If you want to try to predict the future, all you have is the past. One might object by suggesting that we have the ‘present’, but that’s really just the recent past. I’m keenly interested in trying to predict the future. In the realm of hockey, the thing that most interests me is predicting future cup winners – not just in 2011, but in the next five or even ten years. However, the further forward in time that you go, the more speculative it gets, and with this year’s playoffs quickly approaching, let’s stick to 2011.
Here are the last 5 cup finalists (winners in bold):
2006 – Carolina-Edmonton
2007 – Anaheim-Ottawa
2008 – Detroit-Pittsburgh
2009 – Pittsburgh-Detroit
2010 – Chicago-Philadelphia
Now let’s take a journey through the past…
Carolina’s road was fortuitous. Firstly, #1 seeded Ottawa Senators were upset by Buffalo. Carolina faced Buffalo in the Conference Finals, and prevailed in 7 games, in large part because Buffalo’s defence was decimated by injuries. Then in the final, Edmonton lost goaltender Dwayne Roloson in game 1. Edmonton made a valiant comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to even the series at 3-all, but Carolina prevailed in game 7.
The Ducks were only challenged by one team – the ever-present Detroit Red Wings. Anaheim was mere minutes away from losing the series in game 6 of the Western Conference final, when Pavel Datsyuk was given a marginal hooking call. Scott Niedermayer scored the tying goal on the PP, Teemu Selanne roofed a sweet backhand winner in OT, and Anaheim went on to win game 6, and the Stanley Cup in 5 games over Ottawa.
Detroit was the best team all season long, and was never really challenged in any playoff series. In the end, the Wings beat the Pens in 6 games, but after the Wings took a 3-1 series lead, the outcome was pretty fundamental.
The Pens biggest test came in the second round against the rival Washington Capitals. Pittsburgh was the better team throughout the series, but Washington took a 2-0 series lead, backed by fabulous play from rookie Semeon Varlamov. Kris Letang scored a crucial OT winner in game 3 to get the Pens back in the series. The series went to 7, but the Pens easily won, 6-2. In what was probably the most exciting Stanley Cup Final since the lockout, the Penguins managed to defeat the defending champ Red Wings in game 7. Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, but Marc-Andre Fleury played like a man possessed, and made a historic last-second stop on Nick Lidstrom in game 7 to preserve a 2-1 win.
Chicago had a first round scare against a tough Nashville team. They were down 4-3 in game 5, and were within minutes of going down 3-2 in the series, but managed to tie the game late and win in OT. They ended up winning in 6. Then they took on a talented but inconsistent Vancouver team, which at times manhandled the eventual champions, but at other times, looked completely overmatched. Chicago then ran over San Jose in 4, and then defeated Philadelphia in a pretty good 6-game series.
While all of these teams achieved the ultimate prize, there doesn’t seem to be any common formula that explains their success.
Carolina – Playoff MVP goaltender Cam Ward
Anahem – former Conn Smythe winner J.S Giguere only had to be solid
Detroit – Chris Osgood didn’t let in much junk, but overall he had an easy ride
Pittsburgh – Marc-Andre Fleury was good throughout and spectacular in the finals
Chicago – Antti Niemi gave the Hawks reliable, timely goaltending
Carolina – low-profile veteran group (F. Kaberle, Commodore, Hedican, Ward, Wallin)
Anaheim – two future hall-of-famers (Niedermayer & Pronger)
Detroit – great top-4: Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, Stuart
Pittsburgh – Great balance: 2 offensive (Gonchar, Letang), 3 shut-down (Scuderi, Orpik, Gill)
Chicago – Great top-2 (Keith-Seabrook), solid contributions from Hjalmarsson, Sopel, Campbell
Carolina – 3 lines of skill – Staal, Stillman, Whitney, Williams, Brind’Amour, Cullen, Recchi, Weight, Cole
Anaheim –Traditional model – 2 skill lines (led by McDonald+Selanne, Getzlaf+Perry), 1 shutdown line (Pahlsson)
Detroit – 3 skill lines (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Filppula, Holmstrom, Samuelsson, Hudler, Cleary)
Pittsburgh – 3 great centres (Malkin, Crosby, Staal), good role players (Talbot, Guerin, Kunitz, Kennedy, Fedotenko, Cooke, Adams, etc)
Chicago – Incredible 4-line attack with size and skill – Toews, Kane, Byfuglien, Sharp, Hossa, Bolland, Versteeg, Ladd, Kopecky, Brouwer, Madden, Eager
If you look at the Conference finalists over the last 5 years, there’s a pretty revealing pattern:
It just so happens that the last four Stanley cup champions made it at least as far as the conference finals in the previous year. If we can agree that this year’s main contenders are Philadelphia, Boston, Vancouver, and Detroit, that would seem to give a small edge to the Flyers. If the pattern observed implies that playoff success is some hybrid between skill and experience, one couldn’t deny that Detroit shares that edge as well. But Vancouver and Boston – perhaps the two most complete teams, judging by their combination of size, skill, and elite-level goaltending – are slightly deficient in experience, having made it no further than the second round since the lockout. But how does the potential experience void compare to the goaltending questions that have emerged in Detroit, and even more acutely, in Philadelphia?
As always, there are more questions than answers, and a lot will depend on the playoff match-ups that arise. As I mentioned in the last blog, although I believe that Philadelphia, Boston, Vancouver, and Detroit are the four teams best prepared to win the cup, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll make up the final four. Past underdogs like Edmonton in ’06, Dallas in ’08, Carolina in ’09, and Montreal in ’10 all defied expectations and reminded us that the game isn’t played on paper.
Once the playoff seeds are decided, I’ll look at which non-favourites could make a run in 2011.