During the playoffs, performances of star players are magnified and become a constant subject of discussion as the long and arduous road to the Stanley Cup goes on.
There has been no exception for the Vancouver Canucks this spring as they sit halfway up “Stanley Cup Mountain.” As they prepare for their third round series, they are defying earlier pronouncements of many pundits who claimed that without significant offensive contributions from the Sedins, the Canucks would be doomed. Well, the Sedins, for the most part, have sputtered offensively and Ryan Kesler has been hailed as the team’s savior based on his offensive production.
But I have a little different perspective.
I have the highest regard for Kesler’s offensive contributions. His goals and assists have been important and often fun to watch. However, I have been equally impressed by his stellar defensive play. He dominated the opposition during his shifts in the Nashville series just as he did in the Chicago series. But I also tip my cap to Henrik Sedin. Few know if he has actually been playing with an injury as has been speculated. But what I do know is he has not let his offensive frustrations affect his defensive play. His positional game, his anticipation and his effort consistently choked off his Nashville opponents throughout the second round series.
Vancouver defeated two strong opponents that made it very difficult for the Canucks to finish them off. Nashville simply could not generate enough offense in any type of situation, but centers Kesler and Henrik Sedin were major factors as well.
Strong two-way play from the center position has been a prerequisite for Stanley Cup success throughout my lifetime. In fact, some of the shrewdest hockey men in the NHL have realized this and made important personnel decisions that created Stanley Cup dynasties.
In the early 1960’s, Punch Imlach understood his Toronto Maple Leafs would remain Stanley Cup bridesmaids until they could figure out a way to contain Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau. In one of the greatest personnel moves in hockey history, the Leafs traded for veteran Detroit Red Wings defenseman Red Kelly. But even though Kelly had played the first 13 years of his Hall of Fame career on defense – winning the Norris Trophy in 1954 – Imlach converted him to center where he would face Beliveau head-to-head in the playoffs. This was a major contribution to the Leafs winning four Stanley Cup victories in six years starting in 1962. In three of those championship years, they eliminated Montreal in the playoffs.
In the late 1970s, the New York Islanders enjoyed great regular season success, finishing with more than 100 points four years in a row, but faltered in the playoffs. GM Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour determined that 1979 league MVP Bryan Trottier could not do it alone at center. So, in one of the greatest trade deadline deals of all-time, the Islanders acquired strong two-way pivot Butch Goring from the Los Angeles Kings in 1980. What followed were four consecutive Stanley Cups and an Islanders dynasty. And, by the way, the Conn Smythe Trophy winners in the first two Cup years were Trottier and Goring.
But sometimes the answer to a problem lies within an organization. Witness the Edmonton Oilers of the mid-1980s. They had a strong, exciting young team that was knocking on the Stanley Cup door, but were twice eliminated by the Islanders in three years. In what was perhaps the greatest internal personnel decision of all-time, Oilers GM and coach Glen Sather converted two-time first-team all-star left winger Mark Messier to center. The result? Five Stanley Cups in seven seasons for an Oilers dynasty. And again, the Conn Smythe Trophy winners for the first two Stanley Cups were centers Messier and Wayne Gretzky.
Things have not changed much in recent years. The only two teams that have advanced to the Stanley Cup final twice in the post lockout era are the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. How many teams in history have had two centers who excelled both offensively and defensively like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings? The duo must remind fans of Detroit’s earlier Stanley Cup champion teams that were centered by Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. From 1996 to 2002 those Wings squads won the Cup three times, while the Colorado Avalanche – led by centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg – won twice in the same seven-season period.
The recent Penguins teams countered Detroit with two all-time great offensive centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, plus one of the top defensive centers in the game in Jordan Staal. Again, the Conn Smythe Trophy winners in the Cup victories for the Wings in 2008 and Penguins in 2009 were centers Zetterberg and Malkin.
And let’s not forget center Jonathan Toews’ brilliant Conn Smythe performance for the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
Knowledgeable hockey fans can certainly point to occasions where spectacular goaltending was the principal factor in a Stanley Cup victory. However, teams with solid but unspectacular goaltending have won numerous Stanley Cups. Very seldom can you win multiple Stanley Cups without a depth of talent in two-way centers.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.