Leon Draisaitl acknowledged there was a reason he and the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs last season. Asked what stood about the team that eliminated them and went on to win the Stanley Cup, one thing came to the German star’s mind.
“They’re deep,” Draisaitl said. “They have four lines that they can roll against any line out there.”
And it wasn’t just depth at forward that helped the Golden Knights finish atop the Western Conference after 82 games and the NHL after four grueling rounds of the postseason. They used 10 defensemen and five different goaltenders along the way, showing the value of depth in hockey at every position, establishing consistency and creating a blueprint for other contenders to follow.
“Our team’s a great example of it,” Vegas playoff leading scorer Jack Eichel said. “We were consistent. Our special teams got better. Our goaltending was great. We utilized their depth … and I thought we found our real identity.”
It’s the identity of a champion, which recent Cup winners point to as a mix of depth and consistency. And it begins even before the puck drops for the start of the season.
Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev knows that from the Lightning’s back-to-back Cup runs in 2020 and ’21 — one of them interrupted several months by the pandemic and the other when the season was shortened to 65 games. Sure, the stars led the way from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Victor Hedman out to center Brayden Point, winger Nikita Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos, but contributions throughout the lineup came through when it mattered most.
“(Depth), it makes your team better because in the training camp, you have a lot of guys that can make the team and sometimes not a lot of guys make it and then they play in the AHL,” Sergachev said. “But then, at the end of the season, they come up and they’re better, so they help your team win. That’s what we had, and it kind of pushes everybody to be better.”
Same for the Colorado Avalanche in 2022, when they lost Samuel Girard to injury in the middle of their run and played without center Nazem Kadri for a handful of games. They eventually vanquished the two-time defending champion Lightning because depth allowed them to survive the unexpected absences.
“Injuries are going to happen in the playoffs, for sure,” defenseman Bowen Byram said. “That’s a non-negotiable, so you need guys that can step in in certain moments and fill roles. … There’s always guys coming in and out of the lineup with injuries, whatever it might be, guys filling in. I think that’s a huge part of having a championship team.”
There isn’t a recent Cup winner that hasn’t relied in depth. The St. Louis Blues in 2019 and Washington Capitals in 2018 handled a mix of suspensions and injuries to get the job done. The Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and ’17 went back to back because they had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen down the middle at center.
After being a buzzsaw through the playoffs in 2012, the Los Angeles Kings won it all again in 2014 because of their blue line depth when they needed eight different defensemen to play.
“You need guys to step up and raise the level of their play,” now-L.A. captain Anze Kopitar said. “It happened last year (with Vegas) and it happened with us in ’14. We had a couple D-men go down, and a couple other guys stepped in and it seems like we never skipped a beat.”
What set the Golden Knights apart is how they never skipped a beat when so many goaltenders went down with injury. First it was All-Star Logan Thomas during the regular season, then playoff starter Laurent Brossoit midway through the the second round.
Journeyman Adin Hill stepped in and won 11 of 14 starts, allowing just over two goals a game and stopping more than 93% of the shots he faced.
“What we feel really good about is we have confidence in everyone in that room,” Eichel said. “I think that’s what makes our team special.”
Special but not an anomaly in net, either. Before 2022, only four previous times in league history had a team gotten five wins each from two different goaltenders — Colorado became the fifth, and Vegas joined as the sixth.
Now five teams have won the Cup with two goalies sharing the duties, with three of them coming within the past decade, a testament to depth in the crease being worth just as much or more than anywhere else in the sport.
AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl
Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press