Why NHL is toughest league to repeat as champions | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaWhy NHL is toughest league to repeat as champions

Posted: Saturday, October 19, 2013 | 09:26 AM

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The Chicago Blackhawks carry out the Stanley Cup Championship banner past the Stanley Cup during a ceremony before their season opener in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press) The Chicago Blackhawks carry out the Stanley Cup Championship banner past the Stanley Cup during a ceremony before their season opener in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)

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The Chicago Blackhawks are attempting to become the first back-to-back NHL titleholders since the Detroit Red Wings celebrated successive Stanley Cup wins in 1996-97 and 1997-98. But why has repeating as champs been so tough in the NHL?
Recent history has not been kind to the reigning Stanley Cup champions.

The Chicago Blackhawks are attempting to become the first back-to-back NHL titleholders since the Detroit Red Wings celebrated successive Stanley Cup wins in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

And since the Red Wings' success 15 years ago, only twice has the Stanley Cup champ even been able to reach the final in the following season. The 1998-99 Dallas Stars won the title, but were beaten by the New Jersey Devils in six games in the 2000 final. 

Detroit won in 2007-08, but the Pittsburgh Penguins spoiled their party the next spring when the latter rallied to win the Stanley Cup in seven games.

The NFL, NBA and MLB have each had back-to-back champs in the last 15 years. But not the NHL. Why has that been the case?

Well, let's call in 80-year-old Scotty Bowman, an expert on the Stanley Cup repeat. He was the head coach in the back end of the Penguins' back-to-back titles in 1990-91 and 1991-92 and was behind the bench when the Red Wings repeated 15 seasons ago. 

He also just happens to be the Blackhawks' hockey operations senior advisor. The legend believes there is no easy answer.

When his Red Wings followed up the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship in 42 years with another, his team was an extremely motivated bunch. They wanted to win another for defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was ended in a limousine accident six days after the 1997 clinching victory.

"That was a real setback," Bowman said. "I'm not sure it was a fear that the players had to go on without one of their best players. But it was a case of unfortunate motivation. Vladimir was such a big part of getting that team over the threshold. He was on the verge of becoming a star. The guys pulled together and picked it up a notch."

Bowman believes there are number of factors involved. One obvious influence has been the salary cap. In the six seasons between the Red Wings' win in 1998 and the salary cap, there were some familiar champions. The New Jersey Devils won twice (in 2000 and 2003) to go with their 1996 title. The Colorado Avalanche won for the second time in five years in 2001. The Red Wings won again in 2002.

Salary cap

But since the implementation of the salary cap prior to the 2005-06 season, there have been seven different winners in eight years. The Blackhawks have been the only double winners in 2009-10 and 2013.

"You can't keep your team together," Bowman said. "The Los Angeles Kings managed to do it. But they still didn't win.

"When you win, you have players you have to re-sign. Most of those players deserve a raise. You can't keep everybody. If you lose a couple key players the cupboard gets bare."

But, Bowman says, it doesn't stop there.

"Teams are stronger," he said. "At least, there are more teams capable of winning. It just seems that teams have more younger players who make an immediate impact. There is more emphasis than ever on developing players and they make a bigger impact quicker than ever."

Take a glance at the Blackhawks' hockey operations department. There is a skating coach (Kevin Delaney), a player development coach (Keith Carney), a developmental goalie coach (Andrew Allen) and a developmental coach for forwards (Yanic Perreault).

In the end, Bowman believes, more teams simply are capable of winning. If, however, you talk to the players they bring a couple more points to the forefront. There is the exhaustion factor after pouring yourself physically and emotionally into winning a championship, and there is the short summer after all the partying.

"The shortened summer is probably the most difficult to overcome," said Toronto Maple Leafs centre Dave Bolland, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks and returns for the first time to play Chicago on Saturday. "It's a lot of fun when you win. You have a lot of festivities to celebrate. You want to hang out with everybody and celebrate. But before you know it you have to get back to work and get back to training and do your thing."

"Mentally, you want to ride that wave as long as you can," said Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal, who won the 2008-09 title with the Penguins. "You hope it's not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it is a moment you want to cherish as long as you can.

"There also is the wear and tear on your body. You play a lot of games when you win."

No real proven equation

But there is no real proven equation, in terms of number of games and lateness of the season that gives a team a better chance to repeat. Here is the amount of games a team has played (combined regular season and playoffs) and calendar finish time for each Stanley Cup winner since the Red Wings' repeat performance.

  • 1996-97: Detroit, 102 games (June 7)
  • 1997-98: Detroit, 104 games (June 16)
  • 1998-99: Dallas, 105 games (June 19)
  • 1999-00: New Jersey, 105 games (June 10)
  • 2000-01: Colorado, 104 games (June 9)
  • 2001-02: Detroit, 105 games (June 13)
  • 2002-03: New Jersey, 106 games (June 9)
  • 2003-04: Tampa Bay, 105 games (June 7)
  • 2005-06: Carolina, 105 games (June 19)
  • 2006-07: Anaheim, 103 games (June 6)
  • 2007-08: Detroit, 104 games (June 4)
  • 2008-09: Pittsburgh, 106 games (June 12)
  • 2009-10: Chicago, 104 games (June 9)
  • 2010-11: Boston, 107 games (June 15)
  • 2011-12: Los Angeles, 102 games (Jan. 11)
  • 2012-13: Chicago, 105 games (June 24)
Only time will reveal whether this Blackhawks team can repeat. Even though they suffered a pair of shootout losses earlier this week, they have skated out of the gate with a solid 4-1-2 start.

Bowman remarked one of the keys last season will be special teams. The Blackhawks were the top-ranked penalty-killing unit last season, but 19th out of 30 on the power play.

"Last year, [Chicago] got a roll early [in the lockout-shortened season] and continued on a roll in the playoffs," Bowman said. "You can't get on a roll for an entire 82-game schedule. "[The Blackhawks] are off to a good start. They'll need to spruce up their offence. But if you have strong special teams, you're tough to beat."

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