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Why dynasties need to be redefined for modern sports leagues

Wayne Gretzky won four Stanley Cups in a row with the Oilers - the Kings are in tough to defend their first one, despite bringing back most of the same team. (Getty Images)

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Wayne Gretzky won four Stanley Cups in a row with the Oilers - the Kings are in tough to defend their first one, despite bringing back most of the same team. (Getty Images)

Discuss sports dynasties and you’ll soon find yourself embroiled in a debate about its definition. Hold modern champions up against the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, or the San Francisco 49ers, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and you’ll come away underwhelmed.

The Detroit Red Wings are widely regarded as the flagship NHL franchise of the past two decades, but they last won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998 and no team has achieved it since. This 15-year defense drought is the longest the league has gone without a repeat in its history. Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990 and has earned 10 division championships in the past 14 seasons.

They have been the cream of the crop in professional hockey. But are they a dynasty?

“Nobody is winning three or four championships in a row anymore, those days went out with the Edmonton Oilers,” said Wings GM Ken Holland. “If you’re winning two in a row you’re doing something no one else did. Dynasties are teams you talk about years after because they did something different. I don't know how you define a dynasty anymore.”

Is a traditional dynasty achievable in the modern age? The salary cap and a concerted effort by the NHL – and other top professional leagues – to level the playing field has granted optimism to every franchise at the cost of uninterrupted domination by the few monetarily capable of it. It’s a philosophy that has given every team a chance and, more to the point, every fan hope. The soft-touch is a thing of the past.

When you consider this evolution, it’s spectacular to watch the 2013 Los Angeles Kings battle through the West in an attempt to defend their 2012 championship.

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In 1982, the Los Angeles Kings finished fourth in the Smythe and faced the division champion Edmonton Oilers in the first round, a team that finished 48 points ahead of them and was on the verge of breaking out as one of the great dynasties in NHL history. The Kings, who were far from a contending team, eliminated the Oilers in a massive upset that included the Miracle on Manchester in Game 3.



When Los Angeles set off on its post-season run last spring as the bottom seed in a tough Western Conference, it faced a powerful Vancouver Canucks squad that came within one game of winning the Cup the previous season and had earned back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies. But the star power was potent on both sides. The Kings and Canucks each had plenty of world-class players who had represented their countries on the international stage in their careers and were separated by only 16 points.

All of the games were won by two goals or less and when the five-game upset was finished there was no miracle or celebrated underdog. It was the fourth time since 2006 that a No. 8 had knocked off a No. 1. Even when the Kings carved through the Western Conference with a 12-2 record it wasn’t an unprecedented feat, since the 2006 Edmonton Oilers also came out of the West as an eight seed.

“Back in those Edmonton days the worst team in the league was never going to beat the Oilers,” said Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall. “Now the worst team in the league can beat some of the top teams on any given night. Maybe not consistently, but on any given night. There’s a big difference. I don't think there are any really bad teams now, there’s just a lower level of teams. But it’s not a terrible team like back then. There was a bigger differential of teams from top to bottom than there is today.”

The margin for error is thinner than ever in the NHL because of the restrictive salary cap. A puck that bounces or gets deflected in a favorable way or an injury can be the difference between a Presidents’ Trophy caliber team being eliminated in Round 1 and going all the way to the final. Would the Kings have gotten a three-game jump on the Canucks last spring if Daniel Sedin didn’t miss them with a concussion?

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Everyone in management is playing by the same rules and under the same general parameters now – big-market teams can’t spend on payroll at will to regenerate their rosters and small-market teams won’t ever get caught in a vicious cycle of being forced to trade out talent when their paydays come due.

“I think all 30 teams are doing the same thing now; there aren’t a lot of secrets,” Holland said. “With so little to choose from between teams, the Cup contenders now are the 16 teams that make the playoffs.”

The Red Wings have remained consistent despite the rules that are changing around them and designed to defeat them. Draft picks and prospects have always held value, but in a salary cap environment it is more important than ever to have cheap, capable talent at the ready. Holland’s ability to adapt has helped the Wings continue their run.

“I think the Detroit Red Wings from 1995 to 2003 traded away eight first round draft picks,” he said. “You can’t run your business like that anymore. We knew we could spend more and our core was young. You could keep filling out your roster by going to FA, but I can’t run the Detroit Red Wings of today the same way I did from 1995 to 2003.”

The same parity development has happened in the NBA, though with fewer players logging a higher percentage of minutes, superstars in that sport still have a more direct impact on their team’s fortunes. And while the NBA has had a salary cap of some form since the mid-1980s, it’s a soft cap and recent CBAs give exceptions, such as allowing teams to go over if they sign their own players.

“In general, it’s been a slow, conscious effort by the NBA to level the playing field,” said Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. “Taking away advantages. It’s been slow, but every CBA has been moving in that direction, so you have to adjust.”

The most basic priority of any manager, and one that has been attacked by modern CBAs, is to collect talent - it’s the common denominator of any sports powerhouse in history. But if the formula were as easy as that the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals each would have won a Stanley Cup by now. A championship roster needs to have the peripheral components that transcend all major sports leagues.

The 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers featured a 26-year-old Kobe Bryant in his prime, who was second in league scoring and were coming off an appearance in the NBA final. The team made some major changes in the off-season leading up to that year, trading out veterans Shaquille O’Neil, Gary Payton and Rick Fox, and acquiring the younger Lamar Odom and Caron Butler to play key minutes. The end result was the Lakers crumbled and missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

Experience is something that’s hard to quantify, though it is a key ingredient to any championship franchise. The historical, dynastic Oilers experienced that crushing upset in ‘82 and failed in the Cup final in ’83 before tasting their first sip in 1984.

The 2004-05 Lakers weren’t the complete package, but they already had talent, the most challenging component to acquire. From there, it was about finding the right mix.

“That’s the trick - balancing talent vs. experience,” Kupchak explained. “If you can determine that mix you’re in a good spot. Getting the talent is the hardest part, so if you’re in a position where you have too much of it and need the experience, you’re in a really good spot.”

The Lakers players experienced and grew from the playoff-less season and consecutive years of being knocked out in the first round. Veteran Derek Fisher was added in 2007-08 and Los Angeles went back to the final where they lost to the Boston Celtics, then won consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010.

As the modern Kings’ young roster blossomed, management placed the blocks of leadership - Willie Mitchell, Jarret Stoll, Simon Gagne and Rob Scuderi – around them in trying to find the right balance that was finally struck in 2012. The team stayed intact this year and Robyn Regehr was acquired at the trade deadline to add a fresh veteran hunger and depth to maintain the crucial balance. These components, along with continued growth and key contributions from young players such as Slava Voynov and Kyle Clifford have set the Kings apart.

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Far from resting on his laurels after winning the Stanley Cup, Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi went on a quest for dynastic knowledge over the summer. He talked to members of various title-winning clubs to gather their insights into what worked – and what didn’t – when they navigated their way through the championship hangover.

One of the brains Lombardi set out to pick was that of 81-year-old John McVay, who was the director of football operations for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers through the 1980s and early ‘90s. McVay helped design one of football’s great dynasties, winning a total of five Super Bowls, four of which came in a nine-year span.

But there was some added value to McVay’s insight as Lombardi’s Kings shared a lot in common with McVay’s 1982 team.

The 49ers were built through successful drafts (Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott) and added veteran support through trades and free agency (Jack Reynolds), much as the Kings did. And like the Kings, when the 49ers broke through with their first Super Bowl championship in 1981, their key contributors were in their prime mid-to-late-20s.

And aside from similar roster makeups, the Kings and 49ers both had to deal with work stoppages that shortened their follow-up season and threw a wrench into their momentum.

Led by McVay, coach Bill Walsh and owner Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers philosophy of the time was to create a culture of family and do the little things, such as sending flowers to the wife of a player after she gave birth. Even after the players scattered in the off-season the coaches would keep in touch, asking personal questions and just making sure the athlete was taking care of himself.

But the NFL players’ strike of 1982 cut the usual 16-game season down to nine games, eliminated the pre-season and undermined this family philosophy.

“One of the devilish things that happened is when there was a strike that disrupted your lines of communication and your ability to maintain your close relationship with the players,” McVay said. “I just think when the players regrouped we had an absence of this fraternity – this family feeling. It wasn't there. One of the big things is training camp, aside from being something players don't like, is where you all live together in a semi-Spartan existence. Players are together on the field, for recreation and meals and they develop a brotherhood, a family atmosphere. And when you come out of training camp you usually have a good cohesive group. But when you come back out of a strike you don't have the chance to reestablish that camaraderie.”

The Super Bowl champions returned to the field in 1982 a shell of themselves and missed the playoffs with a 3-6 record. The following full season, San Francisco posted a 10-6 mark and reestablished itself with another Super Bowl.

“The comeback was that we reestablished the communication and closeness and contact with the players,” McVay said. “They were young guys and there are all kinds of distractions - guys get going in different directions.”

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The world of pro sports, especially in the Internet age, is all about instant gratification – we always hear about the “results-driven” business. But team builders have to take the opposing long view and build a stable franchise.

There was a time when Lombardi himself was under fire from fans when his rebuild wasn’t moving along as quickly as they would have liked, missing the playoffs for three years in a row and being ousted in Round 1 twice. But the Kings GM stayed the course, held on to the players and team-building philosophy he believed in and, in the end, came out on top. This season, the Kings started with the same roster that won the Cup in 2012 – and here they are, eight wins away from being that rare modern NHL team that defends its title.

Stability from the top of the franchise on down through the roster. When the San Francisco 49ers had their dynasty, when the Los Angeles Lakers ran rampant over the NBA and when the Detroit Red Wings iced Hall of Fame rosters in the mid-to-late 1990s they were all stable from the top down. Eddie DeBartolo, Jerry Buss and Mike Ilitch set the tone as owners. Bill Walsh, Phil Jackson and Scotty Bowman drew up the plays behind the bench. McVay, Kupchak and Holland helmed the ship. The philosophies of all of these teams revolved around familiarity.

“The philosophy of the organization remained constant,” McVay said. “We weren’t fluctuating going right and left and up and down and so on. When Bill (Walsh) retired (assistant) George Seifert stepped in as the head coach and won a Super Bowl right off the bat.”

Talent, bolstered by veteran leadership and supported by a familiar organizational hierarchy and philosophy year in and year out. These team-building blueprints are becoming ever harder to carry out under more restrictive CBAs. And perhaps the reason why there isn’t likely to ever be a traditional dynasty again is that no team is complete. No longer will super teams rival the Oilers, Islanders or Canadiens – the salary cap has redefined what it means to be a dynasty.

“Some teams have deeper defense, some have better forwards, others have a bit better goaltending, but there’s not much room for error,” Holland said. “Will someone win back-to-back? Sure, it might even be the Los Angeles Kings, but it’s getting harder to achieve.”

Which is what makes this year’s Kings even more impressive. They’ve been faced with new playoff challenges they didn't meet last year and have passed each with flying colors. Whether it was mounting a comeback from a 2-0 series deficit to the Blues, or being triumphant in their first elimination game in two years Tuesday night against the Sharks.

These Kings are as close to complete and stable as you can get in the modern salary cap era, where parity reigns, rosters turn over and the difference between being a great team and a forgotten one is a matter of inches. This crushing reality was no more apparent than in Game 7 of the Los Angeles-San Jose series, which the Kings narrowly won. Unapologetic history books will show another early Sharks exit, but won’t express just how close they came to achieving a special upset.

And the well-groomed Kings will be heaped with praise as they chug along, chasing a championship goal modern sports business has redefined.

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Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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