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Washington Capitals: Does the Short Off-Season Have a Price?

It’s a nice problem to have, a short off-season following a championship, but it doesn’t mean the following season will be any easier.

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Four Photo by Avi Gerver/Getty Images

There comes a time when the “Stanley Cup Champions” become the “Defending Stanley Cup Champions.” For the Washington Capitals, that day will be October 3rd when the Caps raise their championship banner to the rafters of Capital One Arena. And after the banner takes its place, the Capitals will get on with the business of defense of their title. It is a hard task.

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for a club to win two or more consecutive Stanley Cups. From 1927, when the NHL became the only league to compete for the Cup, through 1992, there were 14 instances of a club winning two or more consecutive Cups, including 11 instances from 1954 through 1992. Fewer teams in the old days explains some of that, but certainly not all of it.

Since 1992, though, there have been only two instances in which a club won consecutive championships. The Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998, and the Pittsburgh Penguins won titles in 2016 and 2017.

One of the things that work against a team repeating these days is the schedule. The playoff schedule that is. It might be coincidence that the NHL did not have a playoff game played in June until Game 4 of the 1991 final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Pens completed a four-game sweep to win their first Stanley Cup. Starting with that June 1, 1992 game, there have been 145 games played in June in 26 seasons. It is a number inflated a bit by delayed starts to seasons in 1995 and 2013 that pushed the playoff schedule deeper into June, but the larger point is that there is a shorter off-season than those days gone by when teams winning consecutive Cups were more common.

And that brings us to the first thing to look for with the 2018-2019 edition of the Capitals – the schedule. There really are two parts to this. It might be reasonable to think of whether the team will come back sluggish and celebration-addled after a summer of spending time with the Cup, friends and family, and perhaps not as focused on preparation for the upcoming season as they might have been, say, last summer.

If we look at the history of season starts by Stanley Cup champions since the 2004-2005 dark season, we find that slow starts have not generally been a problem for defending champions. Nor have they suffered in the course of the entire regular season:

Only three times in the 12 seasons since that lost season have defending champions started the season under .500 in available standings points over their first ten games, none in the last five seasons. In fact, the 6-3-1 average start is a 107-point pace.

Then there is the quality of opponent in those first ten games. Over the last 12 seasons, Stanley Cup champions opened their following season with a generally challenging schedule. Only three times did the champ face fewer than five playoff teams from the previous spring in their first ten games, and none of the last eight defending champs have done so. In fact, the last four champions have faced at least six playoff qualifiers from the previous spring in their first ten games with the Pittsburgh Penguins facing a high of eight qualifiers to open the 2016-2017 season.

By way of comparison, the Capitals will face five playoff qualifiers in their first ten games to open the season. But here is the twist – those five opponents are the ones they will face in their first five games. Only one team – those 2016-2017 Penguins — played more consecutive games against playoff qualifiers, doing so in Games 5-10. No defending champion among the last 12 played a longer string of games against playoff qualifiers to open the season than what the Caps will face to open the season in October.

The home-road split to open the season poses no particular burden for the Caps, at least in terms of their relation to other defending champions. Washington will split their first ten games of the 2018-2019 season, five at home and five on the road. Looking back at the previous 12 champions, the 2007-2008 Carolina Hurricanes and 2012-2013 Los Angeles Kings are at the low end of home games to open the season (three apiece), while the 2011-2012 Boston Bruins and 2014-2015 Kings are at the high end (seven apiece). The Caps are squarely in the middle there.

But even here there is a twist. Games 8-10 in that ten-game stretch are the western Canada road tour – Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary. None of them ranked higher than 20th in the league in standings points last season, but the Caps did lose two of three on that tour. In fact, the Caps have featured that tour early in each of the last five seasons, and three times they went 1-2-0 (3-0-0 and 2-1-0 in the others).

So, we have suggested that the Caps go into their Cup defense season without a history preceding them of champs struggling out of the gate. Nor do they open the season with unusual burdens of strong opponents or a dearth of home games. But there are land mines lurking – those five playoff qualifiers from last year to open the season and the western Canada tour at the end of the ten-game opening.

But that is just the first ten games. There is the whole 82-game schedule to think about, and that is where the short summers since 1992 seem to matter. Considering only full 82-game seasons, only two teams followed up their Cup-winning seasons with more wins and more standings points the following season, and oddly enough, it was the same franchise. The Penguins won 47 games with 101 points in 2009-2010 after posting 45 wins and 99 points the preceding championship season. They did it again in 2016-2017 (50 wins/111 points) following their 48 wins and 104 points in 2015-2016. Boston had more wins in 2011-2012 (49) than they had in their 2010-2011 championship season (46) but fewer points (102 to 103).

Despite the slippage among most Cup-winning teams in their win and point totals, it was not serious enough to push them out of the postseason. No team finished their follow-up season with fewer than 40 wins (excepting the shortened 2012-2013 season), and only two of the last 12 Cup champions did not qualify for the postseason – Carolina in 2006-2007 and Los Angeles in 2014-2015, the only two teams with as few as 40 wins in their respective full follow-up seasons. The disappointment came later in the spring. Of the ten teams that did qualify for the postseason following their Cup win, four lost in the first round, and two others bowed out in the second round. Only two teams returned to a Cup final – Detroit in 2009, where they lost to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins in 2017, where they became the first team since the 1998 Red Wings to repeat as champion.

Good starts are necessary for any team to contend for a championship in the spring (see “Thought 29” here). But for teams defending a title, the season can – and usually does – grind them down. Whether there is a causal relationship between a shortened off season for champions in the last 25 years or merely a coincidental one, the challenge for the newest “Defending Stanley Cup Champions” will be finding a way to keep their game polished in the face of such a grinding journey that Capitals Nation hopes will last until next June once more.