Well, folks, in light of the Ilya Kovalchuk signing, the ESPN hockey writer we all love to hate is back at it again. As we've all noted for quite some time, now, Scott Burnside likes to paint the Devils as failures in large part due to their lack of playoff success since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003. Now, there have been six post-seasons since that time, but I started to wonder: could Burnside have a point regarding the Devils and their playoff record? Are the Devils underachievers in the post-season, or is it simply a biased view based on the high standards the team has set with their run of success in the past decade?
A lot of teams would be happy simply making the playoffs. Other teams measure themselves by their success after the initial 82-game draw. Still others aren't happy unless they are lifting Lord Stanley's Cup. Six different teams have done that since the Devils last did so in 2003 -- some terrific clubs built for the long haul, some teams merely fortunate to have had that one magical run. Let's look at these categories in turn.
A team doesn't get the opportunity at post-season success unless they actually qualify for the dance. In this category, the Devils have done very well, indeed. Only two other teams have even made the playoffs each of the last six seasons: Detroit and San Jose. No one will qualify the Red Wings as post-season chokers with their history: 4 Cups since 1997, 6 Finals appearances since 1995. In the last six post-seasons, the Red Wings have only failed to win a series twice. As for San Jose, there have been rumblings over the years about how disappointing their April and May has been. From a raw numbers perspective, I don't know that there is anything to it. Their 38 playoff wins the last six seasons ties them for 2nd most among all NHL clubs, and they've made it out of the first round five times and to the Western Conference Finals twice. It isn't the Stanley Cup they dream about, but it isn't chopped liver, either. On the other end of the spectrum, the Florida Panthers ought to be considered the bottom of the barrel, as they have failed to make the post-season in this span.
Based on the standard of making it to the playoffs, the Devils are an unqualified success.
So let's look at the next measure of determining a team's success -- how they've done once they've gotten there. New Jersey hasn't performed exceedingly well by almost any measure in this respect. They've only won two series in six years, and have an aggregate record of 16-26. Now, losses have a way of piling up when you lose a lot of series, so the 26 ought to be taken with a grain of salt.... but the record isn't good any way you slice it. But how bad is it, really?
Florida is already out of this picture, based on their failure to make it to the post-season in this time. We come next to a tier of teams that have not won a playoff series in the 2004-2010 sample. In the East, this only includes a pair of teams, Atlanta (swept by the Rangers in 2007), and the New York Islanders (first-round wipe-outs in 2004 and 2007). Out West, this is a larger fraternity, including Nashville (five separate series losses), Minnesota and St. Louis (two apiece), plus Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Columbus. Some of these teams haven't been very good for a while, and their fan bases are quite possibly thrilled with just making it that far.... but I don't know that I'd call the Devils bigger failures than any of them.
Next, we come to a group with limited playoff success. For the sake of argument, I'll include in this group any team that has won one, two, or three rounds in the playoffs during the time period in question. New Jersey is in here, as I recounted above. Who else qualifies under this group, do you ask? Boston, Washington, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado, Edmonton, and the New York Rangers.
Each team has differing circumstances and excuses to pose for itself. Toronto won one round in 2004, but hasn't returned to the playoffs in the post-lockout era. Washington has blown substantial series leads each of the last three years on their way out of the dance. Our Hated Rivals have a similar pattern to us -- consecutive bouncings in the second round, but otherwise unable to escape the first (when they've made it there). Boston has been very up-and-down, and has also blown several series' leads in dramatic fashion. Edmonton's numbers are the product of a wild 2006 run, when the Western Conference resembled the 2010 Eastern Conference playoffs. Calgary made it through to the finals in 2004, but hasn't won a playoff series since. Vancouver has made it to the second round three times in four years.... but they've also failed to make the playoffs twice since the lockout -- it is clearly feast or famine. Colorado has similarly been up-and-down.
Based on this standard, New Jersey has certainly been disappointing. However, if they are a failure based on this reading of the data, so are numerous other franchises who have recorded similar post-season success or even less.
Perhaps Scott Burnside looks on the Devils as failures because of their inability to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. Certainly asking a team to reach the Final Four is fair, if the expectations on them are lofty and the team is not considered a flash-in-the-pan having a remarkable playoff run. Carolina would be an example of the latter, given they have one Stanley Cup (2006) and one Eastern Conference Finals loss (2009) since 2004, but have also missed the playoffs four times in that span. If this is the case, however, how many teams can truly call themselves successful?
As discussed above, Detroit is certainly the first place to look. One Cup, one Finals appearance, and a third trip to the Conference Finals in six seasons is very successful any way you slice it. Pittsburgh has also acquitted themselves well, with two trips to the Finals and the 2009 Cup. Philadelphia measures out well in this fashion, with a trip to the 2010 Finals paired with Eastern Conference Finals visits in 2004 and 2008.
Then there are teams who who made it to the Final Four twice, but haven't gone beyond it twice. Carolina is in this group, as mentioned above. Chicago (2010 champs, 2009 WCF) and Anaheim (2007 champs, 2006 WCF) stand proudly in this group. Buffalo (ECF in 2006 and 2007) and San Jose (WCF in 2010 and 2004) measure up reasonably well, too.
Also showing up in a Conference Finals (or beyond) during this span are Tampa Bay (2004 Cup), Ottawa (2007 runners-up), Montreal (2010 ECF), Dallas (2008 WCF), Edmonton (2006 runners-up), and Calgary (2004 runners-up).
Based on this standard, the Devils are a failure.... but so are nearly half the teams in the league.
All in all, I think it is fair to be disappointed in the Devils' playoff showings. Longtime fans of the franchise have grown used to a lot of success, including Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003. At the same time, criticism of the team as "a playoff failure" seems overly harsh, and holding the team to a higher standard. Sure, they haven't lived up to the expectations we've placed on them, but they've acquitted themselves as well as or better than most of the league since 2004. Whatever the reasons, they haven't quite gotten it done when the chips are down.... but a lot of fans around the NHL can say that about their favorite teams.
The raw data
Pittsburgh: 38-24, 1 Cup, 1 Finals, 1 2nd round, 1 1st round, 2 no playoffs (8-3)
Philadelphia: 38-32, 1 Finals, 2 ECF, 2 1st round, 1 no playoffs (7-5)
Carolina: 24-19, 1 Cup, 1 ECF, 4 no playoffs (6-1)
Buffalo: 22-18, 2 ECF, 1 1st round, 3 no playoffs (4-3)
Ottawa: 21-24, 1 Finals, 1 2nd round, 3 1st round, 1 no playoffs (4-5)
Boston: 20-18, 2 2nd round, 2 1st round, 2 no playoffs (2-4)
Montreal: 20-32, 1 ECF, 2 2nd round, 2 1st round, 1 no playoffs (4-5)
Tampa Bay: 19-15, 1 Cup, 2 1st round, 3 no playoffs (4-2)
New Jersey: 16-26, 2 2nd round, 4 1st round (2-6)
NY Rangers: 14-17, 2 2nd round, 2 1st round, 2 no playoffs (2-4)
Washington: 13-15, 1 2nd round, 2 1st round, 3 no playoffs (1-3)
Toronto: 6-7, 1 2nd round, 5 no playoffs (1-1)
NY Islanders: 2-8, 2 1st round, 4 no playoffs (0-2)
Atlanta: 0-4, 1 1st round, 5 no playoffs (0-1)
Florida: has not made playoffs
Detroit: 54-39, 1 Cup, 1 Finals, 1 WCF, 1 2nd round, 2 1st round (10-5)
San Jose: 38-35, 2 WCF, 3 2nd round, 1 1st round (7-6)
Anaheim: 34-22, 1 Cup, 1 WCF, 1 2nd round, 1 1st round, 2 no playoffs (7-3)
Chicago: 25-14, 1 Cup, 1 WCF, 4 no playoffs (6-1)
Calgary: 25-27, 1 Finals, 4 1st round, 1 no playoffs (3-5)
Vancouver: 20-21, 3 2nd round, 1 1st round, 2 no playoffs (3-4)
Colorado: 16-20, 3 2nd round, 1 1st round, 2 no playoffs (3-4)
Edmonton: 15-9, 1 Finals, 5 no playoffs (3-1)
Dallas: 15-20, 1 WCF, 1 2nd round, 2 1st round, 2 no playoffs (4-4)
Nashville: 8-20, 5 1st round, 1 no playoffs (0-5)
Phoenix: 3-4, 1 1st round, 5 no playoffs (0-1)
Minnesota: 3-8, 2 1st round, 4 no playoffs (0-2)
Los Angeles: 2-4, 1 1st round, 5 no playoffs (0-1)
St. Louis: 1-8, 2 1st round, 4 no playoffs (0-2)
Columbus: 0-4, 1 1st round, 5 no playoffs (0-1)