where it is as long as I'm in the same place for every game.
(JP-Wsh): I'll let you know if and when it works.
(KT-Cgy): Don't think I have any superstitions remaining these days!
UPDATE: Let me be clear, since there seems to be some confusion in my post (again): The "curse" isn't that a bridesmaid team hasn't gone on to win a Stanley Cup (see: '02 Hurricanes, '01 Devils, and '03 Ducks), it's that the year after losing in the Finals, said team either failed to qualify for the playoffs or did not get out of the first-round.