Anatomy of a Stanley Cup Champion
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Building a Stanley Cup champion is a lengthy and difficult process.
Unlike the NBA, where a few trades and free-agent signings of star players can turn a draft lottery team into a championship contender in just a few months (2008 Boston Celtics, for example), NHL general managers have to spend years finding the right players to fit their team's style of play and address certain weaknesses.
A salary cap system also makes it more difficult for GMs to fix their team's problems just by opening their owner's checkbook. This means that teams must focus much more on scouting, player development and drafting to construct a championship roster.
Let's break down the anatomy of a champion in the NHL.
Four Quality Forward Lines with Players Who Fill Different Roles
Teams need a lot of depth at forward to win the Stanley Cup. Each year, we see clubs with a great top six that has some elite scorers, but they don't win the Cup because the third and fourth lines don't contribute offensively or play a physical game.
In fact, since the start of the 1993-94 season, only two Art Ross Trophy winners (league's leading scorer) have won the Cup in the same season (Martin St. Louis with Tampa Bay in 2003-04, Evgeni Malkin with Pittsburgh in 2008-09).
Having four good lines that fill the necessary roles (timely scoring, grit, leadership, defense, etc.) to win in the playoffs is one common denominator of most, if not all, Stanley Cup champions. It's so difficult to get through four grueling rounds of physical and mental hardship without depth.
The most recent examples of this key to playoff success are the 2010-11 Boston Bruins and last year's Los Angeles Kings.
Boston got impressive production from its third line of Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder, who combined for 17 goals and 25 assists in 25 games. The Bruins' fourth line of Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille gave the team grit, defense, penalty killing and a little scoring throughout the playoffs.
This line also allowed head coach Claude Julien to not overplay his top two lines, which would have resulted in fatigue in the later rounds.
Which team has the depth to beat the Penguins?
When a team has four good lines, it often wears down its opponent physically over the course of a seven-game series. This is what happened in 2011 when the Bruins' depth was too much for the Canucks to compete with, and by the time Game 7 started, there was no chance for Vancouver to win (Boston won 4-0).
This year's team with the most depth is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will play the New York Islanders in the first round as the East's top seed. The trade deadline acquisitions of Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla have given the Penguins four lines that each have skill, toughness and hockey smarts.
Great depth and four good lines are two reasons why Pittsburgh is so tough to beat (23 wins in final 27 games). It's difficult for opposing head coaches to find weaknesses to take advantage of on deep teams like the Penguins.
A No. 1 Defenseman With the Ability to Shut Down Opposing Team's Top Scorers
It's possible to win the Stanley Cup without a hot goaltender if a team has a legitimate No. 1 defenseman who will shut down the opposing team's best goal scorers and contribute offensively.
Since the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 with No. 1 defenseman Brian Leetch winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, only two teams have won a championship without a star No. 1 defenseman (1996 Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes in 2006).
When you look at the last six champions, one similar part of each roster is a No. 1 defenseman that played at a high level in the playoffs at both ends of the ice.
|Year||Team||No. 1 D-Man||Notes|
|2006-07||ANA||Chris Pronger||One year after carrying the Oilers to the Cup Final, Pronger dominated defensively to help the Ducks win their first ever championship.|
|2007-08||DET||Nicklas Lidstrom||Lidstrom played exceptional defense and added 13 points to help Detroit defeat Pittsburgh. He became the first European captain to lift the Cup.|
|2008-09||PIT||Brooks Orpik||Orpik excelled in a shut-down role with great defense, shot blocking and physical play.|
|2009-10||CHI||Duncan Keith||Keith tallied 17 points and 22 games, played shut-down defense and excelled on special teams to help Chicago ends its Cup drought. He arguably deserved to win the Conn Smythe more than Jonathan Toews.|
|2010-11||BOS||Zdeno Chara||Chara helped Boston shut-down a lot of great scoring teams during its Cup run. Canucks stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin were ineffective in the Cup Final because of Chara's defense.|
|2011-12||LAL||Drew Doughty||After a disappointing regular season, Doughty dominated offensively with 16 points in 20 playoff games.
Without a No. 1 defenseman to log a lot of minutes against the top scorers on the opposing team and to excel on the penalty kill, it's very hard for a team to win 16 playoff games. These defensive stalwarts limit the amount of quality chances that the opposing team creates, which really makes their goaltender's job much easier.
The focus on defense and penalty killing is increased significantly in the playoffs, which makes the presence of a No. 1 defenseman a huge part of a team's success in its own end.
The Blackhawks are one of the top favorites to win the Cup this season even though they don't have an elite goaltender. This is because of their depth on the blue line and the fact that they have two No. 1 defensemen in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
A Reliable Goaltender With Mental Toughness
An elite or "hot" goaltender isn't required to win the Stanley Cup. A team just needs a confident netminder who has the mental toughness to overcome mistakes and make the important saves in the third periods of games.
Chris Osgood is an example of this type of goaltender. He won three Stanley Cups (two as a starter) with the Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998, 2008) even though he wasn't one of the top three goaltenders in the league throughout his career.
He had a tremendous blue line in front of him, including some Hall of Fame players such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, but he did make the high-pressure saves when called upon.
Teams don't even need their goaltender to play significantly better in the playoffs. Since the 2004-05 lockout, only two Cup winners (Carolina in 2006 and Los Angeles in 2012) improved their GAA by 0.5 goals per game from the regular season to the playoffs.
We have seen so many goaltenders with top-tier talent crumble under the pressure that the postseason creates. Not being able to bounce back from tough games will sink a contending team.
What is more important for a playoff team?
One example of this was Roberto Luongo in the 2011 finals. The Vezina Trophy finalist allowed 14 goals in the three games played at TD Garden in Boston. In Game 7, he allowed three bad goals, which prevented the Vancouver Canucks from capturing their first title.
Being able to forget about a bad goal or game and focus on the next challenge is crucial to a goalie's success in the postseason.
To win the Stanley Cup, a team needs a dependable goaltender who isn't afraid of the pressure and will make key saves at important times. It helps to have a goalie who dominates from Round 1 through the Stanley Cup Final (like Tim Thomas in 2011 and Jonathan Quick in 2012), but it's not required for playoff success.
Mixture of Veterans and Players Chasing their First Cup
It's difficult to win a Stanley Cup without a few guys on your roster who have experienced what it's like to be part of a championship team. These veterans understand how hard you have to work to reach this goal, and they set a good example for the younger and inexperienced players.
The Bruins greatly benefited from the leadership and experience of veterans Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton during their Cup run in 2011. These players came to Boston with previous Cup-winning experience and helped the team's younger players get through the adversity and failures that happen in the postseason.
For a team whose core has already won a Stanley Cup together, it's important for general managers to add players to the roster who haven't lifted the best trophy in sports.
These players who don't have a Cup on their resume give 100 percent effort on every shift and play with an amazing amount of passion, which motivates and energizes the guys who have already won a championship and don't have that same motivation.
The Penguins, who enter this year's playoffs as the favorite to win the East, have a roster full of champions, but the goal of winning a Cup for Iginla and Morrow (neither player has won it before) will give this group all the motivation it needs to win another championship.
Leadership doesn't show up on the stat sheet when you look at the box score after a game, but it's one of the most important parts of each successful playoff team. Guys who know how to handle the high-pressure moments are extremely valuable in the postseason.
A Little Bit of Good Luck
Let's be honest, every team in sports needs a little luck to finish the season as champions.
Whether it's a puck bouncing your way, winning a draft lottery (Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in 2005), a role player performing at a level high above what he usually does or a goaltender standing on his head in almost every game (Tim Thomas in 2011), teams need a bit of luck to hoist the Cup.
It was a bad bounce on a pass in the neutral zone that created an odd-man rush for the Capitals in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Bruins last season, which resulted in the series-winning goal.
A lot of lucky moments in the playoffs occur when a player misses a wide-open net. This happened in Game 5 of the 2011 East Finals when Steve Downie couldn't lift the puck over Thomas' stick blade.
Another form of luck that teams get is playing an easier than expected opponent in the second round or conference finals because of a top contender getting upset.
Instead of playing the top-seeded Bruins in the 2009 East Finals, the Penguins played the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes after they defeated Boston in an exciting seven-game series. Pittsburgh swept an inferior Carolina team en route to a Stanley Cup championship.
Every champion is lucky in some way. It doesn't matter how much talent is on your roster; to win a championship, a team needs a couple bounces to go its way.
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