Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day

The expression that is the titular introduction to this article doesn't really tell you a lot about what this article is about in any sense. But the expression - when building or rebuilding an NHL team - certainly can be used when looking at the early NHL standings thus far. There are a lot of factors that go into why teams are successful in the NHL, but there seems to be one trend that is constant since the lockout. That trend, readers, is that the average age of a Stanley Cup-winning teams seem to be falling in recent years that what we saw in the 1990s. That trend seems to show up in the early NHL standings as well when teams are working out the kinks and getting their systems straight.

Washington, who is red-hot right now, have had a solid youth core for the last few years. Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Michal Neuvirth are the nucleus of that core this season, but it also includes players like Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson for the most part in terms of who head coach Bruce Boudreau leans on in games. Not one of those players is over the age of 30, and the average age of those eight players is 24.6 years.

The Capitals added some veteran talent this season in Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, and Roman Hamrlik to go along with the oldest player on their roster in Mike Knuble. However, the average of the Capitals remains below the 30-years line at 28.25 years. If Washington is the favorite right now to capture the Stanley Cup, that's not a bad number to average out at considering that some "favorites" are much older, but it also puts Washington in as the 23rd-oldest team in the NHL. How does that compare to recent Stanley Cup Champions?

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins were the last three Stanley Cup winners. According to NHL Numbers, Pittsburgh's average in their winning season was 27.435 or tenth-oldest. Chicago had an average age of 26.962, making them the youngest team in the NHL. Boston, who admittedly had some grizzled veteran players, came in with an average age of 27.626 years or the 17th-oldest team.

Catch those average ages? 27.435, 26.962, and 27.626 - all approximately 27 years of age. Washington is on the wrong side of that 27-years mark. Does that mean that Washington's chances of winning a Stanley Cup are diminishing?

My answer is yes... and no. Look, there's no guarantee that any team will win anything. The Capitals, however, have a roster with vast talent that really looks to be the best on paper. They are slightly older than the 27-year mark, so they're still in their prime as a team when it comes to age. And if Detroit can win in 2008 with an average age of 30.992 - the oldest team in the NHL that year - there's nothing to suggest that Washington won't win this year. Statistics only are meaningful if they can prove something, and when stats are asked to predict chance with a wide variety of outside factors at play, the numbers mean little.

If we take the average age of the average ages of the three most recent Stanley Cup champions, we get a result of 27.341 as the baseline to determine which team fits the age criterion of a Stanley Cup champion in today's NHL. Combine that figure with teams that look like playoff teams, and this season's most likely NHL Stanley Cup champion based on age alone would be the Montreal Canadiens.

Wait, I said playoff teams, right? That would toss Montreal and Ottawa out of the mix. The Los Angeles Kings would be the next closest team to the baseline at 27.116 years, and there's no reason not to believe that the Kings can't climb to the top of the mountain. They have great young stars in Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. They are a young, fast, exciting team. Los Angeles would be a great choice for anyone, and the team's average age would suggest they have a great shot at glory this year.

But the Chicago Blackhawks are right there too. Chicago's average age is 27.581 years, and they too have stars all over their roster. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford have proven their worth this season, and - with the exception of Crawford - all of them have won a Stanley Cup already in their young careers. If we're looking at a Los Angeles Kings-Chicago Blackhawks Western Conference Final, that could be one of the best match-ups in recent history.

Over in the Eastern Conference, it appears that the Boston Bruins could be poised for a repeat if they can get out of this Stanley Cup hangover. Boston has an average age of 27.707 - nearly similar to last season's age - and they aren't far off the baseline this season. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Tyler Seguin proved extremely valuable to the Bruins last year, and, combined with stars like Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, this is a team that could prove deadly in the playoffs again.

The Eastern Conference team that is closest to baseline average age, though, is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers did add veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ilya Bryzglaov to their roster, but the youth of Sergei Bobrovsky, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Sean Couturier, and Matt Read have bumped down the average age on this team a lot. Mixing in savvy players like Chris Pronger and Daniel Briere may have the Flyers ready for a shot at greatness. Can you imagine a third series between Boston and Philly for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final?

As for some of the standout teams early on this season, here is a quick rundown of their average ages, and my thoughts on why these teams might see the wheels fall off the bus:

  • Edmonton Oilers - 26.766 (7th). I can't see Nikolai Khabibulin playing lights-out like he has for the entire season. If he does, however, he's a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy. The kids are coming along, but they might need one more season to become a team with a shot at a serious playoff run.
  • Colorado Avalanche - 26.071 (2nd). I like Sergei Varlamov's confidence early on this season, and JS Giguere is a great second option, but this is a very young team. If things start to go bad, do they have the veteran leadership to grind out a win? Thus far, Colorado looks very good, but, like Edmonton, might still be a season away.
  • Dallas Stars - 29.059 (28th). In the extremely physical Western Conference, this average age may catch up to them. While Brendan Morrow is, in my opinion, one of the best captains in the league, can Kari Lehtonen continue his hot start through to the All-Star Game and carry this team to the playoffs? Remember, it's Kari Lehtonen.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs - 26.220 (3rd). There's no question that Toronto has played well thus far, but can they keep it up? James Reimer's injury will force Gustavsson into the spotlight - an area he hasn't been successful in thus far. Injuries to any of the Leafs' blueliners may expose this team as well. And Kessel needs to remain their best player. If he disappears, so does a lot of the Leafs' offence.
  • Buffalo Sabres - 26.931 (10th). Realistically, this is the season for Buffalo if there ever was one. The problem is that they really are looking one-dimensional right now. If it weren't for Ryan Miller, where would this team be? Ville Leino, Derek Roy, and Tyler Ennis could be the factors that either push Buffalo to new heights or have them flame out early again. Those three players have to start scoring at a regular pace.
If age has anything to do with teams surviving the rigors of a 100-game season including the playoffs, you would think that the best mix for a player would be NHL experience plus the ability to heal fast from bumps, bruises, and wounds. As a team, it would appear that the right mix of veterans and younger players equaling out to approximately 27 years of age is the number that teams should be striving for when building the next Stanley Cup champion.

Except, of course, the Detroit Red Wings. They seem to win no matter what their team's average age is.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Does anybody know the youngest team to win the cup, and the ave. age?