If you read an article on winning Stanley Cups, odds are good you'll find plenty of talk about strong goaltending, taking advantage of the power play, clutch goal scoring, and that all important intangible "veteran leadership". What you are less likely to find, however, is any talk at all about another, equally important category.
To win a Stanley Cup, a team must be equal parts lucky and good. Some of that luck comes in the form of players having big years at the right time. You could definitely say that about the 2010-11 Bruins, who are enjoying huge, and somewhat unexpected, production from Tim Thomas, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and to a lesser extent from Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. Did anyone seriously believe that Thomas would not only win his job back, but would be a leading contender for his second Vezina Trophy? Or that Lucic would suddenly become a 30 goal scorer? Or that Marchand would score 20 and have an outside shot at winning the Calder Trophy?
But there's another aspect of luck that I'm looking at here: injuries. Injuries have a definite element of predictability, to be sure; players who consistently miss games to injury are more likely to do so in the future. Whether it's poor conditioning, a genetic abnormality, pre-existing injuries, an ultra-aggressive style of play, or what have you, injuries can often be predicted. There's a reason I promised to swear off veal next season if Andrew Ference played 78 games; Ference hadn't played 60 games in a season since 2006-7. Contrast that with the absurdly durable Mark Recchi, who's missed fewer games in the last 9 years than Ference did last season.
Over an 82 game season, every team will lose players to injury, however predisposed to injury their roster may be. If a team is lucky, that total will be low. A healthier team is a more successful team come playoff time. The 2009-10 Boston Bruins were decidedly not such a team. Marc Savard lost half the season, Milan Lucic missed 32 games, and neither was the same after returning to the lineup. Thomas had a hip problem that didn't cost him time, but obviously cost him effectiveness. Ference lost 31 games and Mark Stuart 26. Marco Sturm, Dennis Seidenberg, and David Krejci all played almost the entire regular season, but each suffered season-ending injuries either on the eve of, or during, the playoffs. Save for Ference, none of those injuries were predictable. By game 7 of the Philadelphia series, the Bruins were a MASH unit. It was not amazing that Boston blew a 3-0 lead, the amazing thing was that they had it in the first place.
The 2010-11 Boston Bruins have been much more fortunate. With a similar roster, the Bruins are second in the NHL in fewest man-games lost to injury. (Or, if you prefer, 29th in man-games lost.) What's more, unlike many of their Eastern Conference rivals, they enter the playoffs healthy. Philadelphia is missing Chris Pronger, Pittsburgh is missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington and Montreal are missing so many defenseman that the 2005-6 Buffalo Sabres called to offer condolences. Boston is missing Savard, probably forevermore. And while that's unfortunate, even that was turned into a positive, since they used the cap space generated by moving him to injured reserve to acquire Tomas Kaberle.
As proof of concept, I decided to see how recent Stanley Cup champions had fared in the man-games lost to injury department. Unfortunately, the data on this is hazy at best, since it's not published as an official statistic. Since the lack of reliable data made this something of a back-of-the-envelope exercise, I decided to look at the core players from each champion since the lockout, and any significant time they missed:
2009-10 Blackhawks - Marian Hossa missed 25 games, but those were at the start of the season; he was healthy for the last 2/3 of the season and playoffs. Brian Campbell missed 14 regular season games and 3 first round playoff games.
2008-9 Penguins - Sergei Gonchar missed 57 regular season games, but just 2 playoff games. Tyler Kennedy missed 15 games, Ruslan Fedotenko 17 and Hal Gill 20, but none missed any time in the playoffs. Of course, it is a stretch to say that Penguins team had a "core" beyond Crosby, Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
2007-8 Red Wings - Brian Rafalski missed 9 games, but none in the playoffs. Johan Franzen missed 10, and 6 playoff games (mostly in the Conference Finals). Niklas Kronwall missed 17 games and Daniel Cleary 19, but both were healthy for the playoffs.
2006-7 Ducks - This team might be Exhibit A for the value of good health; 8 guys played 82 games and all 21 playoff games, including all their core players, save Chris Pronger, who missed 16 games, and 3 in the playoffs.
2005-6 Hurricanes - Erik Cole missed 22 games and almost the entire playoffs, returning in time for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. Ray Whitney missed 19 games, but just 1 playoff game. Aaron Ward missed 11 regular season games, but none in the playoffs.
Only the Red Wings and Hurricanes were missing a key player deep into their Stanley Cup run. And with or without Cole, the Hurricanes had no grounds to complain about injury; that team had to be the most fortunate champion in recent history. First, the Ottawa juggernaut was derailed when Dominik Hasek got injured at the Olympics. Then, in the Conference Finals, they faced the aforementioned Buffalo team that lost three of their top four defensemen, and lost the fourth on the eve of Game 7. Finally, they met an Edmonton team that had absolutely no business in a Stanley Cup Final. And that's before we mention that Cam Ward picked the perfect moment to improbably transform from "replacement level goaltender" to "elite goaltender".
It's commonplace to say that teams shouldn't use injuries as an excuse. Maybe that's true for players and coaches, who need to keep their focus. But to us objective observers, it's pretty clear that injuries most certainly do count for something. Healthy players are better players, pure and simple. The recent history of Stanley Cup Champions seems to bear this out and I'm confident that if I went further back, it would still be the case. Sometimes injuries can be predicted, but often, they can't. Fair or not, it comes down to luck.
And luck counts for a lot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, just ask those Hurricanes.