Midway through the second round of the playoffs, the NHL has a shot at an interesting conference final scenario. The Kings, Blackhawks, and Penguins are all leading their series, and the Bruins are still very much alive despite trailing the Canadiens, 2-1. If Boston can come back and the other three teams hold on, we’d be left with a repeat of last year’s final four.
That would be an especially rare result, not just in the NHL but across North American pro sports. The NHL has only had one repeat final four since the Original Six era (it happened in 1977). And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s only happened once in MLB (1978) and once in the NBA (1952); it’s never happened in the Super Bowl–era NFL.
So would a final four repeat just be a fluke? Or is it possible these teams know something the rest of the league doesn’t? That Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and L.A. also happen to be the league’s four most recent Cup winners might make you lean toward the second option.
I figured I’d take a deeper look at these four teams, and see what sort of lessons they could offer us about building a successful NHL contender. That turned out to be easier said than done, because while they have plenty in common, finding any one factor that applied to all four gets tricky. Have you ever tried to get four kids to pose for a photo, only to find that one is constantly wandering off? That’s what this felt like.
So instead, here are eight lessons we can learn from most of the NHL’s big four, along with the one team from the group that ruins it.
Lesson 1: Build the blue line around a stud defenseman
They say you build a championship team from the net out. We’ll get to the goaltending part of that equation in a minute, but whoever you’ve got in the crease will need a solid blue line in front of him. And the easiest way to build one is to find one stud to handle the heavy lifting.
Chicago’s Duncan Keith is the odds-on favorite to win the Norris this year, thanks to a season that saw him rack up 61 points while logging big ice time. He’s already won the award once, in 2010. Not bad for a guy who slipped to the 54th pick in the 2002 draft, just behind such noted stalwarts as Alexei Kaigorodov and Barry Tallackson.
If Keith doesn’t win, this year’s award will probably go to Boston’s Zdeno Chara, another previous winner who’s a finalist for the sixth time. In addition to being absolutely terrifying, Chara is probably the most successful free-agent signing of the cap era. It seems strange now, but there were doubts about Chara’s overall game when the Bruins pried him out of Ottawa with a $37.5 million offer in 2006. Eight years later, not so much.
The Kings’ Drew Doughty didn’t earn a spot in this year’s top three Norris vote-getters, though there’s a good chance he finishes fourth. He’s the youngest of the trio at 24, which means we probably haven’t seen his best yet. That’s a scary thought for a guy who was already a Norris finalist in 2010 at the age of 20.
Having one of the league’s best defensemen on your roster doesn’t guarantee you a deep playoff run — hello, Shea Weber — but it sure helps.
The exception: Is Kris Letang a stud? He’s certainly paid like one, and he was a Norris finalist just last season. But despite his inspiring comeback this year, he’s not really viewed as being in that Chara/Keith/Doughty ballpark.
Lesson 2: Sign your goalie to a big contract that everyone will hate
We’ve discussed the danger of handing out big contracts to goaltenders in the past. Goaltending is a notoriously difficult position to judge, with hot streaks and random variance often inflating stats and making average guys look better than they are. Given that the performance gap between star goaltenders and merely average ones isn’t all that wide, devoting a big chunk of your future budget (and cap space) to a goalie seems risky, bordering on foolish.
It’s a nice argument, but it doesn’t seem to have won over hearts and minds in NHL front offices. Goaltenders are viewed as among the most important players on a roster, and so they ask for the sort of long-term, big-money contracts that other stars get. And teams keep signing those deals, even though they often backfire, sometimes spectacularly.
If you were hoping to see that trend change any time soon, a repeat final four is bad news. All four teams have given big contracts to their starters.
L.A.’s Jonathan Quick is in the first year of a 10-year, $58 million extension he signed in 2012. That’s the third-biggest current contract among goalies, and it’s been widely panned as a bad deal given Quick’s uneven history — his .915 career save percentage says he’s only a slightly above-average player. But Quick has earned his reputation as a top-tier goalie based on his playoff résumé, which includes a Cup ring and a Conn Smythe, and so the Kings paid up.
Chicago’s Corey Crawford has put up similar numbers to Quick over his career, and while he didn’t cash in to the same extent, he did earn a six-year, $36 million extension that kicks in next season. That deal came as a bit of a surprise, since the Hawks had seemed to embrace a “go cheap in net” philosophy over the years, even dumping 2010 Cup–winning starter Antti Niemi just weeks later because of cap concerns.
And then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, the much-maligned Penguins starter whose seven-year, $35 million deal seemed like a post-lockout buyout candidate. He signed it in 2008 after taking the Pens to the final, and won the Cup the next season. Since then, he’s been a consistent regular-season player but struggled badly in the playoffs. He’s due to be a free agent after next season, and it seems like a safe bet his next contract will come at a discount — though a few more playoff shutouts could change that.
The exception: Boston’s Tuukka Rask signed a big deal of his own last year, an eight-year, $56 million contract. But unlike his three colleagues, Rask has made a good case for being considered a truly elite talent — his .928 career save percentage is the best among active goalies. So people don’t hate his deal … yet. But check back after one more loss against the Habs.
Lesson 3: Wear black
Hey, don’t laugh. According to the psychologists, it makes you seem more aggressive and intimidating. It’s science. You can’t argue with science.
The exception: Of course the team with “black” in its name wears mostly red (unless it is playing outside). Heaven forbid these four teams agree on anything.
Lesson 4: Hit rock bottom, then draft a franchise player or two
Nobody likes to see their favorite team challenge for dead last, and it’s even more frustrating when it happens for several years in a row. But in a salary-cap league where blockbuster trades are becoming increasingly rare and free agency is a minefield, building through the draft has become the safest path to success. And there’s no easier way to draft well than to draft high.
The Blackhawks had their crash right before the 2005 lockout and earned three top-three picks in the next four years. They whiffed on the first, taking defenseman Cam Barker in 2004, but did slightly better on the next two: Jonathan Toews in 2006, and Patrick Kane in 2007.
A year after the Hawks picked Kane, the Kings finished 32-43-7, tying them with the Lightning for the worst record in the league. That left them with the second overall pick, which they used to select Doughty. They also had top-five picks in 2007 and 2009, the latter of which landed them Brayden Schenn, who was a key part of the trade for Mike Richards.
And then there’s the Penguins, the poster child of the modern-day movement to
tank for high draft picks patiently rebuild. They were awful from 2002 through 2006, and it earned them four straight top-two picks, which they turned into Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Fleury, and the since-traded Jordan Staal. Granted, the Crosby pick came from a leaguewide lottery, but even that was weighted to help teams that had been struggling.
You may not like what’s been derisively labeled “the Pittsburgh Model,” and it’s certainly no sure thing — ask the Islanders, Panthers, or even the Capitals. But when a team hits on a few of those high picks, you can expect to see it contending for a Cup within a few years.
The exception: The Bruins have only finished in the bottom five once since taking Joe Thornton first overall in 1997. That was in 2006, when they picked Phil Kessel fifth. They eventually dealt him for draft picks, two of which ended up being in the top 10, but their own first-round selections have rarely been in the top half.
Instead, the Bruins have built their roster by proving you can find some gems later in the draft. Leading scorer David Krejci was picked 63rd. Patrice Bergeron was 45th. Milan Lucic was 50th. Brad Marchand was 71st. Torey Krug wasn’t even drafted. They’ve supplemented those guys through free agency (Chara, Jarome Iginla) and trades (Rask, Loui Eriksson).
Lesson 5: Don’t fear the deadline
The trade deadline — which is to say the weeks leading up to the actual deadline day — used to be fun. It used to be the time when contenders would mortgage the future to load up for the playoffs, pretenders would frantically ship out anyone with a pulse, and we’d maybe even get a real live blockbuster or two.
But over the years, the deadline has lost some of its luster. Whether it’s the fault of the cap, increased parity, or just GMs who would rather play it safe than make the deal that gets them fired, it seems like more and more teams are staying out of the market.
But over the past few years, our four model franchises have largely avoided that trend. The Kings made the biggest deal of the 2012 deadline season, acquiring Jeff Carter from the Blue Jackets for Jack Johnson and a pick. Carter helped sparked the struggling offense, and the Kings went on to win the Cup. The next year, they added Robyn Regehr. And this year, they went back to the Blue Jackets for another forward, picking up Marian Gaborik. That would be the same guy who scored the tying goal in the dying seconds of Game 1 against the Ducks, then added the winner in overtime.
The Penguins were relatively quiet this year, but were the league’s busiest team at last season’s deadline, acquiring Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray, and Iginla. The Bruins thought they’d traded for Iginla, too, but had to settle for another future Hall of Famer in Jaromir Jagr. They picked up defenseman Andrej Meszaros this year.
Not all of those players are still with the teams that acquired them, of course. But the point remains: When other teams around the league are staring at their shoes and muttering about prices being too high, these teams have been willing to push their chips into the middle of the table.
The exception: Compared to the other three, the Blackhawks have been relatively quiet at the deadline over the years. But even they don’t sit out — they added some veteran depth in Michal Handzus last year and picked up Johnny Oduya the year before.
Lesson 6: Family ties
It apparently pays to have some proven hockey DNA running the show. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman is the son of Scotty Bowman, the league’s all-time winningest coach and owner of 13 Cup rings. The Penguins’ GM is Ray Shero, whose father was Fred Shero, the Hall of Fame coach who won back-to-back Cups with the Flyers.
And while Kings GM Dean Lombardi doesn’t come from a famous hockey family, coach Darryl Sutter sure does. The legendary Sutter brothers combined to play almost 5,000 NHL games, coach 1,300 more, and win seven Stanley Cups (and counting).
The exception: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli’s daughter is a successful gymnast. Does that count?
Lesson 7: Hire a veteran coach, even if he’s failed elsewhere
Claude Julien only made it through one full season in Montreal before being fired in 2006. He went to New Jersey, where he was fired with just three games left in the 2006-07 season. That didn’t stop the Bruins from hiring him that summer, and he’s been behind their bench ever since.
Sutter had been fired in San Jose and resigned in both Chicago and Calgary before winding up in Los Angeles in 2011. And Joel Quenneville had coached more than 800 career games and been fired in St. Louis and Colorado before the Blackhawks brought him aboard in 2008.
The exception: Dan Bylsma was only 38 years old and had no NHL head-coaching experience when the Penguins promoted him to the job during the 2008-09 season. He won the Cup a few months later.
Lesson 8: Don’t go big, but do go old
Whenever a general manager talks about what sort of players his team is looking for, he’ll inevitably start gushing about youth and size. So you might think that our four teams would be big and young. But based on James Mirtle’s analysis of this year’s opening-night rosters, that’s not really the case.
The Penguins were downright tiny by league standards, ranking just 22nd in average height and 19th in weight. The Blackhawks were only a little bigger, coming in at 13th and 16th in height and weight, respectively.
Even the Bruins, a notoriously physical team that features some of the league’s most intimidating players, were just 17th in average weight, although they did rank sixth in height (thanks, Zdeno).
Meanwhile, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago all ranked in the top 10 for average age. The Penguins were the oldest of the group, ranking behind only the creaky graybeards in Detroit and New Jersey. It’s true that most of their core players are younger, or at least still in their prime. But they haven’t hesitated to surround them with grizzled vets.
The exception: The Kings were the heaviest team in the league and ranked fifth in height. They were also in the bottom half for age, ranking as the league’s 17th-oldest team.
So there you have it. If you want to make multiple trips to the final four, you’ll want a top defenseman, an overpaid goalie, a failed coach, an aggressive GM, a bunch of high draft picks, and black uniforms, preferably size small. Three-quarters of the time, that’s your ticket to success.
(Oh, and you also probably want to avoid running into Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. Three out of four teams got that right this year, too.)