The NHL has always been known as a copycat league. If something worked for one team, others tended to co-opt the blueprint on the grounds that it’s better to follow a tried-and-true path than to strike out on your own.
So, for example, in the Broad Street Bullies era, the NHL became an arms race. In the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty years, goal scoring soared to unprecedented heights. And when the New Jersey Devils ushered in the Dead Puck era, it took the NHL more than a decade to wrestle obstruction out of the game. But nowadays, who can say with any certainty what actually wins?
The reality of the past seven seasons – bookended by two lockouts – is that there is no detectable pattern for success any more. Parity has jumbled all the previously known truths.
Consider that in those seven years, there were seven different champions (Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings), plus five other teams that made it to the Stanley Cup final (Edmonton, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey).
There were winners from the Sunbelt (Carolina, Anaheim, L.A.) and champions from the Original Six (Detroit, Chicago, Boston). There were teams that won on a budget (Carolina, Anaheim) and teams that won by spending big (Chicago, Pittsburgh).
There were teams that won with pure skill (Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) and teams that won by leaning on the opposition (Los Angeles and all those heavy bodies they deployed up front). There were teams that won because of superior goaltending (Cam Ward, Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick all took home Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVPs) and teams that won with goaltending that was just good enough (see the Red Wings with Chris Osgood and the Blackhawks with Antti Niemi).
There was a mishmash of playing styles and approaches to team building. More often than not, decisions seemed to be made by the seat of a general manager’s pants, then every team with a chance would remake itself at the trade deadline.
Accordingly, with the NHL about to embark on yet another “new” era starting Saturday, what sort of league will this one be? What has parity wrought?
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘who are the Cup contenders?’ and my answer was, ‘the Cup contenders are the 16 teams that make the playoffs,’” Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “If you make the playoffs, you’ve got a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
“In ’05, when the salary-cap world came into being, part of that was for economics, but part of it was for parity – to give everybody an opportunity. That’s the beauty of the league right now. It’s wide open.
The Red Wings represent the closest thing to a dynasty in the current era. They were one of only two teams to make the playoffs every year between lockouts. They have managed 100 or more points for 12 years in a row and have four Stanley Cup championships in the last 15 years.
In the pre-salary cap era, the Red Wings were the model of how to do it right – spending intelligently, as opposed to other teams with similarly deep pockets that failed to capitalize on the power of their purses. But Holland thinks there’s more to the parity paradox than just dollars and cents.
“The disparity between the best and the worst players in the league, in relation to 10 or 20 years ago, is far less than it once was,” Holland said. “Then you think about coaching. We call it ‘backside pressure’ now, but all it really is, is back checking. When you think back to the 1990s, how often would you see a three-on-two? How often do you see odd-man rushes now?
“Then you see the D-zone coverage and all the shot-blocking that goes on. Then you think about the goaltending and how that’s evolved. I think everybody is better managed. Coaches are going to seminars and sharing information. The Europeans, they used to come over and were a little awed and intimidated at first. Well now, with the world juniors and Olympics and all the games they play here, when the Europeans come over, they’re ready to go.
“When you start to put down the laundry list of all the things that changed, it adds up to parity. It adds up to a league that’s really close – where every night, it’s a one-goal game. Somebody’s going to make the playoffs in a photo finish and somebody’s going to miss the playoffs in a photo finish and the team that misses, if they had gotten in, they might have gone on a playoff run.”
The Kings were that team last year. They made the playoffs in the final week of the season and then went on a 15-2 run in their first 17 playoff games and held 3-0 leads in all four series. Few anticipated that a team with the 29th-ranked regular-season offence could do so well (only the Columbus Blue Jackets scored fewer goals over 82 games last year).
Which is the real L.A. team? The one that had all those up-and-down moments between October and April? Or the one that was an unstoppable force in May and June? No one knows for sure, least of all the Kings themselves.
Los Angeles defenceman Rob Scuderi made three trips to the Stanley Cup final during the past seven years and won twice, once with Pittsburgh and once with the Kings. He is one of only a handful of players to win multiple Cups during that span (the others: Chris Kunitz, Andrew Ladd, Mark Recchi and Dustin Penner).
According to Scuderi, a decade or more ago, there might have been eight to 10 teams with a realistic chance to win the Stanley Cup. No more.
“Now,” Scuderi said, “I think that number is much higher.”
There is a school of thought that suggests dynasty teams are good for the league, because they create strong reactions, positive and negative, and thus can become important box-office draws. Defenceman Mike Commodore, who won a Stanley Cup with the 2006 Hurricanes and played for a time with Detroit last year, understands that.
“If a team could put four or five years together where they get really good, that can create a lot of interest too,” Commodore said, “but by and large, the fact that anybody can win it in any year is a good thing for the league.”
It is a sentiment that sides philosophically with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his collective agreement negotiating strategy. Bettman wanted to maintain a system that kept the gap between the salary floor and ceiling tight, to encourage competition. It doesn’t permit GMs to channel their inner Sammy Pollocks, but it does create the dynamic you see today – with a handful of good teams at the top, a handful of bad teams at the bottom, and a large, interchangeable middle class.
Parity adds a dose of randomness to the equation. If teams are bunched together so closely, often the difference between winning and losing is as ephemeral as an injury to one or more key players. It makes it challenging for team architects, but fun for the fans.
“I don’t think anyone would be particularly happy if there were still the dynasty years where a team can win four or five Cups in a row,” said Canadiens forward Erik Cole, a Stanley Cup winner in 2006 with Carolina. “I think it is better for the growth of the game that there’s been several different champions.”