Eurotrash Game and the NHL Playoffs

"I was shocked that it was this one-sided and I was really disappointed that these guys came with their, their, Eurotrash game. There was just no heart, no guts, no nothing there to back it up." -- Mike Milbury on CNBC, following Russia's 1-7 loss to Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

While most hockey analysts considered Milbury's comments to be over the board for live TV coverage, this stereotype voiced by Milbury did not surprise any seasoned hockey fans. This notion that Europeans that play in the NHL play without heart or guts has been around for a while. While Doug Wilson never stated it publicly, it is no secret that Sharks' general manager may be one of those believers in that notion.  Since he's been at the helm as a GM, he drafted 42 players that are not goalies.* Out of those 42, just 7 were Europeans. After drafting Milan Michalek and Marcel Goc in his first NHL entry draft, Doug Wilson decided to no longer pursue that route, and in the following six  drafts, he selected just four European players.

* For purposes of our analysis today, we're going to ignore goaltenders, because they play a very different role in the game of hockey.

The question is, does the statistical history of the past NHL champions confirm that the teams must be built on North American players to have "the heart and the guts" to compete in NHL playoffs? Actually, when we look at the numbers, the picture we see is quite the opposite.

For my sample, I took the last 15 Stanley Cup champions rosters. I first grouped the players into three categories (Europeans, Americans and Canadians) to calculate the percentage of Europeans versus Americans and Canadians on these championship teams. Second, I looked at the percentage of playoffs goals and points for Europeans, Americans and Canadians playing for their respective teams. Third, I calculated the points contribution per European vs per American and Canadian.

The key finding of my study was that out of the past 15 Stanley Cup champions (beginning with last year's Penguins and ending with '94 Rangers), only five teams won through predominantly North American players influence. The other 10 teams had to rely heavily on the offensive production of their European players to advance in playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.

I was going to post a chart here in this article, but I could not find a way to simplify a display of so many variables, so instead, I am posting an Excel spreadsheet you can download (link). Below are the other findings from my numbers crunching.

  • Contribution of points per category of players was the highest for European players on 10 out of the 15 championship teams, with the highest two being Red Wings team from 2008 (15 points per European on average, and 80% of all points in playoffs by European players) and Avalanche team from 1996 (21 points per European, and 36% of all points with only five Europeans on the roster). In other words, Europeans outperformed Canadians and Americans in points-per-playoffs run 10 times out of 15.
  • Only three teams out of 15 did not have a European as one of the top 3 player in scoring on the team - Hurricanes in 2006, Devils in 2003 and Stars in 1999.
  • The percentage of all points scored by Europeans for the four Detroit championship teams are as follows, beginning with the most recent one - 77%, 40%, 41%, 43%. The percentages of Europeans on those teams were 47%, 42%, 31%, 38%.
  • The most Canadian team in that stretch of time was Anaheim Ducks of 2007 (69% of all players were Canadian). The most European was Detroit Red Wings of 2008 (47%). The most American team - Devils of 1995 (45%).

I'd love to see Mike Milbury tell Evgeni Malkin or Henrik Zetterberg or SergeI Fedorov or Peter Forsberg that they have no heart or guts.

How does this all apply to the current Sharks squad? The club that Doug Wilson built since he's been a general manager of the Sharks is dominated by North American players. Of the 30 players that have played for the Sharks this year, only two are European - Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin. Nine are American, and 19 are Canadian. This is the team that Doug Wilson assembled, and if numbers tell us anything, they show that Wilson believes that he needs Canadians and Americans to compete for the Stanley Cup. As we pointed already, this is not just Doug Wilson's short terms strategy. Since this is also how he's been drafting young prospect, this is how he sees the future of this club long term.

Only the Hurricanes, the Lightning, and two Devils teams from 2003 and 2005 won the Cup without a major European influence on their rosters. My concern is that this current Sharks team plays a very different kind of hockey than the Hurricanes or the Devils.

Doug Wilson has been preaching from the beginning that he wants the Sharks to play like the Red Wings. He even went out and hired Todd McLellan from Detroit who arrived with the mission to implement Detroit's system. This is what McLellan said shortly after he arrived to San Jose:

There are a lot of things I brought over from Detroit. There are no secrets to anyone watching the game, we are trying to play that way.

Thus far, in almost two seasons of McLellan being here, the puck possession system has not worked as consistently as the coaches would have hoped. I have not seen too much of puck possession in action since the Olympic break. The Sharks also struggled against other puck possession teams, Detroit and Chicago. To be fair, it did take Scotty Bowman more than one season to implement his system in Detroit, as they struggled to win in playoffs in the first half of the 90s. But one of the key elements was to bring in the right people for that job, and for Scotty Bowman, that meant bringing a lot of Russians who grew up playing this style of the game. As Russian well dried up over the years, Detroit became Team Sweden's training camp and today they remain one of most European teams in the league.

Besides knowing how to control the puck without dumping and chasing the puck, Europeans bring skills to the table. While we talk a lot about the heart and the grit around here, not much is being said about the Sharks lacking pure skills players. Rangers had Kovalev, Red Wings had Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk. The Avs had Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk and even the Ducks had Sellane. Even the Sharks during their most successful playoffs run in 2004 had that player on their roster in Alexander Korolyuk. It's those kind of players that can enter the zone on their own without dumping the puck in. It is those kind of players who can take the puck, skate past several players and score a highlight reel goal.

Once again, the games have to be played before we know the outcome of this season. But besides being Todd McLellan's team, or Joe Thornton's team, or Dan Boyle team, the Sharks are also Doug Wilson's team and he bears just as much responsibility for the results as anyone else. This is the mix of the players he assembled for another Stanley Cup run. Whether it is the right mix of nationalities and skills or not, Doug Wilson made his bet. Either way, the mix of players is just one of many things by which his work will be judged when this season is over.