The Impact of Experience in the NHL Playoffs

The NHL conference finals are here as the Panthers and Rangers vie to take on either the Stars or Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ahead of tonight's opening matchup in the Eastern Conference, we at VegasInsider wanted to find out if the old adage about experience winning in the playoffs holds true. We examined the rosters of each playoff team from the last ten seasons to figure out what kind of roster construction truly makes deep runs in the playoffs. 

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(Rested) Experience Wins in the Playoffs

On the whole, in hockey it does seem to be true that veteran presence wins Stanley Cups. But there is a caveat; well rested veterans are the key to winning the Cup.

On average the Stanley Cup Champion does have the oldest and most experienced team of all playoff rosters, but their players have spent the least amount of time on the ice. The difference is most stark when looking at goalies. Stanley Cup Champion goalies play, on average, 113 minutes less than the next closest playoff competitor. That is nearly two full games less across a season. Skaters on winning teams also play the fewest games and minutes over the course of the season, though the numbers are much closer, showing how small the margins are between going home to a victory parade and going home to nothing. Interestingly, goalies (57:37) and skaters (16:21) on championship squads rank first and second, respectively, in average time on ice per game, suggesting that teams that win it all play their guys for more during each game, but compensate with more rest days.

Overall, our data shows that Stanley Cup winning rosters consist of players with an average age of 27.47 and 6.16 seasons in the NHL. Both of those numbers rank highest among all playoff teams. Each player averages 56 games played, the lowest figure among all playoff squads. Skaters spend 16 minutes 21 seconds on the ice each time they appear, and goalies seeing 57 minutes and 37 seconds of action in their games. Despite the fact that the oldest and most experienced teams tend to win it all, the youngest, most inexperienced teams do not get bounced first. Teams that get eliminated in the second round have the youngest players with an average age of 27.04 and just 5.79 years in the league, suggesting youth can win you one playoff series. 

While experience makes deep runs and youth can win some games, it’s important not to lean too far in either direction. Only one team with an average player age over 30 has made the playoffs, the Washington Capitals in 2021, and they did not make it out of the first round. Likewise for teams with an average player age under 25. The 2017 Columbus Blue Jackets were the only team to reach such a mark and make the postseason. They also failed to reach the second round. In fact, over the last five seasons, both the average age and experience level of playoff squads have risen, each going up nearly a full year from 2019 to 2023.

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All rosters and statistics are courtesy of Hockey Reference. Team rosters examined only include players who appeared in the playoffs for that team. Games played, TOI, and ATOI are all averaged from that year’s regular season to track usage over the course of the season. You can find our full data set here, including breakdowns by year and team, as well as a more detailed methodology.