Center of Attention: Why Teams Win the Stanley Cup


The Blue Jackets goal this season is a return to the playoffs. Management, players and fans begin that journey in just a few short days and I am, like most fans, boiling over with anticipation. But as we move from an off-season that started with disappointment to a new season of possibility, I want you to consider just what kind of team it will take to bring a Stanley Cup here. Not just a playoff spot, or a conference final. A Cup. THE Cup. A parade, grinning players with beards, grinning fans with beers.

Think fast! Name one trait every Stanley Cup championship team has in common? It’s not what you’re thinking. Most fans will argue that a premier goaltender or responsible defensive concept is the biggest key, but the true secret of championship hockey is a team’s talent down the middle. Strength, skill and depth at the center position is the common thread shared by ALL teams that have won the Stanley Cup.

Take a moment and reflect. Can you name the top center of every Cup winner for the last 30 years? I am willing to bet it is a lot easier than it sounds for you. In fact, I also contend that you could name the second line center for most of those teams as well. Why is this so easy to recall? The reason is the vital importance skill at center plays in building a successful hockey team; goal-tending and defense systems don’t share the same consistency over time.

Don’t misunderstand, goaltending is a very important, but as both Chicago and Philly proved this past year a franchise doesn’t need to overpay for it. This past year also showed you don’t need a marquee player to succeed either. The most established name in the conference finals was Evgeni Nabakov, and he has signed to play overseas this season after numerous early playoff exits.

Sound defensive schemes have certainly helped teams compete and win the cup in the last 30 years, but specific defenses haven’t consistently established a winning pedigree. The left-wing lock employed by Detroit and the neutral zone trap used by New Jersey certainly were intricate in their respective championships. However, the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s played only a loose defensive style and focused mainly on outscoring the opposition.

Reflect again on the names that come to mind, what else do they all share? They are all world-class players capable of playing on any team and excelling. Two on one team is basically a guarantee that they are in the hunt for a cup. Don’t believe me? Take each year and look at the top 2 centers for the finalists. 2010: Kane, Towes, Richards, Carter. 2009? Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk, Zetterberg. Ditto 2008.

What year is the weakest for my argument? Most likely it is 1995’s NJ Devils team consisting of Neal Broten, Bobby Holik, Bob Carpenter and Jim Dowd. How weak? Broten: Gold medal winner in 1980, 18 year career, 923p/1099gms; Holik: 18 seasons, 747p/1421PIM/1314gms; Carpenter: 18 seasons, 728p/1178gms. Granted, they aren’t Gretzky/Messier, Crosby/Malkin, or Yzerman/Fedorov, but they were skilled enough to beat one of those combinations head to head in 1995.

How is this possible? The answer is simple: territory. Centers skate and influence the ice from the front of their own net to the front of the opposing net. This means that they are typically the best skaters on the team, although some have other necessary skills. Face-offs, defensive recognition and puck distribution are other essential skills that determine how effective a center (or centers) is. Control of the center of the ice is the most important aspect of both offensive and defensive philosophies, and it is reflected in how important center play is to successful teams.

As you watch the Jackets prepare this season, keep in mind what it truly takes to win a championship; what kind of roster changes it will take.  We are deeper than most teams at center, but we are going to need more than what Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and Sammi Pahlsson have given us so far. If Brassard can return his rookie year form, the Jackets future is truly bright. Brassard is only 22 and still learning. That fact, combined with the drafting of Ryan Johansen and the acquisition of Tomas Kana last season, means the potential of the CBJ having the kind of pivots needed to win the Cup is very real.