Last season, when the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks in six games, Chicago's depth advantage was seen as the key factor in its success. Beyond top stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, the eventual Stanley Cup champions were stacked with a huge arsenal of secondary talent including Dave Bolland, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Kopecky and more. Throughout the 2009-10 regular season, Chicago enjoyed a league-leading 49.2 goals of value above replacement-level from its third- and fourth-line players.
Consider last year's playoff matchup between Chicago and Vancouver:
While no one questioned that Vancouver's top-shelf players Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson could match the Hawks, the Canucks could ice only a handful of decent secondary talents, such as Kyle Wellwood, Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier and Jannik Hansen. Unfortunately for Vancouver, even those select few proved no match for Chicago's third-liners. As a percentage, the Canucks' depth players were responsible for only 16.7 percent of the team's non-goalie Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), the Hockey Prospectus metric that evaluates player value. That figure is the lowest among teams that made the postseason.
When watching that series, it certainly appeared that having a deep roster is one of the keys to going far in the long and physical postseason, and that relying too much on your top line is a recipe for an early exit. That may have been true in this particular case, but the data show that this is far from the rule. In fact, teams from the 2009-10 season whose depth players represented the larger percentage of team GVT were actually more likely to lose.
The teams that lost early that year had more depth, but only because their top lines weren't strong enough to compete. There were some stronger teams that also had great depth production, but there were others that lacked top-tier talent and therefore needed to spread out ice time. Since teams that relied so heavily on their secondary players were generally the weaker teams, it comes as no surprise that they would have a losing record in the postseason.
History is therefore not telling us that depth is a bad thing, but rather that it is far less important than how good the team is overall, regardless of where its goals come from. For instance, the team with the highest combined regular-season GVT won 11 of the 15 postseason series. If you ignore the first round, where lopsided matchups are more common, the teams with more depth won six of the final seven series. In short, where you have teams that are otherwise equal, like Vancouver and Chicago, that's where other factors, including depth, can become decisive advantages.
Let's take a look at 2010-11's playoff teams, all but one of which have more depth than last season's Canucks squad, and several of which are as deep as last season's Blackhawks:
The depth factor
Having strong depth can be important in the NHL postseason, but not if your team doesn't also have a formidable top line. By examining the collective GVT of a team's top line vs. its depth players, we can see which teams get the most contribution from their grinders. For a detailed decription of GVT, click here.
Team Top Line GVT Depth GVT Depth %
Pittsburgh 75.4 60.6 44.6%
N.Y. Rangers 75.6 55.0 42.1%
Buffalo 79.9 54.5 40.6%
Boston 86.9 51.3 37.1%
Philadelphia 109.2 45.9 29.6%
Tampa Bay 92.7 45.2 32.8%
Chicago 114.6 44.4 27.9%
Detroit 99.3 41.8 29.6%
Vancouver 124.6 40.1 24.3%
Nashville 69.8 40.1 36.5%
Montreal 64.4 40.0 38.3%
San Jose 108.1 39.7 26.9%
Phoenix 63.9 38.1 37.4%
Los Angeles 88.9 34.3 27.8%
Washington 95.1 32.5 25.5%
Anaheim 114.9 -0.4 <0.0%
The East is where you'll find the teams with as much depth as last year's Stanley Cup champions, but without Chicago's elite top lines, like the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. History suggests that Buffalo will fall short against an overall superior team like the Philadelphia Flyers, but that Pittsburgh's extra depth may give it the advantage against an otherwise equal Tampa Bay Lightning squad.
In the West, the first-round team to watch closely is the otherwise uninspiring Nashville Predators, whose depth might give them the edge they need to overcome the Anaheim Ducks, who rely almost exclusively on their big names.
There are many factors with varying levels of importance to postseason success, including puck-moving defensemen, goaltending and special teams. Depth is just one of those factors, and though it doesn't appear to be significantly more important than the others, when two teams are otherwise even, the team getting more of its production from its depth players has the advantage.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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