The NHL Template of Success Part One: History Always Repeats Itself

What do successful teams (judged by their ability to contend for multiple Stanley Cups) such as the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia Flyers all have in common? A philosophy that has proven successful; the knowledge that history repeats itself.

No, this is not a History 101 lecture class, but I will utilize the old cliche’ that we all heard from our history teachers, “This class is important because history repeats itself and we must learn from our mistakes!” Hopefully I won’t have to slam a textbook on a desk to wake you guys up from your afternoon siesta as my teacher had to do many times for me, but I digress.

The point I’m trying to make here is that utilizing our knowledge of historical successes (and failures) can prove beneficial in various aspects of life; in this case the National Hockey League.

“How can history play a role in a sport where actions/decisions are made in split-second fashion on the ice in the present?”

Structure. Every team is built upon a different foundation decided mostly by the general manager and the playing style of players. It’s what makes each team different and can prove to be the equation that results in success or failure. Each team brings its own philosophy of how the game should be played and they execute their personnel decisions upon this premise. Its what makes the Flyers the “Broad Street Bullies” or the Devils the “Neutral Zone Trap Specialists.” To take it a step further lets look to see how history plays such an important role on a teams formula.

First, let’s take a successful franchise whose enjoyed the fruits of success over the past decade; the Detroit Red Wings. In 94-95 the Detroit Red Wings had a very successful season that ended abruptly in the Stanley Cup finals against the New Jersey Devils. Though they lost to New Jersey in four games, they recognized their success in building a unique and championship contending team. The team’s structure was built on a very strong foundation that understood the importance of strength down the middle (the center position), a good mix of both offensive minded defensemen and defensemen who were more concerned with protecting their own zone. The Red Wings also paid close attention to the importance of role players who could add ‘sandpaper’ play to the line up and help add some scoring.

Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov, and Keith Primeau played the role of strong two-way centers who could light the lamp at any time and back check well enough to stop a dangerous odd-man rush. Detroit showed their philosophy that their centermen need not only score for the team to be successful, but to also have full defensive responsibility in effort to lower goals against. Yzerman and Federov fit the mold exactly with their offensive prowess and defensive responsibility. This elite talent was most necessary for the entire formula to work. Strength down the middle, check!

Paul Coffey and a young Niklas Lidstrom were the offensive minded defensemen that improved Detroit’s power play goal output at the point while also playing solid defense when necessary. Each a generational talent that exceeded the expectations that a defenseman was held to. This dynamic was very pertinent in Detroit’s desired formula. Offensive defensemen, check!

Defensemen such as Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Bob Rouse, and Mike Ramsey rounded out the defense with strong defensive minded play to protect their own zone. Interestingly enough these six defensemen were all relatively slight in stature. The most physically gifted being Bob Rouse who stood at 6’2″ and 215 lbs while the other five were less imposing in size and aggression. This displayed Detroit’s belief that good skating and puck handling/moving skill were more important to their blue line than physicality and an intimidating edge. Defensive defensemen, check!

Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Dino Cicarelli, Doug Brown, and Shawn Burr represented the role player aspect that Detroit continues to address and hold as a vital part to a successful team. McCarty, Draper, and Burr were the gritty bottom six forwards who agitated the opponents, added hustle/energy, and chipped in the occasional goal from time to time. Dino Cicarelli was the aging star who could still contribute enough on the scoreboard to make the offense more dangerous. He had a mercenary like-role, but was still very important. Doug Brown was claimed off waivers by Detroit and turned out to be an important depth player who could score the occasional clutch goal. Interestingly enough, this waiver-wire pick up wound up being an integral part of Detroit’s Core for years to come. Gritty depth players with a scoring touch, check!

The 1994-1995 Detroit Red Wings became the blue print for the franchise in building a cup contending team. The three main ingredients: Exceptional two-way strength at center (Yzerman, Federov, Primeau), elite offensive-defensemen (Lidstrom, Coffey), strong skating puck handling/moving defensive-defensemen (Fetisov, Konstantinov, Ramsey), and careful attention to picking the right depth players for their grit and decent scoring touch (Draper, McCarty, Brown). The formula was not particularly concerned with goaltending as evidenced by mediocre Mike Vernon claiming the starting goalie spot. Their top six wingers were not very important to the formula either as they were more on the periphery of the design.

“Okay, they had a strong team in 94-95, but how does that prove anything about their future success?”

Simply compare the 07-08 Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings to those that lost in the finals of 94-95 and the parallels are staggering. Only four of Detroit’s players from 94-95 were remaining on the 07-08 team (Lidstrom, Osgood, Draper, and McCarty), but every important piece of the team’s winning formula remained intact. Taking the place of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov at center were Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. These two players fit the mold that Detroit desired sculpt: elite offensive ability with equally outstanding defensive awareness. They were two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly with Detroit’s blueprint. Strength down the middle, check!

Lidstrom, though 37 years old, was still a premier offensive-defenseman in the NHL and continued to play the same role he did in 1994-1995. Brian Rafalski was signed as a free agent to fill the skates of Paul Coffey and stand as the second/equally important offensive threat at the point. These two defensemen were vital for Detroit’s powerplay which was important to the Red Wings winning philosophy. Once again, Detroit was sticking to its formula that was developed in the past. Offensive defensemen, check!

Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja, and Chris Chelios were the defensemen infused with Lidstrom and Rafalski. These players were all well-rounded defensive-defensemen who were again selected for their skating ability (with the exception of the aging Chelios) and puck handling ability rather than their physicality. This paralells well with the average sized defensemen who dressed in red and white during the 94-95 season. Three of the five mentioned above were listed at 6’0″ or shorter while Stuart and Lilja stood at 6’2″ and 6’3″ respectively. Lilja was the only one with intimidating size at 220 lbs. These players fit the requirement of the Detroit blue print being well-rounded defensemen with more skill than scare. Defensive-defensemen, check!

The last dynamic of the blueprint was the presence of carefully chosen depth players who could add grit and the occasional goal. Kris Draper and Darren McCarty resumed their 94-95 roles adding the same sand-paper element to Detroit’s game. Addtional components to this dimension were players like Mikael Samuelsson, Thomas Holmstrom, Daniel Cleary, and Jiri Hudler (among others). Each added depth to the overall Detroit team in the bottom six and filled similar roles that Draper, McCarthy, and Brown did in 1994-1995. Another important dynamic filled by Detroit using the past as a template for success. Gritty depth with a scoring touch, check!

Additionally, Detroit remained consistent with their belief that goaltending was not a main issue of concern. Chris Osgood, platooned with the very aged Dominick Hasek, manned the pipes for Detroit and represented very mediocre goaltending for the Original Six team. This is similar to the average goaltending that Mike Vernon contributed to the 94-95 Detroit Red Wings. Also the top six wingmen were predominately ‘no-names’ such as left winger, Johan Franzen, who was very unproven before the 2007-2008 season with only a career high of 30 points in his NHL tenure. Yet again, the importance of top six wingers were peripherary to Detroit’s winning formula.

Detroit created their template in 1994-1995 and has followed it ever since. As a result, Detroit continues to be one of the most  successful NHL Franchises of the past 15 years. In that same span of years Detroit has appeared in six Stanley Cup Finals, won four Stanley Cups, won six President Trophies (best regular season record), and have qualified for all 14 Stanley Cup Playoff tournaments in the past 15 years.

 In short, general managers should look at successful teams of the past, figure out the detailed architecture  within the structure, and replicate that formula. In doing so the general manager can build his team a foundation that has proven successful in the past and that will likely continue the same trend in the future.

The second part of this NHL Template of Success series will explore the above mentioned premise (building a foundation based on past successes) in the salary capped NHL Era. I will look to show how this concept benefits general managers during a time where salary flexibility is limited and “All Star Teams” (such as the 2010-2011 Miami Heat) are impossible to create in the NHL.

Also,  I will explain why the New York Rangers have had limited success in the past 12 years and demonstrate how my “Template of Success” was used in a counter intuitive fashion. Then I will explain how the Rangers are utilizing my template more correctly in the present and how it will shape their bright future. _X_


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