The formula for building a Stanley Cup winning team is not an easy one to master. A team’s management group needs to know how to properly draft and develop players, figure out which players are worth keeping and which players need to be traded, and properly determine how to spend money on free agents. They need to put in place a coaching staff capable of instilling a winning attitude, a proper system of play and manage all of the different personalities on their hockey team.
Even if they get everything right and the team looks like a lock to win the Stanley Cup, it’s not always a sure thing. A few bad bounces, a debilitating injury, or run in with a hot goaltender and a team can quickly find themselves on the outside of the playoffs. The fact is, building a hockey team is an inexact science. Teams have won with a variety of types of players and a variety of playing styles. The style that works best can change on a yearly basis, so teams are always changing, and general managers are always tinkering to find the right style and right mix of players for their team.
Many teams have found continuous regular season success, but ultimately failed come playoff time. Some of those teams you can point to and say they’re only one piece away from winning a Stanley Cup. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing the coach, while other times the missing piece may be harder to find, like a top line centre, a stud defenseman or a number one goaltender. Finding the missing piece can be done, but sometimes by the time you find it, you’ve lost other pieces that need to be replaced.
Here are 15 teams who may have won it all if only they had that one missing piece:
15. Buffalo Sabres – 1992-93
Heading into the 1992-93 season the Buffalo Sabres were coming off five consecutive first round playoff disappointments, but the team received breakout seasons from both Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny. LaFontaine posted 53 goals and 148 points while Mogliny scored a whopping 76 goals and 127 points. The Sabres also got a 96 point season from Dale Hawerchuk and received 29 goals and 61 points from Dave Andreychuk before the latter was dealt to the Maple Leafs for aging goaltender Grant Fuhr. Along with Fuhr, the Sabres also had a young Dominik Hasek between the pipes.
In the 1993 playoffs the Sabres swept the Bruins, but were ultimately swept themselves by the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens. However, all four or the Sabres’ losses to the Canadiens came by one goal and three of the four games were decided in overtime. The Sabres lost both LaFontaine and Mogilny to injury during the series, but had they had one more top line forward, like say Dave Andreychuk, they may have been able to survive the Canadiens and go on to win the Stanley Cup. They would have avoided the powerhosue Penguins in the Wales Conference Finals and who knows how a healthy Sabres team would have done against the Kings.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs – 1999-2004
The Maple Leafs were consistently considered Stanley Cup contenders during the early 2000s, with a team that featured strong goaltending from Curtis Joseph and later Ed Belfour plus a forward group led by Mats Sundin. Although they’ve often been criticized for failing to provide Sundin with quality linemates, they did eventually find him a top flight winger in the form of Alexander Mogilny. In the end, the team’s inability to procure an elite level defenseman to support Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle is what led to their failure every spring.
13. Vancouver Canucks – 2000-04
With the trio of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, along with the emerging Sedin twins, a defense led by Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund, and a Stanley Cup winning coach in Marc Crawford, the Canucks of the early 2000s had all of the makings of a championship team, except for the man in net.
Over four postseasons with the Canucks, Dan Cloutier posted a 3.31 GAA and .872 SV%. His biggest moment of infamy came in Game 3 of the opening round of 2002 playoffs when he gave up a series turning goal to Nicklas Lidstrom on a slapshot from centre ice.
12. St. Louis Blues – 1999-00
With a defensive group that featured Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis and a forward group lead by Pavol Demitra and Pierre Turgeon, it’s not surprising that the Joel Quenneville coached Blues finished the 1999-00 season with a 114 points and took home the Presidents’ Trophy. The team’s undoing was its lack of an elite, or at least very good, goaltender.
The Blues fell into a 3-1 deficit in their first round matchup with the San Jose Sharks and battled back to force a seventh game, but starter Roman Turek struggled throughout the series and gave up the series deciding goal on an Owen Nolan slapshot from centre ice. The Blues tried, but never successfully found a top tier goaltender and they continued to be a top regular season team with a poor postseason record until the 2004-05 lockout.
11. Detroit Red Wings – 2002-04
Legendary coach Scotty Bowman retired following the Red Wings’ 2002 Stanley Cup victory and was replaced by former assistant coach Dave Lewis. Over the next two seasons the majority of the Red Wings’ roster was kept intact and they remained one of the league’s top regular season teams, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2003-04, but the lack of an experienced coach kept the Stanley Cup from coming back to Detroit.
Lewis was fired after the 2004 playoffs and his only NHL head coaching job since came in 2006-07 when he led the Boston Bruins to the basement of the Northeast Division.
10. Florida Panthers – 1995-96
In just their third season of existence in 1995-96 the Panthers made a run to the Stanley Cup Final, knocking off the Bruins, Flyers and Penguins along the way. The Panthers received stellar goaltending from John Vanbiesbrouck and were led in playoff scoring by veterans Dave Lowry and Ray Sheppard. However, the Panthers didn’t have a true number one centre and were swept in the Final by the Colorado Avalanche in a series in which they scored just four goals.
The following season the Panthers got off to a good start and held down the top spot in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, but rather than trade for a proven number one centre, they dealt centre Stu Barnes and defenseman Jason Wooley for young centre Chris Wells, who would go on to score just seven goals for the Panthers. The team’s play dropped off and they never got back on track.
9. San Jose Sharks – 2005-Present
Some would suggest that the Sharks’ lack of postseason success over the past decade is due to Patrick Marleau’s inability to produce in the playoffs, but that is ignorant of the fact that no one has scored more playoff goals than Marleau since he entered the league. The truth is, much of the blame falls on the Sharks goaltenders.
Whether it be Evgeni Nabakov’s struggles in the 2009 playoffs or Anttii Niemi’s inability to close the door on the way to blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in 2014, this team has long been one good goaltender away from winning the Stanley Cup.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs – 1992-93
If you are friends with any fans of the blue and white, then you’ve probably had to hear for the past 22 years how Wayne Gretzky’s high stick on Doug Gilmour that went uncalled by referee Kerry Fraser in overtime of Game 6 of the 1993 Conference Finals cost the Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup. In reality, the Maple Leafs still had a chance to set up a Stanley Cup Final matchup with the Canadiens, but they lacked a shutdown centre capable of stopping Wayne Gretzky and the Great One scored a hat-trick in the series deciding seventh game.
7. Washington Capitals – 2009-10
The Bruce Boudreau coached Capitals finished the 2009-10 season with a Presidents’ Trophy winning 121 points thanks to strong seasons from Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. However, the Capitals were upset in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. Part of their failure was due to the fact that they ran into a hot goalie in the form of Jaroslav Halak, another part of it was that they lacked a number one goalie of their own and received inconsistent netminding from a tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore.
6. Buffalo Sabres – 2005-07
Led by Danny Briere and Chris Drury the Sabres were one of the league’s top teams in 2005-06 and 2006-07. However, the Sabres needed a top pairing defenseman to play alongside Brian Campbell. When injuries took their toll on the team’s back-end in the 2006 Conference Finals, the Sabres couldn’t keep up and were ousted by the Hurricanes. They never addressed the issue, but they opened the 2006-07 season on a 10-game winning streak and went on to post a Presidents’ Trophy winning 113 points, before once again losing in the Conference Finals, this time to the Ottawa Senators.
5. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – 2002-03
The Ducks’ run to get within one win of the Stanley Cup in 2003 came largely on the back of goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere who provided one of the single greatest playoff performances of all time. The bulk of the Ducks’ offensive production that spring came from star winger Paul Kariya and veterans Adam Oates and Petr Sykora.
A number one centre to play alongside Kariya would’ve gone a long way in helping the Ducks beat the Devils. Unfortunately for the Ducks, the following summer the team failed to come to terms on a contract with Kariya and he departed to join the Colorado Avalanche. By the time they won the Stanley Cup four years later, only Giguere, backup goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, and forwards Andy McDonald, Sammy Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer remained from the 2003 team.
4. New York Rangers – 1971-72
Led by the Goal-A-Game line of Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, and Vic Hadfield, along with star defenseman Brad Park, and head coach Emile “the Cat” Francis, the Rangers finished the 1971-72 season with a 48-17-13 record and 109 points. They knocked off the Montreal Canadiens and swept the Chicago Blackhawks before ultimately losing to Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. The only piece missing from this team was someone capable of shutting down number four.
3. Buffalo Sabres – 1974-75
The Sabres made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1975 with a team that featured the French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert. The line finished the regular season with a combined 132 goals and the Sabres posted a 113 point season. They beat the Blackhawks and Canadiens, in part because of the strong play from goaltender Gerry Desjardins, before losing to the defending champion Philadelphia Flyers in the Final.
Desjardins struggled in the Final and his nervousness led to him asking to sit out the series deciding sixth game. Having a confident and dependable starting goalie capable of outdueling Bernie Parent would’ve made the difference for the Sabres.
2. Philadelphia Flyers – 2009-10
A disappointing and injury riddled 2009-10 season for the Flyers featured the firing of head coach John Stevens, with Peter Laviolette being named his successor and ended with the Flyers sneaking into the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed. In the playoffs the Flyers knocked off the Devils, completed a comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Bruins and defeated the Canadiens all while riding the hot hand of waiver pickup Michael Leighton.
In the Final, Leighton’s play dropped off and he posted an abysmal .875 SV% and 3.96 GAA en route to a six game loss to the Blackhawks. Replace Leighton with even an average starting NHL goaltender and the Flyers would’ve taken home the Stanley Cup.
1. Colorado Avalanche – 2003-04
After signing Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in the summer of 2003 the Colorado Avalanche were considered the Stanley Cup favorites. Kariya and Selanne joined a team that still featured the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake and Adam Foote. What the Avalanche did not have, however, was a proven NHL coach. Tony Granato was in his first full season as a head coach and was fired after the Avalanche were knocked out in the second round of the 2004 playoffs.
The only head coaching job Granato has had since came when he took the job again with the Avalanche in 2008-09 and was subsequently fired after leading the team to its worst season since the franchise moved to Colorado.
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