In 2010 the Washington Capitals became the first non-“original six” team in NHL history to compile over 120 points in a season. They went 54-15-13 with a +85 goal differential. They outscored the next best team (Vancouver) by 46 goals. The team consisted of five core players, the “Young Guns,” as they called themselves that looked like the most promising assembly of young talent in the game. Take a look at their stats from 2009-10:
Alex Ovechkin (age 24), LW: 72 GP, 50 G, 59 A, 109 pts, +45, 21:48 ATOI (avg. time on ice)
Nicklas Backstrom (age 22), C: 82 GP, 33 G, 68 A, 101 pts, +37, 20:27 ATOI
Alexander Semin (age, 25), LW: 73 GP, 40 G, 44 A, 84 pts, +36, 19:07 ATOI
Mike Green (age 24), D: 75 GP, 19 G, 57 A, 76 pts, +39, 25:29 ATOI
Brooks Laich (age 26), C/W: 78 GP, 25 G, 34 A, 59 pts, +16, 18:17 ATOI
Three more players netted over 20 goals. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and veteran RW Mike Knuble made up the most dominant and well-balanced first line in the league. Jose Theodore put up 30 wins as the team’s primary regular season goaltender, before surrendering the job to talented youngster Semyon Varlamov for the second straight postseason. This team was flashy, exciting, and most importantly was going to be around for a very, very long time. So when they were upset in round one by a scrappy Canadiens team riding a red-hot Jaroslav Halak, it was all right. No one expected them to repeat their 2009-10 numbers, but with the “Young Guns” locked and loaded, they were going to compete for titles the next 10 years.
Since then? The league “figured out” Alexander Ovechkin. After accumulating over 100 points in four of his first five NHL seasons (through 2009-10), Ovechkin has yet to put up over 85 since. After averaging 53.8 goals and 52 assists per season through his first five, the team’s captain has scored 50 goals just once since, and even more depressingly, has dished out over 30 assists just once.
But Ovechkin isn’t the only one. While the team certainly revolves around the insanely talented Russian, his teammates haven’t exactly been world-beaters. After wearing out his welcome in Washington, Alex Semin has disappointed in Carolina after signing a massive contract. Mike Green and Brooks Laich haven’t been able to stay healthy. Nicklas Backstrom lost his goal scoring touch from 2009-10, but is still a quietly productive player next to Ovi. And most importantly, since that impressive 2009-10 campaign, the Caps have three playoff appearances, two first round victories, and zero conference finals appearances. They’ve changed coaches and starting goalies three times each. The wide-open championship window of five years ago is just about shut.
Why do I mention this? Two reasons: 1) I hate myself and enjoy the torture associated with all things Capitals; 2) because I’m scared that the Oklahoma City Thunder are the new Caps.
There are a few qualifiers here. Most importantly, hockey and basketball are inherently different sports. Hockey is, seemingly, far more random come playoff time than basketball. The regular season in hockey means very little in determining playoff success. Just look at the Kings. They’ve won two of the last three titles as the sixth and eighth seeded team. That stuff happens in basketball, but not to the same extent. In the NBA, if you have one of the league’s rare superstars (and OKC has two), you’re probably going to contend every year. Having said that, nothing is guaranteed.
After the 2012 NBA season, no team looked more poised for future success than Oklahoma City. After upsetting the experienced Spurs in six games in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder proceeded to get whooped by Lebron’s best Miami team in five games. They had two established superstars in Kevin Durant (becoming the league’s second best player) and Russell Westbrook, as well as the league’s most dominant sixth man (Harden) and a freakishly athletic power forward (Ibaka). All of them were under 25.
Since then? James Harden traded to Houston after the season, only to become the league’s premier two-guard. Zero quality role players brought in to augment the young roster. As a result, two conference finals appearances, zero trips to the finals. Not bad… but not great either for a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their primes.
After their season ending loss to the Heat in ’12, I imagine that Thunder fans felt a lot like how I did after the ’09-’10 Caps fell to the Canadiens. Dejected, sure, but optimistic about the brightest of futures. It was only a matter of time before Ovi secured that elusive title, and once that happened there was no telling how many more they could win, just like it’s only a matter of time before KD gets his. But here’s the thing: it might not happen.
Just like Mike Green and Brooks Laich kept getting hurt, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have dealt with crucial injuries during the postseason, essentially derailing Oklahoma City’s chances over the last two seasons. And now with Kevin Durant out for quite a while (it’s not going to be six weeks… it’s just not), and Russell Westbrook riding the pine for a month, this Thunder team is in serious danger of missing the playoffs. Seriously, let’s say Westbrook and Durant miss the next twenty games (extremely realistic), is this Thunder team going any better than 6-14? In the West? I don’t see it. And for the record, KD will be out longer than 20 games. If they fall ten games under .500 at any point, that’s it for their season. I don’t care how well Westbrook and Durant play when they come back, this Western Conference is too good to make up that kind of ground.
The question is, how does this manifest itself in the future? I’m afraid they’re going to end up like the Caps. Even though four of the five “Young Guns” are still on the roster (and eating up loads of money and cap space), that same jovial feeling isn’t there. For the last three years the Caps haven’t looked or felt like a team that could challenge for anything. I’m not saying this is what will happen to Oklahoma City. Like I said, basketball and hockey are different. Less impactful players means less variables to performance. Kevin Durant will come back, and hopefully he’ll be as healthy and productive as ever.
But if the Thunder miss the playoffs this year, they essentially have one year to prove to Kevin Durant that they’re worth his ungodly talents. If they can’t? See ya (KD2DC 2016 LETS GOOOOOOOOO). The disintegration of this Thunder team would be just another reminder of how insanely difficult it is to win a championship in sports, and how a fan base should never take that “open window” for granted. I took the ’09-’10 Caps for granted. Not going to happen again.