Does experience win Stanley Cups?

In the comment section of another post a reader going by the name of DB and I had a discussion about the importance of experience on a teams chances of winning, in particular in relation to San Jose who has a relatively inexperienced defense. In order to try to get an idea of how important experience was I took a look at the rosters of the last 4 Stanley Cup champions (Carolina, Tampa, New Jersey and Detroit). I then looked at every skater (goalies not included) on those teams that played 10 or more playoff games during their teams run to the Cup. For all those players I then looked at how many regular season games those players had played up until and including the regular season of their playoff run. Here is what I found:

-There are 75 players which qualified for consideration
-13 of those players had played 1000 or more games (17.3%)
-26 players played between 500 and 1000 games (34.7%)
-27 players played between 240 and 500 games (36%)
-Just 9 players played fewer than 240 games prior to their cup run

That means just 9 players (and only 2 defensemen) had played the equivalent of 3 full regular seasons or less in the NHL prior to winning their Stanley Cup. Those players are (with their games played) Jiri Fischer(187), Eric Staal(163), Mike Commodore(147), Brian Gionta(91), Dmitry Afanasenkov(85), Pavel Datsyuk(70), Chad LaRose(49), Andrew Ladd(29) and Eric Perrin(4). Only Carolina had more than 2 players with fewer than 240 games played (they had 4) but one of them is a superstar player (Staal) and another played in game 7 of the Cup finals the previous season.

So if not having rookies, second, or third year players in your lineup is important to winning the Stanley Cup, which teams have the best chance at winning this season? Well, Calgary looks to be in the best shape with only Dion Phaneuf qualifying as young and inexperienced but we all know how good he is. Pretty much every other team will have at least 4 or 5 youngsters in their lineups. Ottawa will have Meszaros, Preissing, Kelly, Vermette, Eaves, McGratton, and Schubert all with under 240 games at seasons end. Buffalo will have Vanek, Roy, Pominville, Gaustad, Peters, Paetsch and Paille, the Rangers will have Prucha, Hossa, Hollweg, Ortmeyer and Tyutin, while Philadelphia will have Carter, Richards, Meyer, Umberger, Baumgartner, Jones and Eager. Carolina will have Ladd, LaRose, Commodore, Hutchinson, and probably another forward but at least most of those guys have the playoff experience. New Jersey has lots of experience but a good chunk of it might have to be traded away to get under the cap which will open up spots to youngsters. Edmonton is currently depending on a lot of young defensemen, Vancouver will have a lot of youth in their lineup as well, as will Nashville, Anaheim and San Jose. Dallas doesn’t look too bad with Miettinen, Jokinen and Daley as the only main young players in their lineup.

So, all in all, if I had to pick a Stanley Cup favourite for next season it would be the Calgary Flames. But then, that is who I would have picked even before going through this exercise.

This article has 16 Comments

  1. Most NHL teams that are not totally rebuilding have very few rookies on them. Those teams that are any good will not have rookies who are not very good holding down roster spots. I think that is all you have shown.

    I think you lost a big piece of the puzzle when you arbitrarily chose to neglect goalies. Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe with on 28 career NHL games played. And study on whether or not experience wins cups ought to not throw that fact out before the study begins.

  2. I also was confused as to why goaltenders were left out. However, I don’t think it would have much of an impact. Assuming (incorrectly, but for sake or argument) the possibility that all 8 goaltenders on the winning teams had less than 240 games played, that would still be only 17 out of 83 (20%). In reality, of course, the goaltenders who had an impact were Ward, Gerber (though I would not include him), Brodeur, Khabibulin and Hasek. Only Ward and Gerber of that list are inexperienced. I would say that Ward’s performance last year was an exception and not a rule.

  3. Goaltenders would have to be dealt with slightly differently because they don’t play 80 games a year. The reality is that you do need a hot goalie to win. Notice I said a hot goalie and not a good, excellent or all-star goalie. Ward got hot but during the regular season he was quite mediocre (if not bad). Khabibulin almost lost his starting job to Grahame at points in the 2003-04 season but he got hot in the playoffs and won the cup. The other thing with goalies is that they generally gain a lot more experience in the minors than other players. It is pretty rare to have a 20 year old starting goalie in the NHL. Cam Ward is 22 and will be a starter for the first time next season and that still is pretty young. Martin Gerber is 31 and was first a starter last year. Goalie development differs from the rest of the players.

    As for Greg’s point about about good teams not having rookies, nor good rookies, I am not so sure about. There have been lots of really good teams have lots of young players on it not win in the playoffs. Ottawa comes to mind. Last year they had Spezza, Meszaros, Pothier, Kelly, Vermette, Eaves, etc. all under the 240 game mark and I think that was a factor in them losing.

    Again, the Carolina Hurricanes, aside from Staal, didn’t have a star player among them and no one would confuse any of their defensemen with a top tier defenseman in the NHL and yet they managed to win the Stanley Cup. I think they did it because they had experienced depth of good players.

    I guess my point is that in the old NHL you generally won by buying a bunch of star players and filling out with a bunch of experienced good players. But you can’t do that in the salary cap era so in the new NHL I think you will win by just having a hot goalie, and a full team of good, experienced players in front of him. Top heavy teams with lack of experienced depth (like Ottawa) won’t win.

  4. Top heavy teams with lack of experienced depth can win. I think there are likely many examples of this in the not too distant past of the NHL (you just didnt dig deep enough). Of the top of my head (and I am not sure its the best recent example – its merely the first I thought about) we have the 1986 Montreal Canadiens who had Kjell Dahlin, Mike McPhee, Stephane Richer, Chris Chelios, Brian Skrudland, Mike Lalor, Claude Lemieux and Patrick Roy who all fell well under the 240 game limit. And they won the Stanley Cup.

    The problem with that example is that hockey has changed since 1986 so it doesnt apply well to today. In fact hockey has changed since 2004 significantly, so those seasosn barely apply to today. The free agency age has dropped since last year so it doesn’t apply well to today. What it takes to build a Stanley Cup winner depends upon the era it is built in and the era is still in transition after a new CBA. I dont think any of us can tell you for sure what kind of team will win in this CBA over the longterm – but looking at years before this CBA wont help much in your determination.

    I see no evidence that rookies cannot win in the past. I see not enough players to make the statistics meaningful. Nine players played less than 240 games and 13 played more than 1000. Within statistical fluctuaitions those numbers are essentially the same (when you have a field of 75 players). So you could just as easily write about how experienced teams dont win the Stanley Cup – and it would be on equal footing to your current article statistically.

    My final point is that correlation does not equal causation. When you have a group of only 75 players I am sure there are many statistical anomalies about the group. Maybe you have fewer players with first names in the last half of the alphabet then in the first half. Maybe you lack players born in October. I havent checked either of these with the 75 players but I am sure if you look hard enough you will find some weird statistical flukes. It is a long unsupported step to say that therefore Stanley Cup winners should not pick players who were born in October.

  5. All good points, and clearly this isn’t a formal statistical study. Ideally I would look at 30 years of data but my gut tells me that barring the odd exception teams with a lot of youth don’t win. I just don’t have enough time to gather all that data.

    As for players over 1000 games, yeah, you can make a point that older players don’t win either. I almost made that point too. But I think that would tell us that it is best to have a whole lot of players in the prime of their careers on your team to win a Stanley Cup. Well, that kind of makes sense. But an argument against the theory that older players don’t win Stanley Cups is that the Detroit team that won had 6 1000+ game players on it and they were all fairly significant players (Yzerman, Chelios, Robitaille, Duschene, Shanahan and Hull).

    But let me finish by agreeing that there are always exceptions to the rule but I do believe (and there is some evidence to support this) that teams too dependent on inexperience generally don’t win the Stanley Cup.

  6. interesting you say Calgary to win the cup in 2006-2007. I have the Maple Leafs beating the Flames in an all Canadian final in my pre-season early prediction.

  7. I don’t think that the leafs will make the playoffs this year let alone with the cup……You’re living in a dream world Mr. Hockey.

  8. This was a rather pointless exercise.

    Forget games played by teams in the playoffs. I am willing to bet that if you were to do the same analysis for every team in the league you would come up with the same results – its the age and experience structure of each team. A couple rookies, a couple veterans, and a ton of players in between.

    Essentially, you just spent an unnecessary amount of time doing this analysis to tell us all that the majority of players in the NHL have somewhere between 3 and 13 years of experience. Whoopdy doo.

  9. I am not sure that is the case. Let’s take a few teams from last year and see how many players had fewer than 240 games played.

    Philadelphia: Pitkanen, Richards, Carter, Meyer, Radivojevic , Dimitrakos, Umberger

    Ottawa: Spezza, Volchenkov, Pothier, Vermette, Eaves, Meszaros, Schubert, Kelly

    Buffalo: Roy, Kotalik, Pominville, Tallinder, Gaustad, Vanek

    NY Rangers:Tyutin, Hollweg, Ortmeyer, Prucha, Moore, Hossa

    So the last 4 Stanley Cup champions combined for 9 players while the four teams above, all considered potential cup winners (with Ottawa probably being the favourite) going into the playoffs, had 27 combined. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that the average NHL team has more than 2 players with fewer than 240 games played.

  10. Im living in a dream world that the Leafs will win the cup Sudsie? Funny you say that… did anyone think the Canes would win the cup last year? no! and if you say yes your a liar. Tell you what Sudsie…when the Leafs do win the cup in 2006-2007 I’ll post a picture of Stajan, Coloiaicolvo and me with the Cup after the season. Than we’ll see whos living in a dream world 😀

  11. the leafs have as much chance to win the cup as the penguins. no depth, a shaky goalie and an unproven backup goalie.

    heaven forbid of raycroft goes down, the leafs are screwed. and thats assuming he DOESNT play like he did last year, which everything points towards that.

  12. What if Hasek goes down in Detroit?
    What if Brodeur goes down in New Jersey?
    What if Turco goes down in Dallas?
    What if Luongo goes down in Vancouver?
    What if Kipprusoff goes down in Calgary?
    What if Roloson goes down in Edmonton?
    want me to go on?

    For almost any team if their #1 goalie goes down they are screwed. But the Leafs will have some depth. Aubin has 179 games NHL experience and played solid at the end of last year. For Aubin it hasn’t been about whether he has the ability, it has been more about whether he has the motivation and work ethic. If the coaches can motivate him he can be a good NHL goalie. They also have Tellqvist and Pogge if necessary. That combination of goalies is almost certainly going to give them at least as good of goaltending as they had last year and probably better. Factor in the improved defense the Leafs should be beter.

  13. Interesting question that I’ve long wondered about since commentators love to blather on and on about the how important veterans are. (I don’t have anything against veterans, but it just seems like one of those things people repeat endlessly without any evidence pro or con. I care more about my team having more talent than having more veterans) You have a small sample size but still interesting. I wonder if things would change if you expanded the sample to 16 teams using the Conference Finalists for the last four years?

    The one thing I would like to see what (if anything) changes if you weight each players career games played by share of team minutes played in playoffs. I would take every players career GP X % of total team ice time played in the playoffs.

    This way you could also include the goaies, just take Cam Ward’s ice time and divide by all minutes played by all CAR players and you will give his contribution appropriate weight.

    (Weighting by ice time helps to control for variation in the contribution, it is a bit like trying to average a baseball team’s collective batting average by just summing the averages and ignoring the number of at bats each player had.)

    Without looking at the numbers it strikes me that CAR had more crucial minutes provided by Stall and Ward that would make that team’s average age (weighted by ice time) lower than those of that won before the lockout.

  14. I haven’t gone back 4 years but I took a look at each of last years playoff series. Shown are the number of youngsters used by each team.

    Eastern Conference

    Ottawa 8 defeats Tampa 5
    Carolina 4 defeats Montreal 6
    New Jersey 4 defeats NY Rangers 6
    Buffalo 6 defeats Philadelphia 7

    Buffalo 6 defeats Ottawa 8
    Carolina 4 defeats New Jersey 4

    Carolina 4 defeats Buffalo 6

    Western Conference

    Edmonton 7 defeats Detroit 4
    Colorado 6 defeats Dallas 5
    Anaheim 7 defeats Calgary 5
    San Jose 11 defeats Nashville 4

    Edmonton 7 defeats San Jose 11
    Anaheim 7 defeats Colorado 6

    Edmonton 7 defeats Anaheim 7

    Carolina 4 defeats Edmonton 7

    In the eastern conference the team with fewer ‘young’ players won 6 of the 7 series. Only Ottawa defeating Tampa broke the trend but that was a first seed vs 8th seed matchup. In the west it was the complete opposite with teams with more youngsters winning 5 of the 7 series including the complete first round. Interesting that the west is so different from the east. Very odd. Nashville was playing without their #1 goalie so that could explain one series but the rest is a little strange.

  15. That is extremely odd David how the West is so much different than the East. Than again, last season was a complete shock to everyone I’m sure as we all watched the top 4 seeds win in the first round in the East and witnessed all 4 lower seeds win the first round in the West. What are the odds of that happening right? Yet it happened.

  16. that just goes to show u that this whole veterans are better than yoiung guys is totally idiotic. it makes no sense and there is NO EVIDENCE to prove that right now. if there was no new CBA then u would have sufficent evidence, but u dont. u have 1 year to work with. and that is not enough. just last season showed that everything is mixed up, the east was more veteran and the west was more rookie.

    imo with the new CBA the team with the best young guys will win the cup, or at least be a top team. if u have good enough young guys to step in every year u will be a top team. players will leave their respective teams at age 27, and with arbitration spiraling out of control already, teams will look to their prospect pool to fill in the gap, while signing the expensive worth-while players.

    and aubin is an average backup at best. those 20 games he will play will have to be used wisely.

    if u dont think having a good baclup is important, just look at the nashville/san jose series. the team with the better back up won. and all those teams u mentioned are taking serious risks not having a good backup plan.

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