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Winners, underachievers and building your Stanley Cup legacy

Or why you're wrong about Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby

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What makes a great leader? Nobody knows, but winning helps.

Getty Images Sport

The NHL is probably never going to see another dynasty like the ones put together by the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s or the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s.

With more teams, a salary cap and free agency and player movement the way it is today, it is simply a different era and a different league.

The closest thing we have to a "dynasty" in the modern NHL is the Chicago Blackhawks.

With two Stanley Cups in the past four years and a legitimate shot to win another one this season (they're in the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings and, as of Thursday, tied 1-1 in that series), the Blackhawks are the gold standard in the NHL and the envy of pretty much every other franchise in the league.

They have a strong front office, superstar core players, wonderful complementary players and a nice collection of young players on cheap contracts making a meaningful impact.  

They also have Jonathan Toews.

On the short list of best players in the NHL, Toews is somewhere near the top (in the top-four, probably) thanks to his skill as a playmaker and goal-scorer and his shutdown ability as one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He also seems to be one of the smartest players in the league that always knows where to be, the quickest way to get there, and is always one step ahead of what the other guy is doing. 

And with every game the Blackhawks win, and every big goal he scores in these playoffs, and every time the Blackhawks get closer to another Stanley Cup, his legend continues to grow.

It's to the point where he's now being discussed as the best player in hockey (spoiler: He's not). 

His name has become synonymous with leadership, and it seems that everything positive that happens for the Blackhawks is directly related to Toews' "leadership." 

It's not that leadership qualities in individual players and people don't exist. They do. Not everybody is cut out to have the "C" on the front of their jersey. Some guys are more comfortable walking into a room and rattling a few cages every once in a while and giving the "let's go get 'em, boys" speech than others.

Some guys prefer to quietly go about their business and follow. Others are just jerks and march to beat of their own drum no matter what anybody else does. 

The problem is we don't really know what goes on behind those closed doors and what type of "leaders" any of these people are or what even makes up leadership. We think we do (or like to think we do). But we don't. It's almost as if the idea of leadership has gone from something intangible and subjective to an analytical crutch when we don't know how to explain how or why something tangible happened during the game. 

Chicago blocked a shot? It was probably Toews' leadership that inspired it. Blackhawks scored a goal? Leadership. Overcome a 3-1 postseason series deficit like they did last season against Detroit. Even more leadership. 

At the other end of this discussion is Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the current best player in hockey, a title he will likely hold, barring injury or sudden retirement, for several more years.

His team is coming off a fifth consecutive postseason exit to a lower seeded team and seems to be entering an offseason of sweeping organizational changes that puts the team at a crossroads. And with every postseason disappointment his reputation seems to drop a little more. His leadership has been questioned. We focus on his body language and a three-second clip free of context that saw him appear to snap at his coach and assume there's something deeper wrong. He was accused of leading the Penguins (a very flawed teamdown the drain in the postseason. For the second time in three years his status as best player in the world has been challenged (only this time it's Toews instead of Claude Giroux). 

I get that he didn't play up to his expectations in the playoffs. I understand that in his last 18 playoff games he has one goal. That, unfortunately, happens from time to time to even the best players. And if your team is so reliant on one player that it's impossible to when when he has nine points in 13 games (which Crosby did in this year's playoffs) then your team has many more significant problems than one guy not carrying doing all of the heavy lifting (and the Penguins do have more problems. That's why they're searching for a new general manager right now). Many teams have advanced and played for championships with less from their top players, including this year's Rangers and last year's Blackhawks when Toews had one goal in his first 20 playoff games. The lesson there is if you're going to hit a couple of extended goal-scoring slumps, you better make sure you do it while playing for a team that is good enough to keep winning and give you an opportunity to rediscover your clutch gene later in the playoffs. 

It seems as if the perception around the league right now is that the Penguins, with two of the best players in the world (including Crosby) have underachieved because they haven't won another cup and that Chicago, already with two Cups and potentially working on a third, is everything the Penguins were supposed to be when Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of their core arrived in the NHL.  

And maybe to an extent that is a little true.

They certainly left a golden opportunity on the table in 2012 when they lost a free-for-all series against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. And even though this year's team had its issues and probably didn't stack up with teams like Chicago or Los Angeles they still had a 3-1 series lead in the second round in what was an extremely weak Eastern Conference. 

It's also true that Chicago is a powerhouse and that Toews has already entered an exclusive club when it comes to being a captain and playing on winning teams. In the modern era (since 1967) only 11 players have captained a team to two Stanley Cups.

Denis Potvin (four)

Wayne Gretzky (four)

Mario Lemieux (two)

Mark Messier (two)

Scott Stevens (three)

Joe Sakic (two)

Steve Yzerman (three)

Yvon Cournoyer (three)

Bobby Clarke (two)

Jean Beliveau (two)

Jonathan Toews (two)

If you go even deeper with this list, you'll find that only four of the players on that list captained a team to multiple titles before their age 27 season: Gretzky (23 and 24), Lemieux (25 and 26), Clarke (24 and 25) and Toews (21 and 24). 

I would LOVE to go back read what was being said about Steve Yzerman when he was in his mid-20s, putting up 150 point seasons for the Red Wings, and not winning championships. He probably just wasn't enough of a leader or a winner, nor was Joe Sakic when he went five years between his two championships at age 26 and 31. Or Scott Stevens for not winning his first Cup until he was 30. 

(Credit to Get To Our Game for inspiring and starting those last two pieces of research)

I have a theory that if a prominent player is only going to win a single championship in his career he is better off to do it at the end of his career than at the beginning.

Think of the Ray Bourque situation and his career.

Bourque, one of the NHL's all-time greats, spent nearly two decades playing for the Boston Bruins and outside of one Stanley Cup final appearance in the late 1980s, never really got close to winning a championship. He ended up getting traded to Colorado for the last year-and-a-half of his career and in his final season finally got the elusive championship. It was a storybook ending. Tears were shed when he finally lifted the cup. Boston, the city that traded him, threw a parade for him. It was the final chapter to his Hall of Fame story. It completed his career and nobody cared that he only did it once because the memory of him winning it was so recent.

The further a player or a team gets away from that one, the less it seems to matter. 

If a player gets that championship early in his career and never does it again, it almost seems as if it's a disappointment because he didn't do it again and he didn't do it often enough. Crosby is only five years removed from his championship and hasn't even celebrated his 27th birthday yet (again: reference the list above) and we're already seeing it start to happen with him.

Who knows what's going to be said and written if he doesn't get another one soon. 

Not to oversimplify this, but Stanley Cups are hard to win. It takes the perfect combination of talent, health, goaltending and luck to all fall into place at the exact the same time. And it's only getting harder. 

Since 1999 the NHL has had 11 different champions over that 15 season stretch, and only three teams win more than once (Detroit won three, Chicago won two, New Jersey won two). In the salary cap era only one team has won it more than once.

None of those teams were repeat winners

The Red Wings won in 1998 and then went through two second exits and a first-round exit before winning again. And then they waited five more years for their next one (with two more first-round exits over that stretch), which is also their last one. The Blackhawks sandwiched their two recent championships around back-to-back first-round exits. 

Just because a team or a player hasn't won enough Stanley Cups to match some arbitrary expectation doesn't make them underachievers or poor leaders. These things are hard enough to win once, and the list of players that actually have their name on the Stanley Cup is an insignificant number when compared to the number of players that have ever played in the NHL. The list of players that have won it more than once is even smaller. 

And just because a great player has been fortunate enough to fall into the perfectt spot and be surrounded by many more great players and win multiple championships doesn't mean he's suddenly the best player in hockey. 

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