The best hockey teams are comprised of all types of players, scoring forwards, defensive forwards, offensive defensemen, stay at home defensemen and goalies. But what is the most important position? If you were making a team, what area would you focus on?
First offensively, in the new NHL era, teams will need three scoring lines to win the Stanley Cup. Last year the Blackhawks had an abundance of scoring from their first and second lines, with a small but important offensive contribution from the third line while a physical presence on the fourth line. Is offense the most important position to focus on to win the cup? Most cup winning teams and finals teams are represented by strong play down the middle at the centre position. Last year’s final was a battle between Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp versus Mike Richards and Danny Briere who was filling in for the injured Jeff Carter.
Toews won the finals and the playoff MVP award. In previous years centres like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and many other high level centres have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Last season the NHL MVP and both leading goal scorers were centres. Centres are relied upon in the offensive and defensive zone as well as winning key face offs, playing in all situations and often fill leadership roles. Eleven of the Thirty NHL teams have captains that are centres, which is tied with wingers and two above defensemen. It seems equal except for the fact that teams only carry four centres and they carry six defensemen and eight wingers.
Wingers also make up eleven of the NHL captains. Wingers are crucially important for teams that are planning on winning the Stanley Cup. Last year it was winger Patrick Kane that scored the OT winning goal in the finals. Wingers made up ten of the top sixteen point getters in the NHL. These players are scorers and offensive specialists. They usually have deadly shots, other than Crosby and Stamkos the top eleven goal scorers in the NHL were wingers. Alexander Ovechkin had the most goals per game last season, but fell one short of the other two on the last night of the season. It is hard to make a case of why wingers are the most important position in hockey because they are mostly offensive and centres make wingers better, but usually the inverse relationship doesn’t hold true.
Next usually the meanest guys on the ice, defensemen. Although defensemen only account for eight of the thirty NHL captains, the top one or two defensemen can often play upwards of 25 minutes a game, white the best forwards play around 20 minutes per game. Also, a team’s top two defensemen are responsible for neutralizing the opposing team’s top scoring line as well as contribute offensively usually in the form of assists, but also adding goals, especially on the power play. These players contribute the most in the defensive zone as well, providing hits and blocked shots. A team can win by only scoring one or two goals, but it is very rare that a team wins when the other team puts up four or five. Top defensemen almost always help their team rise to the top of the NHL.
Last year Mike Green was a major contributor leading all defensemen in goals and points on route to the President’s Trophy. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell were the Stanley Cup winners, while Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Matt Carle were on the back end of the finals losing Flyers. Other top defensemen like Drew Doughty, Dan Boyle, and Sergi Gonchar helped their teams make the playoffs and compete when they got there. Could a big, strong, offensive defenseman be the most important key to building a champion?
Finally, the man that bails out all of the other player’s mistakes, the goalie. Goalies are often looked to for leadership, but there is already so much pressure on them that most people believe that the added pressure of captaincy hurts their play. Goalies play 60 minutes of almost all of the games in the regular season and all of the games in the playoffs. Starting goalies usually play between 60 and 75 games per season. Usually the best goalies are able to take their team to the playoffs, but will the best goalies make for the best team results? Last season it was a pair of low profile goalies that went to the finals, Michael Leighton of the Flyers and Antti Niemi of the Blackhawks.
The NHL currently has a strict salary cap that only allows teams to allocate big money to a few players. So what positions should NHL general managers allocate their money towards? My opinion is that a starting centre and a pair of shut down, but also offensive defensemen are the players that really set the good teams apart from the bad teams. Of course all positions need to be filled and the teams that win the cup will have all areas covered, but those three key players are great building blocks to a successful franchise.