Why clutch players are a complete illusion (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Why clutch players are a complete illusion (Trending Topics)

At this point, the Chicago dynasty has proven time and again that it simply Knows How To Win.

This is a team that is battle-tested and always comes out on top no matter how good the opponent. When chips are down, you can count on Chicago to win.

(Except when they don't, like 2014, 2012 and 2011.) 

There's a lot of hero-making that goes on this time of year, and no wonder. Guys lift up a big, shiny trophy three times in six years in the cap era — or hell, any era — and you say, “There go some Real Winners.” That's why so many second-pairing defensemen from those great Montreal teams are in the Hall of Fame. That's why Chris Osgood has any semblance of a chance at making it there too, and next year he won't be going up against Dominik Hasek. Win a Cup and you're a Winner, and that's something that follows you for the rest of your career and beyond.

And by just about any token, there are probably as many as four future Hall of Famers on Chicago's roster right now, as I'm thinking Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith at the bare minimum, plus their coach. A number of guys on this team are about to win their third Cups. All of that lends itself to this bizarre cult of personality surrounding the team.

As with anything in this sport, when a veteran team wins it's because they know how, and when a young team loses it's because they don't. Add in the reputation for winning in the past, and Chicago is the clutchest team in the NHL probably since the heyday of the 1980s Oilers. And what did that team have in common with this one?

That's right: A roster full of mega-talents.

It's easy to look clutch when you are better than everyone in the league year in and year out. Not to diminish the accomplishment of winning the Cup three times — because players, coaches, and front-office execs alike poured everything they had into this for an entire season — but it's easier for Chicago to win a Cup than, say, Anaheim or Tampa because they're simply better just about everywhere (and at least the latter is coming along nicely).

There's that famous story about how when the Oilers got swept in 1983 in the Cup Final, the group of 22-year-olds walked past the Islanders room and saw a bunch of beat-up old men applying ice to every part of their bodies. They say that this helped them to understand What It Takes To Win A Stanley Cup. So the next year they went out and did it. But that becomes, at some point, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; that is to say Gretzky, Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe and so on didn't necessarily need to understand the physical sacrifice, but rather had to continue to age toward their peaks. Everyone who was anyone on that '83 team was under the age of 24 (with all due respect to Lee Fogolin), and the Islanders were all pushing 30, meaning they started winning their Cups around their age-23/24 seasons.

But again, you have to look at the collection of talent. Those Oilers teams were utterly mortifying in terms of their embarrassment of riches, and these Chicago things are the closest thing to it this league is ever likely to see again (the contracts to Keith and Hossa being cap-noncompliant are what allows them to be able to squeeze any depth players at all under the cap ceiling). In 20 years, we'll look back and wonder how so many great players got fit onto a single team in the cap era.

And yet, there's more to winning than having the talent to do it. (Ask the Sharks.) They also have to be deployed expertly by their coach, and again, that's where Joel Quenneville really earns his paycheck.

Let's take, for example, the well-trod old theory that no one in the league is More Clutch than Jonathan Toews. The hockey media will happily attach any superlative you like after the word “Captain” any time he so much as successfully crosses the attacking blue line with possession in a Cup Final. “He's so wonderful. He's so great. He's so marvelous. Can you believe how lucky we are to even share a planet with him?” and so on.

And look, he's really good, but if you're going to point to a goal he scored in the second period of a losing effort as an ultimate sign of his undying clutchness — and this is precisely what happened in Game 4 of this series — then maybe you need to dial things back a little. Lots has been made of Steven Stamkos's lack of production in this Cup Final, but the only thing made for Toews and Kane has been excuses.

Which is fine because they Know How To Win. And, more to the point, Quenneville knows how to put them in positions where it looks like they Know How To Win.

A look at the numbers shows that Chicago as a whole really has been better in the third period than its opponents over the course of these playoffs. They haven't been, like, 2010-era Chicago dominant, but they continue to move the needle in the right direction at 5-on-5 as a group. But the thing that allows them to do that is, I think, their excellent top-four defensemen, and their ability to unleash a slew of Hall of Fame players — most of whom play two-way games — not in the third period, but the second.

In these playoffs, Quenneville's team has played to relative stalemates in most first periods, as margins are typically pretty thin there across the board, and the game is played with little being shown in either direction. The game, though, is wide open in terms of how much is generated.

(This chart also tells you they were insanely lucky to only concede a goal in one of their five overtime appearances; they were hopelessly outshot and considerably out-possessed.) 

But things get way, way, way open in the second period. Shot attempts both for and against, shots ending up on goal, scoring chances, and even goals for all explode as Quenneville deploys his more dynamic offensive players against opponents who have to deal with the long change, with greater frequency. This stands to reason; Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, etc. see increases in the percentage of even-strength ice time given to them, while the guys lower in the lineup or who aren't fully trusted yet — Andrew Desjardins, Teuvo Teravainen, Johnny Oduya, etc. — see theirs decline.

The Kane line in particular is also given a bump in offensive zone starts for what we can assume are similar reasons.

Now, you'll note above that the third period is the one that has the best overall possession numbers (and that's reflected in zone starts generally favoring Chicago as well), but that number doesn't show that Chicago typically tries to slow the game to a crawl when the third rolls around.

This makes sense. Chicago has entered the third period with a lead eight times — and won all eight of course — trailing seven times, and tied eight more. Being tied or out in front for 16 of 23 third periods is going to create some desire to play conservatively, which is generally Chicago's wont to begin with.

Put another way, unless you're trailing, you're really going to try to keep things as controlled as possible, and giving Toews a similar amount of ice time but way more offensive zone starts, which helps him exert more influence over the game in general, will help get you there.

NHL
NHL

But what that means is that in these playoffs, Toews for example has been on the ice for five goals for and one against in the third period (and indeed four of his 10 points have been scored during the final period of regulation). That manifests as clutchness. But that number lies so far outside even his elevated possession and shot numbers that you'd have to say it's luck on some level.

You'd also have to say his easier usage plays a potentially huge role; the difference in difficulty between a 41.7 percent OZS% in the first, second and all overtimes, versus the 46.6 percent he gets in that last 20 is huge, even if it doesn't look like much. 

Being able to slow the game down like this is a skill, and a repeatable one, especially when you have some of the best players on the planet. And Quenneville certainly does.

So it's not necessarily that Chicago is any more or less clutch than Tampa or their other playoff opponents. It's just that they're deeper (sometimes considerably so) and their coach probably has a better feel for how and when to use the players available to him when results mean as much as they do at this time of year. After all, as we've been reminded so many times before, this isn't their first rodeo.

It appears to us as a supreme knowledge of what it takes to win, because we only see the (admittedly damn good) puppets playing their way to another Cup, not the strings that guide them there. That's the sign of a world-class puppet master.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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