From Howe to Orr to Gretzky to Toews there are some common traits in the path that takes great players to Stanley Cup titles, writes Rob McKenzie. The main lesson: you can’t do it alone.
1. McDavid’s predecessors
On Friday the Pittsburgh Penguins played in Edmonton, with the visitors winning 3-2 via shoot-out. Of course the focus was on each team’s superstar – Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid respectively.
Crosby is the game’s best player; McDavid is reasonably considered the next man who will hold that title.
The question is, when?
Much of the esteem in which a player is held depends on play-off performance, and more specifically Stanley Cup titles. McDavid, in his second season, is about to lead the Oilers to the play-offs for the first time since 2006. So the question is, if we use the careers of great players like Crosby as a gauge, when might we reasonably expect McDavid to win the Cup? Or is that in itself an unreasonable expectation?
2. Jonathan Toews: third season
The Chicago captain does not have McDavid’s raw talent but he shows the primacy of leadership. He has a wide-eyed intensity (nickname: Captain Serious) and his teammates follow him doggedly. The Hawks named him their captain after his rookie season, which is exceptionally early.
Toews’ first NHL season was 2007/08, after the Hawks under their general manager Stan Bowman had drafted him third overall in 2006.
When Toews arrived — alongside Patrick Kane, drafted first overall in 2007 — the Hawks had not won a play-off series since 1996 but they did have some blueline talent in Duncan Keith (drafted 54th overall) and Brent Seabrook (14th overall).
Toews’ first three years went: miss the play-offs; win two rounds and reach the conference finals; win the Cup and receive the trophy as play-off MVP. The Hawks won it again in his 6th and 8th seasons and might well do it again in this his 10th.
3. Gordie Howe: fourth season
First of all, I would highly recommend Howe’s biography Mr Hockey to any sports fans. It is like a Mark Twain tale of a hayseed who, thanks to his native virtues of patience and stoicism, gets the better of all the crafty people around him. Gordie, who died last June at age 88, was Forrest Gump on skates.
Here — and this will become a theme — the lesson is that the great player needs a strong supporting cast to win. Detroit had Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, who with Howe would form the Production Line, and in Howe’s second season, 1947/48, they added Red Kelly on defence. All four were this year named by the NHL as among the all-time 100 best players.
The Wings made steady progress with Howe (note that this was back in the days of the six-team NHL, when the play-offs had only two rounds): first-round losers in his first year, Cup finals losers in his second and third years, Cup winners in his fourth. In his fifth year they lost to Montreal in the first round, but they won Cups again in his sixth, eighth and ninth seasons.
Howe was in civilian garb for that first Cup win because an on-ice mishap in the first round had caused his brain to start bleeding. But he was on the ice for the rest.
4. Bobby Orr: fourth season
The greatest defenceman ever, Orr won two Cups in a career cut short by knee injuries. When he joined the Bruins in 1966/67 they were pretty sad, though they had their goaltender of the future in Gerry Cheevers. Orr immediately enlivened the team and its fans — like Larry Bird would do for the Celtics 13 years later — but the Bruins needed toughness and scoring.
They achieved both in one stroke, the most lopsided trade in league history. On May 15,1967, the Bruins sent Jack Norris, Pit Martin and Gilles Marotte to Chicago for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield.
The Bruins finished in last place in Orr’s first season but after that, guided by the Hall of Fame coach Harry Sinden and now with scoring punch, they went steadily up: they lost in the first round of the play-offs in Orr’s second season, lost in the second round in his third, then won the Cup in his fourth and again in his sixth. The only real setback was in his fifth season, when the Bruins got cocky and fell in the first round to Jean Beliveau’s Montreal Canadiens, who had the rookie sensation Ken Dryden in net.
Orr’s path was pretty similar to that of Howe, at least in their early years.
5. Sidney Crosby: fourth season
Again, it is not the great player who is the variable; it is the team around him, and its management, that varies and that must enable him to fulfil his greatness — they must be the podium to support the prize.
The Pens’ era of success with Mario Lemieux was ending as Crosby arrived; the two men played part of one season together, 2005/06, a year in which injuries forced Lemieux to retire and the team missed the play-offs.
This exposed the thinness of the Pittsburgh roster, which other than young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pretty grim. But in the following off-season their core came on board: Evgeni Malkin arrived from Russia, they brought back Marc Recchi as a free agent, and they drafted the talented two-way forward Jordan Staal (chosen one spot before Toews). A year later the draft choice Kris Letang (62nd overall) gave Pittsburgh a top defenceman.
And so came steady progress: the Pens lost in the first round in 2006/07, then lost in the finals in 2007/08, then won the Cup in Crosby’s fourth season (and again last year in his 11th).
6. Wayne Gretzky (fifth season) and Lemieux (seventh season)
The lesson from these two is, again, that no matter how great you are, you need management to build a solid team around you.
Gretzky was fortunate in that Edmonton was run by the cunning Glen Sather, who assembled a roster full of future Hall of Famers. They would have won even without Gretzky (and did so in 1990). But he was their star and they made the play-offs during all nine of his NHL seasons as an Oiler. They reached the final in his fourth season and won the first of five Cups in his fifth.
In contrast, Pittsburgh was a mess when Lemieux arrived. He did not taste the play-offs until his fifth season, and then they missed out again in his sixth. But gradually they built a core — Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso and Kevin Stevens via trade, Jaromir Jagr through the draft — and were champions in Lemieux’s seventh and eighth seasons.
7. Steve Yzerman: 14th season
Sometimes you have to wait.
Yzerman had 87 points as a Red Wing rookie in 1983/84 and was named team captain at age 21 in 1986. He would go on to sow two straight seasons of 60-plus goals. But the structure around him took a long time to solidify. In his first 10 seasons he had five coaches: Nick Polano, Harry Neale, Brad Park, Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray. The Wings made the conference final once during that time but lost to Gretzky’s Edmonton juggernaut. For Yzerman’s Wings this was a phase of improvement but not ascendancy: what the hockey writer Douglas Hunter has called “the years of increasing promise, which suddenly turned grim.”
Still, under a head office run by the astute Jimmy Devellano they were adding talent: Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and a passel of Soviets via the draft, Chris Chelios and the goalie Mike Vernon via trade.
Then the legendary Scotty Bowman came on board as coach in 1993/94 and he was the final piece. The Wings would go on to win Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002, with Yzerman as play-off MVP in 1998.
8. Joe Thornton: 20 seasons and counting
Last Monday in Winnipeg, Joe Thornton got his 1,000th NHL assist. It was a secondary assist on an empty-netter: pretty run of the mill. Thornton didn’t jump up and down with excitement. Just did an aw-shucks smile, skated to the bench and after he sat down the other players gave him a tap on the shoulder or a pat on the head, with affection, like he was an old dog or something.
This old dog is one of the all-time great passers and a future Hall of Famer. He reached the Cup finals for the first time last season but his San Jose Sharks fell to Crosby’s Penguins. There is no real reason why Thornton has not won the Cup other than the fact that the league has 30 teams — and 31 next year with Las Vegas — and sometimes it just doesn’t happen for you. Marcel Dionne, Dale Hawerchuk, Peter Stastny, Chuck Rayner — all are Hall of Famers who never won a Cup.
But Thornton’s still trying and San Jose is, along with Chicago and Minnesota, a front-runner in the western conference. Thornton and McDavid could face off in the first or second round of the play-offs.
9. In conclusion
Based on these precedents, what is a reasonable expectation for McDavid?
This season is already a success: the team will end its play-off drought.
The most important thing the Edmonton owners did to help McDavid came a year before they drafted him, when they began clearing out the long-timers from the front office and brought in Bob Nicholson from Hockey Canada as chief executive. Then, after they won the right to draft McDavid, they hired Peter Chiarelli, ex of Boston, as general manager and Todd McLellan, ex of San Jose, as coach.
Their moves have worked. Trading away star forward Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson was not popular in June but the Oilers needed the toughness for team chemistry and the blueline help for team composition. Signing Milan Lucic brought further toughness and a veteran’s experience.
Based on precedent, a reasonable expectation is that McDavid takes the Oilers to the conference final in his third or fourth season and to the Cup final by his sixth. The key is to make steady progress.
The catch is that his contract ends after his third season. But if Edmonton can show progress, maybe he will want to stick around until Oiler glory is restored. As he gets there he can lean on legends: Orr is one of his agents, and Gretzky is an Oilers executive — and a willing mentor to McDavid.
10. In summation
If the play-offs started today: Washington lead the league with 95 points and would play Toronto; Pittsburgh would meet Columbus; Montreal would get the NY Rangers; Ottawa and Boston would face off. In the west we’re looking at Minnesota-St Louis; Chicago-Nashville; San Jose-Edmonton; Anaheim-Calgary.
Stand or fall: The Calgary Flames have won nine games in a row, the last two of them Brian Elliott shutouts. From being life-and-death to make the play-offs, they now can reasonably aspire to host a first-round series.
Standouts: The stats leaders are McDavid with 75 points, two up on Kane; Crosby with 34 goals; Ryan Suter and Jason Zucker, both of Minnesota, at plus-33; Dustin Byfuglien with 27.22 of ice time per game; and Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki with 126 penalty minutes (BTW, the Goon sequel has a March 17 release date). The leader in both goals-against average (2.03) and shutouts (eight) is Braden Holtby.
Standard-bearers: The Vegas Golden Knights, who join the league next season, signed their first player on Tuesday. His name is Reid Duke, he’s 21, he was a sixth-round draft pick by Minnesota in 2014, he’s never played a game in the NHL, and realistically he’ll probably end up on their minor-league roster.
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Updated: March 13, 2017 04:00 AM