Winning a Stanley Cup might be just about the hardest thing to do in team sports. A winning team will usually play between 20 and 25 games to win 16 over a two-month span when every check, every hit, every shot, every miscue might be the turning point that propels you forward or ends your season. The stress is unimaginable.
And that would seem to put a premium on experience - having endured that stress, thrown or taken that hit, taken that shot or made that miscue is one more brick in the foundation of what it means to be a Stanley Cup performer. There are no shortcuts.
It seems that among Stanley Cup winners of recent vintage, there is "That Guy," the one who has volumes of postseason experience on which to draw, the successes and the failures, and perhaps most of all, the singular experience of having lifted the Stanley Cup.
The Washington Capitals hope that Justin Williams is "That Guy." If he is, he would not be alone. Look at that recent history...
2015: Brad Richards
The 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks did not lack for Stanley Cup experience. Starting in 2010, when they won the first of three Cups in six seasons, Chicago played 70 postseason games prior to the 2014-15 season. Still, it could not hurt to add a piece who has seen his share of postseason action. The Blackhawks signed Brad Richards to a one-year/$2 million deal in July 2014 to be that piece.
At 34 years of age, Richards had an amazing 118 games of playoff experience, twice going to the Stanley Cup Final (2004, 2014) and winning once, with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. Three times in his career he appeared in 20 or more games in a single postseason (2004, 2012, and 2014).
Richards did not electrify the Blackhawk fan base with his regular season, although he did have a solid campaign, ninth on the club in goals and seventh in points (12-15-37, plus-3, in 76 games). That was not why he was added to the roster. In the postseason, Richards had similar numbers - tied for tenth in goals and sixth in points (3-11-14, plus-4, in 23 games), but he was a presence in a particular set of games. In six games in which the Blackhawks could clinch a series, Richards was 1-5-6, plus-5. In the four series-clinching games on Chicago's march to the Cup, Richards assisted on either the game-tying goal (against Nashville in the opening round) or the game-winning goal (against Tampa Bay in the Cup-clinching game) twice. His scoring at five-on-five was his best (2-8-10) since his other Cup-winning year (5-8-13 with Tampa Bay in 2004).
Richards did not have to be the best skater on the ice, but he was a player with experience and success in the postseason to be "that guy" - to add another layer of them on a team getting used to success on a regular basis.
2010: John Madden
Marian Hossa was the big free agent acquisition for the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2009. He was, after all, coming off what was his third career 40-goal season, and he had appeared in consecutive Stanley Cup finals. There was, however, another free agent signing of note the day after Hossa signed a contract.
John Madden played for ten seasons with the New Jersey Devils, during which time he appeared in more than 700 regular season games and another 112 postseason contests. His regular and postseason performances with the Devils looked very similar, a per-82 game average of 16-18-34, plus-4 in 712 regular season games, and one of 15-15-30, plus-2 in 112 postseason games. Not Hossa numbers, but he had something Hossa did not have - two Stanley Cups with New Jersey, one of them won in a postseason in which he went 6-10-16, plus-10 in 24 games; quite an offensive show for a player who carved out a career being a checking forward.
By the time Chicago reached the postseason in 2010, the 36-year old Madden was far removed from being an offensive contributor for his team. Chicago had plenty of that, however, with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien, and Hossa. Madden contributed in other ways. He led Blackhawk forwards in blocked shots; he was second on the team in faceoff winning percentage. He was on ice for fewer even strength goals than any Blackhawk forward appearing in at least 20 games. He led the team's forwards in penalty killing ice time per game.
On a team with an abundance of young skill, having a veteran who was a proven winner who could contribute in the less glamourous aspects of the game made Madden a complementary piece of considerable value, despite the lack of offensive production.
2009: Bill Guerin
The 2008-09 edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins were coming off a Stanley Cup final appearance against the Detroit Red Wings the previous season. That 2008 team was long on young talent, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal comprising one of the best three-deep group of centers of any age in the League. What it lacked was not necessarily experience in going deep (the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup final in 2008), but in getting over the hump.
Pittsburgh addressed that matter with a series of trade deadline deals. Craig Adams - a member of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup champions - was picked up from Chicago on waivers. Chris Kunitz - a member of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks - was obtained in a trade. The big piece, though, might have been Bill Guerin, who won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995 and who had almost 1,300 games of NHL experience, more than 100 of them in the postseason. Toiling for the New York Islanders, a team mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, Guerin was one of those players on which a spotlight shines every season, a veteran who could help a contender at the deadline.
There was a peculiar mystery surrounding Guerin, though, and which teams were bidding for his services. On the Saturday before the trading deadline, there was speculation that a deal had been hammered out with a contender in the East. That team might have been Washington.
As we all know, it wasn't (or at least not to the point to where it could be executed). Pittsburgh obtained him for a third-round draft pick, and Guerin became what the other acquisitions could not: a winger to play alongside center Sidney Crosby. He would be an important contributor in the postseason, recording personal playoff bests in games played in a postseason (24), goals (7), assists (8), and points (15), finishing as the third leading point-getter for the Penguins in their run to the Stanley Cup.
None of this is to say that having a Stanley Cup-winning veteran is either necessary or sufficient to win a Stanley Cup. There is, however, value attached to such commodities by those whose job it is to build a champion. The Capitals have done so by virtue of their signing of Justin Williams. While Caps fans might think, "wait, didn't they sign Mike Knuble or, later, Brooks Orpik to fill that role?", it's not quite the same.
Knuble did have a Stanley Cup on his resume, but as a rookie playing in only three post season games in 1998, none of them after the first round. Only once in seven postseasons before arriving in Washington did he appear in more than seven games in a postseason.
Orpik fits the profile better. Winner of a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, veteran of almost 100 postseason games before coming to Washington, a player with an otherwise solid NHL resume accompanying his arrival, and still capable of being a key element in the team's plans. In those respects he provided things that were missing among the Caps' defensive corps. As we wrote of him in our preview before the 2014-15 season:
"The Capitals have lacked a reliable defensive presence with a physical edge in their own zone probably since Brendan Witt was in his prime with the club. The Capitals still have a relatively young group of defensemen. Mike Green is 28, Matt Niskanen is 27, Karl Alzner is 26, John Carlson is 24, and Dmitry Orlov is 23. It is reasonable to think that Orpik is going to fill both the role of steady defensive zone influence and as an example to the still young quintet of defensemen the Caps will (or would like to) put on the ice night in and night out."
That brings us to Justin Williams. Note that we did not include examples of "That Guy" in 2012 or 2014. The reason is that Williams was building a reputation for being "That Guy" on his own as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, going 13-27-40, plus-21, in 46 games over the Kings' two recent Stanley Cup-winning runs. He is in a realm of his own in terms of bringing experience and a winner's pedigree to Washington. He brings more than 1,000 games of NHL experience, more than 100 games of that in the postseason. He has three Stanley Cups (one with Carolina, two with Los Angeles). Six of his 30 career postseason goals (and four of his last 15) are game-winners. And, as has been well-chronicled, he is 7-0 in Game 7's, with seven goals and 14 assists in those games. If there are concerns about his performance at age 34 (which he will be just before the start of the season), there is evidence that he still has gas in the tank.
Justin Williams is not going to be "The Man" on his new club. He won't have to be - that duty remains reserved for Alex Ovechkin. However, he certainly fills the bill of being an ingredient that a number of recent Stanley Cup champions have had in their mix. He certainly can be "That Guy."