There’s no doubt that the style of Stanley Cup winners has changed over the years. Just look at the go-go Edmonton Oilers of the 80s, the two-way Detroit Red Wings of the late 90s, and the defence-first New Jersey Devils a year or two later. There are obvious differences to the teams who win championships. But, is there a recipe for success? Is there one style that stands above the others? Well, there is one constant Championship characteristic, according to a couple of championship architects.
“First, you’ve got to be deep through your lineup because the playoffs are truly a war of attrition,” says Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who won his NHL championship in 2007 with the big, hard-nosed Anaheim Ducks. And Peter Chiarelli, who won the Stanley Cup last year as GM of the similarly-styled Boston Bruins, agrees.
“The importance of depth certainly hasn’t changed over the years,” he said. “The rigors of the schedule during the regular season, especially during the last push of the season, are tough. Then in the playoffs, play gets ramped up and guys get hurt.”
That is why teams with a good chance of making the Stanley Cup final are active traders at the NHL trade deadline in late February. Chiarelli brought in three players around the 2011 deadline – forwards Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly and defenceman Tomas Kaberle. While Kaberle did not play up to expectations, he was fairly pivotal in aiding the Bruins’ weak spot, the power play. But both Kelly and Peverley proved to be valuable additions in filling out the forward lines, which lacked elite scorers but managed to produce just enough offence to validate the spectacular work of goaltender Tim Thomas and a solid defence corps.
“Whether we were going for it or not, we needed to be deeper,” Chiarelli said of his plans at the trade deadline. “This sounds like standard stuff, but [depth] is hard to get, especially through the four lines. But our depth extended to the four lines because not every night will the top lines be your top performers.”
Both Burke and Chiarelli say the other qualities needed by every Cup winner in every NHL era are great defencemen, goaltending and toughness. The 2007 Ducks had Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, both familiar presences in Cup finals, on their defence and a cast of big, mobile forwards led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who also came into their own as scorers. The Bruins boasted Thomas in goal with the towering Zdeno Chara in front of him. Many of their forwards were on the small side, but with the likes of Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton and Brad Marchand among them, it wasn’t long before the Bruins were labeled as the most rambunctious team to win a Stanley Cup since the Ducks four years earlier.
“I’ve always tried to build from the blue line out,” Burke said. “That was an exceptional defence group [on the 2007 Ducks]. The fact is, you could always have Niedermayer or Pronger on the ice. So no matter if you’re playing on the road, where the home team controls the matchups, there was always a stud on the ice.”
The offensive nature of Cup winners has changed the most over the years. While the Philadelphia Flyers of the mid-70s are remembered as winning two Cups with a band of thugs, they also had elite scorers like Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Bill Barber and Bobby Clarke, who swooped in when the opposition was softened up. Their reign was ended by the Montreal Canadiens dynasty, which used speed and skill throughout the lineup, bolstered by a Hall of Fame defence, to win four consecutive championships.
The next radical change came in the mid-80s, when the Oilers ushered in another offensive era with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jarri Kurri and Paul Coffey. That style waned in the 1990s, as expansion diluted the talent base and brought on the clutch-and-grab era, which saw smothering defensive teams like the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars grab Stanley Cups, although the Detroit Red Wings were winners with a more balanced approach.
Skating and skill moved to the forefront again following the 04-05 lockout, when the NHL realized it needed to change its rules and approach to win back fans tired of the dead puck era, as it came to be known. However, both Burke and Chiarelli say if you look back, Cup winners had to have depth and defence first.
The 2001 Colorado Avalanche won with Rob Blake, Ray Bourque and Adam Foote anchoring the defence. Detroit has always had the incomparable Nicklas Lidstrom and supporting players like Chris Chelios, Niklas Kronwall and Brian Rafalski over the years. Rafalski won Cups in New Jersey with Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens as his fellow defencemen.
Up front, Burke thinks there is more emphasis now on skating over the last four years, but that teams still need to be tough. Chiarelli says that does not mean being good fighters. It means being tenacious.
“That was kind of the brand identity we tried to recapture and promote,” Chiarelli said, referring to Boston’s legacy going back to the early 1970s as the Big Bad Bruins. “In the playoffs, generally speaking, those types of players are what you want. I don’t mean just pure toughness, but guys who play hard.”
Thankfully for Chiarelli, his Cup-winning Bruins had an abundance of that.
“You could see it throughout our lineup,” he said. “All of our lines, our defence and even our goaltender. Tim Thomas plays at top of his crease and challenges the shooters. It was important that we knew we had guys who could battle, especially given the number of [playoff] games. We had to play 25 games. We knew we were not the most skilled lineup, but we worked hard.”