The rule is you can’t win until you lose. It’s become a truth for all great players and teams that in order to win one of the toughest trophies in sport, you have to feel the agony of defeat. But a deep and unsatisfying run one year can lead to glorious victory the next if everything falls into place.
Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks learned it.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins learned it.
Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings learned it. And it’s likely that
Steven Stamkos and the Lightning are going to learn it, too. Usually, the defeat will come at the hands of a team with too much experience, a team that knows how to win. Eventually, though, the student becomes the master. The Blackhawks are currently the most experienced team in the NHL, but it wasn’t always like that. Chicago had to learn from the former post-season gurus, Detroit, back in 2009 before they could get to where they are now – on the cusp of a dynasty.
With the Lightning brimming with young, elite talent, they’ll have to learn the same thing if they want to take Chicago’s place in the NHL’s hierarchy of great teams. That’ll be the storyline at least, one about the importance of experience in the playoffs and specifically the Stanley Cup final. Between the 24 players that have played a playoff game for the Lightning this season, there was just 617 combined games of playoff experience before the start of this year’s post-season. Only one player has a Cup ring. In contrast, the Blackhawks have eight players with two rings and another eight that have one. All told, Chicago’s roster has 24 Cup rings to go along with 1,520 games of playoff experience. The gap is enormous, but will it matter as much as people think? Will it really be the difference in a series between two teams that are seemingly very close in talent? Going all the way back to the first lockout in 1994-95, the team with more games of playoff experience won 11 of the 19 Stanley Cup finals, or 57.8 percent of them. The same goes for the team with more Cup rings. That’s not insignificant in a series where the teams are usually dead even because they’re generally the best in their respective conferences, but it’s a tiny sample of series to look at. Going back further than 1994, however, would mean comparing very different leagues – leagues where there was less parity, higher scoring and fewer teams. We can go further than just games and rings by combining them into one measure. Doing so reveals two different things about the level of experience on the team. To do that, both numbers have to be on the same scale and they have to be weighted appropriately. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that playoff games experience is about 1.75 times more important than Cup rings. That makes some sense considering how difficult it is to actually win it all. We’ll call this number a team’s “Experience Score.” The team with the higher experience score won the Cup two more times than game experience and Cup rings alone. That brings the total up to 13 of 19, or 68.4 percent. Enough said? Not quite. There’s a certain bias in only looking at playoff experience. That’s because players gained that experience from being on great teams and great teams generally play a lot of playoff games or win a Stanley Cup or two along the way. To fix that problem, we have to look at how often we expect the Cup winner to be victorious based on how good they were and compare that to their expectations based on experience. If experience is an important factor in winning it will have a higher average win probability than one based on the team’s record. As it turns out, the difference, on average, has been negligible over the past 20 years. Cup winners generally have more experience, but they’ve also been better teams, too.
(Click to enlarge chart.)
What’s interesting is the contrast between the Dead Puck Era and the Lockout Era. The parity effect of the salary cap has driven down team win percentages and has caused a carousel of rotating players and Cup winners. Teams that have won have much less experience than before because teams are gutted after Cup victories making it harder to compete consistently.
That could be the reason experience hasn’t carried the same weight. Roster turnover means Cup teams can’t keep the same lineup intact and they usually become weaker as a result. That’s what happened to Chicago after their first Cup win, and it’s another reason to be impressed by the fact that they’re back in the final again. Their experience score of 90.2 puts them in the same company as the dynastic Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils following their second Cup. The Lightning are similar to the Blackhawks when they won their first Cup of this era with a score of 17.1, which is the third lowest since 1994-95. That makes this final the biggest experience gap of the last 20 years. The only two series that are similar are Detroit’s wins over Pittsburgh and Carolina, two matchups that didn’t last very long. But experience alone doesn’t mean Chicago’s got this series in the bag. Far from it. In decades past that may have been true, but it isn’t today. Experience still matters, but not to the extent it once did. Maybe the Blackhawks bring back a taste of the old NHL filled with dynasties built on a winning pedigree. That they’re even on the verge is an impressive feat. But, if they capture the Stanley Cup, it’s more than likely they win on the merits of skill and not because they’ve been there before.