SAN JOSE, Calif. — What just a few years ago was the most treacherous stretch of the NHL schedule for many teams has turned into a bit of breather of late.
The days of being run by the physical, overpowering teams in San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles are long in the past. The stars on those teams have slowed with age or moved on to other places.
All are in the midst of retooling following back-to-back seasons where all three California teams missed the postseason.
“We knew that this type of phase was coming in at some point in this phase of our journey,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “We had a pretty good run for along time. We had to replenish our system.”
It’s a pattern that is similar in Southern California where the Ducks and Kings are dealing with the same process. It’s just a bit shocking that it is happening at the same time considering the success those franchises had.
Since Anaheim entered the NHL in the 1993-94 season, there had been only season (1995-96) where none of the California teams went to the playoffs before the past two seasons.
The Sharks have missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the third time in franchise history. The Ducks have matched a franchise-worst playoff drought of three years and the Kings also have missed three years in a row.
This comes after a stretch between 2003 — when the Ducks made it to their first Stanley Cup Final — and 2019, when the Sharks lost to St. Louis in the Western Conference final, that one of the three California teams made it to the conference final in 13 out of 16 seasons.
In a 10-year stretch from the 2008-18, which was the last time all three teams made the playoffs in the same season, the California teams won 65.6% of possible points in their home games, making the stretch where Eastern Conference teams played all three California squads in succession more treacherous than the Bermuda Triangle.
The run started in 2003 when Anaheim lost to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Final. The Ducks then won it all four years later for California’s first Cup title in one of their five trips to the conference final or better in that span, led by stars like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer.
The Kings won it all twice during this period, with Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick helping them left the Cup in 2012 and ’14, while losing the conference final the year in between.
The Sharks were the most consistent of the three teams, led by players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, but never won the ultimate prize, losing to Pittsburgh in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and four other times in the conference final.
Most of those players are long gone or past their primes, leaving those teams waiting for new stars to come in and lead the way to success.
“We knew there was going to come a time when the Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski era was over,” Wilson said. “You have to replenish. We went many, many years without replenishing our system, using picks to add or players to compete.”
The Ducks and Kings had similar stretches as the focus on “win now” came at a cost of draft picks and prospects that all three franchises are still paying. Years of neglect to the farm system will take time to overcome and all three appear to be heading into this season with the view that simply making the playoffs could be viewed as a success.
“The playoff word should be used in every locker room right now, but we need to improve before we declare ourselves playoff-ready,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan, who led the Sharks to two conference final appearances in 2010 and ’11. “Are we capable of it? I think we have the right players to do it, but can we get our game together quick enough, and maintain it long enough during the season to compete for that? We’ll figure that out as we go. One step at a time for this group.”