Analysis: Constructing a Stanley Cup winner
By Kareem El-AlailyA 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.
Box Seats blogger
| October 28, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily | Tags: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily
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