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Lessons For the Red Wings From the Playoffs, Part 4, The Final Four

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What can the Islanders, Knights, Canadiens, and Lightning teach the Wings management?

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Scott Iskowitz /NHLI via Getty Images

We’re on to Part 4 of our analysis of this year’s playoff teams and how they are relevant to the Red Wings. If you’re looking for the past writeups, Part 1 covered the first round East and West division eliminations, Part 2 looked at the first round exits in the West and North Divisions, and Part 3 reviewed all teams knocked out in the Divisional round.

Today in Part 4 we take a closer look at the four teams that were left standing before Tampa Bay eventually repeated as Cup champions. Making the final four in the NHL playoffs is a major accomplishment and is generally a good marker that a team is among the league’s contenders. Getting that far often means these teams have a roster built properly and a GM’s approach to building their team has been proven effective. These team’s off-season plans should usually consist of keeping the group together for another run and add a piece if it’s possible. But there was quite the contrast in team build, expectations, and other factors between the Knights, Islanders, Canadiens, and Lightning that we’ll dive into. Spoiler, despite their achievements, not every one of these teams is a model Detroit should follow.

Vegas Golden Knights

First up are the Vegas Golden Knights, the juggernaut taken down by the surprising Montreal Canadiens. Everybody had the Knights taking this series and the only separation in most predictions was how long one thought Carey Price could extend the series. But much like they did in their run through the North Division, Montreal took down a superior roster on paper. Montreal finished Vegas off in six games in what was a tight series overall. The teams exchanged 4-1 wins with all other games decided by one goal including three in overtime.

As is always the case, Carey Price proved to be a significant factor for the Habs in this series. He posted a .933 SV% and never allowed more than two goals in any game after the 4-1 loss in the opener of the series. Compare that to Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury at the other end who posted only a .904 SV% with the aging netminder seemingly running out of magic on this run.

Ignoring his stats for a moment, Fleury was the center of attention after Game 3. With under 2:00 remaining in the game and Vegas holding a 2-1 lead, Fleury dropped behind the net to pick up a dump-in. He mishandled the puck and it ended up directly in front of the net for a Montreal tap-in. Vegas was in complete control before that with Montreal failing to generate much of anything and only 17 shots in the game. From that point on, Vegas looked shaky in the overtime before giving up the winner. This mistake changed the entire dynamic of the series, and Vegas never bounced back.

Vegas turned to Robin Lehner for Game 4, in which he looked good in a 2-1 win. The team then went back to Fleury for Game 5 in a somewhat surprising move. He gave up 3 goals on 25 shots, forcing Vegas to go back to Lehner in Game 6, which they ultimately lost. Making a goalie change in a series is very common, but this constant shuffling couldn’t be easy for Fleury and Lehner despite their public statements. Lehner playing relief games for an aging Fleury makes some sense. But after his strong Game 4 performance, Vegas should have stuck with the hot hand. There can’t be many, if any, examples of a team making three goalie changes in a series, not related to injury, and winning.

Looking beyond the crease, the major problem pointed to for Vegas was the lack of production from some of their best players. Mark Stone posted zero points in this series playing nearly 20:00 every night. William Karlsson managed 5 points, but no goals. Jonathan Marchessault had one assist the entire series. Alex Tuch also went goalless. Former Hab Max Pacioretty had 1 goal and 2 assists. The list goes on.

The only players who were productive on the stat sheet were blueline stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo (3G, 1A) and Shea Theodore (1G, 3A). Vegas fell victim to what each of Montreal’s past opponents did. Their big guns went quiet thanks in large part to Montreal’s bruising, minute-munching big four on defense and shutdown center Phillip Danault who is rightfully earning a lot of praise despite his lack of scoring.

There could have been other reasons as to why Vegas couldn’t score beyond what the Canadiens were doing. Fatigue, both short and long term, could have been a big factor for Vegas. They did themselves no favours playing a series that dragged out to seven games with Minnesota. Then they squared off with the high-flying Avalanche for six games. In a playoffs that is featuring a condensed schedule, on top of the condensed regular season, playing long series takes a toll. Montreal came in rested after a sweep of Winnipeg. On top of that Vegas is a team that could be feeling the effects of several deep playoff runs. They’ve had one Cup Final and two Conference Finals runs in their four seasons. With the short break between last playoffs and this season, Vegas may have been running on fumes.

But it’s not all bad for Vegas, as mentioned in their short existence they’ve been quite successful. It’s certainly promising for other onlooking GM’s like Steve Yzerman. This team was built through spare parts of other teams and a lot of shrewd moves following that. There’s actually very few pieces remaining from their original expansion roster. They have been and are a legitimate contender.

A Vezina goalie with a backup who could be the starter on a lot of teams. A blue line built on puck movers like Pietrangelo, Theodore, and the still productive Martinez (pending UFA) is a position most teams would like to be in. Two-way all-star Mark Stone, ignoring the tough series he had, is a piece that often makes a difference for you in the playoffs. They have a fairly deep roster that plays heavy hockey and wears opponents down in the playoffs. For all the merits of building a roster based on speed and skill, Vegas gives strength to the argument of size and skill. If they lack one thing ,it’s a bona fide top line center for a contending team.

Ultimately, the Vegas model is a great one to follow for Detroit. They pieced their roster together capitalizing on players who were under-appreciated on their previous teams and signing free agents that have fit in well. Drafting is always touted as critical to building a good team, but Vegas has done so with their most proven draft pick so far being Nick Suzuki, ironically playing for the team that ended them this season. Yzerman needs to match what Vegas has done in finding great value in players from around the league, and supplementing with draft picks to mine a superstar or two.

New York Islanders

The other team to come up short in the 3rd round was the New York Islanders. They put up a good fight, as they always do, against eventual the eventual champions in Tampa. They forced the Bolts into 7 games, dropping the final contest 1-0, and falling short in the Conference Finals as they did last year. So why are the Islanders good enough to get to the Conference Finals but not good enough to get through? The short answer is Tampa, who eliminated them there each of the last two seasons.

Let’s start with the good. New York has arguably the best coach in the league running their bench in Barry Trotz. He has been successful throughout his lengthy career in maximizing the results for the roster he’s provided. On paper this Islanders team shouldn’t be advancing this nearly this far the last two seasons, and yet here they are. Credit has to be given to Trotz and the system he’s run with this group. He has been able to get them all to buy in to this defense first system that works for them.

They also have a pretty formidable top four on defense featuring Pulock, Leddy, Pelech, and Mayfield. This group knows how to slow down even the most stacked offenses. Outside of Leddy none of them bring much offensively, but that goes back to Trotz running a system that suits the roster. They grind other teams down and limit high danger chances against. They finished 2nd in the league in goals against this season.

But this team also has some significant problems. Most importantly, after Mathew Barzal they lack good scoring forwards. They certainly have serviceable players like Bailey, Nelson. Eberle, Lee (who missed the playoffs), Beauvillier, and Pageau. Their fourth line of Clutterbuck, Cizikas, and Martin receive a lot of fanfare for being “the best 4th line in hockey”, but they had between 11 and 14 points each this season. There is large drop-off from Barzal to the rest of this forward group and if the Islanders are going to get over the hump they need to add one or two top level offensive threats. For as good as their defense was, their offense was 20th in the league. In their seven game series with Tampa they scored a total of 11 goals, yet were a goal away from advancing. True contenders have to be able to blend both offense and defense.

The team is of course run by Lou Lamoriello, a well respected GM who has been around the league running the Devils as far back as the 80’s. Lou has never been shy to go for it and make significant moves if he thinks his team has a chance. This year was no different with the Islanders acquiring Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri for a 1st round pick and some minor leaguers. Palmieri performed admirably at times with 9 points in 19 games on their playoff run. Zajac appears to have been a miss with little production after being acquired. Neither player had a point in the Tampa series. Both players will hit free agency.

Therein lies the problem with Lou’s gunslinger style sometimes. He perhaps gave this team more credit than he should’ve in making win now moves. Aside from that, as shrewd a reputation as he has for negotiating contracts, he often gives out term to aging players. he is very much about loyalty and rewarding veteran players. He has long been rumored to be pining over acquiring Zach Parise, a contract that nobody should be pursuing.

While the Islanders have had some success recently, they are in for a rude awakening soon. Since the salary cap era began, Lamoriello has a habit of getting his teams into cap trouble with long term deals for key players of yesteryear. It looks to be the same case here. The Islanders have five players with cap hits of $5M or more for a minimum of three years each. This includes Lee, Nelson, Eberle, Pageau, and Bailey. This group’s ages ranges from 28-31. Barzal is an RFA in 2 years and they’ll have to find a way to make room. Even now the team currently has $5.8M in cap space with approximately 6 roster spots to fill, including the re-signing of RFA’s Beauvillier, Pelech, and Sorokin. Leddy and Pulock are on the last year of their deals. The cap situation is going to quickly become an absolute minefield to deal with, and the Islanders could be headed for a rebuild quickly.

That is really the lesson here for Steve Yzerman and his management group. You have to be able to look at your team without the rose-coloured glasses that a lot of GM’s make the mistake of wearing. The Islanders have had success, falling to only the champion Lightning the last two years, but nobody outside of Long Island really thinks of them as a contender.

They’ve sold off futures to make a run with this group. They are locked into some deals that are going to start looking bad fairly soon. This one has come up for a lot of teams. Don’t commit term to support pieces. Understand how the aging curve works, 30 represents a steady decline for those other than the elite. But on the positive side, when an elite coach becomes available you do whatever you have to get him. They have the ability to elevate a group beyond the sum of their parts and that makes a big difference in a cap world.

Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens carry the unlucky title of runner up in the Cup Final. This usually carries the most emotional weight and devastation after getting so close to glory, and having to settle for witnessing it first hand instead. Teams that lose the Cup Final often carry the hangover of that defeat into the following year. With Montreal’s Cinderella run now over they are certainly a candidate to run into a wall next season, especially given another short offseason.

After a unique run that had them come out of the North Division unexpectedly, and a big surprise upset of Vegas, they ran into the defending champion Tampa squad that proved to me too much, and ran over Montreal in five games. The Habs clearly ran out of magic in the Cup Final. What specifically went wrong for them at the end, a few things.

Carey Price’s playoff heroics disappeared in the matchup. He ended the series with only an .888 SV%. Not to say he played terribly, there were a lot of high danger chances against. But for Montreal to have a shot, Price needed to continue to play other-worldly and instead he came back down to Earth. That’s particularly true when the guy at the other end, Andrei Vasilevskiy posted a .943 SV% and took home the Conn Smythe trophy. Montreal’s chances relied heavily on the two goaltenders performances going the opposite way they did.

Offensively, the goal scoring by committee approach ran dry for the Habs as well, scoring only 8 goals in the 5 game series. Even if Price stood on his head the whole series, they probably needed a few more goals. Only five Montreal players had more than a point in the series, two of whom were standout youngsters Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who managed 3 each in the series to lead the team. The shots in the series were actually nearly even, with Tampa edging Montreal 143-140. But that seems more to do with Montreal playing from behind a lot of the series as they didn’t seem to generate a lot of chances most nights.

Another factor was the laundry list of injuries to some of the Habs top players that came out after the Final was over, as it always does. That’s not much of an excuse as it’s something every team that goes on a long playoff run deals with. But the difference is the Canadiens don’t have the star power to carry on through the injuries. They needed all hands on deck.

Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as every underdog run has to have some performances that give the team a brighter shine than their underdog status gave them credit for. First and foremost, Carey Price went vintage mode through most of the playoff run, turning back the clock and showing why his reputation around the league among players is that he still in the upper echelon of netminders. He had a .924 SV% a 2.28 GAA on their run compared to his lukewarm .901 SV% and 2.64 GAA during the year. Goaltending is almost always the big key to any of these surprise runs.

Another large contributing factor for Montreal was their top four defensemen. They ate up a lot of minutes all averaging over 23:00 a night while playing shutdown against the league’s best. Montreal’s big dogs on the blue line included Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry, and Joel Edmundson. They didn’t contribute much offensively with 2 goals and 20 points between them in the playoffs. But they punished other teams, sending their opponents home with bruises every night. The Montreal backend was a bit of a throwback to the days of the big and mean out front of the net and in the corners, and it worked for them.

While the Canadiens weren’t great offensively in the playoffs, they did just enough. What helped them there was terrific performances from Nick Suzuki (16P, led the team), Cole Caufield (12P), and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (8P), all of which are 21 or younger. That paired with performances from a few veterans who turned back the clock like Corey Perry (10P) and Eric Staal (8P) helped advance the Canadiens.

But the catch with the Habs is I don’t think teams, including the Red Wings, will be tripping over themselves to follow their model. Marc Bergevin’s job as GM was being called into question all season and still was as recently as when they were down 3-1 to the Leafs. Now the talk is should they extend him, his formula worked, etc. But that seems like the pendulum violently overswinging the other direction. Montreal’s era of players like Suzuki and Caufield looks to already be here. Yet they are committed to 5+ years and big dollars on players like Weber, Petry, Gallagher, and Anderson. That blue line was terrific in these playoffs but how many good years do Weber (35) and Petry (33) have left? Shutdown center of the playoffs Philip Danault needs a new deal and may even walk as a UFA. Eventually Suzuki and Caufield will need big raises, especially as the league trends towards rewarding RFA’s sooner in their prime years.

Bergevin has locked up this team as one built to try to win now, but the seemingly only way to do it is if their veterans fight off Father Time, and players like Suzuki, Caufield, and Kotkaniemi blossom into top tier players before those veterans fall off. Montreal should be a popular pick to miss the playoffs outright next year and we’ll see if heads roll then. For now the team’s management has bought themselves some time.

Red Wings management should look at this Montreal team and applaud them for their overachievement but not look at them as a model to follow. What they did do right is take advantage of utilizing players in key roles still on their entry level contracts. That is one of the best ways to manage the cap today. Build a reliable defensive group that can eat minutes is another thing the Canadiens did do right and can be mimicked by design. But lastly, and this is a very broken record in these breakdowns, don’t commit term to players over 30. That is how you end up buried in a long rebuild waiting for bloated contracts to expire or having to pay a price to offload them. The Canadiens are wondering dangerously close to that cliff, just as their potential young stars are preparing to take over.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are once again the Stanley Cup Champions. The first repeat champions since the Penguins. Yes they did so with a well documented salary structure and abuse of LTIR. But they did what many before them have done, but perhaps just did it better.

Tampa is unique in this series in that there is very little to be critical of, such is the case for a back to back Champion and perennial favourite to win. They have a Vezina caliber goaltender in the middle of his prime in Vasilevskiy. The only knock may be the risk in being committed to a goaltender for 7 years, but he will still only be 33 when the deal expires. But Tampa has to be wary of the drop off for some other elite goalies around the league after they signed their big ticket deals.

Their blueline is elite with their top four defenders all more or less locked up for years to come between their contracts or pending RFA rights to come. Hedman has four years remaining at a very tolerable $7.875M cap hit. Cernak and Sergachev are still RFA’ when their current deals expire in two years. Only McDonagh will breach into his mid to late 30’s on his current deal, expiring when he turns 37, which may be a little problematic later but shouldn’t be for awhile yet. They also have the kicker of having the freedom to find value free agents to fill out their backend, assuming no prospects develop into those roles, which someone like Cal Foote very well could.

Tampa’s forward group has both elite talent and depth. Nikita Kucherov made his season debut in the playoffs and didn’t skip a beat posting an absurd 32 points. Brayden Point, still only 24, has many years ahead of him and has seemingly taken the role of first line center for this club. The list goes on with Stamkos, Palat, Gourde, and Killorn. Tampa’s acquisitions of Coleman and Goodrow proved to be terrific moves as they made the third line a force. Anthony Cirelli has worked his way into the Selke conversation last year which is an impressive achievement for a 23 year old. A fourth line featuring Tyler Johnson, Pat Maroon, and Mathieu Joseph is not a bad way to round out a group either. Tampa’s roster is the envy of the league, with no real weaknesses.

The biggest problem for the Bolts, as it was last season, is how do you keep all these players together under the salary cap. Much has been made of the Kucherov shenanigans, so we won’t dive into it again. But it’s doubtful they will get the same benefit for next season. They will have to trim some players out of necessity, already admitting as such, and the key will be how painlessly can they do that. It would seem shuffling a couple of their forwards would be the best way to do that. Either by trade, or perhaps an arrangement with Seattle in the Expansion Draft.

Their run with Goodrow and Coleman who both proved very effective in their tenures, is likely over as they are probably set to sign a couple of big deals. Nobody took Tyler Johnson on waivers last year, maybe they would now, or at least consider taking on his contract? Other potential players on the move could include any of Palat (1 year, $5.3M cap hit), Killorn (2 years, $4.45M), Gourde (4 years, $5.166M), or even captain Stamkos (3 years, $8.5M). There’s certainly some juggling to be done and it’ll largely be dependent on what other teams interests are.

Red Wings fans have reasons to not be fond of the Bolts between the salary cap reasons, bad blood between the teams over 5 years ago, Stamkos’ spurning even a discussion of a deal with Detroit, the comparisons between buddies Cooper and Blashill, and a growing list of reasons. But they have one very obvious and very good reason to be quite happy for the Tampa success. The architect of those teams, Steve Yzerman, is gradually setting the wheels in motion to return the Red Wings to glory. So rather than noting what Yzerman can learn from Tampa’s model, it’s more about what can he repeat in Detroit.

What Yzerman did incredibly well in Tampa and what they continue to do since he left are a few key items that will be crucial to the Red Wings being able to have a shot at the same kind of success. Tampa has drafted incredibly well, particularly on hitting on picks outside the first round. They have had some misses as well but have ultimately done better than most clubs. Here’s a quick look what they’ve pulled from previous drafts dating back to 10 years ago, just after Yzerman took over the GM role, to help build their team or players that have gone on to lengthy NHL careers elsewhere:

2011 - Namestnikov (27th overall), Kucherov (58), Palat (208)
2012 - Vasilevskiy (19), Paquette (101)
2013 - Drouin (3), Erne (33)
2014 - DeAngelo (19), Point (79)
2015 - Cirelli (72), Joseph (120)

2016-2020 drafts were excluded as time will tell on those draft hauls. But left off this list were the guys who played in the NHL, but maybe didn’t last long. So to grab at least two legitimate NHLers out of every draft is a pretty good success rate. Especially as a team generally in contention, that trades away draft picks rather than acquiring them and doesn’t draft in the top ten where the generally guaranteed players go.

Beyond drafting well, Yzerman showed a knack for getting guys to sign team friendly deals. A couple of caveats; first the tax rules in Florida are a factor, but that has been somewhat debunked as well by financial experts who’ve stated players can float money around in different ways to limit the tax hit. The second catch to this is it’s probably easier to get players to take less when the team is performing well, and to get to live in sunny Florida. But for this team to have players like Kucherov ($9.5M cap hit), Stamkos ($8.5M), Hedman ($7.875M), and several others signed to deals like they are, you must be a pretty good negotiator. Team friendly cap numbers also help if you ever need to move a player.

The last piece of the juggernaut puzzle for Tampa is the ability to add the support pieces throughout the roster that complement the core players so well. Some thought what they paid for guys like Coleman and Goodrow was too much but they served their role so well in Tampa. Turning an embattled Jonathan Drouin into Sergachev and a 2nd round pick was a stroke of genius. The acquisition of McDonagh is still paying off 3 years later.

The bottom line is this league is easy if you draft well, sign well, and trade well. If only Detroit can have that same kind of success in its dealings for the next several years.


Wrapping Up

That’s it for our deep dive into this year’s playoff teams. Today we reviewed the final four teams. If you are looking for the short version of what the Red Wings can learn from these teams:

  • Vegas - The goalie hokey pokey is never an ideal strategy and usually means you’re grasping at straws. The emphasis to building a good team is always on drafting but Vegas has shown a contender can be built by recognizing where other teams are undervaluing their own players and just how common that really is around the league. Seeing what players can be instead of what they are is a critical skill for any GM.
  • New York Islanders - Get yourself an elite coach that is willing to adapt the scheme to the roster. To win it all you still have talent, but a coach can elevate a group to another level beyond what they seem capable of. Don’t commit to secondary pieces. Loyalty just gets you into trouble with contracts. Beware of the aging curve.
  • Montreal - A really good top-four defensive group, and a great goaltender can take even a below average team on a deep run. Take advantage of good players on entry-level deals, it is the best way to make the most of the salary cap. But lastly, in case you haven’t heard, don’t commit to guys in their 30’s and expect them to continue to carry you. The effective age of NHL players is trending younger all the time.
  • Tampa Bay - They are the house that Yzerman built, but credit to Julien BriseBois because he’s done a hell of a job maintaining it. Tampa is among the best at all three facets of management: draft well, sign well, trade well. If you are better than most at those three things success will follow.

A brief note about all four of these teams. One thing they all had in common was a strong top four set of defensemen. Not necessarily a core that puts points on the board, but can be relied on to shut down the other team’s top players. But if they can do both, even better, like Tampa’s. While some of these backends didn’t offer much scoring support, nobody questions their defensive ability. Common thinking goes that the era of the nasty, difficult defenseman is gone. Part of that is true, defensemen have to be able to skate now. But these playoffs have offered a reminder that the nastiness can still be critical to success. Yzerman seems to be well aware of that with his drafting of Moritz Seider who fits this mold perfectly. Also look at how he rebuilt the blue line this past season, bringing in guys who were steady in their own end rather than those highlighted for point totals.

The biggest takeaway from all of the teams we reviewed, an awful lot of GM’s around the league love committing to guys for what they have done, and ignoring that they are entering the twilights of their careers. Long term deals should be saved for the truly elite on your team that at least offer some hope of maintaining their production. Long rebuilds are built on the backs of bad contracts. Red Wings fans know it as well as anybody. Yzerman is finally shaping up to break free of the last of some of these deals. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it and if he takes on the headaches of others to acquire draft and prospect capital to land more talent. If done right it can quickly accelerate this team’s timeline, but more importantly, land more pieces for when the team is ready.