Sometime next month the 2011-12 Stanley Cup champs -- either the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers -- will gather at centre ice for a photo with the big ol' trophy propped up in front of them.
There will be a number of toothless smiles and the assortment of playoff beards will make this bunch look like it has just emerged from a two-month trek through the Amazon jungle.
And in the euphoria of that moment all the aches and pains from all the welts, bruises, sewn-up gashes, busted limbs and swollen joints will all temporarily disappear.
Ultimately, it's that unwavering commitment and will to win that defines every Stanley Cup champion, be they the Boston Bruins of last June or past dynasties like the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.
Now, it was while watching the NHL's Western and Eastern Conference Finals unfold over the last week when a friend -- a diehard Winnipeg Jets' fan -- wondered aloud what separates our local squad from one day being part of this elite quartet.
Good question, we thought.
Some of the answers -- superior skill among their top-six forwards and a commitment to defence -- scream out to everyone who watched the Jets this past winter.
But with some help from Shane Hnidy, a man who owns a Cup ring from last year's Bruins squad and who now serves as the analyst on Jets broadcasts on TSN 1290, we decided to dig a little deeper.
Here are four elements that differentiate the NHL's Fab Four from the Jets...
1. STAR POWER...ESPECIALLY DOWN THE MIDDLE
One of hockey's oldest axioms states that a championship team must have a world-calibre goalie, a deep and skilled defensive corps and dominant play from the centre position.
And that much is obvious watching the NHL's Final Four.
"The teams left all have so much skill up front," begins Hnidy. "Plus, you see how important it is to have a shut-down centre like a Brian Boyle of the Rangers, who is 6-7. Even a Danius Zubrus (of New Jersey) who is 6-4, solid.
"And in L.A.... Anze Kopitar is what every team wants: A centre who is (around) 6-4, 225, and who plays both sides of the puck. Guys like (Patrice) Bergeron (of Boston) and David Backes in St. Louis... the Jets, just like everybody in the NHL, want those kind of players.
"I'm a big believer in the centre-ice theory. That's where you build a team."
There is this consensus about the Jets: They do have some solid pieces on defence and an emerging star in goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. But it's up front, particularly down the middle, where the NHL's elite have a decided size and skill advantage.
The Kings, for example, line up Kopitar (6-3, 227; 76 points), Mike Richards (averaged 65 points over the last five seasons) and Jarrett Stoll (6-1, 210) as their top three centres. Winnipeg's biggest centre -- the 6-6 Nik Antropov -- finished the season on the fourth line while Bryan Little and Alex Burmistrov, 1-2 on the Jets' depth chart, finished sixth and 10th in team scoring and will never stand among hockey's giants.
Jets' brass attempted to meet some of those size and skill elements in last June's draft with the selection of Mark Scheifele -- listed at 6-3, 182 and still growing -- but when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said at the end of the season he wanted his squad to get bigger, he was likely staring right at the centre position on the team's depth chart.
2. A COMMITMENT TO 'D' AND THEIR TEAM BLUEPRINT
The NHL's Final Four all have one key common ingredient: They defend like demons (all four finished in the top nine in goals against) and, most importantly, understand who they are and what makes their collective game work.
"I thought (Coyotes' captain) Shane Doan said it best last week: They are a team that wins because they put it on the backs of everyone in their room," said Hnidy. "If they don't have everyone pulling on the line, they're not going to win. That's how they have success.
"And you look at the teams left, that's how they all play."
The Jets finished the regular season 26th in goals against and, at various times this year, were either scoring in bunches or struggling to find the net and either capably defending or playing river-hockey. It was that crisis in identity -- and head coach Claude Noel was still attempting to hammer home the defensive commitment thing right into the final week of the season -- that cost the Jets a playoff spot.
Here's more statistical proof: The Jets gave up five goals or more in 16 games this season. By comparison, the Coyotes and Devils had seven such games, the Kings four and the Rangers just three.
As coaches are wont to say: defence isn't a sometime thing, it's an all-the-time thing.
3. A DOMINANT LAST LINE OF DEFENCE
And on those rare occasions when the defensive blueprint does break down, the Final Four can lean on this:
Two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists -- New York's Henrik Lundqvist and L.A.'s Jonathan Quick -- are still working their magic. And many others argued that Mike Smith of the Coyotes was worthy of spot among the Vezina's final three (Nashville's Pekka Rinne was the other).
Then there is Martin Brodeur, the 40-year-old four-time Vezina winner who has found another gear in the post-season.
What the Jets have in goal is Pavelec, who is coming off a career high in games played last season with 68. But his numbers this past year were down slightly and his .906 save percentage was the lowest of any goaltender in the league who played at least 60 games. Those numbers are telling, but they don't all point at factors like fatigue or Pavelec's need for further seasoning. They also highlight the Jets' overall defensive inadequacies. Put it this way: There were many nights this past winter when Pavelec faced more quality shots than Lundqvist might in a week of games.
"Honestly, defence is important, but I don't think that's an area where you need as many stars," said Hnidy. "I mean, look at New Jersey... can you name all their defencemen? L.A. has Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov, who I think is going to be great. But then they have Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene...
"All these teams play defence by committee and that's what really sets them apart. But they all have proven goaltenders behind them."
4. FINDING THE RIGHT MIX
Funny, isn't it, how teams that are successful all have wonderful "chemistry" while those often expected to win but whom ultimately fail are quick to find scapegoats? (See 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers, who shipped out Jeff Carter and Mike Richards -- now both with the Kings).
Those close to the 2011-12 Jets will insist this was a team with outstanding chemistry. What they lacked, quite clearly, was more skill. Getting the right blend of both is often what separates those who are posing with the Cup in mid-June from the 29 other teams left playing the angry witnesses.
"It's not easy to bring the right mix of guys together," Hnidy said. "I've played with a lot of great guys. I played on a lot of teams where it was a good bunch in the room. But last year in Boston was the first time where everything just fit. It was seamless, but it's just so tough to get that all together.
"Every team will say they are tight, but at this time of year there can't be any bumps in the carpet... it has to be perfect. And when it's like that, it's special."
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THE FAB FOUR VS. THE JETS
A look at some of the numbers of the Rangers, Coyotes, Kings and Devils and how the Jets match up:
|Goals||PG (rank)||Goals Against||PG (rank)|
-- None of the NHL's top-10 scoring teams are left in the playoffs.
-- The Kings finished second-last in goals scored during the regular season, but are averaging 3.18 in the playoffs.
|TEAM||Power-play percentage (rank)||Penalty-kill percentage (rank)|
|LOS ANGELES||17.0 (17th)||87.0 (4th)|
|NEW JERSEY||17.2 (14th)||89.6 (1st)|
|NEW YORK||15.7 (23rd)||86.2 (5th)|
|PHOENIX||13.6 (29th)||85.5 (8th)|
|WINNIPEG||17.9 (12th)||80.1 (24th)|
-- A deadly power-play is critical? Think again. Of the top-10 PP teams in the NHL during the regular season, four didn't make the post-season (Edmonton, 3rd; NY Islanders, 8th; Colorado, 9th and Toronto, 10th).
-- But a dynamite penalty kill IS critical: the final four teams all finished in the top 10, with the Devils, L.A. and Rangers all part of the Top 5.
-- The Devils average age is skewed by this: their two goaltenders have been around for a bit, with Martin Brodeur now 40 and Johan Hedberg 39.
Number of players per team achieving these totals:
|TEAM||20-plus goals||30-plus goals||50-plus PPG||70-plus PPG|
The Jets/Thrashers franchise hasn't had a 70-point man for the past three seasons. The last? Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 91 points for Atlanta in 2008-09.
DOLLARS AND CENTS
(Numbers courtesty capgeek.com)
|TEAM||2011-12 Cap Hit|
Chew on this -- the Jets top six forwards (Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov and Kyle Wellwood) earned a combined $13.9 million.
By comparison, the Kings' top six pulls in $29.1 million, the Devils top two lines earn $26.7 million and the Rangers $21.6.
-- Ed Tait