With the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft the New York Rangers will proudly select Kaapo Kakko*. That’s just a fact, the only thing people can really agree on, such an essential starting point that it’s worth repeating. It’s every other word in the ellipses both before and after “… Kaapo Kakko …” and a lot of it is hyperbolic or at the very least myopic. It doesn’t matter what exactly Kakko is as a player, he doesn’t even really matter that much as one individual player, because we still define success in this league based on how teams perform as a whole, and watching McDavid put up three consecutive 100-point seasons before the age of 23 (just reread that a few times – it went 100, 108, 106 also) is miserable. The thing that’s important about Kakko is what he’s a part of, which however you dress it up is the process of trying to win the Stanley Cup. Based on where we started, where we were this year, and where we’ll be next year and beyond that, this is huge, and is another one of those things to really absorb. The question remains though, and only grows more frustrating as Henrik Lundqvist’s star fades, albeit glacially, this: when will we win the Cup?
The answer is a hugely loaded question, because no matter what your response is you’re staking out a position that’s bold in its implications, likely not internally coherent, and depending on whether or not the Rangers do make it all the way, probably factually incorrect (the rules I’m imagining are that you can only guess once and it’s the next most recent championship). That’s just to get that out of the way, and since we’ve got that explicit and out-loud I’m going to be very deliberate when I say what I’m going to say. They can win the Stanley Cup next year.
Let’s imagine you had to guess who’ll win it in a given year. What would you say was the likelihood of the most favored team? Models have gotten pretty sophisticated today, and even though there all a little bit different there’s something you’ll notice in all of them, every year. That’s the weirdly intuitive, weirdly counterintuitive fact that the team most likely to win that big silver bowl is at absolutely best in the low-mid 20s as a percentage to win the Cup. To put it more simply, the far and away favorites this year, the historically-good Tampa Bay Lightning, were still 3 times more likely to lose than to win everything. After all, what were the odds of the Lightning getting swept in the first round?
Well it was 2%. And yet we’re here, it happened. Improbably does not mean impossible – all you need to do is make it to the playoffs and after that it’s anybody’s game.
This might sound like a weird thing for me to say, that the Rangers can win the Cup next year, given that I tend to be analytically focused and rely often on numbers to back up my arguments. One of the things you look out for in any kind of statistical analysis though is a small sample size, because it usually isn’t broadly representative of what’s “really” there.
Implicitly this means that the Presidents’ Trophy is more important than the Stanley Cup. Leaving aside the merits of whether that should be the case, let’s not even bother having the conversation because it just isn’t. What question this raises to me then, if the regular season record really represents the best team in the league, then what does playoff success say about a team? Unless we really want to be ridiculous and say “nothing”, and unless we want to be somewhat-less-but-still-
The bottom line is that the Stanley Cup represents some level of hard-fought victory, that you can’t win it if you’re not a good team, and beyond that literally anything can happen. Sure, we want to be one of those teams in the low/mid 20% zone, but if you told me in 2010 that every year for almost a decade more or less the Rangers would have somewhere between a 5% and 25% chance at watching my team execute what is surely an immaculately synchronized and elaborate parade/media/merchandise scheme (either that or Dolan hasn’t ever really considered it, because he typically keeps his hands off hockey) I’d take it. I’d do it over and over and over again.
It’s totally unclear exactly how we’d get there, but it’s certainly possible that we do within the calendar year. We’d have to make the right moves at the draft (though I suppose there’s one move they really can’t mess up), make an impact trade, win big in free agency, and somehow sort out the defense (which is the most difficult part, but we did just cover the difference between improbability and impossibility). Even only sort of doing that, even if everything doesn’t hit absolutely perfectly, we can still have a shot at it, and probably see that shot increase steadily year-on-year. Let me repeat: anyone who makes it can win it.
There is of course the fright of a team like the Devils suddenly rebounding, the Canes establishing dominance after years of dormancy, or the Bolts actually finally doing it. The first round will not look the way we think it might right down until the last game of the regular season (I know, I know, the Thanksgiving Rule) – teams who might seem like tough opponents might not even make it – and what’s more is that you need not play every single super-elite team to win the Cup, you need not even be a super-elite team to win it (I keep putting off my deep dive into the 2015 Blackhawks, who were egregiously just sort of good). Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but all we need to do is make it. We can do that.
*-Unless the Devils take Kappo, of course.