Since 2010, the NHL has seen several lengthy championship droughts end.
In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961, then added two more in 2013 and 2015. The Boston Bruins captured their first title since 1972 in 2011 and returned to the final in 2013. The Los Angeles Kings, part of the league’s six-team expansion in 1967, won their first championship in 2012 before securing a second in 2014. Last season, the Washington Capitals, who entered the league in 1974-75, won their first Stanley Cup.
The grip of dynasties has been loosened by increased competition from league expansion and parity created by a salary cap. Between 1968 and 1988, five franchises accounted for all the Stanley Cup titles. Since 1988, 16 different franchises have won championships.
As the 2018-19 season begins Wednesday, five franchises have droughts of 40 years or more, including three that have never hoisted hockey’s ultimate prize.
That list includes the St. Louis Blues, despite their having qualified for the playoffs 25 consecutive seasons between 1979 and 2004, the third longest streak in sports history. The President’s Cup winners in 2000 for posting the best record in the NHL, fell a point shy of the postseason last year.
The franchise was founded in 1967 and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in each of its first three years. The Blues haven’t been back since.
The new season begins against the Winnipeg Jets at Enterprise Center Thursday at 7 p.m.
They join the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks as the remaining NHL teams that have gone more than 40 seasons without hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Here’s a look at how each of those teams has retooled for 2018-19, and what their chances of are of breaking their droughts.
<strong>St. Louis Blues</strong>
<strong>Last Stanley Cup: </strong>Never. Entered the NHL in 1967-68.
<strong>Finals:</strong> 1968, 1969, 1970.
<strong>Last season</strong>: 94 points, did not qualify for playoffs.
When the NHL doubled in size in 1967, it took an approach similar to the AFL-NFL merger, ensuring that one of the finalists would be one of the six new franchises. For the first three seasons, the Blues reached the final, only to be swept. (Last season, the Vegas Golden Knights became the first expansion team since the Blues to make it to the final in their first season.)
“You basically got three or four NHL players and then you had to take minor-league players that were on those teams,” said Scotty Bowman, who coached the Blues to all three final appearances.
The Blues would later cultivate players like Brett Hull and Adam Oates, and two Norris Trophy-winning defensemen in Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger. St. Louis made the playoffs every year from 1980 to 2004, but the Blues remained in the shadows of dominant teams in the West, including the Detroit Red Wings in the ‘90s and, more recently, the Blackhawks.
In recent years, St. Louis has been among the best regular-season teams in the West but could not translate that into playoff success. After being eliminated from the postseason contention in the final game last season, the Blues made a flurry of moves in the offseason, including adding centers Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak to a lineup led by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and winger Vladimir Tarasenko.
The veteran holdovers, include goaltender Jake Allen, who struggled last last season and through this preseason.
“It’s obviously huge,” said Brayden Schenn, who set career highs with 28 goals and 42 assists in his first year with St. Louis. “You look at our division, how tight it’s going to be, how tight the West is going to be, you’ve got to have the pieces to compete and we feel like we have that in this locker room.”
With Schenn, O’Reilly and Bozak, the Blues have one of the league’s strongest groups of centers. Perron collected a career-high 50 assists last season while helping expansion Vegas make it to the Stanley Cup Final, and the rugged Maroon had 17 goals and 26 assists in 74 games with Edmonton and New Jersey.
The Blues are hoping the new additions will help them get back to a lofty spot in the rough-and-tumble Central Division — and then make some playoff history.
“We need to learn from last year,” Tarasenko said. “It’s not enough to play up and down all year and then fighting for one point, I don’t think that’s the spot where we want to be. I think our goal is to make the playoff without questions and just win the Cup, so that’s what we need to do and play more consistent during the season.”
<strong>Chances of ending the drought:</strong> Moderate. They have enough talent to win on any given night, but depth and goaltending need work.
<strong>Toronto Maple Leafs</strong>
<strong>Last Stanley Cup:</strong> 1967, their 13th.
<strong>Subsequent finals:</strong> None.
<strong>Last season:</strong> 105 points, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Toronto’s 13 Stanley Cups are second only to Montreal’s 24, but the Leafs have waited more than half a century for No. 14. Since their triumph in 1967, they have produced on-ice excitement intermittently and off-ice drama consistently.
Right wing Ron Ellis, who won the Cup in 1967 and played more than 1,000 games with the Leafs, said he believed the Leafs were on the cusp of glory in the late ‘70s.
“We had all the ingredients, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald at the top of their games. Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer in net,” Ellis said. “We had toughness, guys who could go both ways and a great coach in Roger Nielsen.”
But soon Sittler and general manager Punch Imlach would feud, resulting first in the departure via trade of McDonald, Sittler’s closest teammate, and later of Sittler himself.
The Leafs would appear in consecutive conference finals in 1993 and 1994, led by center Doug Gilmour. In ’93, Toronto lost Game 7 to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, a game Gretzky would call the best of his career.
Ellis called that “the one that really got away.”
“The Kings went on to beat the Leafs and play the Canadiens in the final,” he said. “I really believe that year that the Leafs could have handled the Canadiens; they did so during the season.”
The past two decades have ranged from overly ambitious to outright futile; Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004.
But the Leafs have restructured their organization and built primarily through the draft, loading up on young forwards like Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. Defensemen Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner each topped 50 points last season, and goalie Freddie Andersen performed admirably under heavy fire.
The signing of the free-agent center John Tavares may be the final piece of the puzzle.
<strong>Chances of ending the drought:</strong> Good. The Leafs may have a conference finals run in them like the one in 2002.
<strong>Last Stanley Cup: </strong>Never. Entered the NHL in 1970-71.
<strong>Finals</strong>: 1982, 1994, 2011.
<strong>Last season:</strong> 73 points, did not qualify for playoffs.
The Canucks first flirted with destiny in 1982, when they were perhaps the least likely finalist in NHL history. The 41-point gap in the standings between them and their opponent, the New York Islanders, remains the largest in league history. The Canucks were swept by the Islanders, who won their third championship in a row. But Vancouver would force but ultimately lose Game 7 of the final in 1994 and 2011.
In 1994, the Canucks sought their first championship while the Rangers pursued their first in more than 50 years, having last won in 1940.
Game 7’s climax proved excruciating with three offensive-zone faceoffs in the final 37 seconds for Vancouver, which trailed, 3-2. Ultimately, Mark Messier and the Rangers were jumping for joy as the final horn sounded.
In 2011, the Bruins snapped their own Cup drought by shellacking the Canucks, 4-0, in Game 7.
Championship aspirations may still be off in the distance, but the Canucks have accumulated promising young talent in forwards Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson, the 19-year-old rookie who was the scoring champion, regular-season MVP and playoff MVP in the top Swedish league last season.
<strong>Chances of ending drought:</strong> Slim. They remain a team in transition with one of the younger rosters in the league.
<strong>Last Stanley Cup</strong>: Never. Entered the NHL in 1970-71.
<strong>Finals:</strong> 1975, 1999.
<strong>Last season:</strong> 62 points, did not qualify for playoffs.
Buffalo has had three major pro franchises — the departed Braves of the NBA, the Sabres and the NFL’s Bills — and none of them have won a championship.
The Sabres have twice appeared in the Stanley Cup Final. Their 1975 series against the Flyers included a bat being killed with a hockey stick and a game played in dense fog because of humidity. The 1999 series against the Dallas Stars concluded with one of the most debated goals in hockey history.
Rene Robert, a right wing on the 1975 team, said that he felt the Sabres had the talent to win in the 1970s, but Scotty Bowman took over as coach and general manager in 1979 and broke up the Sabres’ core. Though Buffalo would enjoy some success, the Sabres were not the Cup contenders like the ones Bowman built in St. Louis, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago.
Almost 40 years later, Robert remains puzzled why the Sabres’ roster was altered drastically. “That team was ready to go,” he said.
In the 1999 Cup Final, the Sabres lost Game 6 in triple-overtime on a goal by Brett Hull that some say should have been nullified because it appeared that Hull’s skate was in the goal crease, a rule the NHL enforced strictly throughout the season.
“The Sabres had so many things going their way. Late in games, they would score a tying goal with five or 10 seconds left in the game,” Robert said. “I really thought the wheel was turning their way that year. That goal was what changed the whole scenario.”
Buffalo lost in the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007, but have not won a playoff game since.
They were the worst team in the league last season, and they traded one of their top centers, Ryan O’Reilly, for prospects. But there may be causes for optimism: the arrival of forward Jeff Skinner; the foundation laid by Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen; and the development of top prospects Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin.
<strong>Chances of ending the drought:</strong> Slim — unless coach Phil Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman, can still lace up his skates to play.
<strong>Last Stanley Cup:</strong> 1975, their 2nd.
<strong>Subsequent finals:</strong> 1976, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1997, 2010.
<strong>Last season:</strong> 98 points, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
The Flyers have had plenty of chances at a championship — and no shortage of anguish. In the 1980s, the Flyers twice ran into the dominant Edmonton Oilers in the Cup Final. Their Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in 1985, Pelle Lindbergh, died months later in a car accident. In 1987, the rookie goalie Ron Hextall backed a battered but resistant group that pushed the Oilers to a Game 7.
The Flyers would have another brush with greatness, again as underdogs. They qualified for the playoffs in the final game of the 2009-10 season in a shootout against the New York Rangers and then came within two victories of the Stanley Cup. They toppled Boston in the second round despite trailing by three games to none in the series and by 3-0 in Game 7.
“The more we kept going, the more it felt like it was meant to be,” forward Daniel Briere said.
But it wasn’t. It was the Blackhawks who ended their Cup drought instead. In overtime of Game 6, Chicago won the championship on a so-called “phantom goal” from Patrick Kane, which most of the Flyers, and the CBC and NBC broadcasters, did not see go in.
“It definitely would have been a perfect end of the story if we would have won the Stanley Cup,” Briere said. “I am sure movies could have been made on how we got there.”
The Flyers had long subscribed to a philosophy of reloading over rebuilding, though a more patient approach has left them with an attractive group of young players behind a handful of established stars. Top-level goaltending has eluded them for the better part of the past three decades, but Hextall, now the Flyers’ general manager, hopes the prospect Carter Hart, 20, can reverse their fortunes.
<strong>Chances of ending drought:</strong> Moderate. A potent group of forwards and a developing defense offers promise, but goaltending remains a question mark.