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Eight simple rules for building a Stanley Cup contender

The key to building a consistent Cup contender: establish a core and surround them with cheap and competent depth.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

How do you build a Stanley Cup champion? It starts with the core. Every team has one or is working toward one and it’s that main cast that will take your team to the promised land. In a salary cap world, teams can’t keep everyone around, making it extremely important to identify the guys that are driving the bus and worth building around.

That was the big conclusion from former Canucks Army blogger Cam Lawrence (who goes by the pseudonym Money Puck and now works for the Florida Panthers) when he took a deep dive in analyzing the final four playoff teams over the last five seasons. Using war-on-ice’s wins above replacement stat, Lawrence found that each contender usually had one player worth three or more wins, another two worth about 2.5, and a lot of other very good complementary players. Teams that win, win because they have star players and because they surrounded them with talent.

While the top three guys are vital to success, most team cores contain a couple more players and each piece is important to long-term success.

Think about the Chicago Blackhawks and their three Cup wins. At the heart of each win were the same seven players: Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and a goalie (Antti Niemi followed by two wins from Corey Crawford). Those guys never changed, but thanks to the salary cap, the cast around those seven was in constant flux. Those guys were the engine propelling them to each win, but they also needed talent surrounding them to get there too.

That’s the key to building a consistent Cup contender: establish a core and surround them with cheap and competent depth. If you look around the league, most teams are following a similar blueprint. Most cores are comprised of two centers, two D-men, a winger, another forward, and a goalie. There’s exceptions to how it’s done, but that’s the usual template.

Using the same approach as Lawrence, I looked at every conference finalist since 2007-08 to find patterns in the win rates of the core players each team utilized. I identified the core as players who were getting the biggest minutes at each position and then looked at their average WAR. I also looked at how many teams had an elite (top 10 percent) or very good (0.5 fewer wins than elite) player at each position. For forwards that was 2 wins, defensemen 1.5 and goalies 2.5.

Here’s how those numbers broke down along with a comparison to this year’s final four. There’s no WAR numbers for 2015-16 (because the guys who created it work for NHL teams now) so I used an average of the last three seasons, weighted by recency.

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Based on that, here’s eight lessons on building a Cup contender and how they apply to this year’s final four.

1. The most important thing is a No. 1 center

It’s always a good sign when the numbers reflect conventional wisdom. Hockey folks always stress that the most important piece to any team is the No. 1 center and that’s glaringly obvious considering the teams that have won in the past. On average, the No. 1 center on a team from the finals is worth almost four wins which is a lot higher than any other core position. Except for just two players, every team that’s made it to the finals has had a top line center post a WAR of two or higher, and every single one was above 1.5.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

The Pens have Sidney Crosby, the Sharks have Joe Thornton, and the Lightning have Steven Stamkos. All three are roughly four win players. For the Blues it gets tricky. I used Alex Steen who is also a four win player, but is only a part-time center.

2. Your No. 1 center needs a wingman

A lot of people might say an elite winger isn’t high on the list of priorities, but it should be. The top center can’t do it all by himself and needs someone to help with the heavy lifting, especially considering most centers are natural playmakers that need a trigger-man. That actually might be one of the reasons the average No. 1 winger has such a high WAR rate. The way WAR accounts for goal-scoring gives full credit to the goal-scorer and none to the playmaker. That’ll hurt some of the gifted distributers like Crosby and Thornton and benefit their linemates. In any sense, a team with Cup aspirations needs to surround their top center with wingers that can make a similar impact.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

The two strongest wingmen are out West. Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the league’s best goal scorers and the same goes for Joe Pavelski. The East isn’t as strong, but still boasts two elite talents in Nikita Kucherov and Patric Hornqvist.

3. You definitely need an elite No. 1 D-man, but don’t stress too hard on the No. 2 guy

About three-quarters of Cup finalists had their No. 1 D-man generate an elite WAR, making it the third most important position here. All of them were huge components of their teams’ Cup victories. The No. 2 guy should be a strong complement, but it isn’t necessary and you can go far without one. Only half the teams had a strong second hand man, and just one-in-five had an elite pair. WAR is a lot harder to quantify for D-men then it is forwards so that’s important to keep in mind here as some guys tend to get underrated because their skill-set is difficult to quantify.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

Each team has an elite No. 1, but it’s not exactly who you’d expect. For Pittsburgh it’s Kris Letang, obviously, but for the other teams it’s Anton Stralman, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Kevin Shattenkirk who are all WAR darlings. The actual No. 1 guys aren’t as well regarded. Brent Burns is also elite, giving the Sharks an elite one-two punch, and you could say the same about the Bolts who have Victor Hedman who is very underrated by WAR. Alex Pietrangelo used to be a good WAR player, but his numbers have tanked over the last two seasons.

4. He doesn’t have to be elite, but you usually need a strong second line center

Just about 40 percent of the second line centers on Cup final teams were elite, but twice as many were at least very good players. That’s a big jump and it makes sense, too. They’re not the top dogs, but they’re still vital cogs to the machine. It’s another instance of the numbers lining up with conventional wisdom as center depth is preached as a huge factor in every playoff series. But it’s not totally necessary, either. Just think about the Blackhawks who’ve actually never had a second line center as a part of their core.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

The best second line center in the league, Evgeni Malkin, is here along with Tyler Johnson, Logan Couture, and David Backes. All four are skilled players who’ve contributed at an elite level making this a very strong crop compared to usual Cup or conference finalists.

5. Goaltending doesn’t matter as much as you think

“Build from the net out” has been one of Brian Burke’s team building mottos for a long time, but it’s actually one of the last things you really need to worry about for your teams’ core. You absolutely don’t want a guy that’ll lose games, but you don’t necessarily need him to steal them either. He doesn’t have to be elite, just good enough not to blow it. Goaltending is obviously important, and it doesn’t hurt to have an elite guy, but you can win without one. There’s a few goalies that carried their teams to lofty heights, but more often than not, they’re not the ones driving the bus. If you need your goalie to steal games for you, your team didn’t really deserve to win them to begin with.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

Considering we saw all eight goalies play at some point, yes.

6. The average contender has four elite players and at least one other very good player

It’s always confusing when any playoff loss is pointed squarely at one or two players. On average, every team that made it to the third round had about four players playing at an elite level and one other player who was very good, but not quite elite. If you can count that many on your team, congrats, you’re in good shape. If you can’t, you better hope the rest of the team can fill the void. No player, not even the truly great ones, can win on their own, they need help from other great players. The more great players you have, the more likely you are to win. That’s pretty obvious, but it bears repeating considering how often the narrative gets lost in translation. The elite players are the reason teams wins, not why they lose.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

Every team here actually has five players who’ve posted an elite WAR for their position and you better believe those guys have been the catalyst for this year’s Cup run.

7. A solid core is more important than depth, but depth is more important than any one player

The average combined WAR of the non-core players on each of the final four teams from the past eight seasons was 5.3. Out of the 224 core players, only seven had a higher WAR. It’s simple math really. There’s 20 roster spots, and with seven core players, that means the depth is comprised of 13 guys. No one player in hockey is likely to contribute more to the team than 13 players combined and that’s why depth is so important. Those 13 guys need to be able to keep the team afloat when the main seven aren’t on the ice. Depth matters, but the core seven contribute almost three times as many wins on average.

Does it apply to this year’s final four?

Because there’s no 2015-16 WAR numbers available there’s no exact value of each team’s depth in WAR, but it’s pretty clear that it’s been a driving factor for each team’s success. Tampa Bay has survived without their top center, D-man and goalie. Pittsburgh is finally more than Crosby and Malkin, the Blues have a cornucopia of talent outside their main guys and the Sharks bolstered theirs in the off-season with key acquisitions at every position.

8. What separates the champions from the maybe-next-years? Centers, depth and goaltending

The biggest difference between those that advanced to the final and those that lost was depth. Cup finalists got 6.2 wins out of their depth while the conference finalists got just 4.4. That’s a huge factor and is perhaps the most important lesson for building a winner: your core can be great, but you need quality players complementing them. The difference in depth is bigger than the difference in average core talent. Of the core players, the biggest difference was at center. The top guy was 0.7 wins better, and 19 percent more likely to be elite or very good while the second line guy was 0.3 wins better and 25 percent more likely to be very good. That’s one full win at center ice. In net, the Cup finalists were more likely to have an elite or very good goalie. So while goaltending isn’t the most important aspect for getting to the conference final, there’s a clear difference in net between the teams that won and lost. In total, it’s three wins on average meaning the better team did generally move on to the final thanks to their top centers, depth, and the difference in net. In most cases, that’s something the numbers and narratives can usually agree on.


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