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Analysis: Constructing a Stanley Cup winner

By Kareem El-Alaily

A few weeks ago I posted a comment on Japers' Rink saying that the six most important players on a hockey team should be the goalie, then the first-line center (1C), top defenseman (1D), second-line center (2C), second defenseman (2D) and finishing with a first line winger (1W). One person responded that teams didn't have to have an elite goalie to win the Stanley Cup, with names like Cam Ward, Antti Niemi and Marc-Andre Fleury recently back-stopping their teams to championships. The poster had a valid point, and I figured my old-school "start-with-a-goalie" paradigm may no longer be applicable to the NHL.

To test the validity of my theory, I set out to do a quick-and-dirty benchmark analysis of how past Stanley Cup winners constructed their teams. I assembled a list of all the elite players that played for the past fifteen Stanley Cup winners. I defined "elite" as someone who was playing consistently at an All-Star level for the years around their Stanley Cup victory. Granted, my determinations are subjective and fans can always argue who's elite and who's not, but you'll find that just about all of the players I identified are national team players if not flat out Hall of Famers.

In addition to the names of elite players you can see what positions they played (see table below). For example, the 1996 Avalanche had five elite players playing the 1C, 2C, 1D, 2D and G positions. They did not have any elite wingers, hence the "x" in those columns. You'll also see in the "Success Rate" row the cumulative result, which shows that 80% of Stanley Cup winning teams had elite first-line centers (1C), 67% had elite 2Cs, 67% had elite 1Ws, etc.

Table: List of Elite Players on Past 15 Championship Teams

The takeaways from this back-of-the-napkin analysis are:

  • Stanley Cup winners are strong down the middle but it doesn't necessarily start with the goalie. Goaltending appears to be less important than having an elite 1C, 1D and 2D as only 67% of the past 15 Stanley Cup winners had elite goaltenders, whereas the other three positions had percentages over 80%. There goes my theory!
  •  Although it looks like the 1D (93%) is more important than the 1C (87%) I'm going to conclude that the positions are equal in their importance. The team that won the Stanley Cup without any meaningful centers was the New Jersey Devils, which had such a dominating defense/goaltending they could afford to neglect offense. I would throw them out of the equation because the trap era Devils were such an anomaly that no future team is ever going to reproduce that. I would also throw the 2006 Hurricanes out of the equation -- that was post-lockout and the league was in chaos. The Hurricanes might be the worst team to ever win the Stanley Cup and are not indicative of true championship teams (I'm just being honest). What's left is that every remaining winning team had an elite 1C and 1D.
  • If you throw the Devils and Canes out of the equation, then 2C and 2D are at the same level and comprise the next tier of importance. It appears 1W and Goalie are in the third tier of needs.
  • Surprising to me, having a second dominating winger is not important. Only one of the 15 teams had multiple world-class wingers, showing that teams can win with zero or one elite winger. Having two is simply a luxury, not a necessity.
  • Stanley Cup winners averaged 4.6 elite players per team.
  • I hate to harp on this point, but how the Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup in 2006 can be summed up in one word: travesty. But they took advantage of the lockout and no one can take their trophy away from them (although I'd like to).

So, as usual, I have to address what this has to do with the Caps. Here are my thoughts on that topic:

  • Between Backstrom (1C), Ovechkin (1W), Green (1D) we have three elite players playing vital positions. The core is solid.
  • We have no elite 2C. Neither Tomas Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson will be ready to fill in the role as an elite 2C by April, a major liability for a team with Stanley Cup hopes. Even on recent champions that didn't have elite 2Cs, the names were still pretty impressive: Andy MacDonald, Patrick Sharp. We have no one playing center at that level either.
  • John Carlson will be our next elite 2D. The hope is that he'll reach that plateau by the end of the season, but that's unlikely. You know I'm big on the Caps acquiring a shut-down defenseman and I still think the Caps need to find him to make a legitimate run at the Cup this year, regardless of how Carlson pans out. But the Caps don't have to break the bank to land this fellow, primarily because Carlson is progressing nicely into a stud d-man.
  • One can argue that Semin is an elite player. However, Semin is playing a position (2W) that isn't vital to a Stanley Cup Run. If I was GM for a day I would try and trade Semin for a good center as it fills a greater need for the Caps. Yes, this is blasphemous to the Semin Lobby, but a 2C is simply more important than a 2W. The problem, I suspect, is that most GMs value good centers as much as great wingers so it won't be easy finding a trading partner.
  • The Caps appear stacked for the next few years, provided they can keep Mike Green in the fold. Having Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Carlson in their primes is a downright scary proposition for other Eastern Conference teams.
  • The Big Takeaway: Without the acquisition or development of a strong 2C, we will not be positioned to win the Cup this year. At least that's what history tells us. Good 2Cs -- as well as quality defensemen -- don't grow on trees and they don't come cheap. Couple the league-wide lack of impact players in the final year of their contracts with McPhee's historic passiveness parting with assets and the scary reality is that we may not upgrade at either position by March. You can conclude what that scenario would mean for our Cup chances.

Remember, this exercise isn't scientific. It's short on sample size and is very subjective. But it does indentify trends in assembling a championship caliber team. All of this is not to say that the Caps can't win the Cup without an all-star 2C and 2D. It's absolutely possible. Pittsburgh won two years ago with only three elite players: two centers and a defenseman. Maybe times are indeed changing and the NHL is seeing a paradigm shift where teams in the salary cap era can win with gaping holes in their lineup; we just don't know yet. But based on how previous winners were assembled the Caps' first priority should be upgrading the 2C by the trade deadline. No matter what changes have been made to the game, teams still need to be strong down the middle to win a Cup.

By Box Seats blogger  | October 28, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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If Alzner and Carlson can play consistently as well as they did at the end of last season AND if the whole team shows a commitment to team defense they can win the cup this year. Looks like if you've got one area covered, you can compensate with a firm commitment to the other stuff.

Posted by: GFisher1 | October 29, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

What about heart, desire, hustle, grit, determination, toughness...all attributes Montreal displayed in eliminating the Caps in the first round? They had them, and the Caps...well, I sure hope GMGM is working on that.

Posted by: scmonty1 | October 29, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

That is a fair analysis of the Caps prospects for winning this year. However, missing from this analysis is information about the system the team plays. When one looks at the last 15 Stanley Cup winners and their systems, you see an that all of those teams became defensive-minded in the playoffs, and learned that elite players themselves don't have to carry teams - they just need to provide timely scoring.

Posted by: michaelc3 | October 29, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse


So, using this system, which team is in the best position to win The Cup?

Posted by: noslok | October 29, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

This was a very interesting article. I will, however, have to disagree about Mike Green being the 1D guy. I am sure that Carlson will fill that one day. I agree with other posters. Green is a winger. Trade Semin while we still can get something for him. We have a pretty good defense now -- just look at the stats. What we need is more goal production and as SCMONTY said "desire, hustle, grit ..." And I think that we shouldn't have traded Jose. Looks like Neuvy may be carrying the load on his own this whole year. That will wear him down. I'd rather have 2 strong goalies, than 1 workhorse and another who is always injured.

Posted by: Girl1 | October 29, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

So what elite center or defenseman did Tampa Bay have when they won the cup? What HOF defensemen did the Ave's have on there first cup team...and NO Adam Foote isn't HOF worthy? You took out the Canes so IF Edmonton had won what elite players did they have besides Pronger? Then you come to the Red Wings, while Henrik and Pavel are very good they aren't going to the HOF @ this point in there career.

Posted by: brandon5272lee | October 29, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I don't really buy this. Aside from the liberty's taken with the word 'elite' in the little table, the reasoning totally discounts a teams style of play. Different styles require different key positions to make them work.

I don't look at a table where most teams are missing 1/3 of the positions as proof positive they are needed to win the Cup.

Posted by: svonberg | October 29, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

You need 'elite' goaltending.

But that doesn't mean you need an 'elite' goaltender, merely one that is playing at that level for a given postseason.

That is what happened last year with Halak for the Canadiens.

As far as the rest of the post, I agree whole-heartedly.

The Caps now have a legitimate goaltender in Michal Neuvirth that is going to be part of the core going forward.

But they still lack the depth at center and the lock-down defenseman to take the team over the top.

And I agree that McPhee seems unwilling to make ANY moves that result in the trade of a high draft pick he has made over the past 10 years.

Semin should be trade bait. Fleischmann should be trade bait.

There are enough teams also that are at the cap that are going to want to part with solid veterans in March because they are out of the playoff picture.

Teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh take advantage of these opportunities, even though they don't have nearly as much wiggle room under the cap as Washington does.

With the cap space, Washington should DOMINATE the trading deadline in terms of an impact move or moves.

But will McPhee pull the trigger?

Or is the experience of Michael Nylander still so fresh in his mind from 4 years ago that he is scared away from trying to bring home a Cup sooner rather than later.

Carlson, Alzner and Marcus Johansson are solid talents, but these guys are 2-3 years away from being impact, top players.

We don't have 3 years to wait.

There is no guarantee Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, etc. all remain healthy for that period and as effective as they have been.

With the way Ovechkin plays, his physical nature on the ice, one has to question whether he will play 15 years in the NHL.

Remember Cam Neeley? He scored 50 goals during his career a number of times and was a very physical presence up front. But accumulating shoulder and ankle issues forced him out of the game prematurely.

Posted by: RoyHobbs4 | October 29, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Elite players don't always show up when you need them. You need role guys who have the ability to score big goals when it matters. A couple of examples; Fedetenko 03-04, Mcdonald 06-07, Arnott 99-00. Instead of making a table of "Elite" players, Make a table of players who were vital to winning the championship. One more thing, Andreychuk has one cup and that wasn't in 95 it was in 04, in 95 he was part of the Maple Leafs.

Posted by: avlit21 | October 29, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Some follow-up:

1. Systems - I, personally, think that including talk of "systems" in this analysis would be overstating their importance. Of all the winners above I believe the only two teams that had unique systems were the Devils (trap) and Red Wings (left wing lock). But I'm not sure it matters. All these teams won cups because they played hockey the right way, worrying about the defensive zone first and capitalizing on offensive chances. To me it's more of a "mentality" than a "system". I credit the ability to stick to the right mentality to superior skill, not the other way around. There are dozens of middling teams in the NHL that play right but don't have the skill to take them anywhere. But I understand that this a philosophical argument and that people will see it differently.

2. When I use the term "elite" it does not necessarily mean Hall of Fame shoe-in. It does mean that they were playing at an all-star level or national team level for those years. Non-HOFers such as Adam Foote, Sandis Ozolinsh, Vinny Lecavalier and Pavel Datsyuk were still elite, game-changing players when their Cups were won.

3. I left out role players from this analysis because they are exactly that, role players. Sure, some of them might come out of nowhere and help lead a team to a Cup, but if any GM constructs his team based on the skills and grit of his Bottom 8 skaters, then said GM will not last long in the business. You defintiely need those players to win, but you don't build your team around them. (In other words, as good as Kris Draper was, he was not the reason the Wings won 4 Cups, nor did the Wings build their club around him.)

4. Avlit - good catch on Andreychuk. He joined the Devils for the 95-96 season, not 94-95. My apologies for the error.


Posted by: topshelf_22304 | October 29, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what else people want out of Schultz. He led the freakin league in +/-. How is he not at least on the brink of growing into an elite 2D? As a shut down D, he is miles ahead of Carlson right now which is no slight on Carlson, he'll get there.

Also, it's early but so far the Caps have a different mindset this year. They have been more along the lines of take care of the defensive zone first and score when they can. Also, the PK has been brilliant.

And Neuvie is unquestionably playing at an elite level right now. If those things hold then they will enter the playoffs a different team than last year and in a very good way.

Posted by: Avar | October 30, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Hasek was not the #1 goalie in the last Detroit Cup win. He only played the first 4 games and then it was Osgood the rest of the way. You are also missing Hull as a 2W on the 2002 Wings and Luc Robitaille could even be argued as a third winger.

The biggest thing though where I think while a good idea this analysis is off is the fact it is hard if not impossible to compare pre and post lockout games to each other.

Posted by: icehammer97 | November 4, 2010 6:06 AM | Report abuse

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