Recently, the importance of earning championships (described by proxy as counting the number of rings) has gained new prominence in the sporting world. It’s an idea that has existed as long as “best” awards have been given, but it has been perpetuated to a greater degree by the endless “debates” on ESPN. Particularly, the title “greatest of all time” is thrown about and discussed rather loudly by Smith, Bayless, and their ilk when comparing LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or the most popular NBA player of the week. Inevitably the conversation comes around to the number of championship rings and the pundits all agree that the count is crucial.
Perhaps in basketball this is a serious consideration. After all, an individual makes an enormous impact on the hardwood. Quite often, the five starting players account for the majority of the play time in a game. But that’s not true in other sports. One great hockey player can’t necessarily elevate the entire organization if they’re only playing 20-30 minutes per 60 minute game.
And yet soon enough we’re going to see the stream of stories that loudly exclaim the “failed season” in Pittsburgh because it didn’t result in a Cup, that their greatest stars were vanquished when they seemed fated to rise above. Quite suddenly, those 48 games before will become meaningless (and the 2 series before them too).
This leads me to two different lines of thought. The first is accompanied by an eye roll: four games against the hottest goaltender in recent memory (Rask with a .985 for the series! .985!!!) somehow throws aside years of success for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Such a sample size is laughable, but apparently I’m going to need to chuckle a bit louder. Already the sharks are surrounding the false-blood to proclaim the ineptitude. And also forgotten is a successful playoffs before the Eastern Conference Finals; both Crosby and Malkin finish with greater than a point per game pace. It is essentially impossible to label either player as a “failure” at any point in their careers. That they were bested by an insane netminder doesn’t change their status as two of the best players in hockey.
The second line of thought is on the very nature of the ring-counting. Particularly in hockey, it’s a nearly-meaningless endeavor. Consider: Steven Stamkos doesn’t have a Cup. Does his elite goal scoring become less valuable because he can’t clone himself and be all twelve forwards on a team? Do we honor the Buffalo years of Dominik Hasek any less because he couldn’t will the whole squad to win it all? Is Mario Lamieux’s 199 point season any less mind-blowing for not resulting in a ring? Was Ray Bourque worthless in Boston?
Alternately: is Marc-Andre Fleury an elite netminder for having a ring? Does Chris Osgood’s standing improve just because he played on the Red Wings? How about Brett Lebda? Should we count Henri Richard as the greatest player of all time because he has the most rings earned as a player? Do you think Brian Gionta is a better player than Patrick Marleau because of his one Cup?
Too often, we let ourselves get caught up in the mania surrounding the playoffs. At most, a player will get 27 extra games per postseason to perform and that’s hardly enough time to gather real information. Repeated over many years, maybe then we can get a hint, but throwing aside regular season performance is ill-advised.
Joe Thornton shouldn’t be disparaged for lacking a ring. His individual regular season and post season contributions are phenomenal, despite what the end-of-playoffs narrative always seems to preach. He’s an easy hall-of-famer and the best player of his generation. Sidney Crosby is still the best player on earth right now and his name shouldn’t be dragged through the mud for a four game luck drought. A few games in June don’t stop him from being the greatest.
And of the clubs that remain? Shawn Thornton doesn’t become a legendary player if he comes away with a third Cup. Jonathan Toews doesn’t lose his status as an elite center if he falls short. Drew Doughty doesn’t need a second Cup to prove his worth as one of the best d-men in the sport today.
The Cup is a wonderful team reward, the culmination of strong play by an entire squad and (more than a bit of) luck. To judge individual career legacy based on playoffs is tempting, especially now as we’re enveloped by the purported failings of the Penguin superstars. Don’t fall victim to the hype. Don’t be the next Stephen A. Smith.