Having had now a bit of time to reflect on the 2015-16 Washington Capitals season I can say I’m still disappointed, of course, but this was hardly the most egregious example of a great team with a playoff meltdown. The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings had 131 points in the regular season (11 more than the Caps this year) and lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games but lost in the ALCS to the New York Yankees four games to one. The 2007 Patriots? UNLV from ’91? Not every great team brings home a title.
Any team can lose one game or one playoff series. Upsets happen. This is why dynasties are rare. But the thing about great teams is, eventually they win a championship. You’ve got to come out on top some time, right?
Enter the Rock the Red era Caps.
Since the 2007-2008 campaign, the Washington Capitals have finished either first or second in their division in eight of nine seasons, including six first-place finishes.
And zero trips to the Stanley Cup Finals.
As a matter of fact, no trips even to the Conference Finals, a feat not accomplished since 1998, when the team won the only Conference championship in its 41-year existence.
This got me to thinking: which teams really are the greatest teams not to win a championship? That is, really good for a number of years but never sealing the deal and bringing home a title. The list is trickier to compile than one might think, because, once again, most good teams do eventually win a title. The great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the late ’40s and ’50s? They lost four World Series in seven years (all to the Yankees) but finally won one in ’55. The great Laker teams of the 1960s? They lost seven finals in nine years but finally got it done in ’72 with a final hurrah for Wilt and Jerry West. The Braves of the ’90s into this century? They won 14 division titles in 15 years (finishing second only in the strike-shortened ’94 season) but did win a title towards the beginning of their dominance in 1995. Disappointing in the following decade? Yes, but a mere honorable mention to this Top Five Teams Never to Win a Championship.
5. Los Angeles Rams, 1973-79. A stingy defense led by Jack Youngblood brought the ’70s Rams seven division titles in a row. One Super Bowl appearance. And zero titles. Legendary coach Chuck Knox was actually let go after the ’77 season due to his not being able to take the Rams to the Super Bowl. Their one appearance came in Super Bowl XIV (Jan. 1980), which they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
4. Detroit Tigers, 1907-09. If you’re ever wondering how many World Series Ty Cobb, the greatest badass of them all, won in his career the answer is zero. In fact, old Ty lost three in a row from 1907-09. Cobb spent these seasons playing with rightfielder Sam Crawford, one of the great hitters of the Deadball Era, a two-time home run champ and still the MLB career leader in triples with 309. Pretty good one-two punch. Alas, no World Series titles.
3. The “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston Cougars, 1982-84. These were the high-flying teams of Hakeem (then “Akeem”) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Coach Guy Lewis not only condoned fast breaks and dunks as part of his team’s play, he insisted on it. Three Final Fours in a row and appearances in the ’83 and ’84 Championship Games, but came up short each time. Houston basketball hasn’t been the same since.
2. The “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics, 2000-03. Most people today assume these teams were managed by Brad Pitt. In 2011’s Moneyball Pitt plays A’s GM Billy Beane, he of the Sabermetric revolution pioneered by statistician Bill James. The real-life A’s won 91, 102, 103, and 96 games in 2000-03 but never appeared in the World Series. In fact, they never won a playoff series, a dubious honor the other teams on this list cannot claim. (Sometimes WAR and VORP just don’t cut it in a short series.) Two MVPs (Giambi, Tejada), one Cy Young (Barry Zito), three division crowns. Four straight losses in the ALDS.
And, speaking of four straight losses… the Greatest Team Never to Win a Championship:
1. Buffalo Bills, 1990-93. Everyone knows this one. Losing four Super Bowls in a row is quite a feat by any standard, and the Bills were actually coming off division titles in the previous two seasons as well. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Marv Levy… Scott Norwood. Jokes aside, the Bills had great teams in the early ’90s. The greatest, in fact, Never to Win a Championship.