The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup without Kris Letang. Letang has not played a game since February 21. The Penguins defence was made up of players who had never had a vote for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. And yet the won. They won without putting defence first. And there is a lesson in that.
For as long as I can remember, the saying “defence wins championships” has been extolled on the masses. For years people believed and yet Pittsburgh won with a defence that should not have been able to win a championship. How? They built a forward group that could win a championship, had a defence that would not lose a championship, and goalies who could battle through a less that stellar defence.
The Penguins committed to having a stellar core of forwards by drafting Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and Sidney Crosby in 2005. They might have actually committed to them by not trading one of them at any point. The problem for the Penguins is it took a long time for them to figure out how to build a team around two high-end forwards and not a stellar group of defencemen. When Letang is healthy the defence becomes a lot better, but even then the Penguins strength is their forwards. When you have Crosby and Malkin supplemented by Phil Kessel and complimented by the likes of Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, that becomes the strength.
What can teams learn from the Penguins winning with the defence they won with: a team does not need elite defenders to win games, you need elite players and then players who are good enough that they do not bring those elite players down. The Washington Capitals should have been the first team to teach us this lesson. They have elite forwards and a defence that had enough good players that they could have won the Cup. Instead, they missed because beyond building a good team, a team has to have great luck to win.
There was an observation that the key to winning the Stanley Cup is not having an elite top pair and top line, but instead having a third pair and fourth line that will not burn you. Having a third pair and a fourth line that you can play regularly alongside elite players, in any position, who can take over the game seems to be a winning formula.
The lesson from Pittsburgh is elite wins, period. There is no elite “field” position that is more valuable than the other if the players are good enough. The Penguins were able to build a team that could withstand terrible injuries because they had the depth to do so. The Penguins have been built around elite offensive players for over a decade now, it just took until now for them to figure out that the defence only had to be good enough to not them games.