What are the traits of a Stanley Cup winner, and do the Bruins have them?
The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s rattled off four Stanley Cup championships with Wayne Gretzky, the most prolific center in NHL history, as their lead dog.
Bobby Orr, whose puck-lugging and offense revolutionized the defenseman’s role, was the X-factor for the Big Bad Bruins in 1970 and ’72.
The Montreal Canadiens’ last great Cup run, from 1976 through ’79, was anchored by Ken Dryden — that “thieving, four-story giraffe” of a goaltender, as he was labeled in those days by an agonized Phil Esposito.
In a game with titles too often determined by a serendipitous bounce, there is no secured path to building a champion. But typically, strength down the middle is a top priority, clubs aspiring to construct the spine of their team with a singular talent at each of three key positions: goalie, defense, and center.
A team with Dryden, Orr, and Gretzky down the middle? Pencil in 60 wins, drop the puck, and gas up the Duck Boats.
But there are other key categories and roles for Cup hopefuls to fill, particularly in today’s revved-up NHL:
■ Speed — Dead in the street without it, essential across all four lines and three defensive pairings. The Bruins added free agent John Moore on the back end to increase their giddy-up this season.
■ Toughness — The fight game and enforcer role are all but dead, but size and force, usually by committee, remain essential. Coaches value grit. “To go eight weeks in the playoffs,” noted Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, “you can’t go without that. Unless you’re winning each round in five games, but that doesn’t happen.”
■ Glue guy — A versatile player (think Patrice Bergeron in Boston) who makes it all work by being a vital contributor in a number of roles. Bergeron is Boston’s No. 1 center, and works first unit on the power play and penalty kill. No. 37 seals the deal.
■ Elder experience — Would the Bruins have won in 2011 without 43-year-old Mark Recchi (25 playoff games, 14 points)? Doubtful. Smart, older hands were key to Cup wins by the Islanders (Butch Goring) and Devils (Claude Lemieux). Lemieux was the playoff MVP in 1995, contributing 16 points and a boatload of nastiness.
■ Energy guy/pest — Typically not a key to the offense, but steps up in the postseason with some checking, chatter, and a few points. Esa Tikkanen was that guy for the Oilers.
■ The make-’em-pay winger — Guy Lafleur drilled home 36 goals across 58 playoff games in that 1976-79 run by Montreal. Big goals at big times. Glenn Anderson often delivered killer strikes off the wing for those great Oiler squads. Of late, Patrick Kane in Chicago.
■ The whatever-it-takes guy — Mark Messier virtually willed the New York Rangers to their Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought on Broadway. Jean Beliveau in Montreal. Bryan Trottier on Long Island. Mario Lemieux and now Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh.
Even those clubs with proven strength down the middle, or the game’s greatest singular talent, don’t always win. Orr was at his peak in 1971, the season he tallied a career-high 139 points, but he wasn’t enough for the Bruins to solve Dryden that spring.
Conversely, Gretzky was dealt to Los Angeles after his Oilers won in ’88 for a fourth time in five years, defeating the Bruins in the final, and most everyone figured the Oilers were done without No. 99. But they lifted the Cup again in ’90, two seasons after the Great One began living a king’s life in La La Land.
“I don’t think there is any one missing piece on any team,” noted Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “Not for us, not for anyone.”
Sweeney, like most GMs, is a strong believer in strength down the middle. For the Bruins, Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, and Bergeron make up that core. In their heyday, the Islanders filled those three spots better than anyone with Billy Smith, Denis Potvin, and Trottier. The Oilers were at their best with Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, and Gretzky. Those much-loved Bruins teams of the early ’70s had Gerry Cheevers backing Orr and Esposito.
“When you get that marquee player, you hold on for dear life,” said Sweeney. “Because he does move the needle.”
From his spot behind the Boston bench, Cassidy thinks today’s game may have altered how some teams approach the blue line formula and rely more on depth and speed on defense rather than a star defenseman the likes of, say, Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), or Erik Karlsson (San Jose).
For instance, the Capitals got the job done last June with John Carlson, a fine player (with a new contract paying out $8 million a year), but not in the Doughty-Hedman-Karlsson group, never mind Orr, Potvin, or Coffey.
“I see teams doing it by committee,” said Cassidy. “I watch Toronto, the way they’ve built their team this year. They seem to be doing it by committee. Then there’s Tampa taking a different approach. I am not saying one is better than the other.”
When the Pittsburgh Penguins won their last two Cups, in 2016 and 2017, they had Kris Letang leading the charge back there for the first one and then soldiered through their second with him on the DL. Justin Schultz was enough to get it done, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray on a job share in net. Hardly the classic formula.
Time, too, is a factor. Time on the job, measured in trips to the playoffs and sheer perseverance.
Exhibit A: The Capitals, who until last spring defined their postseasons by heartbreak and unfulfilled promise.
Long before Alex Ovechkin had the Cup welded to his hip in June, the sons of Abe Pollin were the team picture of playoff disasters.
“Teams learn, not necessarily by losing, but you do learn some things by losing,” mused Cassidy. “Washington’s certainly been there. Pittsburgh had a couple kicks.
“Obviously you need guys who have the ability to step up in the playoffs. Chicago, LA had guys do that. San Jose not as much. So you wonder, why not San Jose?”
Karlsson, perhaps the most skilled blue liner in the game, could prove to be the difference for the Sharks. He is one of those players who moves the needle.
“I wish I had a great answer,” said Cassidy, pondering what it is that ultimately makes the difference for teams. “But I think sometimes it just falls into place, certain guys deliver at key moments.
“The Bruins [in 2011] beat Montreal [in Game 7]. I think they built a little bit of belief in that first round. That happens to teams. They start believing because something happens and off they go.”