Response to Peerless: Team Defense

Note:  This story was originally published on A Capital Offense by this author and discussed by Capitals Senior Write Mike Vogel on Dump ‘n Chase.

I applaud our friend over at The Peerless Prognosticator for his well-researched and thorough post on experience on defense being a major factor when it comes to success in the playoffs in the past decade. Of the ten Stanley Cup defenses he profiled, I would argue the Capitals are most similar to the 2000 New Jersey Devils with their two rookies and the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, who only had one real veteran but an otherwise overlooked but quick, puck-moving defense corps.  Many of those teams, though, traded for at least one experienced blueliner during the season. I agree with Peerless that we could stand an upgrade over Tyler Sloan, but even so, there is still hope. 

Peerless’s Table

Since Peerless only went back 10 years, I took it upon myself to find four Stanley Cup championship teams’ defenses from the past 30 years that the Capitals most resemble, so I picked teams at the beginning of their success.  While I realize this is going back a ways and may be seen as a stretch to some as it is crossing eras, I submit that these teams are still legitimate models of success.  For this exercise, I included the 7 defensemen from each team in terms of playoff games played during the championship year. 

First up is the 1980 New York Islanders.  When they won their first Cup in 1980, they were a young team with a high-powered offense and two good goaltenders.  Their defense, though, had actually played fewer NHL games as a corps (1,453) than the Caps defense has (1,813) prior to the season opener.  To be fair, I added in Dave Langevin‘s 216 WHA games and Stefan Persson‘s 109 Swedish Elite League Games.  I also added in 7th defenseman Jean Potvin, who didn’t actually dress in the 1980 playoffs, and whose 352 games as an Islander were from 1972-78 before he was reacquired.   Ken Morrow played a total of 18 regular season NHL games before the 1980 playoffs, as he was just coming off winning Olympic Gold. 

Note former Capital Gord Lane

The result is that the Caps still have more experience and more experience as a team than the 1980 New York Islanders defense did when they won their first Stanley Cup.  Obviously, the Islanders’ defense gained experience over the next four years as they won three more Cups and another trip to the Final, where they lost to another young, high-powered team with a great offense and two good goaltenders.

This brings us to the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. 

The Oilers had significantly fewer games played than the Capitals, but slightly more as a team.  Here is another team that built well through the draft and from within with a sprinkling of veterans.  They also weren’t as concerned with defense as they were with scoring.  They finished the regular season with the best record in the league, the most goals scored, and the best goal differential while finishing squarely in the middle in goals against.  That kinda sounds familiar.  The Oilers won 5 Cups over 7 seasons, but even their 1990 season wasn’t all that different in terms of NHL experience.  Kevin Lowe, Randy Gregg, and Charlie Huddy returned, but they had several fresh faces. 

Only the 2010 Blackhawks had fewer games played as a corps in the last 10 years than the 1990 Oilers. 

Another team of interest that wasn’t part of a dynasty was the 1986 Montreal Canadiens.  Besides Larry Robinson, they weren’t exactly brimming with experience or chemistry, especially when you consider that after Robinson, only Craig Ludwig (whose shin pads are in the hall of fame) had played as many as 3 seasons as a Canadien.  In fact, this may be the most similar team to the Capitals in terms of experience with all of the young players they had on that team overall.  I even added in Gaston Gingras‘s 60 WHA games.

Note former Caps Rick Green and Mike Lalor

When the Canadiens won the Cup again in 1993, they had completely turned over their defense corps and rebuilt mostly through the draft.  As a result, they had a young but excellent defense.  With experience as a concern, the Habs traded for Rob Ramage at the trade deadline to give them their only defenseman with over 403 games of experience at the beginning of the season, but he only played 7 of the 20 playoff games.  

Even if you throw in the other two defensemen who played in those playoffs, Donald Dufresne (89) and Sean Hill (0), that doesn’t add much experience to the equation.  In short, it was the talent of this defense that held Wayne Gretzky‘s Kings in check, not their experience.  They have a few more games in total experience, but far less in terms of experience with the team. 

The last team I will profile is also the most recent:  the 1996 Colorado Avalanche.  The Avs had just moved from Quebec, so I was sure to add Nordiques experience to the team experience column.  I was also generous and added in Alexei Gusarov‘s 322 regular season games in the Soviet Union.  Without those games, the total number is closer to 2,000. 

Four of the seven defensemen hadn’t played together for more than a season before they took a championship.  This corps played fewer games with the team than the Caps have. 

To be sure, the teams above certainly had amazing offenses and strong goaltending.  Patrick Roy backstopped Cup wins in 1986, 1993, and 1996, but Roy was a rookie in 1986.  Grant Fuhr was only in his 3rd season in 1984, and Bill Ranford was in his 3rd full season in 1990.  Only Billy Smith could have been considered an experienced goaltender when he won his first Cup in 1980. 

In summary, experience isn’t everything.  The defense corps listed above are full of talent, even if the players were young.  They were just as capable of winning when they young as when they got older.  Fear not, Caps fans, while the Caps could stand to pick up a veteran defenseman during the season, numbers won’t stop the team from winning the Stanley Cup.

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