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Hockey Notes

Missing the playoffs a regular occurrence

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 10, 2011

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Not all that long ago, when the NHL became a 21-team league at the start of the ’80s, a long-running joke took root that teams had to ask not to be included in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With 16 postseason seeds available, the five clubs that didn’t make the cut truly were a small, tarnished subset.

The joke started to lose its punch line with further expansion at the start of the ’90s, and the chuckles should have ended for good in 1993 when the NHL increased its membership to the Original 26. But even with 10 clubs each year putting up DNQs, the everyone-makes-the-playoffs joke continued. To this day, we still hear the lament that the regular season doesn’t mean anything.

Well, if so, how does that out-of-date bromide apply to these franchises:

■Atlanta — The Thrashers fold shop today with a matinee visit by the Penguins. It’s their fourth consecutive DNQ. In 11 seasons, the distant sons of Willi Plett have qualified but once (2007) for the postseason, which only led to a first-round wipeout at the hands of the Rangers. Today could be the last NHL game ever played in the city. Just as the Flames departed for Calgary in the summer of ’80 — leading US Olympic hero Jim Craig to the Bruins — bad business and horrible on-ice performance could mean a franchise shift, possibly to Winnipeg or Quebec City. As of tonight, the Thrashers will have played 906 games, 453 on home ice, and don’t have a single playoff victory.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

■Columbus — The Blue Jackets are DNQs for a second straight season, not so bad in itself, at least outside of Canada. But that quick visit to the postseason in ’09 (a sweep by the Red Wings) stands as their only playoff time in 10 seasons. General manager Scott Howson has been on the job four seasons and really hasn’t moved the meter much beyond where Doug MacLean had it when sacked after the 2006-07 season. Hockey can work in Columbus, and the Jackets have one of the league’s best buildings (with accompanying practice facility), but after 824 games and only one season with more wins than losses, it has turned into a hockey horror flick.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

■Florida — The Sorrowful Sons of Sunrise have a lottery pick again — for a fifth time since 2000 — by virtue of this season’s wipeout, their worst in the post-lockout era. There hasn’t been a playoff game in South Florida since April 2000. That’s 10 consecutive DNQs, or 0 for 820. It officially eclipses the record of nine DNQs held by the Colorado/New Jersey franchise (1978-79 through 1986-87). If there is a fan club down there, all three members should be hired as CIA agents for their ability to withstand pain and torture (no truth to the rumor that the BankAtlantic Center concession stands cut off propofol sales after the second period). Little wonder why Nathan Horton hasn’t stopped smiling since his arrival in the Hub of Hockey.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

■Minnesota — Even when the Trappist Wonks were decent during Friar Jacques Lemaire’s watch, they were hard on the eyes. They’ll go dark with today’s game against the Stars, their third straight DNQ. Ten years into the NHL’s Land of 10,000 Lakes revival show, it’s a franchise still living off that trip to the conference finals in 2003. Otherwise, they are a combined 3-8 in a pair of first-round KOs (’07, ’08). New GM Chuck Fletcher, hired prior to 2009-10, looks as if he’ll have to make a change behind the bench, where Todd Richards hasn’t conjured much mojo in his two-year term. Time for these guys to deliver, because as Norm Green’s North Stars proved, the winters in Minny can get very chilly. “Only an idiot could lose money on hockey in Minnesota,’’ Green once said. Which is what led them to Dallas in the summer of 1993.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

New York Islanders — Hard to believe this franchise is even remotely related to the one that won four consecutive Cups (1980-83) and just missed a fifth (with Denis Potvin kneeling on the ice in May 1994 as blue and orange balloons cascaded from the ceiling at Northlands Coliseum). To go to Nassau Coliseum nowadays is like returning to your favorite fine dining spot, only to find it’s a drive-thru burger joint that needs to add a toy to get your kid to eat the mystery meat. Last night’s game in Philly was the end for this season’s Isles, whose first-round knockout in ’07 stands as their only playoff visit in the six seasons since the lockout.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

■Toronto — Of all the DNQs, the Leafs appear the most ready to shake the doldrums. Had they added goalie James Reimer earlier this season, they might have squeezed into the No. 8 spot. But last night’s visit by the Habs closed the Air Canada Centre for a sixth straight season with nary a postseason game to show, extending the longest drought in Maple Leaf history. Nothing can dent Blue-and-White allegiance and GM Brian Burke will have $20 million-plus of cap space to define his papacy in the Vatican of vulcanized rubber. Item No. 1 on his shopping list: a franchise center. The last Cup parade in Toronto was in May 1967, when Punch Imlach was GM and coach and a shiny Ford Mustang sold for around $2,500.

And the regular season is meaningless because . . . ?

■Edmonton — Taylor Hall gives the Oil a whole lot of hope, but for the love of Petr Klima, today’s matinee in Denver rounds out a fifth straight campaign without a trip to the playoffs. Lots of good-will assets here — including five Stanley Cups — to prevent any talk of relocation (no matter what threats develop around the need for a new arena). They’ll be picking first or second again in the draft, a year after taking Hall No. 1 ahead of Boston’s Tyler Seguin. The last time a franchise selected in the top two in back-to-back seasons: 2008 and ’09 when the Lightning selected Steven Stamkos No. 1 in ’08 and Victor Hedman No. 2 in ’09. But for that surprising run to the Cup finals in ’06, going back to 1998-99 the Oil have logged seven DNQs and four first-round KOs.

And the regular-season is meaningless because . . . ?

That’s seven franchises, comprising nearly 25 percent of the league, that have been bludgeoned in recent years. For most of them, the regular season has been their only season. Let the lack of appreciation of the regular season, stop here. No one’s laughing in those towns.

TOUGH LOSS
McGuire was one of the best Hard to find a nicer, brighter, more sincere, and helpful guy than E.J. McGuire, whose death last week at the age of 58 stole from the game one of its most articulate characters. The Buffalo-raised McGuire, the director the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau since 2006, succumbed to leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that deteriorates the cells that make up the body’s involuntary muscles.

McGuire coached Boston’s minor league affiliate, the AHL Maine Mariners, the same season (1991-92) that Rick Bowness was bench boss in Boston. When then-GM Harry Sinden sent Bowness packing in favor of Brian Sutter — only days after Bowness directed the squad to what stands as its last visit to the conference finals — McGuire followed Bowness to his new job behind the Senators’ bench.

“He was one of the smartest guys I ever met,’’ said Bowness, recounting his time together with McGuire in a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen. To that point, Bowness said he often kidded McGuire, “What the hell are you doing coaching hockey?’’

The ever-ebullient McGuire was diagnosed with the disease only in December and, according to an NHL.com story, a recent teleconference with his fellow scouts had McGuire breaking intermittently in order to take hits of oxygen.

“It’s going to win,’’ McGuire told his pals, acknowledging the debilitating disease. “I’m not defeated, but it’s going to win.’’

McGuire leaves his wife, Terry, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Erin.

NOT SO FAST
Murray gets extended stay Betting around the league for months has been that the Senators would turf GM Bryan Murray at the end of this season, if not sooner. But owner Eugene Melnyk, as he is wont to do, surprised everyone late in the week and handed the 68-year-old Murray a three-year contract extension. “It’s not going to be an overnight fix,’’ Murray said during the news conference in which his new deal was made public. The Senators, DNQs for the second time in three seasons, have five picks in the first two rounds of the June draft. Murray didn’t waste any time making changes. Bench boss Cory Clouston was shown the door after yesterday’s 3-1 loss to the Bruins, in large part because of the perception that he lost the dressing room, including the likes of roster icon Daniel Alfredsson.

Options aplenty No surprise, but word around Edmonton is that the Oilers will take Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson or Red Deer center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the No. 1 or 2 pick. Larsson, 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, played this season in the Swedish Elite League (Skelleftea) and has the full tool kit — skating, passing, hockey sense — to be a franchise blue liner. Nugent-Hopkins, who will turn 18 on Tuesday, is a velvet-handed pivot who put up impressive numbers (31-75—106 in 69 games) in the Western League this season. He’s a bit lean (6-1, 170), but if he fills out in frame and game he could be the franchise center the Oilers have long awaited. “Reminds me of Pavel Datsyuk,’’ said Flames coach Brent Sutter, who also owns the Red Deer squad. And this nugget on Nugent-Hopkins from Rick Jackson of the Central Scouting Bureau: “More tricks than a clown’s pocket.’’

Warning received Speaking of Sutter, in a recent Edmonton Journal story he recounted his rookie year with the Islanders when he nailed Bruins star Rick Middleton with an elbow, sending Nifty’s helmetless head slamming into the glass. “Thank God, he got up and was fine,’’ recalled Sutter, who returned to sit on a bench between Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom, neither of them wearing helmets. “Nothing was said to me,’’ said Sutter, “but I knew what they were thinking [not to do it again].’’ Later, after getting waved out of the faceoff dot, Sutter found himself standing opposite Terry O’Reilly. “He said to me, ‘Brent, I’m going to let you go on this one, but this is something you don’t do at this level,’ ’’ said Sutter. “It wasn’t something that I was intentionally trying to do to Middleton, but I got him with my elbow and, like I said, his head hit the glass. I respected what Terry said to me.’’ Did Sutter ever get into a fight with O’Reilly? “You kidding?’’ he said. “I was a lot smarter than that.’’

Loose pucks Adam Foote called it quits in Denver on Friday after 19 seasons, including the 2000-01 campaign with the Avalanche in which he shared the Cup with ex-Bruin Ray Bourque and ex-Boston University Terrier Chris Drury. Who inherits the captain’s ‘C’ in Foote’s wake? Likeliest choice would seem Paul Stastny, unless Milan Hejduk, on course to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, extends his hitch in the Mile High City . . . One scout’s take on Carter Camper, signed by the Bruins last week as a free agent out of Miami, is that he’s another Zach Hamill. Thus far, of course, the original Zach Hamill has been all but a bust and remains a Providence WannaB . . . Every time I get impressed by the Rangers — including, of course, their two recent wins over the Bruins — they put up a stinker like Thursday night’s 3-0 loss to the DNQ Thrashers at Madison Square Garden. The loss provided some valuable air to the Hurricanes’ sails. Carolina then stepped up Friday night and slapped a 6-1 loss on the Thrashers, slipping the ’Canes into the No. 8 hole. But the Rangers secured the final playoff spot last night when the Lightning beat the ’Canes, 6-2 . . . On the subject of DNQs, Bruins fans of the ’60s had to live through eight of them in the years leading to Bobby Orr’s arrival (including his rookie season, 1966-67). But here’s the good news: Garden pizza was less than a buck a slice.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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