Winning & Losing As A Team

The legend of Mark Messier remains alive and well today.  He was always regarded as a playoff-style player; in 1982-83 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers he scored 15 goals in 15 playoff games during his first lengthy post-season run, and he never looked back.  He was a key contributor to every run the dynasty-era Oilers took, and the New York Rangers were understandably thrilled to get him when he was finally sold off.

Messier’s reputation took that final leap as the captain of the Rangers in 1994.  Facing elimination in Game six of the Eastern Conference Finals, Messier helped the blue-shirts overcome a two goal deficit, scoring the tying goal, the winning goal, and the empty-netter that clinched victory.  Prior to the game, Messier had guaranteed a win; the combination of that guarantee and his performance that night has elevated him in the minds of many to the position of premiere leader in the National Hockey League.

What fans of Messier don’t like to be reminded of is his time in Vancouver (come to think of it, fans of Vancouver don’t like to be reminded of that either).  After difficulty getting a new contract from the Rangers, Messier signed a high-priced contract with the Vancouver Canucks.

Things went badly from the start.  Mike Keenan was the head coach in Vancouver at the time, and as he’d been coach when the Rangers won the Cup, the perception was that he was trying to transplant Messier as the heart of the team.  Trevor Linden, who to this day is probably the most popular player in the history of the franchise, relinquished his captaincy so that Messier could wear the ‘C’, and was traded to the New York Islanders shortly thereafter.  Adding to the mess was Messier’s insistence on wearing his traditional number, 11, a number that the Canucks had left unused since the tragic death of Wayne Maki, who had worn it previously.

Having come off a pair of franchise-player style seasons, Messier was hard-pressed to maintain his level of play with Vancouver.  In three seasons with the club, he struggled through injury, hit the 20-goal/60-point plateaus just once, and finished minus-10 or worse every year.  He never played in the post-season with the club, and he left it a diminished and unpopular player.

The point here is that no player, no matter how phenomenal a leader or skilled a scorer, can singlehandedly propel a team to success.  They might be able to take over a single game, or change the course of a series, or give their team that added ‘oomph’ that gets them over the hump, but no one player can make a bad team good or a good team bad.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a great example of that this season. 

Sidney Crosby is arguably the best player in the game today.  He has had his share of personal and team success, and he played a starring role for Canada at the 2010 Olympics.  In the minds of fans and many sports writers, he has also unquestionably demonstrated his leadership and his ability to turn a team into a championship squad.

Certainly that was the prevailing opinion entering last year’s second-round matchup between Pittsburgh and the surprising Montreal Canadiens, who had shocked the heavily favoured Capitals.  People like the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons waxed poetic about how the Penguins would win the series – not by virtue of being the superior team, but because Crosby was superior to Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin in pressure situations and as a leader of men. 

It didn’t happen.  The Penguins lost, and Crosby had a dreadful series.  Montreal, now christened as a team of destiny, promptly lost the next round to the Philadelphia Flyers and their patchwork goaltending, and those same Flyers went on to lose in the Finals to Chicago.

At the halfway point of this season, Sidney Crosby without doubt represented the pinnacle of offensive production in the NHL.  Through 41 games, he had recorded a staggering 32 goals and 66 points – numbers that had him on pace to handily win both the ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (Corey Perry went on to win it with 50 goals) and the Art Ross (given to Daniel Sedin by virtue of his 104 points).  Then he went down to injury.  Around the same time, Evgeni Malkin, another of the NHL’s top offensive players (he’s cracked the 100-point barrier twice in the last four seasons) was also lost.  

That left the Pittsburgh Penguins bereft of their two best players, both centers, to fend for themselves.  All they managed to do was improve on their previous season’s performance by five points, and now find themselves sitting pretty with a 3-1 series lead over a very good Tampa Bay Lightning team.

What’s the point of all this?  That Pittsburgh is the same team without Crosby and Malkin, or that they don’t need those players?  Hardly. 

No, the point of all this is that the star player needs a good team more than a good team needs the star player.  Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been difference makers for the Penguins, and it’s highly doubtful that the Penguins would have enjoyed the same level of team success without those players.  But it’s equally doubtful that Sidney Crosby would have enjoyed the same level of team success if he had ended up in Florida, or St. Louis, or Edmonton, or any of a whole range of similarly lacking teams.

That’s something that writers should remember before they start ranking players based on Stanley Cup rings.  the Edmonton Oilers won a Cup post-Gretzky; Gretzky never won a Cup post-Oilers.  Stanley Cup victories are not the product of any one star, no matter how capable, and pretending that they are diminishes the phenomenal work of the group of men playing on the bottom three lines and the bottom two defence pairings.  Resorting to Cup wins as the measure of a player’s value is not just lazy, it’s wrong.