Assembling a Stanley Cup winner; breaking down the last seven Cup teams

Who doesn’t love this guy? – Image c/o bridgetds

It’s no secret that after losing the 2004-2005 NHL season due to a lockout, the dynamic of assembling an NHL team changed dramatically. With the implementation of a salary cap, there were a myriad of new limitations and restrictions placed on teams and how they spend their money. Rich teams could no longer try to buy themselves a Stanley Cup, while poor teams felt like they could finally compete. But is there a formula for building a Stanley Cup winning team?

When you have no restrictions on how much money you can spend, there’s really limited concern about spending wisely. If you have deep pockets, you can just eat the cost and try again. This was the previous mantra of the Philadelphia Flyers and quite a few other big NHL franchises who tend to swim in money. When you’re told exactly how much money you’re allowed to spend, you better start giving some thought as to how you spend it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, an NHL team can acquire a player in four ways: draft them, trade for them, claim them on waivers, or sign them as a free agent. Drafting a player provides a team the most “bang for the buck” because that player is cost controlled. A team may very well receive production beyond what the player’s cap hit may indicate. Signing a free agent, on the other hand, is significantly more costly; and if you’re signing an older player you may actually be paying more for what they’ve done in the past than what they will do for you in the present and future. Lastly, trading for a player, or claiming them on waivers just inherits the existing contract; so it could prove either a benefit or a detriment depending upon the financial costs.

Seven teams have won the Stanley Cup in the “salary cap world”: the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blachawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, and Carolina Hurricanes. I wanted to take a look at these Stanley Cup winning rosters and see how they were put together. I wanted to see if there was a template for successfully assembling a Stanley Cup winner.

I examined every player that dressed in the playoffs for these Cup winners, and then I noted how each of those players were acquired. I included the starting goaltender in these numbers, but did not include the backup goaltender. In addition to the draft, trade, free agent signing, and waiver claim I discussed earlier, I also specifically called out “In-season trade”. As we approach the trade deadline every year, we see teams try to to acquire that last crucial piece or two to put them over the top. I felt this was an important distinction to recognize.

Let’s take a look at the findings.

There certainly seems to be a slight shift in more recent years away from free agents and moving more towards drafting and developing your own players. Frankly, that should be expected. Coming out of a lockout, in an entirely new NHL landscape, teams were quick to sign free agents. You could even argue there were more teams in the free agent mix since some of the poorer teams felt they could now compete in the “salary cap world”.

I would speculate that as teams began to become accustomed to working within the confines of a salary cap, they started to become more hesitant to throw significant money at a free agent, and focused more on developing their own talent. Their cost-controlled talent.

However, I think these numbers require a slight adjustment. Not every free agent signing or trade is created equal. For example, signing an undrafted free agent, like Matt Read, is technically a free agent signing. But for the purposes of this exercise, someone like Matt Read better fits into the “Draft” category. Likewise, acquiring a prospect via trade who you then develop, such as Jack Johnson going from the Hurricanes to the Kings, would belong in the “Draft” field rather than the “Trade” field.

Let’s adjust those numbers and place those types of a players into the “Draft” category, but rebrand it “Homegrown”. From this point forward, I will be referring to these adjusted numbers, as I feel they are more accurate for these purposes.

As you can see, those numbers become even more skewed. The progression from free agent heavy teams, to homegrown teams becomes even more prominent. Again, I would argue that this is as most people would expect.

I still don’t think these numbers tell the whole story however. As I stated earlier, not every trade or free agent signing is created equal. Signing Sean O’Donnell to a one year deal as a free agent to be your sixth defenseman is very different than signing Kimmo Timonen (after obtaining his rights), or Zdeno Chara, or Brian Campbell to free agent contracts to be your number one defenseman.

I sorted each of those Stanley Cup winning rosters by time on ice per game, and then took a closer look at what I deemed to be the key players on those rosters: the top six forwards, and the top four defenseman. I would like to note that basing this on ice time could very well result in capturing a team’s third line center over, say, their second line right wing. In that sense it isn’t a true top six; but I would argue that simply taking the six forwards who get the most ice time is a more accurate representation for my purposes anyway.

In order of average TOI (by position):
Kings: Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll – Brad Doty…I mean…Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Slava Voynov

Bruins: David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, Rich Peverley – Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference

Blackhawks: Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Dave Bolland, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg – Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell

Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Maxime Talbot – Sergei Gonchar, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill

Detroit Red Wings: Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, Valterri Filppula – Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart

Anaheim: Ryan Getzlaf, Samuel Pahlsson, Teemu Selanne, Andy McDonald, Rob Niedermayer, Chris Kunitz – Francois Beauchemin, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Sean O’Donnell

Hurricanes: Rod Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, Eric Staal, Cory Stillman, Mark Recchi, Matt Cullen – Bret Hedican (who was a guest on our podcast), Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore, Frantisek Kaberle

So how did these top six forwards and top four defenseman break down?

The top four defenseman seem to be a bit all over the place. The Bruins, Ducks, and Hurricanes had zero homegrown talent on the blueline, while the Kings, Penguins, and Red Wings had at least half of their top four being homegrown. Every team had at least one free agent signing among their top four defenseman. If there is anything to be gained from this information, it’s that it’s difficult to find quality defenseman in the NHL and there is isn’t much of a blueprint for doing so.

As for the forwards, these numbers seem to trend with the larger roster numbers in that since the Hurricanes in 2005-2006 there is a trend away from free agent top six forwards and toward developing your own talent.

Additionally, four of the seven of the teams had in-season trade acquisitions among their top six; and only the Penguins had more than one. Among defenseman, only the Red Wings had acquired one of their top four during that season. Of 16 total in-season trades among all the rosters, only six were among the top six forwards or top four bluelines. One could argue that deadline deals, or other in-season trades, are critically important if you don’t already have the top of your roster in place.

So how do the 2013 Philadelphia Flyers compare with these Stanley Cup winning rosters? I performed the same analysis for the Flyers current roster, including anybody who’s dressed so far. I considered Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell to be free agent signings despite the fact that their rights were technically acquired via trade. I also placed Matt Read into the “Homegrown” category, despite being an undrafted free agent signing.

Obviously, we are only 12 games into a 48 game season, and frankly, I don’t think anybody is thinking the Flyers are cup contenders at the moment anyway. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a look though.

So while the Flyers entire roster seems heavily skewed towards free agent signings, the top of the roster isn’t that far off from some of the past Cup winners in that regard.

So what did we learn? Well, truthfully this exercise did more to reaffirm some of the things I already thought to be true. As teams began to get used to operating within a salary cap, a greater emphasis has been placed upon developing your own talent than free agent signings.

Interesting Findings: Mark Hartigan won the Stanley Cup with both the Ducks and the Red Wings in consecutive years, however he did not play enough games in either playoffs to have his name engraved on the Cup…Rob Scuderi finds himself among the top four defenseman of both the Kings and the Penguins, the same can be said for Chris Kunitz in the top six of the Penguins and Ducks…Six of the Red Wings top seven, and eight of the top ten point scorers in the 2007-2008 playoffs were all drafted by the team; Brian Rafalski and Mikael Samuelsson were the only exceptions.