Whenever an NHL team wins the Stanley Cup, as the Colorado Avalanche did Sunday night with a 2-1 victory over the Lightning in the Final’s sixth game, the scene and its aftermath are awash in tradition, nostalgia, and cliché.
There is the handshake line, a moment of honor and graciousness unmatched in North American team sports. There is the handoff of the Cup not to the winning team’s owner (as happens in the NFL) but to its captain, to the leader of the athletes who competed and triumphed. And there is, as in every sport, the post-series analysis — the conjectures and conclusions that one tries to draw from the outcome.
That last exercise is a familiar one around here. Having last won the Cup in 1975, the Flyers are going on nearly a half-century of annual soul-searching and solution-seeking. The process, for them and most other franchises around the league, is always fraught.
There are assumptions and theories that may or may not hold up to evidence. There are plans that fail through no fault of a team’s decision makers. And there are plans that work primarily because of good fortune. For instance, when ESPN asked Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog what other teams could borrow from Colorado’s victory, he said, “Find a Cale Makar somewhere.” But the Avalanche were able to take Makar — this season’s Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the consensus best defenseman in the NHL — with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft only because three teams, the Flyers among them, passed on him first. Again, good fortune.
Still, once you fold the Avalanche’s championship run into the rest of recent NHL history, you can make a few solid assertions and start separating reality from perception. So let’s look at the league in the modern era — i.e., since the implementation of the salary cap ahead of the 2005-06 season — and get to it.
1) The NHL is top-heavier than you might think
Are we going to burn down some handy straw men in this column? Hell, yes. But those straw men are useful because they exist and they’re popular, and one of the most popular is the notion that the Stanley Cup playoffs are unpredictable, that any team can beat any team in any series. And sometimes, any team does. Take the 2019 Columbus Blue Jackets, who swept a record-setting Lightning team in the first round.
But in the main, the results of the NHL’s postseason tournaments haven’t been all that surprising. Tampa Bay has reached the Cup Final four times in the last eight years, winning twice. During the 10-year period from 2008 through 2017, five teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins, and the Los Angeles Kings — accounted for all 10 Cup victories and 13 of the possible 20 Final appearances. And the Avalanche’s victory this year and the Washington Capitals’ victory in 2018 came after each team had been terrific, if not outright dominant, during the regular season for several years.
In hindsight, only the 2019 St. Louis Blues, who were the league’s worst team before hiring Craig Berube in the middle of the season to be their head coach and embarking on a remarkable turnaround, could be called an underdog champ since the cap went into effect. (The 2012 Kings, who were seeded eighth in the Western Conference, qualified at first for such a label, but they subsequently reached the conference finals in ‘13 and won the Cup again in ‘14.)
The point is, if you’re a fan of a team that scratched its way into the playoffs, don’t waste too much of your hope on a springtime miracle.
2) A great goaltender isn’t essential
Now, if you want to win a championship, it certainly helps to have a great goalie. Tampa Bay has one in Andrei Vasilevskiy. But only once in the salary-cap era has a team won the Cup in the same season that its goalie won the Vezina Trophy: the 2010-11 Bruins, with Tim Thomas. It’s more important, generally speaking, to have consistency and stability at the position, and any number of goaltenders from any number of backgrounds can provide those qualities.
The Avalanche got decent, if not always outstanding, play from Darcy Kuemper and backup Pavel Francouz this postseason. Neither had a save percentage of better than .906 in the postseason. As Carter Hart, who had a .905 save percentage in the regular season, can attest, these days the team around a goalie makes all the difference, which leads to …
3) Being bad can help you become really good
Few people around the NHL — and even fewer around the Flyers — want to acknowledge this truth, regarding it too dishonorable to contemplate, but it is just that: true. As offense has increased and the style of play around the league has opened up, having top-end talent matters more, and with a salary cap, having top-end talent on manageable contracts is ideal. The best way to acquire such talent, of course, is to draft it, and the best way to draft it is to have a lot of high picks and hit on them.
Look at the Avalanche, who made the playoffs just three times over an 11-year stretch from 2006 through 2017. Of the team’s top eight scorers this regular season, seven were first-round picks. Six of the eight were top-10 picks, and four of the eight were drafted by Colorado.
The Flyers have the No. 5 pick in next month’s draft. It will be their first top-10 selection in five years and just their third over the last decade. The disparity between the two clubs speaks for itself.©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.