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How do teams win the Stanley Cup?

Some things matter more than others.

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The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have followed slightly different, yet similar, paths to their recent Stanley Cup wins

Getty Images Sport

We've already talked about how the Los Angeles Kings reached the top of the NHL mountain by defeating the New York Rangers to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.

But because professional hockey is like any other aspect of life there can be more than one way to reach a common goal.

With that in mind, and since the NHL tends to be copycat league, I decided to look back over the most recent Stanley Cup winners to see if any common trends emerged. Sure enough, several did.

What I did was take 14 different categories and looked at where every Stanley Cup winner since 2007-2008 ranked. 

The table below is arranged from left to right in order of which category had the biggest impact on winning. 

The categories:

GA = Goals Against

FenClose = Unblocked shot attempts with the score close (a measure of puck possession)

PTS = Points in the standings

PK% = Penalty Killing Percentage

SV% = Save Percentage

GF = Goals For

Age = Age

Cap = Salary Cap Spending

HT = Height

WT = Weight

Hits = Hits

PP% = Power Play Percentage

FM = Fighting Majors

BS = Blocked Shots

Team GA FenClose PTS PK% SV% GF Age Cap HT WT HITS PP% FM BS
Los Angeles Kings 1 1 9 11 2 26 18 10 5 1 1 27 21 29
Chicago Blackhawks 1 2 1 3 2 2 15 5 20 29 30 19 25 21
Los Angeles Kings 2 4 13 4 3 29 18 7 4 2 2 17 18 29
Boston Bruins 2 14 8 16 1 5 8 7 8 16 21 20 2 15
Chicago Blackhawks 6 1 3 4 23 3 15 13 21 27 25 16 21 17
Pittsburgh Penguins 17 13 8 8 14 6 3 14 23 24 6 20 23 4
Detroit Red Wings 1 1 1 8 13 3 2 23 18 9 25 3 30 30
Average Rankings 4.3 5.1 6.1 7.7 8.3 10.6 11.3 11.3 14.1 15.4 15.7 17.4 20.0 20.7

 

Defense Wins

The cliche that defense wins championships applies.

But defense isn't about blocking shots or running around and hitting people, and it's not even always about goaltending. There is a pretty direct correlation between not allowing goals and having the puck more than your opponent. The only team on the table above that bucks that trend is the 2010-11 Boston Bruins who relied heavily on Tim Thomas having one of the best goaltending seasons (and playoff runs) of the modern era.

Nothing seems to matter less when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup than the number of shots your team blocksBlocking an individual shot is a fine defensive play. Having to do it over and over and over again means your team has a lot of problems. 

The 2008-09 Penguins are quite the anomaly on that table. They weren't a good defensive team, they received league-average goaltending and they spent a lot of time blocking shots because they were a bad possession team. A lot of those numbers are likely due to spending nearly three quarters of the season playing under Michel Therrien. In 58 games under Therrien the Penguins were a 47 percent possession team, a number that would have placed them 22nd in the NHL. After replacing him with Dan Bylsma and trading for Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin they were a 53 percent possession team over the remainder of the regular and playoffs, a number that would have placed them sixth in the NHL. 

Let's Talk About Size

Because it doesn't really matter.

Some teams, like the Kings, are big. Some teams, like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit are not. Even the "big bad Bruins" weren't as big as their reputation would have you believe. They definitely had some monsters on their Cup-winning team -- Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara specifically -- but their forward group wasn't particularly imposing from a size standpoint. If you hear somebody tell you that your favorite team needs to get bigger, they're lying. If you hear somebody in charge of your team say that they need to get bigger, be worried.

There is nothing wrong with size, just as long as there is skill to go with it. Small players with skill are useful. Big players without skill are not. This same theory applies to toughness. Yes, you want players that are tough, but having a tough player that can't skate, pass, shoot or defend doesn't mean anything. 

The Kings being a massive team physically will get a lot of attention and probably make some other teams want to build their rosters bigger and badder, but they're an outlier in recent years. I'd also guess that their high hit totals (also an outlier when it comes to recent Stanley Cup winners) have more to do with their style of play than anything else. Their game is more about dump-and-chase hockey and getting the puck deep as opposed to teams like Chicago and Detroit that preferred to carry the puck into the zone.

Simply getting the puck deep = More opportunities to hit people on the forecheck.

Fighting Is For Losers

There is a reason the role of the "enforcer" is going away. It's simply not worth a roster spot because fighting doesn't deter cheap shots, it doesn't police the game and it doesn't have an impact on the outcome of games. Teams that win simply do not fight. Moving on.

Even-Strength Scoring Is More Important Than The Power Play

Notice anything odd about those teams? Outside of the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, who might have been the single best team in the salary cap era, all of them were pretty bad at turning their power play opportunities into goals. But they could all score at even-strength. Well, all of them except the Kings. But when you're the Kings and have the puck all night long and playing a 60-minute game of keepaway it probably doesn't really matter that much. And even so, they more than made up for their lack of regular season goal-scoring in the playoffs. 

(Data in this post via Behind The Net, NHL, Hockey Analysis and Elite Prospects)

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