Stanley Cup Finals - Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings - Game Seven

Like I said on Monday, Jarome Iginla is significantly better offensively than Brenden Morrow and can play a buttload of effective minutes most nights. The beauty of the Pittsburgh Penguins trading for Jarome and why it’s more significant than the Morrow trade is that Iginla is more beloved in the hockey world than Morrow, and I say that with all due respect to what Morrow accomplished in Dallas.

But in Canada, particularly out West, we’ve been watching Jarome Iginla on national TV since the days there were two national games a week on Hockey Night and not much else. If Jarome Iginla has a defining year of his career, it wasn’t 2004 when he and Mikka Kiprusoff dragged a team with Oleg Saprykin and Chris Simon in the top six to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals. It was moreso in 2002, when Iginla, still virtually anonymous in everywhere but Western Canada, Iginla scored 52 goals and 96 points to win the both goal- and point-scoring titles, and would have won the Hart Trophy if Calgary had made the playoffs.

Iginla was also one of the most key members of the Canadian Olympic team that won the gold medal in 2002. His assist on the Golden Goal in Vancouver almost dwarfs his other significant international hockey accomplishment. Iginla scored twice in Canada’s 5-2 win over the Americans in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City, with a late slapshot goal that barely trickled in as Mike Richter got a good piece of it.

(go to 2:33)

It’s one of the best goal calls of all time. Bob Cole was calling the game for CBC along with Harry Neale and was in his absolute prime. He calls out “GOAL” and “SCORE” simultaneously and ends up yelling “GORE”. Joe Sakic clinched it a few minutes later and I don’t remember exactly how I felt any other time during those games than the elation I felt surrounded by family as Canada won its first gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years.

Jarome wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t even supposed to go to Canada’s 40-man orientation camp that summer, purely on the basis that he wasn’t really all that well-known. In 2001, Jarome Iginla was just a good player playing for a bad team that wore a funny jersey with a horse with fire as its boogers. Simon Gagne went down with an injury at the camp and Wayne Gretzky got on the phone with Jarome to bring him to the camp. His strong performance at the camp, and subsequent breakout in 2001-2002 landed him a spot on the team.

Not that we don’t love Morrow up here as well, but his big credential is consistency. He’s the type of player you look back on in 2007 and look at the number of 20-goal seasons he had and say “hey, this guy is pretty good” but he never captained a Canadian franchise or a sad bit of familiarity for fans of Western Canadian hockey teams who got to watch their teams get crushed by the Colorado Avalanche for the better part of seven years after they moved from Denver.

Part of the acquisition cost of Iginla—because really, how much is an above average scorer worth for 14 games plus a playoff run—comes from the fact that seeing Iginla lift a Cup will be one of the Pittsburgh franchise’s greatest moments. Colorado retired Raymond Bourque’s number, and despite having this juggernaut team with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy for close to a decade, everybody remembers Sakic handing Bourque the Cup after they knocked off the Devils in the seventh game of 2001. I think enough people in the hockey world just want to see Iginla win so badly that a moment like that could become a famous one in the Youtube era for the Penguins, and that’s always cool. Heck, they can hang his number next to Mario’s after it’s all over.

Or maybe not.

I don’t think the Penguins are the clear-cut favourites in the Eastern Conference, though. I’ve mentioned it on Twitter a bunch of times that the Penguins are still well-below teams like the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens (!!!) in puck-possession statistics. Those stats, while they seem counter-intuitive, are predictive of future success. I do take issue somewhat with the way that Hockey Analysis calculates it’s Corsi Tied % (it eliminates plays that came 10 seconds after a faceoff win, because shots resulting from a faceoff win tend not to lead to goals) but the Bruins are ahead of the Penguins in the Fenwick Close rankings over at Behind the Net as well.

The Penguins are improved, but Iginla hasn’t been a good possession player since about midway through the 2011 season. He can still score goals, but he is getting old and I don’t know if he can help the Pens fix their issues in their own zone by keeping the puck out of it. That’s not Brenden Morrow’s game either, or Dougie Murray’s. As upset as the Bruins are that Iginla wound up in Pittsburgh, if they can convince Steve Tambellini to let Ales Hemsky go in the next few days, they’ll wind up with the best player out of the two favoured Eastern teams at the deadline. Hemsky isn’t as sexy a name as Iggy, but he’s younger and I think has more to offer when you consider that half of hockey is preventing pucks from going in your net as well.

Still, what’s amazing about Pittsburgh’s dandy coup is it didn’t cost them a single guy off their roster. I didn’t like Joe Morrow-for-Brenden Morrow in a vaccuum, but they got both Morrow and Iginla for a defensive prospect, two college seniors and a late first round pick. That’s incredible.

They aren’t, though, unbeatable. The be-spectacled Jesse Spector wrote an excellent column about this very issue. A lot of analysts are already sizing up the field’s chances for winning a Cup, even though the favourite in any given year can only expect to win about 22% of the time thanks to the random chance that occurs over the course of a hockey game.

There’s the potential to run into a hot goalie (at this moment, the Penguins could face Henrik Lundqvist in Round One) and not even get into a final showdown with the Bruins in the Eastern final. Remember, the Penguins have won a single playoff series since their Stanley Cup and despite being healthy and favourited last season against Philadelphia, couldn’t defend worth a lick or get a save.

I think the best team, as does Spector, lies out West:

Enter the Los Angeles Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions and No. 1 possession team in the NHL in 2013. The Kings’ Corsi percentage — the ratio of their shot attempts at 5-on-5 to their opponents’ tally — is 57.5 percent, an incredible 2.9-point margin on the East’s top team in that regard, the Bruins. The Kings also have the NHL’s highest rate of offensive zone faceoffs, at 36.2 percent, and as the seventh-best team in the league at winning draws, that means Los Angeles has the puck quite often in its opponents’ end of the ice.

Go back to last year’s playoffs, and this was part of the Kings’ recipe for success. Even though Los Angeles was constantly playing with the lead, the Kings still had an average shots-on-goal margin of plus-3.6. By continuing to apply pressure, Darryl Sutter’s team has posted an .857 winning percentage this season in games where they have scored first, second in the league to the Blackhawks’ .882 mark. And the Kings are two spots higher in the Western Conference standings now than they were when they embarked on their Cup run a year ago.

The Kings’ have recently started turning their Fenwick Close % into wins. They’re now 4th ranked in the Conference and almost within striking distance of the suddenly cold Anaheim Ducks. As we saw last year, the Kings are a dangerous team in the playoffs because all they need is a goalie who is playing at an equal level of the guy across from him. If Jonathans Quick or Bernier get hot, they become dominant, which is what happened last postseason.

So it’s not all fun and games, as much as I think everybody would love to see Sidney Crosby present the Cup to Jarome Iginla, the anti-stats crowd uses this quote quite often: the games are played on the ice, not on paper. On paper, the Pens look loaded. On the ice, there’s still a lot of work to be done…