Last night, in between dreams of violent hover bike races against the krauts and zombie board games, I dreamt something weird. I was a child again, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. Moreover, I was enjoying myself. Now I'm not usually one to analyze my dreams. I just like to enjoy them as they come. But lying awake in the oppressive heat, I realized that I missed the playoffs.
Ever since the lockout, I haven't paid much attention to the post-season. Oh, I'll watch the West Coast Canadian teams if they make the Finals and I'll watch the cup clincher, but other than that, I rely on the barilkosphere to keep me up to date. I'd always thought my growing apathy was due to the absence of the Leafs. But that isn't the case. Last night, I realized that the playoffs are just plain boring. Parity has turned them into a mockery of what they were.
I began watching hockey when I was 7 years old during the 1992-1993 season. For those who don't remember, that was the year there was no Stanley Cup awarded. My first cup memory was seeing Messier parade it above his head. For the next nine years, the Cup was hoisted by one of four teams: the New Jersey Devils (3), the Detroit Redwings (3), the Colorado Avalanche (2), and the Dallas Stars (1). Back then, aside from Hockey Night in Canada, I didn't watch the regular season. But I watched every playoff game. They were amazing. Oh, they still had their surprises. There was the year Florida made the SCF, and the year Hasek made them, but mostly, the later rounds were filled with league juggernauts battering each other into submission. At the time, I didn't realize I was witnessing something special. I thought it would always be like that.
But everything changed with the salary cap. Ever since the lockout, it doesn't appear possible for there to be multiple juggernauts at the same time. Teams simply don't have the cap space to take their teams to the next level. I don't bear any ill will towards the cap. I realize that the league makes most of its money during the regular season and that ergo, they should do whatever is necessary to ensure that teams can attract fans. But the cap has capped the talent on display in the fight for Stanley.
Looking back to the pre-cap era, it's embarassing that the two favourites in the East this year were Pittsburgh and Washington. Two teams with shitty goaltending and numerous other holes. Washington had no defense. Pittsburgh had three centres and little else. And those were the favourites. Year after year, the playoffs have been filled with teams like this, weak and full of holes. Even the Cup finalists aren't exempt. Teams today just can't fill the shoes of the titanic battles I witnessed. Stanley Cup winners used to look like this:
2000 NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Jason Arnott, Eric Bertrand, Brad Bombardir, Martin Brodeur, Steve Brule, Sergei Brylin, Ken Daneyko, Patrik Elias, Scott Gómez, Bobby Holik, Steve Kelly, Claude Lemieux, John Madden, Vladimir Malakhov, Randy McKay, Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Nemchinov, Scott Niedermayer, Jay Pandolfo, Deron Quint, Brian Rafalski, Scott Stevens, Petr Sykora, Colin White. (Head Coach: Larry Robinson)
1999 DALLAS STARS: Ed Belfour, Guy Carbonneau, Shawn Chambers, Derian Hatcher, Benoit Hogue, Tony Hrkac, Brett Hull, Mike Keane, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jere Lehtinen, Doug Lidster, Craig Ludwig, Brad Lukowich, Grant Marshall, Richard Matvichuk, Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Derek Plante, Dave Reid, Jonathan Sim, Brian Skrudland, Blake Sloan, Darryl Sydor, Pat Verbeek, Sergei Zubov. (Head Coach: Ken Hitchcock)
2002 DETROIT RED WINGS: Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Boyd Devereaux, Kirk Maltby, Mathieu Dandenault, Steve Duchesne, Fredrik Olausson, Darren McCarty, Jason Williams, Jiri Fischer, Jiri Slegr, Uwe Krupp, Manny Legace, Dominik Hasek. (Head Coach: Scotty Bowman)
1994 NEW YORK RANGERS: Glenn Anderson, Jeff Beukeboom, Greg Gilbert, Adam Graves, Glenn Healy, Alexander Karpovtsev, Joey Kocur, Alexei Kovalev, Nick Kypreos, Steve Larmer, Brian Leetch, Doug Lidster, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau, Mark Messier, Sergei Nemchinov, Brian Noonan, Ed Olczyk, Mike Richter, Esa Tikkanen, Jay Wells, Sergei Zubov. (Head Coach: Mike Keenan)
1992 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Tom Barrasso, Phil Bourque, Jock Callander, Jay Caufield, Bob Errey, Ron Francis, Jiri Hrdina, Jaromir Jagr, Grant Jennings, Mario Lemieux, Troy Loney, Shawn McEachern, Dave Michayluk, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Mike Needham, Jim Paek, Gordie Roberts, Ulf Samuelsson, Kjell Samuelsson, Paul Stanton, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, Bryan Trottier, Ken Wregget. (Head Coach: Scotty Bowman)
And those were just the winners. Every year there would be challengers that were almost as fearsome, teams full of stars. It would be a treat to see which juggernaut would prevail, and whether any underdog could dethrone them. Nowadays, instead of a few rounds of Frasier-Ali, we seem to have plenty of Lewis-Holyfield, with the occasional Frasier-Lewis. Sure it's still boxing, but it's not what it was. Nowadays, you see cup finalists who can't afford good goaltending, or good wingers. This year, you had a team that had to sacrifice almost everything for a one year run. It just doesn't seem right.
I hated Colorado. I hated Dallas. I hated New Jersey. I hated Detroit. But I miss them so much. I guess I'm just sad and bitter that what used to be a highly anticipated spring event has turned into something so mediocre. I guess I'm bitter that great teams today will never be as great as the pre-lockout teams. And I guess I'm bitter that I've probably already watched the best NHL playoff hockey I'll ever see. And yes, as a Leaf fan, I'm irritated that some of the Leafs teams of my childhood that weren't even close to being favourites, could probably roll their way into the SCF today. And what does that say about the state of playoff hockey?
That God for the Olympics, where playoff teams still look like playoff teams. If the NHL isn't in Sochi, I think I'll cry.
What do the rest of you think? Has the quality of playoff hockey declined? Are you unhappy that titanic battles between star laden teams are a thing of the past? Are you sad that no team assembled today will likely ever be as great as those before the cap? Do the playoffs hold the same lustre they once did?
P.S. I apologize is this subject was discussed this year during the playoffs. I tend to tune out as I mentioned earlier, and didn't think to run a search I wrote this.