As of Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs were one point out of the last wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals were two points out. Over in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets were both mathematically alive as the calendar flipped to April.
And yet the prevailing desire from their respective fans bases is that there’s more joy in failure than success, more satisfaction in falling short than pushing ahead, more benefit to the franchises who lose now in the long run than anything that a presumably short playoff run would provide.
Winning provides Band-Aids for internal organ failures.
Losing finally puts the team on the operating table.
(We’ll exempt the Nashville Predators fans from this one, despite questions about Barry Trotz and David Poile. That Pekka Rinne injury certainly was a factor this season. But Dirk Hoag is one fan that thinks change should arrive in Music City.)
There are probably some die-hards who hate the sentiment, who believe you support the team until the bitter end. They read Cody Franson begging fans not to “quit” on the Leafs and get angry that their blue-clad brethren would dare turn heel when the team needed them the most, like some halfwit who chastises Oilers fans for tossing their jerseys by buying a newspaper ad.
Which, of course, is a bafflingly misguided, because the fans actively hoping for their team to miss the playoffs have only the best intentions: It ain’t working, something has to change and a playoff berth is a temporary panacea that won’t be the catalyst for that necessary self-examination or, depending on the conditions, complete demolition of the roster and front office.
Winnipeg Jets fans might be the ones for whom a playoff berth would be widely celebrated, for the sheer novelty of it. But they also know that the core of ex-Thrashers, the porous goalie and the inability of management to significantly augment the roster is a recipe for middling results without a sniff of the Cup.
The Jets have been on an extended honeymoon, but they’ve been finally kicked out of the top floor suite. Fans are bitching about ticket policies. The media is demanding wholesale changes, with Gary Lawless declaring that Blake Wheeler and rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba are their only untouchables.
Make the playoffs, and perhaps management moves forward with this rotten core. Miss them again, as the Jets will, and perhaps something radical happens for Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Canucks fans have had a difficult time accepting that this wasn’t a playoff team, which is understandable when the team’s missed them just twice since 2001. Now that they won’t be, thus begins the hefty debates about their future.
Does GM Mike Gillis, he of the complete fumbling of the goaltending situation, go? Yankee Canuck wasn’t sure as of early March:
For the longest time Gillis was saddled with the criticism that he inherited a team that Burke and Nonis created. That chapter has most certainly closed. For at least the last two seasons the whispers were Vigneault's message wasn't getting through. That chapter obviously closed. Last summer the cap was to blame for lack of quality additions. That's off the table too. Fire Gillis? No. But he's certainly run out of places to hide.
Should the Canucks fire John Tortorella, or build the roster to the specifications of his system? Jason Brough of PHT wrote earlier last month:
But — and this is the thing when it comes to the Canucks — what if the system is, you know, completely and utterly wrong? We only ask, because, not long ago, Vancouver was one of most dynamic offensive teams in the NHL. Today, with largely the same core players, its offense ranks 27th, averaging a paltry 2.33 goals per game. And back when the Canucks were piling up the points in the standings, Burrows and the Sedin twins formed one of the best, most entertaining lines in hockey. Today, that line is a shadow of itself, no disrespect to the shadow.
Making the playoffs would have provided Tortorella with a level of validation or, at the very least, cover. Ditto Gillis.
Missing them puts them both under the spotlight, unless ownership is going to explain this away as the result of injuries.
The Toronto Maple Leafs fans’ desire to see this thing demolished, at least from a coaching perspective, has been well documented. The amount of “I TOLD YOU SOs” from anyone that pays an iota of attention to advanced analytics are as deafening as the calls to have Randy Carlyle fired.
That’s going to be the essential question for both the Leafs and the Capitals if these teams miss the cut: Can the current systems implemented by these coaches win in the current NHL? Or is it a personnel problem?
For many hoping he fails to get his backside covered by a short stint in the postseason, just like it was covered by lights-out goaltending this season, it’s a Carlyle problem. And when people like James Mirtle are echoing the fans with devastating pieces on the team’s inequities, it’s hard to imagine a Leafs playoff miss not being coupled with a change behind the bench:
Ferraro views Carlyle’s problem as a classic one of a coach that’s mismatched to his personnel, something that has been talked about ever since he was hired to remold what had been a quick, exciting offensive team that allowed a lot of goals under Wilson.
Two years later, many Leafs players still like to rush the puck and trade chances; Carlyle has always been viewed as a safe, lock it down type – although opinions on that are changing as Toronto has floundered in its own zone. What that mismatch theory doesn’t explain, though, is why the Ducks began to struggle so mightily under his watch and why they suddenly rebounded – possession-wise and in the standings – when Bruce Boudreau took over.
It’s a shift that might simply speak to a failure to adapt to a changing roster and a changing league, something that has hit other veteran coaches in the NHL hard at various times.
And it hitting this one hard as well.
The question for Capitals fans that want their team to miss the postseason cut: How deep should their changes go?
Russian Machine Never Breaks unleashed a 20-point indictment of Coach Adam Oates, from personnel decisions to defensive liabilities to the way he’s used Alex Ovechkin (WITH JAY BEAGLE?!). From RMNB:
If there’s any overarching pattern to Adam Oates’ failures as head coach, it’s his reluctance to make changes despite overwhelming evidence: Beagle-Ovi, Brouwer-Laich, Volpatti-Wilson, lay-back Holtby, bad breakouts, overperforming bottom-sixers, and back-to-back goalies. These problems were apparent and yet they languished while the season slipped away.
Even for amateurs like me, there are mountains of data available to define those problems and suggest their solutions. To a professional team with an analytics budget, there’s even more. And yet, Adam Oates has revealed himself to be an anti-intellectual dilettante when it comes to analytics– to an extent that I think he’s no longer capable of performing his job competently.
Ouch. Not to mention the idea that some coaches are just better suited for assistant jobs.
But when Oates was hired, it was thought to be the last coach GM George McPhee would hire. His contract is up after this season. His decisions as GM brought Martin Erat in and out of DC, failed to address obvious problems with the blue line and have yet to produce a team that’s played for a championship of any kind since Ovechkin joined the roster.
The Capitals were able to live fat and happy in the Southeast Division, winning banners despite never quite being good enough to win the more important ones. Missing the playoffs in their first season in the Metro would provide cover for ownership to make a full evaluation of the team, and some painful decisions about longstanding employees.
That is, if Ted Leonsis doesn’t consider “close enough” to be good enough for the team’s rabid, but increasingly jaded, fan base.
• • •
Every hockey fan wants what’s best for their teams. Some will always believe that the playoffs are paramount, and that failure is not an option.
And some fans just want to watch the world burn.