The Recipe for Success

How much information is too much information?

I remember a few details about an interesting study that was done on management decision making. Basically, decision makers were given three different levels of information: very little info, moderate info, or detailed info. Then they were asked to make a decision. While one might expect that more info is good and less info is bad, what the researchers found was that the decision makers who were given moderate info consistently made the best decisions. Furthermore, those who were given detailed info didn’t fare much better than those with very little.

Without getting technical, this has to do with the brain’s ability, or rather inability to process information. Most of us become overwhelmed when confronted with too much info, which impairs our ability to make good decisions. Still, that doesn’t mean that having lots of information is necessarily a bad thing. The problem lies in the inability to decide what information is most pertinent to the decision.

What is the Recipe for Success?

Is there a recipe for playoff success? If so, what are the criteria? There are many general criteria that are bandied about. For instance, that playoff success stems from:

  • Size, grit, toughness
  • Veteran leadership
  • An all/mostly Canadian roster
  • A ‘money’ goalie
  • Two great centres

In ’07 Anaheim was praised for being a tough, gritty team that overwhelmed their opposition. While it certainly didn’t hurt, the reality is that they relied on two Hall-of-Fame defencemen, a solid goalie, a veteran 1line, and a group of young star forwards bubbling under. No one would have considered Carolina (’06), Detroit (’08), or Pittsburgh (’09) as big or tough. Chicago certainly is a bigger tougher team, but their relentless offence is what guided them to victory. The ’06 Buffalo Sabres were one of the best teams in recent years to not win the cup, and they were filled with small, gifted players. (Lost the east final to Carolina in 7 games only because their defence was decimated by injury).

Veteran leadership is a factor, but not exactly in the way you’d think. No matter how talented a team is, it seems there are always growing pains. (See Edmonton – 1980-1983; Pittsburgh – 1988-1990; Detroit 1993-1996; Pittsburgh 2007-2008; Chicago 2009). You don’t need a bunch of grizzled old veterans in order to put you over the top, but you do need the core of your team – the players that really drive the engine – to get a bit of experience under their belt before they’re ready to win. None of Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Crosby, and Toews won their first try. Most of them needed several tries. (Although Toews won on his second try; Crosby his third).

Canadian-based rosters certainly have a history of playoff success. Carolina, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Chicago all had overwhelmingly Canadian rosters. This is even more true historically, as all the dynasties of bygone years were almost entirely filled with Canadians. Some people believe that because young Canadian kids grow up dreaming of hoisting the Stanley Cup, they have more heart and desire than their European counterparts, especially come playoff time. Interestingly, Detroit is the only team to ever win the Stanley Cup with a roster which is less than 50% Canadian. However, this trend is probably more reflective of the abundance of Canadian-born NHL players than anything else. Even today, 45%-50% of NHL players are Canadian, and this number was far higher in the past (almost 60% only 10 years ago). This will probably change as more European players flood the NHL ranks.

Money goalies have won a lot of cups. A money goalie is a goalie who thrives under pressure and plays better in the playoffs than he does during the regular season. A few good examples are Bernie Parent, Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy, and Martin Brodeur. It may not be fair to include Roy and Brodeur in this category, as they are great goalies period, but there’s no doubt that they raised their levels even further come playoff time. More recent examples are J.S Giguere and Cam Ward. Chris Osgood and Antti Niemi may also fit the definition, as they are fairly average goaltenders who have hoisted the cup in recent years with solid but unspectacular goaltending. But the reality is that almost any goalie can get hot come playoff time if the conditions are right; Dwayne Roloson, Ray Emery, and Michael Leighton have all guided their teams to the final, or at least been solid enough to get them there. Conversely, great goalies, even those mentioned previously, like Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, and Curtis Joseph, along with other formerly solid goalies like Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov have had their playoff flops. Ryan Miller won the Vezina last year, but he was outplayed (albeit slightly) by Tuuka Rask last year, while Brodeur was outplayed by Brian Boucher. Goaltending is somewhat fickle.

Almost all the teams that have won the Stanley Cup have boasted two great centres. Gretzky & Messier, Lemieux & Francis, Yzerman & Fedorov, Sakic & Forsberg, Modano & Niewendyk, Richards & Lecavalier, etc. With more parity in the league these days, some recent winners have gotten away with having two ‘very good’ centres: Staal & Brind’Amour, McDonald & Getzlaf, Toews & Sharp; while others maintain the traditional formula – Zetterberg & Datsyuk, Crosby & Malkin. (The only team that has won the Stanley Cup without 2 great centres is New Jersey, but they had a unique and unparalleled formula with Martin Brodeur in net, and Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens on the point). Centres tend to lead forwards in ice-time, getting huge minutes at even strength and on special teams. Centres win faceoffs, and tend to be more involved at both ends of the ice. In particular, great centres are often said to make everyone around them better, whereas great wingers are often one dimensional snipers. Thus, centres tend to have a greater influence on the game, and are among a team’s most important players.

It’s hard to weight the value of these criteria, particularly since three of the five are entirely subjective. (Size and nationality being easily determined). Of the five, the ones I place the most value on are having two great centres and quality of leadership/experience. The latter is particularly subjective, and requires another set of knowledge (which happens to be a passion of mine): accurately identifying a team’s core players. While having general experience on the team is good, it’s essential that the team’s core players have enough experience to get over the playoff hump. Using this criteria, I have no trouble in disqualifying a team like Washington from serious contention, as I believe their core is made up of the following players:

F: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin

D: Green, Carlson, Alzner, Schultz

G: Varlamov/Neuvirth

While the forwards now have some playoff experience, the defence and goaltending is very young (plus Green is coming off a concussion, and Wideman and Poti are also hurt). Conversely, after a few years of disappointment, Vancouver might just enough playoff experience now to learn from their mistakes, and they certainly has two great centres in Sedin and Kesler. Philly has gone deep a few times now, and boasts four very good centres in Richards, Giroux, Briere, and Carter (though two of them usually play wing). No one doubts Detroit’s experience, nor Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Boston’s experience is borderline, as guys like Krejci, Horton, Lucic, and Marchand are all pretty green, whereas Chara, Kaberle, and Bergeron have pretty good experience. (Krejci and Bergeron are both very good centres, but neither of them is elite.) Interestingly, San Jose can’t be disqualified on either experience or talent at centre ice. Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley have been around the block, and Boyle has a cup ring from his time with Tampa. Pavelski, Clowe, and Setoguchi also have some experience, and Couture got a taste last year. Despite Thornton’s playoff reputation, he and Pavelski are a very good 1-2 punch at centre.

In addition to the criteria examined in this post, team offence is an obvious need. Based on the research I showed in my last post, it appears that a great offence is a pre-requisite, with 4 of the last 5 cup winners ranking in the top-4 overall in goals for. (The other cup winner was 6th).

A strong defence corps is also crucial for any cup winner. The only team that has ever won the cup without a great group of defencemen was the ’06 Hurricanes – a team with insane offensive depth which got Conn Smythe-winning goaltending from Cam Ward. Anaheim had Niedermayer or Pronger on the ice at all times, and good complements in Beauchemin and O’Donnell; Detroit had Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, and Stuart; Pittsburgh had Gonchar, Orpik, Scuderi, Gill, and Letang; Chicago had Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hjalmarsson, and Sopel.

In a game where teams are split into three positions – forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders – you need to be elite or near elite in at least 2 of the three. Of the three, it seems absolutely necessary that a winning team have elite forwards. And if you’re weak in one of the other areas, you certainly need to be elite in the other in order to compensate.

Before I post any playoff predictions, I will rank my perception of each team’s forwards, defenders, and goaltending.

As of April 12, 2011 (Considers all known injuries)        
  Forwards Description Defence Description Goal Description
Was V Good Great top-end; useful depth, but not much scoring after top-3 Decent Would be very good with healthy Wideman+Poti Decent Neuvirth/Varlamov are good but young
Phi Elite Great top-end, great depth, mix of size and speed *V Good Incredible depth and skill; *elite with healthy Pronger Poor Boucher/Bobrovsky/Leighton – ouch
Bos V Good Tons of depth, diversity of skills; no elite forwards though V Good Chara & Kaberle excellent; rest is solid but unimpressive Elite Thomas wins Vezina; Rask good insurance
Pit Poor Lots of useful players but no top-end talent Elite Letang, Orpik, Michalek, Martin are excellent group Elite Fleury is battle-tested
Tby V Good Great top-end talent, not much depth Poor Poor all year; no high-quality defencemen here Decent Roloson is solid but past prime
Mtl Poor A few good small skilled players, not much scoring depth Decent Would be much better with healthy Markov & Gorges V Good Price is talented but not playoff tested
Buf Decent Lots of players with skill, good size and skating; none elite Poor Injuries to Leopold and Sekera hurt an average group *V Good Miller is elite, but hasn’t played since March
Nyr Decent Great depth, excellent role players; little high-end talent Decent Staal, Girardi, McCabe; mix with youngsters Elite Lundqvist is pure elite in my opinion
  Forwards Description Defence Description Goal Description
Van Elite Sedins and Kesler are elite; good complements to fill holes V Good Incredible depth; no clear #1 precludes elite status Very good Luongo talented; shaky playoff history
Det Elite Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen; plus 7 other useful players V Good Lidstrom, Kronwall, Rafalski, Stuart – not elite, but solid Decent Howard is good enough, but not great
Sjs V Good Very good depth, but top-end has a way of disappearing Decent Unimpressive group aside from Boyle Decent Niemi is solid, but unspectacular
Ana V Good Some elite players, but depth is questionable Decent Visnovsky is sublime; Beauchemin and Lydman solid Poor Injury to Hiller leaves it up to Ellis…
Nas Poor Hard working, well-coached, not enough offence V Good Weber and Suter are fully elite; rest is decent V Good Rinne is excellent, but unproven
Phx Poor Hard working, well-coached, not enough offence V Good Fantastic depth, Yandle is a young star V Good Bryzgalov is a very good tender
Lak Poor Not much offence due to losses of Kopitar & Williams V Good Great depth-Doughty, Johnson, Scuderi, Greene, Mitchell V Good Quick had a great year; may surprise
Chi V Good Kept the high-end talent, lost all their great depth V Good Quite good, but Keith looks a bit worn out this year Decent Crawford was solid all year, but unproven


-Ratings include: poor, decent, very good, and elite

-Despite being split into conferences, ratings are relative to all other playoff teams.

-Key injuries are considered (i.e Pittsburgh and LA have key forward injuries; Washington and Buffalo have concerns on defence).

-Factors considered include top-end talent, depth, diversity of talents (i.e skilled players with size, two-way ability, speed, etc).

-The value of different criteria differs by position; for instance, depth is slightly more important on defence than on forward, whereas having elite forwards are crucial compared to simply having good forward depth.

-Goaltending takes into account past playoff performance.

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