We honestly started this with no real motive or theory.
WHAT WE FOUND
We have all the data laid out in beautiful charts. Put on your math caps.
1. We used Stanley Cup Finals box scores from Hockey Reference for a bulk of this analysis. We wanted to do nationality breakdowns of individual NHL rosters over the past 25 years, but that would've been Vietnam. Instead, we went to the Cup-clinching game of every season, which ended up making a lot of sense because the Cup is the ultimate goal and those rosters would be the ride-or-die lineups for those teams. Unfortunately, box scores are not available for Finals games prior to the 1987-88 season, which is why that season marks the beginning of our data sets.
2. There are some European players that we couldn't find a solid system for in determining what country to list them under. Darius Kasparaitis, for example, is from Lithuania but plays for the Russian National Team. Since we're doing Euro/NA breakdowns, it's a subset of information that isn't relevant in the grand scheme of things. There were less than a dozen players in the 70-some rosters we looked at that fell into this trap. We counted players like Jim Paek and Craig Adams as Canadian. They were born outside of North America but would play for the Canadian National Team.
3. When placing the Pens' current roster into a proper European/North American context, we are only referencing seasons dating back to 1991 since our data shows that was the first season that saw a dramatic increase in European players. This chart from QuantHockey proves as much:
And with that, let's go.
If you want to know why long-time Pens fans appreciate and/or hate European players, look no further than the rise of Europeans between 1996 until 2001. If you are into conspiracies, we got one for you. Notice how the Euros go up when a certain number 66 retired? More viably, that trend reflects the Pens' efforts to possibly placate Jagr and surround him with a lot of his fellow countrymen. The 2000-01 season saw 11 Czech players dress for the Pens. Upon Jagr's departure, the Pens found themselves with tons of low-rent Europeans, which turned out to be the best way to do business for those cash-strapped teams.
The drop of Europeans on the Pens' roster definitely coincides with the league-wide drop coming out of the 2005 lockout, with the lockout obviously forcing Europeans to head back home and eventually stay there. Couple that with the KHL starting up in 2008, and we are seeing a downward trend in Europeans.
– We wanted to see if that 2000-2001 team had the most Czechs ever on an NHL roster, but that would involve going through about 600 rosters. Probably safe to say they're up there.
– It's not really hidden on that final chart, but the Stanley Cup winners and runners-up have been below the league base since 2003, save for some pesky Red Wings teams and last year's Devils team. Basically every spike in the graph means the Red Wings were involved.
15:4 is the mix. Now, there are a few teams that bucked the trend each way. Every Red Wings lineup was well off the average, while the '98-'99 Stars were North American city. What a team, by the way.
Save for the 2008 Red Wings, the chart could really reflect the trend evolving into a 16:3 average. Relatively speaking with a 19-man lineup, every player is significant.
– 1989-90 Oilers: Last Cup winner not to have a U.S. player on the ice for the deciding game.
15:4 average again. Interesting to see that Europeans have been making up more of the recent runners-up rosters. That spike in the middle of the 24-season trend is the 1999-2000 Dallas Stars. It's definitely trending toward fewer Europeans, save for the Red Wings and last year's Devils.
– 2008-09 Red Wings: Only Cup Finalist team ever not to have Canada as the dominant country in the deciding game. Wings dressed 7 Swedes to 6 Canadians.
– 1991 and 1992 Pens: Last two times a goalie switch has been made in the deciding game.
– 1989-90 Bruins: Last team without a European on the ice for the deciding game.
The European Defenseman Theory
While digging into the Stanley Cup rosters, we quickly noticed a trend: the presence of an elite European defenseman. If not an elite European defenseman, it was difficult not to find at least one European defenseman on every blue line. For those keeping score, the Pens currently do not have a European defenseman on their roster.
Over the past week, we've been discussing this European Defenseman Theory with some people, and the most common response/criticism was something along the lines of, "Given the percentage of Europeans in the NHL, every team is bound to have at least one European defenseman." And that was largely proven correct. There are 3 thorns in that argument's side, though: the 2006-07 Ducks, the 2000-2001 Devils, and the 1992-93 Canadiens.
Here are the blue lines for Cup winners and runners-up. Click to enlarge.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar, Sergei Zubov, Zdeno Chara, among others. We aren't ignoring the fact that our theory was saved by defensemen like Slava Voynov, Tommy Albelin, Brian Glynn, and Toni Lydman. But the fact remains they were on the blue line.
24 Stanley Cup winners: Euro defenseman led the blue line in points 8 times.
24 Stanley Cup runners-up: Euro defenseman led the blue line in points 9 times.
Remember, given the European boom starting in 1991, we are only looking at rosters back to that year.
Let's look at the three blue lines that have bucked the European Defenseman trend since 1991.
Two All-World defensemen. That playoff year, Pronger averaged 30:11 minutes per night. Neidermayer average 29:50. Get real.
Scott Stevens is already in the Hall of Fame. Only a matter of time for Neidermayer. Rafalski may get a look at the Hall if there's an off-year. Ken Daneyko is no joke, either.
This happened in 1993, which was two years after the 1991 European boom, but we still wanted to point it out. We have a newfound respect for this team.
– Desjardins is the only defenseman in NHL history to score a hat trick in a Stanley Cup Finals game.
– It will be interesting 5 years from now to come back and update these charts. There seems to be a trend toward having fewer Europeans. As it currently stands, more often than not, you need a mix. Four European players doesn't seem like a lot, but ask yourself where the Penguins would have been in 2009 without Malkin, Gonch, Fedotenko, and Sykora/Satan.
– The European Defenseman Theory is legit as it comes in our opinion.
– Shero's draft history is interesting. Seth Rorabaugh had a great breakdown of every team's drafts during the Ray Shero Era. Seth also conducted an interview with assistant General Manager Jason Botterill this past summer. It's a very interesting read. Seth pointed out that three of the four Euros the Pens drafted this past summer have North American experience.
Given Shero's quote at the top of this post, we're not even kidding when we say we wonder if they would have drafted Malkin under Shero/Bylsma. Probably would have drafted Blake Wheeler or something.
With Bylsma at the helm, Europeans have become a nonfactor. The only Euros added to the roster have been Zbynek Michalek, who happens to be a defenseman, and then deadline acquisitions Alex Kovalev and Alex Ponikarovsky. It's not a state secret that Kovy and Poni weren't Bylsma's favorite players of all time. And when it comes to the curious Michalek trade this past summer, Mike Colligan's investigation into the matter is an eye-opener.
When respected guys like Seth and Colligan make it a point to bring up this organizational trend with the Pens, it goes to show that this isn't a witch hunt. Only time will tell if the shift away from European players will come up roses for Shero and Co.
Hockey Reference: Stanley Cup Finals box scores. At that link, you click the year, then click the Stanley Cup Finals, which drops down a hidden menu with links to the box scores.
QuantHockey: Nationality percentage stats. The bottom of the page has links to the individual seasons.
QuantHockey: Player nationalities and Penguins rosters.
Here is the Pens roster we used in determining the hypothetical 19-man Stanley Cup Final roster: