Hockey’s lesson: Great players need great teams to win

In his second season Connor McDavid led the Edmonton Oilers to the second round of the playoffs, where they fell to Anaheim. This was a far better outcome than most people expected before the season started. But looking ahead, what is a reasonable expectation for the young superstar and his team in 2017/18? And based on precedent for players of the highest calibre, when might McDavid actually lift the Cup?

Let us compare. 

  •  Jonathan Toews won the Cup in his third season. Toews is an outstanding leader and like McDavid was named team captain  after his rookie season.

When Toews arrived — alongside Patrick Kane, drafted first overall in 2007 — the Hawks had not won a play-off series since 1996 but they did have some blueline talent in Duncan Keith (drafted 54th overall) and Brent Seabrook (14th overall).

Toews’ first three years went: miss the play-offs; win two rounds and reach the conference final; win the Cup and receive the trophy as play-off MVP. The Hawks won it again in his 6th and 8th seasons.

  •  Gordie Howe won the Cup in his fourth season.

In Howe’s case the lesson is that the great player needs a strong supporting cast to win. Detroit had Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, who alongside Howe would form the Production Line, and in Howe’s second season, 1947/48, they added Red Kelly on defence. All four were this year named by the NHL as among its all-time 100 best players.

The Wings made steady progress with Howe (note that this was back in the days of the six-team NHL, when the play-offs had only two rounds): first-round losers in his first year, Cup finals losers in his second and third years, Cup winners in his fourth. In his fifth year they lost to Montreal in the first round, but they won Cups again in his sixth, eighth and ninth seasons.

  •  Bobby Orr won it in season No 4.

The greatest defenceman won two Cups in a career cut short by knee injuries. When he joined the Bruins in 1966/67 they were pretty sad, though they had their goaltender of the future in Gerry Cheevers. Orr immediately enlivened the team and its fans — like Larry Bird would do for the Celtics 13 years later — but the Bruins needed toughness and scoring.

They achieved both in one stroke, the most lopsided trade in league history. On May 15,1967, the Bruins sent Jack Norris, Pit Martin and Gilles Marotte to Chicago for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield.

The Bruins finished in last place in Orr’s first season but after that, guided by the Hall of Fame coach Harry Sinden and now with scoring punch, they went steadily up: they lost in the first round of the play-offs in Orr’s second season, lost in the second round in his third, then won the Cup in his fourth and again in his sixth. The only real setback was in his fifth season, when the Bruins got cocky and fell in the first round to Jean Beliveau’s Montreal Canadiens, who had the rookie sensation Ken Dryden in net.

  •  Sidney Crosby (fourth season).

Again, it is not the great player who is the variable; it is the team around him and its management that vary and that must enable him to fulfil his greatness — they must be the podium to support the prize.

The Pens’ era of success with Mario Lemieux was ending as Crosby arrived; the two men played part of one season together, 2005/06, a year in which injuries forced Lemieux to retire and the team missed the play-offs.

This exposed the thinness of the Pittsburgh roster, which other than young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pretty grim. But in the following off-season their core came on board: Evgeni Malkin arrived from Russia, they brought back Marc Recchi as a free agent, and they drafted the talented two-way forward Jordan Staal (chosen one spot before Toews). A year later Kris Letang (drafted 62nd overall) gave Pittsburgh a top defenceman.

And so came steady progress: the Pens lost in the first round in 2006/07, lost in the finals in 2007/08, then won the Cup in Crosby’s fourth season (and again last year in his 11th).

They might well win it again this season.

  •  Wayne Gretzky (fifth season) and Lemieux (seventh season).

The lesson from these two is, again, that no matter how great you are, you need management to build a solid team around you.

Gretzky was fortunate in that Edmonton was run by the cunning Glen Sather, who assembled a roster full of future Hall of Famers. They made the play-offs during all nine of Gretzky’s NHL seasons as an Oiler. They reached the final in his fourth season and won the first of five Cups in his fifth.

In contrast Pittsburgh was a mess when Lemieux arrived. He did not taste the play-offs until his fifth season, and then they missed out again in his sixth. But gradually they built a core — Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso and Kevin Stevens via trade, Jaromir Jagr through the draft — and were champions in Lemieux’s seventh and eighth campaigns.

  •  Steve Yzerman (14th season).

Sometimes you have to wait.

Yzerman had 87 points as a Red Wing rookie in 1983/84 and was named team captain at age 21 in 1986. He would go on to have two straight seasons of 60-plus goals but the structure around him took a long time to solidify. In his first 10 seasons he had five coaches: Nick Polano, Harry Neale, Brad Park, Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray. The Wings made the conference final once during that time but lost to Gretzky’s Edmonton juggernaut. For Yzerman’s Wings this was a phase of improvement but not ascendancy: what the writer Douglas Hunter has called “the years of increasing promise, which suddenly turned grim.”

Still, under a head office run by the astute Jimmy Devellano they were adding talent: Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and a passel of Soviets via the draft, Chris Chelios and the goalie Mike Vernon via trade.

Then the legendary Scotty Bowman came on board as coach in 1993/94 and he was the final piece. The Wings would go on to win Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002, with Yzerman as play-off MVP in 1998.

  •  Joe Thornton: 19 seasons and counting.

Thornton is one of the all-time great passers and a future Hall of Famer. He reached the Cup finals for the first time last season but his San Jose Sharks fell to Crosby’s Penguins. There is no real reason why Thornton has not won the Cup other than the fact that the league has 30 teams — and 31 later this year with Las Vegas — and sometimes it just doesn’t happen for you. Marcel Dionne, Dale Hawerchuk, Peter Stastny, Chuck Rayner … all are Hall of Famers who never won a Cup.

(Trivia note: San Jose is the only NHL team that has never won its last game of the season.)

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