by PuckStopsHere on 05/28/10 at 01:59 PM ET
With the Stanley Cup finals upon us, it is time to look at the two finalists. It is sad that neither team is a historically elite team that belongs in an argument about the best hockey teams in history. It takes away from the Stanley Cup finals prestige. Here is my finals prediction. I pick Chicago as the most likely winner, but they fall short as an elite team.
I argue that it is necessary, but not sufficient, for an elite team to have several (three or more) players on Hall of Fame career tracks and an elite goalie (who may be one of the hall of Fame track players), who is among the top five or so goalies in hockey. It is also necessary that this group of players play well as a team (hence the necessary but not sufficient condition). Any of the best teams in history (historical Stanley Cup winners) satisfy these conditions.
It is easiest to look at the group of players that make up the team to determine if they are a potentially elite team, than it is to try to predict the level of play of the group of players, so I generally use these conditions to eliminate teams from the group of potentially elite teams. If the team does not have great players, they cannot be an elite team regardless of their “team chemistry” or other intangibles. It doesn’t happen. It has never happened in the past.
I have argued many times that expansion and a salary cap have made it nearly impossible to form an elite team. In fact, this Chicago group has a strong foundation and could be able to climb to that level in a few years when their core reaches the mid to late 20s, which will be their career peaks. The problem is that this team will not be kept together that long. Salary cap forces demand that it starts to be dismantled this summer.
How does Chicago measure up to the necessary but not sufficient conditions for eliteness? They fail. The easiest place to show the failure is in their goaltending. Antti Niemi is not one of the best goalies in hockey. Nobody would correctly consider him to be on that level. He is a rookie, so the possibility exists that he might get their someday, but that possibility is not too likely. There are other rookie goalies who had better rookie seasons in Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard in the NHL. How likely is the third best rookie goalie in a given season to become one of the best goalies in the game? It is not a probable situation. Even if Niemi overcomes the odds, he is clearly not an elite level goaltender today. Goaltending is important in hockey. No elite goalie means no elite team.
As far as Hall of Fame track players, Chicago may have a couple. They do not have any player who is a future Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in the rest of his career, but they have two that will likely get there with reasonable projection of the rest of their careers. Duncan Keith is the probable Norris Trophy winner this year. He has been the top defenceman in Chicago for the last three years, with increasing ranking throughout the league. It is quite reasonable to expect that he becomes a Hall of Fame defenceman by keeping up his current level of play for a while.
I think Jonathan Toews is also a Hall of Fame track player. He is the top scorer in the playoffs and the leader for MVP. he is a solid two way player who is becoming one of the NHL’s better players. I think it is reasonable to project him to have a Hall of Fame career.
In both Keith and Toews cases, their Hall of Fame track trajectory is not so clear. They are in the young parts of their careers and a lot can happen to derail a career, but I think it is a reasonable projection at this point.
I think the rest of the Chicago roster falls short of Hall of Fame track. Patrick Kane is the third young star on the Blackhawks. He does not have the defensive ability of Toews and it is alarming how his zone starts show an easy role on the team. Nevertheless, Kane did lead the Hawks in scoring. I think his numbers are a bit hollow and a function of his usage, while Toews is more important and plays the tougher minutes. Nevertheless, as Kane is a young player it is more than possible that he might show that I am wrong, but it would require significant defensive improvements or Art Ross level offense to do so and i would bet against either.
Marian Hossa is another player who might get a Hall of Fame argument. He is further into his career than the previous three and has 770 career points (which is not a bad total - but it is far below the totals of many eligible but non-inducted players). Hossa has the interesting storyline of being in his third straight Stanley Cup finals with his third straight team. For a large part, he has not been the player that drove any of those teams to the finals. His two goals so far in the playoffs make him more of a passenger on the Blackhawks ship than the captain. Hossa looks like a player who will have a good career but fall short of the great level needed to get to the Hall of Fame. As he is further into his career than the previous three, it is a much safer projection to make.
One might also wish to argue about Brent Seabrook (who needs to improve to reach the level of Norris Trophy candidate defenceman) or Brian Campbell (who at age 31 is far enough into his career that it looks unlikely) or another player or two who have even longer odds, but they are players who are not likely to wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. They are players who fall below the necessary elite level.
Chicago has a good young core. They have two players who I would project to be Hall of Fame track - although it is early enough in their careers that the projections are uncertain. They have another young player who might also be on that track - though I think he likely isn’t. They have some other solid players who are a rung below that level, but help to give them a good core. The main problem is they lack an elite level goalie. Antti Niemi is not one of the best goalies in the NHL. If you had to re-draft the NHL for a Stanley Cup playoff type tournament to being right now, Niemi would not be one of the top goalies picked. He has done nothing in his career to show he is at that level. Chicago lacks an elite goalie. Thus they are not an elite team. There are no elite teams in the league this year and that is detracting from the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. The playoffs may feature good hockey, but it could be (and should be) better if there were elite teams in the Stanley Cup finals. However, NHL rules have prevented this.
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