COMMENTARY || What it will take for the Oilers (or any other Canadian team) to win the Stanley Cup
Follow the data, which from 1993 to 2019, indicate focusing on above-average goaltending, team defence, strong penalty killing and two-way play as the keys to get ahead, according to academics.
By WILLIAM HANSON and DAMIEN CORMIER
What’s going on? Canadian teams have won 43 Stanley Cups to date, and Canadian men, women, junior and world teams almost always medal. Something’s amiss. And it’s systematic. By chance alone, Canadian teams should’ve skated the Cup again by now.
In 2013, Nicholas Goss of the Bleacher Report wrote “Anatomy of a Stanley Cup Champion.” He championed depth scoring, veteran leadership, standout defencemen, rock-solid goaltending, and 100 per cent player effort and buy-in.
Shortly thereafter, The Hockey Fanatic published “What Is Wrong With Canada’s NHL Teams?” musing about expansion issues, player preference for warmer climates, lower Canadian dollar values, team-relocation issues, Canadian media and fan pressure, NHL-based obstacles and a “Canadian Curse.” Last month, Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun lamented further about the 26-year drought, adding bad team chemistry to the mix.
As academics, we turn to the data.
From a data standpoint, extrapolating from small samples is challenging. With only one Cup winner and 16 playoff teams a year, it’s tough getting enough data to draw strong conclusions. If the drought gave us anything, it’s a decent amount of longitudinal data regarding potential predictors.
We examined regular-season NHL data from 1993-2019, comparing three groups: Canadian teams, American teams and Stanley Cup winners. We looked for systematic differences between groups. Interestingly, many popular indices, like shots on goal and faceoff win percentage, don’t pan out. They’re fool’s gold.
Moreover, it appears winning Cups isn’t about chasing, or emulating, teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were handily swept in this year’s playoffs. If the Oilers prioritize things like shot metrics and “keeping up with the Joneses,” they’ll fall farther behind. If, however, they prioritize data-based predictors, like goalie save percentage, goals against average and reducing giveaways, they’ll get ahead.
Overall, hockey analytics identify above-average goaltending, team defence, strong penalty killing and two-way play as particularly important qualities. The Blues and Bruins have these qualities in spades. They’re spitting images of each other. However, they also have two qualities that are difficult to measure: experience and grit. The Bruins have more experience and the Blues have more grit. By grit, we mean dogged determination. In early January, the Blues were dead last in the standings. Look at them now.
From 1993-2004, Canadian teams made the playoffs at an expected rate. Things changed considerably in 2005. After that, Canadian teams made the playoffs at a significantly lower rate. What happened in 2005? The lockout and salary cap. To be sure, the salary cap is a bona fide issue for Canadian teams, effectively handcuffing GMs.
The recent hiring of veteran bench boss Dave Tippett bodes well for the Oilers. By all accounts, he’s an extremely good coach; he not only emphasizes structure, defence, character and grit, but also champions offence and “flourishing with the puck.” The Oilers are in seemingly good hands with new GM Ken Holland and coach Tippett, provided they make the playoffs.
To end the Cup drought, Canadian teams should step back, look at the big picture and emphasize meaningful data-based metrics. And in evaluating performance, they should use floodlights instead of spotlights, focusing most sharply on team play, not individual players. Floodlights are more illuminating.
Hockey is the quintessential team sport. It’s not about individual superstars, like it is in the NBA. Think Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors. He single-handedly wins games. That doesn’t happen in hockey. In fact, since 1993, only two Cup champions had Hart winners or league MVPs on the team. It takes more, like synergistic line combinations, smartly paired defencemen and good team chemistry.
Oh, and in Canada, it also takes something else: team pride. Hockey is Canada’s lifeblood. As a player, what could possibly be better than skating Lord Stanley’s Cup in the greatest hockey country in the world? It’s time; 26 years is long enough.
This opinion-editorial originally appeared June 1 in the Edmonton Journal.