Build from the net out, and your team will be primed for success.
That’s a mantra my dad taught me, and it’s something I’ve been told at every level of –albeit fairly non-competitive– hockey I’ve played. Strong goaltending is the rock of a team. A strong defense is the next most important aspect of a team. Finally at third is forward depth, specifically center depth.
But in the year 2019, we see a movement towards frugal spending on goaltenders. They don’t age well, and the Henrik Lundqvist’s are becoming rarer and rarer. Think of how much Montreal is going to regret that Carey Price deal. Or what happened to Braden Holtby this year. Or Sergei Bobrovsky. Goalies are voodoo when it comes to predicting actual and sustained success.
In the cap world, goalies were the first position to feel the cap crunch. Very few teams spend big on goalies. Only five teams have goalies with a cap hit of $7 million or greater, and only one (Nashville) can be considered a true Cup contender. The last time a goalie was moved for a top pick was Cory Schneider, and he fell off a cliff this year. Chris Osgood has many Cups as Martin Brodeur (3), and more Cups than Dominik Hasek (2). But you will never be able to sell any argument that Osgood was better than Hasek, or as good as Brodeur. He was good, and that’s what the team needed.
I liken the need for an elite goalie to the need for an elite running back in football. Quick, name the last elite level running back to win the Super Bowl. You need to go back to Terrell Davis (1998 Broncos) or Emmitt Smith (Cowboys) as the last running backs to lead the league in rushing and then win a Super Bowl. The Patriots have done it without a legitimate running back until this year. An elite goalie, like an elite running back, is a nice to have, but not something absolutely needed to win.
As an aside, this does not take away from everything Henrik Lundqvist has done for this team. He’s a generational talent that the Rangers have been lucky to have for the past 15 years.
Defense is even harder to predict. We still struggle to evaluate defensemen properly, and while we want to focus on the individual player on the blue line, it’s easy to forget that the entire defensive strategy is changing before our eyes. The old way, when aA defender must defend, block shots, and hit people” is becoming a rare breed. Remember when Anton Volchenkov got a ton of money from the Devils? If Marc Staal or Dan Girardi are the Rangers comparables, then let’s look at how the public opinion of both of their games has evolved.
Nowadays defense is less about defense and more about keeping the puck away from the opposition –don’t read too much into this, as obviously defending is still a key aspect to the game, but the most successful teams are the ones that have the puck more often than their opponents– to limit their opportunities. Instead of the big body who’s slower and isn’t as good with the puck, the smaller, more agile defenseman is getting more praise. If you can’t skate and pass the puck, then you aren’t going to make it in the NHL. The days of the Hatchers are gone.
But the one thing all the most recent Stanley Cup champions have? Center depth.
Let’s look at the most recent list of Cup champs and their center depth (yes, some played wing as well):
- 2018 – Washington: Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller
- 2017 – Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen
- 2016 – Pittsburgh
- 2015 – Chicago: Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette, Marcus Kruger
- 2014 – LA: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis
They all had tremendous center depth. Pittsburgh’s 2017 run was done with a make shift blue line without Kris Letang. Chicago won with three defensemen playing 30 minutes a night. Only Washington and LA had great blue lines in their runs. The one thing they had was center depth.
Even the “hot goalie” theory goes down the tubes. Corey Crawford (Chicago) was good with a .924 SV%, but not spectacular. Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins) lost his starting job to Matt Murray in 2016, then the won with goalie by committee in 2017. Braden Holtby (Washington) was average at best last year with a .918 SV%. Even Jonathan Quick had just a .911 SV% in the playoffs in 2014.
So what’s the point of all this?
As we move away from antiquated statistics like plus/minus and goal differential, we should also move away from old fashioned saying like build from the net out. Perhaps “Depth down the middle and hope your goalie gets hot” works? Or just the first part? Either way, center depth is the key linking these teams.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong supporting cast and a well built team will always be needed, and that includes a good goaltender and a good blue line. But the key component that seems to link these Cup winners isn’t building from the net out, it’s depth down the middle. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s the biggest need as teams build their rosters.
Something to keep in mind as the Rangers look to rebuild.