Learning to lose before Stanley Cup win

It’s not unheard of for an upstart team to win it all, but history tells us that you need to be battle-tested and have at least one Stanley Cup ring on the roster.

(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the 2018 NHL Playoff Preview issue of The Hockey News. It has been updated for online purposes.)

The Pittsburgh Penguins lurk.

No matter how much we revere the stacked Tampa Bay Lightning, the hungry-for-revenge Nashville Predators, the inspiring Vegas Golden Knights or the young, exciting Winnipeg Jets…it’s always tempting to give the tie to experience when the playoff field is so loaded. Not only has almost all of Pittsburgh’s roster won the Stanley Cup before, the last time it didn’t win the Cup was 2015. If you’re betting on a three-peat, you’re backing the Pens for the same reason you didn’t trust the first-place Washington Capitals in their seven-game series last year. The Pens “have been there before” and don’t get rattled in tense situations.

But this is the era of analytics, of Corsi and expected goals and PDO and constantly updated playoff odds. Betting on an intangible like “experience” feels like an embarrassingly extinct philosophy clipped from the days of line brawls and hipchecks. If having speckles of white in your beard means so much, how come we’ve seen so many peach-fuzzed post-season heroes over the years? Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden and Cam Ward backstopped their teams to glory as rookies. Do recent statistics tell us experience really matters? Or is that simply an assumption? I decided to find out by studying all 12 Cup-winning squads of the salary-cap era.

The median average team age in the NHL this season is about 27, and only three of the 12 Cup-winning teams had a younger average age than 27. Half had average ages older than 28. The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, 2007 Anaheim Ducks and 2009 Penguins each had at least a dozen players 30 or older, though we’ve seen a relative decline in the number of true greybeards since then. While Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy at 21 in 2006, as did Jonathan Toews in 2010, seven of the past 12 playoff MVPs were at least 27.

The number of players on the recent champion franchises who already had Cup rings entering the post-season is obviously skewed considering three franchises – the Penguins, Chicago and Los Angeles – have hoarded eight of the past nine Cups. The 2015 Hawks and 2017 Pens were of course packed with previous winners. There’s an inherent advantage in having a powerhouse team and a team carrying many bodies over from a previous championship run.

But you knew that already. The real question is: can a younger, less experienced team break that cycle, and is there precedent for that? Isn’t every roster core inexperienced until it’s experienced? The 2010 Hawks, for example, had an average age of 26.4 and just two players with Cup rings. The 2012 Kings had an average age of 26.2, had three players with rings and had only four players 30 or older. And nine of the past 12 Cup-winning coaches were first-time champions.

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Does that mean the other 2018 Cup hopefuls can break through? Maybe, but even the less-experienced recent champions possessed some important and common characteristics.

First of all, every Cup winner in the salary-cap era had at least one player who’d won a Cup before. The 2007 Ducks’ only Cup winner happened to be Scott Niedermayer, who took the team on his back and won the Conn Smythe Trophy. The 2009 Penguins had young Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominating the competition – but also Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz as crucial veteran contributors. Toews had two-way maven John Madden to learn from in 2010. The 2012 Kings had icy-cool Justin Williams in their dressing room, not to mention hardened shot-blocking warrior Rob Scuderi. The evidence is anecdotal, of course, but it’s fascinating that a truly green Cup-winning team hasn’t existed in the cap era. Every champion had someone with a ring when the puck dropped for Round 1 of the playoffs.

Another trait common even among the younger Cup teams: none of them vaulted into their first post-seasons and cruised to a title. The 2009 Pens won a rematch with the Red Wings after losing in the final in 2008. The 2010 Hawks lost to Detroit in the 2009 Western final. The 2011 Boston Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in the 2010 Eastern final. All those teams were battle-tested by the time they triumphed.

So while experience might be an overrated, romanticized concept when assessing Cup contenders, it’s certainly not irrelevant. It appears every team needs some scar tissue. So who fits the description as a potential “new” Cup winner this year? The Nashville Predators. They reached Game 6 of the final last year, they have a Cup-winning coach in Peter Laviolette and, this season they’ve added an element they lacked last spring: someone with a Cup ring in Nick Bonino, poached from the Penguins. Don’t sleep on a parade in Smashville.