Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A way-too-in-depth look at 25 years of Stanley Cup handoffs

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the Stanley Cup handoff. The moment where Gary Bettman calls over winning team’s captain to accept the Cup is great, once you get past the boring speech and awkward photograph. But it’s what happens after that really gets me, as the captain chooses a teammate to receive the first handoff, then that guy chooses who goes next, and on down the line.

That first pass from Bettman to the captain is cool, but can feel corporate or manufactured (and occasionally downright awkward). The handoffs that follow are all about the players, and the way they decide to handle it can tell us a lot about how the team dynamic really works.

That’s a pretty awesome tradition. It’s a relatively new one, too. For most of NHL history, the captain got the Cup and his teammates just kind of mobbed around him. The first time most of us remember a handoff having some thought behind it was when the Oilers made a point of giving it to Steve Smith in 1987, a year after his notorious own goal ended their season. And it didn’t really become an annual thing until 1994, when the NHL formalized the Bettman process we’re used to today.

If we go back to 1994, that gives us a nice round 25 seasons to work with. That feels like something we should work with. I already did a first-handoff ranking a few years ago, so let’s do what we tend to do around here and dig even deeper. Like, probably too deep. Can I interest you in some Cup handoff analytics?

I went through the last 25 Cup winners and made a note of the first five players to get the Cup after the captain. (I couldn’t find all five for two teams; I’m missing the fourth and fifth players for the ’96 Avalanche and the fifth for the 2000 Devils.) Then I went through those players to figure out how they rated in various categories.

Here’s what I went looking for, and what I thought I’d find:

How many seasons had the player been in the league? I’m assuming that veteran players get the Cup first.

How many seasons had the player been on that team? I’m guessing that franchise lifers will have the edge, although I can remember a few guys who were new to a team.

Is this the player’s first Cup? I’m assuming these guys are more likely to get an early handoff.

Was the player an OGWAC (Old Guy Without a Cup)? A combination of the first few categories. We’ll use the definition from this year’s rankings: 33 or older with at least ten years in the league. I’m thinking this will be the biggest single factor, with OGWACs going right to the front of the line.

Was the player a star? I made a note of whether the player was a Hall-of-Famer, had won a major award (Hart, Vezina or Norris), or had played in an all-star game. Stars should probably have advantage.

Did the player win the Conn Smythe that year? I’d think that players who just had a monster playoff will be more likely to get an early handoff.

We’ll be looking at players only, so we’re not counting owners (Mike Illitch got the Cup first for the ’97 Red Wings) or coaches (Scotty Bowman famously took a lap with the Cup in 2002). We are counting players who were injured or otherwise unable to play, since it turns out there are a lot of them. That includes Vladimir Konstantinov, who was recovering from a career-ending car accident when he got the Cup first for the 1998 Wings.

Sound interesting? Maybe not, but I’ve already done the work so you’re stuck with me. Let’s see what we can learn, and maybe make some predictions along the way.

Observation #1: Sorry, kids, veterans get the Cup first.

No big shocker here. The average first-handoff recipient has been in the league 13.36 seasons by the time they get the honor. Even that’s actually a little misleading, because it includes Viacheslav Fetisov, who was nearly 40 when he was the first Red Wing player to get the Cup in 1997 but had only been in the league eight years.

The only other two players with less than a decade of NHL experience to get the Cup first were Konstantinov in 1998 and Curtis Leschyshyn in 1996. Konstantinov was obviously a special case. As for Leschyshyn, at 26 he’s the youngest player to ever get the first handoff, and it’s not all that close. If you’re looking for the story behind that, there really isn’t one, except that he’d been friends with Joe Sakic since they broke in together with the Nordiques and the traditional first handoff protocol hadn’t really been cemented yet.

Once the first handoff is out of the way, the older guys still tend to dominate. The average player to get a second or third handoff has been in the league 11.72 seasons, while a fourth or fifth handoff averages 10.34.

That’s not to say that the kids never get their hands on the Cup early. But in 25 seasons and 122 handoffs, I couldn’t find a single rookie. And I only found one second-year player (Tomas Holmstrom, who got it third after a breakout postseason in 1998), and just one in his third year (Milan Hejduk went fifth in 2001).

What it means for this year: If the Stars win, you might assume that Miro Heiskanen would be a leading candidate given how good he’s been this year. But if he was, the Stars would be breaking with tradition. And that’s especially true given how many older options the Stars have.

OK, sure, but what if Heiskanen stays hot through the end of the final and wins the Conn Smythe? Well…

Observation #2: Being a star in your prime doesn’t really matter. Neither does the Conn Smythe.

This one surprised me a bit. I expected veterans to be prime candidates for early handoffs, especially if they hadn’t won a Cup before. But I figured that a team’s best players would be next in line. Not really, as it turns out. Or at least, it’s far from a sure thing.

For example, Drew Doughty wasn’t a top-five handoff in either of the Kings’ championship years. Patrick Kane never got higher than fifth for the Hawks (and that was in 2015, not in 2010 when he’d just scored the OT winner). Evgeni Malkin has never had a top-three handoff for the Penguins, and while Nicklas Lidstrom was captain for Detroit’s 2008 Cup win, he never got top-five honors in any of 1997, 1998 or 2002.

That’s not to say that big stars never get the Cup early. Future Hall-of-Famers accounted for 25 top-five handoffs, including going first eight times. But most of those were guys who were near the end of their career; the only times that the first handoff went to a star in his 20s would be Mike Modano in 1999 and Scott Niedermayer in 2003, and they were both 29. When it comes to the kiddie table, even the big names have to wait their turn.

Maybe more surprisingly, the Conn Smythe just doesn’t seem to matter at all. In the 18 years that the Conn Smythe was awarded to a player on the winning team that wasn’t the captain, not one has received first handoff honors. Only Brian Leetch in 1994 went second, and only Tim Thomas in 2011 went third. Until Ryan O’Reilly last year, a Conn Smythe winner hadn’t received top-five handoff honors since that Thomas year. And O’Reilly only went fifth.

Bottom line: The voters might do a better job on the Conn Smythe than on the Hart, but the players don’t seem to care.

What it means for this year: This is probably bad news if you have guys like Miro Heiskanen, Tyler Seguin, Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov in your pool.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

No comments:

Post a Comment