Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Recipe for Success

Creating a championship team is like making a stew - all the ingredients have to simmer just the right way, you have to find a balance of flavors...and everyone thinks they've got the best recipe.

The team that the Caps are building right now is starting to look, at least on paper, like it will be a force to be reckoned with. No one's saying this is a Cup-ready team, but for the first time in a long time training camp will be highly competitive and only about a third to a half of the roster spots can conceivably be called "taken". This backlog of talent is largely created by the third and fourth liners in the system - the type of guys that the Caps have historically stockpiled, your gritty, hard-working trench guys who may not wow you with sparkling tricks or post huge numbers but whose presence means something.

A lot of people question the value of having too many of these guys floating around, and have questioned it for many years. Its becoming a Capitals trademark to overload the team with guys having a ton of heart but not as much talent. I've heard the questions about their contribution to the team and the comments about how you don't win championships with your third and fourth lines - and I think that couldn't be further from the truth.

Obviously you wouldn't want an entire team of Matt Pettingers, no matter how much we may love him; but for that matter, would you really want to see a team of Ovechkins? Sure, they'd be flashy and probably score 20+ goals a night...but they'd allow 75.

Those trench guys are the ones who block shots, kill penalties, make the big hits. They may not always show up on the scoreboard but if you watch them you can't deny that they've had an impact on the outcome of the game. Watch Boyd Gordon killing a penalty or look at Brian Sutherby mix it up in front of the net and tell me they don't have an important role. What's more, you only have to look at the Cup winners and the playoff-bound teams over the last few years to see that these third and fourth liners are often the difference between hoisting the Cup in June and swinging a golf club in April. How many people knew who Travis Moen was before the Ducks won this past June? What about Kevyn Adams? Ben Clymer, anyone?

No one really seems to know what the magical recipe is for success, but a few key factors start to pop out when perusing the rosters of these championship squads:

Veteran Leadership
Bolts: After 22 years in the league, the last season before the lockout saw Dave Andreychuk hoist the Cup for the first time. There's no question that his leadership on and off the ice was a crucial part of the Bolts' Cup run and in their push from league-wide joke to champions.
Canes: Rod Brind'amour may have set the record for the most broken noses in the league, but his leadership and consistency won him a Cup...and the hearts of his fans and teammates alike. There's a reason ol' Roddy's been locked up to back to back multi-year contracts in Caniac country.
Ducks: When you talk about class and leadership, it doesn't get much better than Scott Niedermayer. He may or may not be hanging up his skates come fall, but when he finally steps back he'll leave behind not only a legendary career but a legacy as the first man to bring Lord Stanley's Cup to the sunny beaches of CA.

Caps: You can keep your Brind'amours, your Sundins, your Modanos. For my money it doesn't get much better than Chris Clark. If the Caps look to make a serious run in the coming years you can bet Clark's leadership will be a crucial reason why they do. He's got heart and class, he's the hardest-working player on the ice every night...and let's not forget those thirty goals he picked up last season.

Bolts: Khabibulin isn't nicknamed "the Bulin Wall" for nothing - his arrival in Tampa signaled the beginning of a new start for an oft-mocked Bolts team, and his departure has sent them scurrying around for his replacement ever since. How do you fill the void left by a wall?
Canes: There are tales of playoff greatness filling the books of NHL history, but usually the guys achieving that greatness have a little bit to show for it in the regular season. Enter Cam Ward, who played 28 games in the regular season as Martin Gerber's backup, then stepped in as a reliever in the playoffs and played 23 games, putting together a Conn Smythe performance en route to Carolina's first Stanley Cup. While his less than stellar follow-up season had many questioning his talent, he's only 22 - let's not cart him off to an old age home just yet.
Ducks: Anaheim boasted what was arguably the best one-two punch in net of any playoff-bound team last season, with Giguere taking the lead and Bryzgalov being no slouch himself in the backup role. Giggy will be remembered as the goalie who stymied a potent Ottawa offense in the Finals, but this Ducks team doesn't even get to the Finals without their two stalwart goalies backing them up.

Caps: Ask any Caps fan who the most underrated goaltender in the league is and they'll tell you its Olie Kolzig. For almost twenty years he's been a part of the Caps, but it was his outstanding play when then-starter Bill Ranford went down to injury that propelled the Caps to their first Finals in franchise history. Since then he has continued to be a rock; however, at 37 he's likely only got a few years left and until the Caps begin to play the same in front of Brent Johnson as they do in front of the big guy, the Caps have to address their goaltending situation. A handful of prospects in the system give us hope - now we just wait and see how they turn out.

Flash and Dash
Bolts: It doesn't get flashier and dashier than the combined talents of Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier. These three truly broke out in their championship year and have caused quite a stir since, be it with dazzling moves on the ice or their (at the time) jaw-dropping contracts following the 2003-04 season.
Canes: Eric Staal was supposed to be the bright new star of the 'Canes and he didn't disappoint, with 100 points during the regular season and another 28 points during the playoffs. But the bigger story was Erik Cole, whose breakout season at the tender age of 27 and whose dramatic return in game 6 of the Finals provided the Canes with that extra lift.
Ducks: Teemu Selanne...I don't think I need to elaborate.

Caps: Please. Ovechkin and Semin alone are enough flash and dash for a century, and with each posting 40+ goal seasons last year, the future of flash and dash in the Nation's Capital is in good hands.

Top Defensive Pair
Bolts: Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina were consistently solid for a Bolts team on their way to the Cup, and it didn't hurt that each of them chipped in on offense, as well.
Canes: Carolina boasted a suddenly talented blue line, with Kaberle, Hedican, Commodore and Wesley providing a nice combination of youthful exuberance and veteran wisdom to shut down the opposing team.
Ducks: When you bring in Chris Pronger, that's one thing. When you bring in Scott Niedermayer, that's another. Together? Unbeatable.

Caps: We've got a few potential names, but let's face it - we're still waiting...

And the Rest...
Bolts: Tampa had their share of gritty, no name guys who just came to the rink to work. Afanasenkov, Clymer, Cibak, Cullimore...all of them get their names on the Cup as well, regardless of whether you've heard of them, but they weren't just along for the ride.
Canes: This Canes team was full of guys no one had heard of before the playoffs, but you certainly know them now - guys like Chad LaRose and Andrew Ladd, Josef Vasicek and Niclas Wallin. Key players, all of them.
Ducks: The Ducks may have ridden to the Cup on Niedermayer's shoulders, but they did so with some pretty important guys who became more important as the postseason went on. Take Samuel Pahlsson and Travis Moen out of the mix, and a few games swing the other way.

Caps: Do I have enough space to fit them all in? Pettinger, Sutherby, Gordon, Clymer, Bradley, Steckel, Laich...these are the worker bees, the guys who will do everything that's asked of them and more yet won't crack the spotlight nine times out of ten. They may not all be around come October, but the mere idea of so much depth gives me a warm fuzzy feeling for the future.


Chris & Sarah said...

One good point about having the large number of positions open for competition in the 3rd and 4th lines is that it shows just how much depth we have both here in DC and down in the minors. Remember that we were in a great position to take a playoff spot last season up until Christmas, and then we had injury and illness problems which we were never able to recover from. This much talent and depth has the potential to fill in the gaps when our main lines are injured or sick.

Hockey Amor said...

Good comparisons, but they tell me we're still three years away...

CapsChick said...

Chris & Sarah: the depth is really what makes me the happiest, I totally agree. Now if we can just keep Clymer from unleashing another deadly virus on the team, we'll be all set!

hockey amor: So true. There were many pieces missing from our team that the championship teams have, but I expect those to either be developed or added within the next two years or so. After that its anyone's guess - as we saw by the Caps first and last trip to the Finals, a lot comes down to talent and the right balance of players, but luck plays a huge role as well.