(This post originally appeared at Canucks Army) on The Nation blog network.
One of the most persistent memes that has cropped up since the Canucks lost in the cup finals is the club needs to get tougher. Or, from another angle, the Boston Bruins won because they “bullied” Vancouver. Tony Gallagher says as much here:
The difficulty comes just where it came this year in the playoffs as teams like Boston and Nashville ground away at the best team in the league. It comes in the form of injuries to your players as well as the intimidation of the players who actually go on the ice and take the risks they do knowing there are lunkheads on the other team. How effective, for instance, will Daniel Sedin be in the six games against Edmonton if he knows Eager is perfectly free to take a run at him and try to put him through the boards and all that might happen is a suspension to a team with little chance to make the playoffs.
Cam Charron recently deflated this line of thinking at Nucks Misconduct:
Fewer teams are employing the goon to keep their players protected, and with good reason. The r-squared (correlative) value between fights and wins this past regular season was .011. In the last ten years, the Canucks have shown an ability to win in seasons that they score a lot of goals (r-squared value of .582) and not necessarily an ability to win in seasons they rack up a lot of fight totals (r-squared of .081).
There’s even a lower correlation in the previous 10 Canucks seasons between goal total and fighting majors (r-squared of .052). Oddly enough, one of the first signings Mike Gillis made as the General Manager of the Canucks was to bring aboard Darcy Hordichuk, but under Gillis’ watch, the Canucks have seen their fighting totals dip from 63 in the 2009 season to just 33 this past season (this is including playoffs) and it has worked out quite well for them.
Or course, the persistent, intuitive narratives that surround fighters/toughness relative to the Canucks and Bruins series is part of a sort-of overarching meta-narrative that recurs every year after the cup is awarded: namely, fans and pundits crowning a new team building “model” based on the latest cup winner. Of course, the factors that contribute to a playoff run are rather complex, ranging from internal issues such as team construction and coaching as well as external ones like injuries, strength of opponent, luck and officiating. Unfortunately, usually only one or two facets of the cup winner is seized upon as relevant, the others discarded in the fog of time and the rush to emulate what was most celebrated or perceptually obvious.
When the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Ottawa Senators, for example, a similar explanation sprung up around the water-coolers: the Ducks were the toughest team in the league so fighting is bound to increase. Or, alternatively, the Senators lost because they weren’t tough enough. With the benefit of hindsight (as well as the failure of Burke’s much ballyhooed “truculence” to deliver similar results in Toronto so far), most can likely realize now how overly simplistic that supposed explanation was. The Ducks were indeed a tough squad – but they also featured two Norris trophy quality defenders in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, one of the most effective shut-down forward trios (Pahlsson, Neidermayer and Moen), a second line consisting of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner and a scoring unit boasting Teemu Selanne, Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald. Not to mention a functional JS Giguere before his big decline. So while the Ducks were probably tougher than the Senators, they were also deeper at pretty much every position, featuring stars both current and future. That is likely the reason they took the championship, moreso than their reputed machismo at least.
Other narratives have popped up in the intervening years. The urgent rebuild has gained favor ever since both the Penguins and Blackhawks went all the way. Both clubs featured high-end prospects gained through the noble pursuit of failure for a number of years, resulting in a sudden about face and ascent to the top of the standings. Of course, blowing things up doesn’t guarantee grabbing generational talents, plus both the Pens and ‘Hawks featured other capable NHLers throughout their rosters aside from the wunderkinds, but the common thread – the Cinderella story of each – is tough to ignore.
The truth is, the best way to vie for the cup is to simply be a very good team (see: Red Wings, Detroit). Find good players, keep good players, try to be as efficient as as possible with your contracts, etc. and then hope everything else falls into place. For their part, the Canucks have mostly been doing something right: they’ve won 103 games over the last two seasons and managed 220 points in the standings. Their cumulative goal differential over that period is +127. This doesn’t mean the organization shouldn’t be self-reflective or seek to improve – no club is perfect after all. However, Vancouver should avoid making knee-jerk decisions based on reductive explanations hastily culled from the final round of the playoffs.