For everyone in Canada and a vocal minority of people in their neighbor to the South, this week is the most joyous week of the year: the start of the hockey season. Whether you're a fan of a serious contender like San Jose or one that just thinks they are like Washington, it's a completely new page, where anything is possible and the mantra of "Why not us?" resonates in the empty, cavernous arenas.
Unfortunately for some, the immutable physics that underlie the sport have essentially already ruled them out. Their problems may be subtle (Edmonton; team depth) or obvious (Buffalo; everything) but it's a cold fact that the NHL remains the major sporting league with the least amount of parity; instead of the NFL's Any Given Sunday, it's more like Just As We All Thought.
But while you can pinpoint with some accuracy who the likely contenders for the Stanley Cup are, there is still quite a bit of variance in the actual winner once you narrow down the field. An injury might derail the odds-on favorite (Detroit, 2004), or their defense and goaltending could completely and utterly fall apart (Pittsburgh, 2010-2014). Once you get past a certain threshold and metaphorically get your skate in the door, luck and the rules of variance need to be in your favor.
With those two concepts in mind - and knowing that the second one is somewhat out of the control of us mere mortals - we can stand on our two feet and proudly say that the Boston Bruins will be the Stanley Cup Champions.
Let's start with the most important position: goaltender. Boston boasts Savolinna, Finland's own Tuukka Rask, the defending Vezina Trophy winner and runner-up for the title of worst hair for a professional athlete. (No one can touch Andrew Bynum on this. Go do a Google Image search.)
Rask's Vezina was immensely justified, as he led the league in shutouts and was the only goaltender to finish in the top four in both goals-against and save percentage. (Sorry, Josh Harding: 29 games is a season in the same way that mozzarella sticks are dinner.) Indeed, according to numberFire's Similarity Scoring Model, Rask's top statistical comparables include Roberto Luongo 2010-2011, J.S. Giguere 2007-2008 and Jonathan Quick 2011-2012, all of whom were in the top three goaltenders that year, completely with 35+ wins and playoff runs.
Moving up the ice from the net, we move on to defense. You don't need a mathematician to explain to you why Zdeno Chara is an absolute force; you just have to picture in your head what a 6'9" person on skates would look like if he were playing defense on you. Sort of like a octopus on ice, right?
But it's not just Chara; it's the young guys like Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton, who combine for 42 years of age and over 13.4 points-shares between them, the highest combination of any defensive duo under the average age of 23. Not only that, no Bruins team under long-time coach Claude Julien has finished outside of the top 10 in goals against, and we're talking seven years at that. Not a fluke.
So let's recap so far: elite goaltender, and elite shut-down defenseman to go with top young defensive pair in the league. Not bad, right?
On the offensive side, it's true that Boston can't claim a superstar of their own; there's no Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Jonathan Toews. But what they lack in pure star power, they make up in depth: there is no line on the Bruins that cannot hurt you. When you look at the separation in points in between lines, typically you see a 20-25 percent drop-off as you go down the ladder - a first-line trio typically combines for 160 points, the second-line trio for 120, and so on. Not so with the Bruins: their top scorer was David Krejci on the first line with just 69 points, while their seventh best scorer was third-line center Carl Soderberg with 48 points, just a 30 percent drop off over two lines and seven spots.
Compare that to other contenders. Pittsburgh's drop-off was 73 percent between Sidney Crosby and Olli Maatta, while Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles was 57 percent. The kind of depth that Boston rolls out ensures they can attack you any number of ways, and is resistant to line-matching on home ice - they can simply interchange and exploit your weakness. Imagine an NBA team that had no LeBron, but instead two whole rotations of Serge Ibaka. How would you defend that team? They'd have 40 blocks a game!
And while we're on the topic, who needs a true stud, anyway? The Kings' top scorer was Anze Kopitar with 70 points, just a shade over David Krejci's, with more games played and demonstratively more time on ice.
Don't get it twisted: this is not to say that the Bruins are a shoo-in. By our metrics, they only sport a 20.4 percent chance of lifting the Cup. While that in and of itself is not a large number in an absolute sense, it's large in a relative sense: the Kings take second with 10.7 percent, while the Patrick Kane-led Blackhawks come in third with 9.3 percent.
Whether you bleed the red of Le Habitantes or the hallucinogenic, what-designers-in-the-1960s-thought-the-future-would-look-like orange of the Philadelphia Flyers, this week is a time to be optimistic, so don your jersey and shotgun a Labatt as your favorite team hits the ice for another year of hockey. Unless you're a Bruins fan though, don't expect too much; there's always next year.