Superstars vs Depth: Re-evaluating Team Construction

As analysts from all parts of the hockey world have dissected each and every team in the NHL to pick out the Stanley Cup contenders from the pretenders, one factor seems to be universal in what separates the cream of the crop from the rest of the league is depth. We’ve seen it in recent years, with deep teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks roll four lines en route to bringing titles to their cities. When you have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrick Kane to anchor your team’s top units, then the combination of superstars up front and quality depth backing them up can be overwhelming for any team to handle.

But with the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the books, there could be reasons to start to re-think this idea that teams must have superstars at the top and high quality depth throughout the lineup. Two teams in particular stand out as examples of why this longstanding notion might not be as true as most pundits would have you believe. And of those two teams, one of them stands between the New York Rangers and a fourth trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in six seasons.

Out west, the Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off the defending Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks in six games. Throughout the season, the biggest question mark about Edmonton was their depth beyond Connor McDavid. However, despite lackluster production from most of the team’s other quality players, (Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins combined for 1 goal and 3 points in the series) they were able to cruise past San Jose. McDavid posted a team-leading four points in the series, and was able to lead his team past a battle-tested Sharks team, and into the second round where a very winnable series against the Anaheim Ducks awaits. Despite the team’s detractors concerned with the Oilers’ lack of depth being proven correct, it wasn’t enough to slow Edmonton down.

But why is that relevant to the Rangers? Because just like Edmonton, the Ottawa Senators are a decent-at-best team propped up by one otherworldly player, and that would be the soon-to-be three time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. For the third consecutive season, Karlsson was the NHL’s best defenseman throughout the season, and is a major reason why the Senators not only made the playoffs, but upset the Boston Bruins in their playoff series and have made it into the second round. Guy Boucher has elected to ride his top four defenseman extensively, which helps mitigate the fact that beyond Karlsson, Ottawa’s defense corps is absolutely atrocious.

When healthy, the Senators top four consists of Marc Methot and Erik Karlsson on the top unit, supplanted by Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf. Through five playoff games against the Boston Bruins, (Corsica is yet to update the data to include Game 6, so bear with me) Ottawa’s top four defenseman’s even-strength results are as follows:

Erik Karlsson: +7.78 Relative CF%, +16.66 Relative xGF%, +25.46 Scoring Chances For%

Marc Methot: -6.31 Relative CF%, +0.29 Relative xGF%, +3.74 Scoring Chances For%

Dion Phaneuf: -5.52 Relative CF%, -9.42 Relative xGF%, -16.55 Scoring Chances For%

Cody Ceci: -8.08 Relative CF%, -11.17 Relative xGF%, -18.49 Scoring Chances For%

So what can we conclude from this data? Well, for starters, Erik Karlsson was otherworldly good against Boston, despite playing with two hairline fractures in his heel. Whether the injury worsens the more Guy Boucher rides him throughout the playoffs, or if it will be mostly recovered due to the time off between series is yet to be known, but even at less than 100%, Karlsson is a player Alain Vigneault must game plan to stop.

Secondly, the rest of Ottawa’s top four is abhorrent, and must be targeted early and often if the Rangers plan on advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Wacky things can happen in a sample as small as five games, and as Ottawa plays more those metrics are likely to regress closer to average, but even still, the Phaneuf-Ceci pairing was a horror show for the Senators every time they hopped over the boards. Marc Methot was passable, but whether his success relative to his teammates his due to his own play or being paired with Karlsson is up for debate.

At this point, I haven’t said much that you don’t already know. Erik Karlsson is good at this whole “playing hockey” thing, the rest of his team isn’t quite as good. But here’s the thing: If Karlsson is as good as he was in the first round, it won’t matter that the rest of the Ottawa Senators aren’t quite up to par. Despite Ottawa’s non-Karlsson top four defenders being caved in on a regular basis, and their bottom two not playing much at all, the Senators still controlled the play against Boston throughout the series.

Over the first five games, Ottawa held the edge in Corsi For%, (52.52 vs 47.48) Scoring Chances For%, (52.02 vs 47.98) and Expected Goals% (51.36 vs 48.64). For all the talking heads around the hockey world that harp that depth is the most important asset a team can have, Erik Karlsson laughs in the face of those analysts. Although Ottawa is yet to embark on a deep playoff run with their star defenseman on board, this could be the year for them to do some damage if the Rangers underestimate them.

While Rangers-Senators may seem like a boring matchup to those not involved with either of the two franchises, it will serve as an interesting litmus test for two schools of thought in team building. With no true superstar skaters in their lineup, but solid depth throughout the forward corps, the Rangers serve as a model for what a team can be if they opt to roll “good” pieces throughout their lineup, rather than stack the top with superstars. Meanwhile, the Senators are the antithesis of that. Although players like Derick Brassard, Mark Stone, and Mike Hoffman are all solid players, they don’t have the same game breaking ability that Erik Karlsson possesses. Along with Connor McDavid and the Oilers taking on the Ducks, look for the second round of the playoffs to make pundits aware that one-man teams are serious threats to win the Stanley Cup.