Finishing with the NHL’s best regular season record has practically become a curse. Just one of the past eight Presidents’ Trophy winners won the Stanley Cup.
Over that eight-year stretch, three teams have won seven Cups: the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009, 2016), Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014). Wasn’t this supposed to be the era of unprecedented parity? How is it a trio of teams has a collective vice-grip on glory? We examined the seven champions in six categories in the hopes of identifying a correlation. What wins the Cup today, and what can other teams learn from this three-headed dynasty?
THE STAR CORE
CORRELATION: VERY STRONG
Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Patrick Kane. Jonathan Toews. Brent Seabrook. Drew Doughty. Anze Kopitar. All played major roles on their championship teams. All were drafted in the first half of the first round by teams that missed the playoffs. It’s enough to wonder if anyone can win today without a high-end homegrown core.
“You need to get those star players, and how do you do that?” said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “If you can get them another way, you don’t have to bottom out. We got Artemi Panarin as a free agent, and he’s an elite player, but it’s tough to do that consistently.”
The Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings represent the Mount Rushmore of tanking and building teams around big-time stars supplemented by early-to-middle-round draft picks. The Penguins got Kris Letang in the third round. The Hawks got Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford in the second. L.A. nabbed Jonathan Quick in the third. And every one of these championship squads unearthed late-round steals to support their big-ticket players.
The modern model creates top-heavy teams, especially in the financial sense. Kane, Toews, Kopitar, Malkin and Crosby rank first, first, third, fifth and seventh in the NHL in cap hits. Under this structure, the majority of a team’s cash goes to the superstars, leaving the GM scrambling year after year to fill the rest of the roster with depth.
“We realized who makes our team go, and it’s been those same six, seven, eight guys, and they make a lot of money and rightfully so,” Bowman said. “So when they accomplish a lot…good things happen when your team plays well and you win Stanley Cups and your players play great. Then they’re going to make a lot of money. And they should.
“But then the challenge is, how do you make that work? And the way you make that work is to have the right guys around them. It’s sort of been a revolving door, but that’s because as some of those players come in and have some success, then they have to get paid, and you can either fit them in or you’ve got to move them out. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Looking at each team’s repeat championships shows a common ability to replace the mid-range talent that prices itself out with useful homegrown pieces. Crawford took the spot of Antti Niemi, who had backstopped Chicago’s 2010 Cup and earned a big free agent payday. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson became crucial components of L.A.’s 2014 title. And virtual unknowns Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary played on major scoring lines during Pittsburgh’s 2016 crusade.
While all three teams had stud centers and blueliners, only the Kings had a true game-stealing netminder in Quick. A superstar goalie isn’t necessary, but having a reliable one is. All seven Cup teams had one goaltender win at least 13 of the 16 games required to hoist the Cup. The last time that didn’t happen was 1991. No team with a goalie platoon has any shot at a title.
“If you’re second-guessing who you’re playing in goal, your team starts second-guessing it, and that’s where the problem is,” said Bill Ranford, Quick’s goaltending coach in L.A. and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner himself with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990.
“You need to go with a guy and run with him, live and die by the sword. He’s your guy, and he’s either going to win it for you or not. Psychologically, if the other team sees you starting to flip-flop goalies, they’re, like, ‘We’ve got ’em. They don’t know who to play in goal. We’re in the driver’s seat.’ ”
THE POSSESSION GAME
CORRELATION: VERY STRONG
Anyone clinging to the dusty old opinion that advanced stats don’t matter is ignoring irrefutable evidence to the contrary. The Pens’, Kings’ and Hawks’ ranks in 5-on-5 score-, zone- and venue-adjusted Corsi over the seven seasons in question: 17th, first, first, second, first, fifth and third. The link between winning the shot-attempt game and winning the Cup is staggering.
Only the 2013 Hawks nabbed a Presidents’ Trophy among these seven champions, so how did the other six Presidents’ Trophy winners fare in possession those years? Most cracked the top 10. Good possession numbers are certainly no guarantee you’ll win the Stanley Cup – but it’s virtually impossible to win it without them.
CORRELATION: VERY STRONG
Trade deadline, overrated? Don’t be so sure. The Big Three have made important mid-season swaps en route to almost all their championships. The 2009 Pens acquired two previous Cup winners in Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz; the 2012 Kings brought in Jeff Carter; the 2013 Hawks landed Michal Handzus; the 2014 Kings got Marian Gaborik; the 2015 Hawks acquired Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen. The 2016 Penguins got Justin Schultz at the deadline and, more importantly, Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley a couple months earlier. None of these teams accepted complacency.
The 2016 Pens were hockey’s fastest team and coach Mike Sullivan’s system emphasized north-south attacking and stretch passes from the ‘D,’ which helped a motley crew behind Letang maximize its usefulness by rarely holding onto the puck for long.
Most teams want to follow the winning template – and it belongs to the blazing Penguins.
“We’re all trying to have success, and everyone’s watching one another, and with technology nowadays there are no secrets,” Sullivan said. “The availability of film to study our opponents and some of their best practices to see if you can steal an idea or a concept that might help your team…that’s the nature of the business you’re in.
“When teams have success and they win a Stanley Cup, that becomes the team that probably gets the most scrutiny. That’s an obvious evolution of the game. I think some teams are trying to play a speed game for sure after watching our team and some of the success we had last year.”
The 2009 Penguins had speed to burn, too, of course. Crosby and Letang were seven years younger and even faster. The 2010 Blackhawks won with a decent dose of speed from Kane & Co. and maintained plenty of strong skaters through their 2013 and 2015 runs.
The 2012 and 2014 Kings contradicted the notion a team must have speed to win. They slowed the game down with a grinding forecheck led by big, bruising forwards. But three of the past four Cup winners possessed good speed and the Kings’ formula has become antiquated.
The seven seasons of Cup data suggest you can essentially play your grinders on your power play and it won’t matter (see sidebar below). None of the teams ranked any higher than 14th in regular season power play efficiency. The best finish among the seven in playoff PP efficiency was fifth out of 16 teams.
Penalty killing, however, is important. Each of the champs finished in the top 11 in the regular season, and four finished fifth or higher. Five of the seven teams were top-five in the playoffs, too.
The 2012 and 2014 Kings represented the merits of big, strong teams. Both incarnations weren’t so much towering as they were heavy (see sidebar). The 2012 team averaged 209.5 pounds versus 203.8 for the league. The 2014 team outweighed its average opponent by nine pounds, 210.9 to 201.9.
All three Chicago champions, however, weighed less than the league average, as did the 2016 Penguins. The past two champions had average weights below 200 pounds, coinciding with the shift toward speed.
So which team, based on the above criteria, is this season’s best bet? The Washington Capitals. They rank third in Corsi. They have a talent-rich star core. They are loaded at center. They have a big-minute defenseman and a great goalie. They made the 2017 trade deadline’s biggest splash, nabbing blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk. The have the league’s No. 7 penalty kill.
So while it’s tempting to laugh off yet another Capitals Cup prediction, this year they check off all the boxes. They’re emulating the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings, and that’s a good omen.
– WITH FILES FROM KEN CAMPBELL