Duncan Keith (Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
The debate about which position matters most to a Stanley Cup-winning team is a passionate one. But given the play of Chicago's Duncan Keith and Tampa's Victor Hedman – & with due respect to goalies & No. 1 centers – the evidence is mounting you don't win a Cup without employing an elite-caliber defenseman.
It's the debate that never really ends – which NHL position do you absolutely need a star at in order to win a Stanley Cup championship? – and it likely won't end by the end of this column. But the impact of Chicago's Duncan Keith and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman on the 2015 Cup Final adds more evidence to what many see is an overwhelming pile of it that favors one position: you can win a Cup without a traditional No. 1 superstar center, and you can win one without a cream-of-the-cream-of-the-crop goalie, but you cannot hoist the most storied trophy in professional sport without the presence of a workhorse, perennial Norris-Trophy-candidate defenseman.
Keith has averaged more than 31 minutes through 22 games, and Hedman is leading his team with nearly 24 minutes of ice time on average. Both are arguably the respective Conn Smythe Trophy candidates as playoff MVP. They're out there virtually every other shift, usually taking on the opposition's top players. And considering how Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane have had scoring issues in this series, Hedman and Keith are doing what they're being asked to do in all aspects.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Seven of the past eight Cup-winners employed a blueliner who could command control of the play in a manner few of his peers could. Two of the past three years, the L.A. Kings have sent the gazelle-like Drew Doughty over the boards more than 27 minutes per playoff game. In Chicago's most recent two Cup wins, Duncan Keith has averaged nearly 28 minutes a game. When Boston won it all in 2011, Zdeno Chara was on the ice some 27.5 minutes a night. When the Red Wings won their last championship in 2008, Nicklas Lidstrom gave his team nearly 27 errorless minutes per game. The Pittsburgh Penguins were an anomaly in 2009 – Sergei Gonchar was their most-utilized defenseman at 23:02 per game – but when the Ducks won it in 2007, they had an incredible three defensemen averaging more than or a shade within 30 minutes each game (Scott Niedermayer and 29:50, Chris Pronger at 30:11, and Francois Beauchemin at 30:33). Take away just about any player from their aforementioned championship squad, and there's no assurance that squad would have its name etched on the Cup.
As we know, those Cup-winning teams had flaws in other areas. Boston's Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are phenomenal at their jobs, but neither member of the Bruins' championship squad in 2011 would be labelled a superstar on par with Sidney Crosby or Ryan Getzlaf. The Hawks won a Cup with Antti Niemi in 2010. The Wings won with Chris Osgood in 2008. The New Jersey Devils didn't have a truly dominant center when they last won it in 2003, but they did have Niedermayer averaging a team-best 24:29. And while Niedermayer paid ultimate deference to the last line of defense (as any blueliner who's played most of his career in front of Martin Brodeur probably should) in a recent interview with THN, he also knows that the playoffs are a game of minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on the other team's mistakes, and if you can send at least one smart and tough player onto the ice for nearly half the game if need be, your chances of winning it all increase dramatically.
"Maybe it's just as simple as that – if you're out there more, you've got a chance to impact the game to a greater degree," said Niedermayer, now an assistant coach with the Ducks. "Obviously, a goalie is pretty darned important. He's on the ice all the time. But a D-man is probably the next guy who'll be on the ice the most. To play 30 minutes of a 60-minute game, it's probably not really possible for a forward to do that and still be effective."
Niedermayer just had a close-up look at Keith in the Western Conference Final, and the Hockey Hall-of-Famer came away impressed with Keith on a number of levels.
"As with a lot of the best players, (you're impressed with) just how smart they are, how they see the game, the decisions they make," said Niedermayer, 41. "He's no different in what he does out there in that sense. And then there's his intensity. He's not a big guy, but he'll go in and win battles for a puck in the corner or in front of the net. Those things stick out for me."
It's closer to the truth to say you need elite players in two of the three main positions to win a Stanley Cup. But if I were starting a team today and had permission to take an A-1-level talent at either forward, on defense or in goal, I'd be taking a defenseman. The goalie market is flooded, and you usually don't get a shot at a No. 1 center unless you hit the jackpot with the draft lottery. But if you can identify and develop a skilled, dependable phenom on defense, the other areas become easier to address.