When the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins met in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, there were a lot of grizzled hockey men with a lot of Stanley Cup Final experience buzzing around the ice. The two rosters combined for 315 previous Stanley Cup Final games played, or about seven games played per skater.
This made sense: The two teams met in the previous Stanley Cup Final, and Detroit’s roster featured five players1 who had played for its 2002 Cup-winning team — four of whom,2 remarkably enough, also played for its Cup-winning team in 1998. Thanks to ageless wonders like Kris Draper and Nicklas Lidstrom,3 2009 still ranks as the most experienced Stanley Cup Final — based on the number of previous career Cup Final games its participants have played in — since the NHL lockout of 2004-05.
Fast forward nine years, and there are no Drapers or Lidstroms involved in this Stanley Cup Final — there’s no one even close. Instead, this season is offering up the least experienced rendition of the NHL’s championship series, which is currently tied at one game apiece between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights, since the lockout. Between the rosters of the Golden Knights and Capitals, the players have combined for just 32 previous Stanley Cup Final games,4 according to data from Hockey-Reference.com. And only three of the 38 players who have taken the ice in the series have any Stanley Cup Final experience whatsoever.
This also makes sense, of course. Before this season, the Golden Knights weren’t a team, so there were no opportunities for large chunks of their roster to make one or several Stanley Cup Final runs together. Only two of their players have played in a Stanley Cup Final before: James Neal logged six final games for the Nashville Predators in their losing effort against the Penguins last season, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury appeared in 13 final games for the Penguins, six in 2008 and seven in 2009.
And while this Caps team — with an offensive core of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin that has been together for a decade — has been very good for a very long time,5 they were unable to advance to a final — or even a conference finals — before this season. Only Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik has Stanley Cup Final experience — he played 13 games, all directly in front of Fleury, as the Penguins lost to the Red Wings in 2008 and then beat Detroit in 2009.
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On the flip side, that means a full 92 percent of the players who’ve played in this series went into it with zero previous Stanley Cup Final experience. That’s another post-lockout record, beating the 89 percent mark from the 2011 Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks.
Speaking of 2011, it was also the only other post-lockout Stanley Cup Final that featured teams with fewer than 50 combined final games played in the players’ previous careers. The Canucks hadn’t been to a Stanley Cup Final since 1994, while the Bruins hadn’t been since 1990. And unlike the Red Wings — who apparently had access to a fountain of youth somewhere on Lake St. Clair for a decade and a half — neither roster featured a single player from their previous Cup berths.
Game logs from before 1988 aren’t available at Hockey Reference, so it’s tough to say for sure — but it isn’t preposterous to think that the 2018 final might be the least experienced Stanley Cup Final since the NHL’s expansion era began in 1967.6
Entering every NHL playoffs, pundits like to talk about two elements that teams need to make deep runs: hot goalies and postseason experience. Neither Vegas nor Washington has much experience, but the player tied for the most previous Stanley Cup Final games played does also happen to be a hot goalie: Fleury has been the best netminder in the 2018 playoffs (he’s pitched one of the best goaltending performances in playoff history, in fact), and he’ll no doubt win the Conn Smythe trophy — which goes to the playoff MVP — if his Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup. (Or maybe even if they lose.) Vegas can at least be thankful that it has benefited from a happy coincidence of two important factors.
So far, though, the Capitals’ 13 total games of previous Stanley Cup Final experience and the Golden Knights’ 19-game tally have been a wash. The series is all knotted up, and it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge victorious. Still, one thing’s for sure: If either team makes a repeat run to the final next season, it will almost certainly be in a championship series featuring more experience than the current one.