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Turnover and the Stanley Cup Champions

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Can the 2018 Cup champs take any lessons from history?

The Carolina Hurricanes’ Eric Staal is shown during a game against the Washington Captials at the Verizon Center on Friday, April 7, 2006. Photo by George Bridges/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

We are now one year removed from the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, and as we all know, they failed to repeat as champions in the season just completed. This is hardly surprising, since only one champion since 1998 repeated the feat – the Pittsburgh Penguins, who followed up their win in 2016 with another in 2017.

It seems unlikely that there is one single reason for this inability of champions to repeat on a more regular basis. General parity, injuries, playoff seeding and draws that beget difficult matchups, more recently the salary cap, and perhaps the salary cap’s offspring, roster turnover — all are factors behind why it’s so hard to go back-to-back.

It is that last item, roster turnover, that occupies our attention here. Over the last 13 months, the Caps have said their goodbyes to several members of their 2018 Stanley Cup championship team — but has their turnover a summer removed from the Cup been any different than champions of the past decade and a half?

This is the first in a series in which we will compare two lineups: the one that took the ice for the Cup-clinching game and the one that opened the season in the second year after their Cup win for the Caps and for Cup-winners that preceded them.

The first of these reviews compares the 2018 Caps and players from that 2018 squad who will be on the roster to open 2019-20 with the players that the Carolina Hurricanes returned from their 2006 Cup-winning team for their 2007-08 opener (with the caveat that the Caps may not be done making changes to their current roster).

As of this writing, the Caps are likely to start October with 13 of the 19 players from their Stanley Cup run (although opinions may differ on whether Chandler Stephenson will ultimately be one of those 13). Here is a comparison of the lineup that won the Cup to those from that roster likely to be available on Opening Night:

2006 Champions: Carolina Hurricanes

In the first year out of the 2004-05 lockout, the Carolina Hurricanes finished the regular season atop the Southeast Division at 52-22-8 — 20 points better than second-place Tampa, and one point behind the Senators for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes clawed their way along a difficult road to the Cup, downing Montreal in six games (after losing the first two), the Devils in five, and back-to-back seven-game series against Buffalo and Edmonton.

Their follow-up season wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular. They slipped to a 40-34-8 record in 2006-07 and failed to reach the postseason, becoming just the fourth defending Cup champs in NHL history to miss the playoffs a year after winning it all.

For there attempt at a bounceback, here is their starting lineup for the 2007-08 season opener compared to their Cup-clinching squad:

Outgoing…

The ‘Canes lost two forwards (Mark Recchi and Cory Stillman) and two defensemen (Kevyn Adams and Aaron Ward), all of whom had been 31 or older when the Hurricanes lifted the Cup.

Recchi was a noteworthy case; he might be, if not the purest, one of the purest “rentals” in the recent history of the league. On March 9, 2006, he was traded to Carolina by Pittsburgh for Niklas Nordgren, Krys Kolanos and Carolina’s 2nd round choice. He played 20 regular season and 25 postseason games for the champions, and then he returned to Pittsburgh in late July as an unrestricted free agent.

Ward was also a free agency casualty, signed away in July by the New York Rangers. In an odd twist, though, he would make his way back to Carolina by way of Boston, the Bruins trading him to Carolina in July 2009 for Patrick Eaves and a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Adams was traded to Phoenix for Dennis Seidenberg in January 2007. Seidenberg played parts of three seasons in Carolina before departing as an unrestricted free agent to Florida in September 2009. Stillman was on the team roster to open the 2007-08 season, but he was not on the opening night roster. He played in 55 games for the Hurricanes that season before he was traded to Ottawa in February 2008 with Mike Commodore for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves.

Incoming…

The quartet of incoming players is not a precise position match for the departures, owing to the fact that Carolina dressed seven defensemen en route to their 2006 Cup. For the opener of the 2007-08 season, Carolina had one different defenseman and three different forwards from that 2006 championship team.

Tim Gleason was the defenseman, beginning what would be his second season in Carolina after spending his first two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. Oddly enough, neither of the two players swapped out for Gleason and Eric Belanger were a part of that 2006 championship-clinching lineup (Oleg Tverdovsky and Jack Johnson, although Tverdovsky was on the 2005-06 roster and played five games in the postseason). Gleason was the youngest of the incoming foursome at age 25.

None of the three new Carolina forwards – Ryan Bayda, Jeff Hamilton, and Scott Walker – made much of a mark. Bayda, who was in the Carolina organization, but who spent the entire 2005-06 season in the minors, would go on to play just 101 games between 2007 and 2009, with eight goals and 18 points over that span; that 2008-09 season was his last in the NHL. As for Hamilton, the 2007-08 season would be the only one he spent in Carolina (and his career would come to an end shortly after as well, as the following season in Toronto would be his last), and he appeared in only 58 games.

Of the three, Walker had the longest tenure and the most success; in three-plus seasons with Carolina he appeared in 213 games, going 43-60-103, minus-21, before being dealt to Washington for the last games of his NHL career.

COMPARISON

Age
In the period between the winning of a Stanley Cup and the opener two years later, Carolina actually kept most of its Cup-winning lineup intact — but that wasn’t such a good thing, as as that 2006 team was somewhat long in the tooth, with the average age checking in at around 29 years old. And while the club did move four veterans off the roster, six of the remaining 15 players were in their 30s, three of them 35 or older.

The situation in Washington is a little different. The Caps will bring back fewer players for the opener of the 2019-20 season (12 skaters and their goalie) than Carolina did in 2007-08 opener (14 skaters and their goalie, plus Cory Stillman, who did not play in the opener), but they skew younger. Only three of the 13 players the Caps retained from the 2018 Cup winner had reached their 30th birthday when they won the Cup, and none of them were over 35 years of age. Here is how the teams compare in returnees from their Cup-clinching roster:

Production
At a production level, the 14 skaters the Hurricanes returned to kick off 2007-08 had accounted for 75.5 percent of the regular-season goal total in 2005-06. Of that group, four skaters recorded 30 or more goals – Eric Staal (45), Rod Brind’Amour (31), Justin Williams (31), and Erik Cole (30), and Brind’Amour was the only one of that group older than 27 (he was 35). Those four dropped off quite a bit by 2007-08 however, individually and as a group, with a combined total of 88 goals that season (Williams was held to just nine goals in 37 games, Brind’Amour to 19 goals in 57 games, both of their seasons cut short with knee injuries).

The 12 skaters that the Caps currently have on the parent roster from that 2018 Cup-clinching game accounted for about the same share of regular season goals (76.6 percent). Of course, that total is heavily weighted towards one player as only Alex Ovechkin crossed the 30-goal mark in 2017-18 (49). The flip side of that coin was balance; nine of the 12 skaters recorded goals in double digits.

Goalies
Goaltending doesn’t provide as much insight on the effects of turnover as it does the unique characteristics and quirks of the position. One might have expected that Cam Ward, who backstopped the Hurricanes to the Cup as a rookie, would have used that achievement to propel him to an extended run as an elite goalie. And yet while he holds just about every meaningful single-season and career record in franchise history, he has been an otherwise rather ordinary goalie overall – 37th in GAA and 46th in save percentage among 60 goalies with at least 10,000 minutes played. His 2007-08 season was like most of his seasons would be going forward, with a record of 37-25-5, GAA of 2.75, .904 save percentage and four shutouts.

Meanwhile, Braden Holtby had a longer but more impressive (albeit ultimately disappointing) record en route to his Cup. Over the first seven seasons of his career he won 191 games (ninth among all goalies), had the eighth-best goals against average among 68 goalies with at least 5,000 minutes, and had the sixth-best save percentage in that group. He was arguably better in the postseason, posting the sixth-best goals against average among 36 goalies with at least 500 minutes played (2.00) and sixth-best save percentage (.932). Still, he had a sub-.500 record at 29-30. Ward realized his greatest team success in his first try, never to experience it again. Holtby and his team knew nothing but frustration, despite his generally very good effort, before he won in his eighth season.

CONCLUSIONS

The Caps and the Hurricanes retained comparable shares of their Cup-clinching rosters a season-plus removed from their championship. Carolina retained what was an older cohort than what the Caps currently have on board, heavily populated with players who had career years as a Hurricane leading up to their Cup run (Staal, Brind’Amour, Cole, and Matt Cullen among them). Seven of the 14 skaters returning for the 2007-08 opener recorded double-digit goal totals in 2005-06.

The Caps return a younger and what was a more balanced goal-scoring group from that Cup-winning season than Carolina. While several of those players did have strong seasons in 2017-18, it’s hard to classify too many of them as anything but as expected - and thus seem repeatable.

Obviously we can’t predict injuries or the effect they have on performance. However, one wonders the degree to which the 2005-06 Hurricanes were something of a “one-off,” with a roster of older players and many of them having their best years. In the aftermath, the Hurricanes made the playoffs just once in the next 12 seasons before reaching the conference finals last spring. The Caps – younger and with a more balanced championship roster – appear to be better suited, on paper at least, to sustain a level of success that eluded the Hurricanes.