Lessons For the Red Wings From the First Round, Part 1
What can Yzerman and his team take away from the clubs eliminated early?
As the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs come to a close we wanted to take a closer look at the eliminated teams to see what the Red Wings could learn from their mistakes, team build, and other takeaways to avoid the same pitfalls when they one day return to the playoffs.
We did a similar series last year and it drove a lot of conversation, between what exactly was the demise of any given team, and the difference between real red flags and things that are more likely just coincidental. We’ll do a round by round look as teams are eliminated on the way to the Cup Final. The first round will be split into two parts. Today we’ll be looking at the teams from the East and Central divisions. The eliminated teams include the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators.
The Capitals missed out on the East division title by way of a tiebreaker to the Penguins. They were 4 points better than their first round opponent, the Boston Bruins, and they had the Bruins former captain, Zdeno Chara, on their roster to boot. This was a series picked by many to be among the most competitive. But it wasn’t, the Caps fell to the Bruins in five games. After taking the first game of the series in overtime, they lost four straight and quickly exited the playoffs. Although the Bruins did require overtime for two of their victories, this series felt like Washington went out with a whimper. Some may point to the goalie carousel as part of the reason, but there was just a lot left to be desired from this team as a whole.
Washington’s opponent was no slouch, but it’s hard to imagine they would have been any more successful against either of the Islanders or Penguins. The Capitals were among the league’s best offensive teams while being only mediocre defensively this season. But from the Red Wings perspective, it’s probably best to take a wider scope of the Capitals. They finally had their breakthrough with a Cup in 2018, but have repeated old history getting knocked out in the first round each of the three seasons since. In the Ovechkin (35) era, which is quickly closing, the Capitals have advanced past the second round exactly once. For all of the talent they’ve had in Ovechkin’s 16 year run, that’s inexcusable.
The biggest problem for this team in that time, coaching. They finally got the right coach with Barry Trotz. They were a team that always struggled defensively, often in the lower half of the league in goals against. In Trotz’s 4 year run they finished 6th, 2nd, 1st, and 15th in goals against. The irony being that last one is the year they actually won the Cup. Trotz managed to substantially improve the team defensively while not sacrificing offense to do it, the Caps stayed among the leagues top scoring teams those years. Players like Kuznetsov who seem to now be on the chopping block, were at their best under Trotz. The team let the coach walk after the Cup win and they’ve fallen into old habits, while they’re core begins to age out.
Not to kick a guy while he’s down but Jeff Blashill doesn’t appear to be the answer. And while it’s admirable the team is giving him plenty of opportunity to show what he can do, the Capitals have proven it can a few tries before finding the right fit. Coaching is a very fickle business, particularly with the recycling of coaches around the league. A guy can bomb out one place, and then receive all the credit for turning around another team. It has to be the right fit at the right time. The Wings would be wise to choose carefully if and when they decide to move on from Blashill because once the pieces are in place with the roster, you don’t want to have coaching be the reason the team can’t reach contender status.
The New York Islanders, coached by the aforementioned Barry Trotz, certainly seem to have the Penguins number, knocking them out of the first round in two of the past three seasons. The Penguins have fizzled out in three of their last four seasons since their back to back Cup winning seasons. They fell to the Islanders in six games this year.
But in contrast to the wide scope looking at the Capitals above, the Penguins downfall may be among the most obvious of the teams to fall in the first round. They got absolutely terrible goaltending. Tristan Jarry, had a solid enough regular season, but was brutal in this series against a team that finished 20th in offense this season. He made a boneheaded turnover in Game 5 that preceded the winning goal, and he got lit up in the deciding Game 6 to the tune of 5 goals on 19 shots through 2 periods, more-or-less burying the Penguins. He posted an .888 SV% for the series and still got to start and finish all six games. An advanced stat that paints a bleak picture, Jarry gave up -6.72 goals saved above expected (GSAx) in a six game series (evolving-hockey.com). Compare that to Semyon Varlamov at the other end who didn’t see the crease again after a tough performance in Game 3. Recognizing the Penguins didn’t have an Ilya Sorokin they could turn to, instead only having Casey DeSmith as a fall back. This was only Jarry’s 3rd season with the team at on a full-time basis at, but first as the go to starter at 25 years old. The Penguins have had success with young netminders but in hindsight they desperately needed to pick up one of the available veterans that could have been had at the trade deadline. Jeff Carter appeared to be a great pickup for this team but they ended up missing the piece they needed most.
While there are many things the Red Wings could learn from the Penguins, including their willingness to put their chips down every year and go for it when you reach your window, there is one main takeaway from their first round exit. Make sure you have goaltending in place and a good secondary option. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and pay a goalie $10 million to lock up the position (more on that problem in a bit). But you have to have a reliable proven option. That netminder doesn’t even have to be the usual starter, but even just a reliable veteran backup you can turn to if things go south. The Penguins were all in on Jarry like they once were with Matt Murray, and Marc-Andre Fleury before him. This time it didn’t work.
The Florida Panthers emerged this season as a surprise near the top of the standings. They ended up one win shy of taking the Central division title and actually finished four points up on their opponent, cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning. But despite the higher seed, you would have had a hard time finding many pundits who picked the Panthers to come out on top. They ultimately overmatched against Tampa and fell in 6 six games.
Florida certainly held their own in this series and Game 1 was one everyone will remember for the fireworks and fast action it provided. They totaled 226 shots in the series, almost 38 per game. But they only managed to put 16 past Vasilevskiy, or 2.67 per game. Not a bad overall total but the Vezina favourite proved to be formidable.
This contrasts with what happened in Florida’s net. They had a similar problem as Pittsburgh. In 6 games, they cycled through 3 goaltenders. They led with $10 million man Sergei Bobrovsky who posted an .841 SV% in two starts and one relief appearance. He ended up in the press box by the end of the series. Next up was 2020-2021 surprise Chris Driedger. He didn’t provide much better backstopping with an .871 SV% in two starts and one relief appearance. To put their performances in perspective, Bobrovsky with a -5.58 GSAx, and Driedger -2.89 GSAx, had the 2nd and 4th worst marks for that stat in the first round despite their limited appearances. They were sandwiched by the aforementioned Jarry and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The lone bright spot in goal for Florida was 19 year old top prospect Spencer Knight. Credit to Quenneville and team management for giving the kid a shot instead of forcing what wasn’t working with the other two. He was 1-1 in two starts and put up a stellar .933 SV% and a 2.05 GSAx, putting him between Talbot and Fleury despite only two games.
Too bad for the Panthers that Knight faces a massive roadblock in getting the starter’s role due to Bobrovsky’s five remaining years and astronomical cap hit. This deal was a problem immediately due to the long term and the high draft capital spent on Knight. But I don’t think anybody thought this would come to a head this soon. The easy lesson here is don’t throw long term contracts at goaltenders, ever. They rarely work out. Tampa is just starting into a long term deal with Vasilevskiy and history shows he likely won’t maintain his Vezina form.
Beyond goaltending the Panthers are an interesting case study for the Wings. They have had the sort of climb you’d want after attaining the proper pieces. They hired a proven and successful coach in Joel Quenneville who has quickly made them a tough opponent. There are certainly thoughts of what could have been for this series if Ekblad hadn’t been lost for the season. This series was much closer if not for poor goaltending. The Panthers have been building toward this for awhile on the backs of stars like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau who are in their prime. This was Quenneville’s second season behind the bench and he’s taken this group to another level in their breakthrough season. A common trend early on, coaching and goaltending seem to be pieces you severely covet if you don’t have them. The problem with the Florida model for Detroit is their centerpieces; Huberdeau, Barkov, and Ekblad were taken 3rd, 2nd, and 1st overall in their respective drafts.
Another thing Florida has done well, that Yzerman has also shown an ability to do, is to interchange the pieces around your core group as needed. Don’t commit to the secondary guys, that’s where you maintain flexibility. They have a couple of contracts that they likely would like to get out from with aging defensemen Yandle and Stralman but the only albatross contract on the roster is Bobrovsky. Aside from lottery luck in obtaining their top players, there are still things the Wings can learn from Florida’s team construction.
Nashville limped into the playoffs with 64 points grabbing the last spot in the Central division. They were in the conversation with teams like St Louis and Montreal for the “Thanks for Coming” award for this year’s playoffs. Essentially they were an expected footnote to these playoffs. With respect to the Predators they did manage to drag their series out with Carolina to six games. But that was thanks to two double overtime wins in Games 3 and 4, although Carolina did have to close the series out with back to back overtime wins themselves. This series was never all that close as Carolina just looked to be the far superior team.
The Nashville Predators are not the team they used to be for certain. After a run of successful seasons their window looks to be slamming shut quickly. Since their run to the Cup Final in 2018, they have won one playoff round, despite two division crowns. But they have at least maintained a playoff position every season. With their aging core they seem to have gotten stuck in the mushy middle. They are a long way from being a real threat anymore, but look like a team that’s going to continue to decline rather than improve.
Nashville is locked into two long term contracts on the back end. Roman Josi just finished the first season of an 8-year deal, but the Norris calibre defender is already 30, and likely won’t be worth his $9M ticket price for half of that contract. Similarly Ryan Ellis, 30, has 6 remaining years at $6.25M. The rest of their blueline is up for grabs if they want it to be with no other deal extending beyond next season if they don’t want it to. Up front they are locked into already poor looking deals with Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. Each have an $8M AAV with Johansen’s carrying 4 more years and Duchene’s 5 more years. Both are already underachieving, Johansen with 22 points in 48 games, and Duchene with 13 points in 34 games. Those two along with Arvidsson and Sissons are the only players the team is committed to beyond next season. Lastly in goal this season was Pekka Rinne’s likely swan song with Juuse Saros taking the reigns.
It’s a very unflattering cap picture for longtime GM David Poile. But Poile has shown to be creative and aggressive in past dealings, especially with his top of the lineup players. He’ll have to be at his best to sort this one out. Nashville could be staring the down the cannon of the start of a long rebuild similar to what Detroit was a few years ago. It’s probably best for Nashville to start the rebuild but with that many long term contracts on the books how do you shake loose from them.
There’s not as much of a straight line correlation between the Preds and Wings in many senses here. But perhaps one takeaway, and it’s something Yzerman has already shown a wisdom for, is don’t get tied into the wrong group. While Nashville did have a run of success for a few seasons, they’ve committed to some guys for past production rather than what they can or will do. This group got close to the ultimate goal and fell short. Then they locked into a lot of them hoping they could ride those guys to several years of success. Aside from a couple of players, flexibility is a strength you shouldn’t give up unless absolutely necessary.
That’s it for Part 1 of the first round wrap-up. If you’re looking for the Coles notes there were a few particular lessons.
Goaltending is a piece you absolutely have to have to go on a run. But the variability in any goalie from season to season and over their career is high. It’s best to find a solid tandem where you can ride the hot hand and interchange individual guys in any given season. Yzerman has already shown this is what he’s looking to do in Detroit’s net.
Finding the right coach for your group is critical and one of the hardest things to nail down because success with one group doesn’t guarantee success with another. The wrong coach can make an entire roster look like it needs to be stripped down and start over. Time will tell on this one for the Red Wings, but teams around the league have shown it can take a few tries to find the right coach.
Lastly, and this is one that often comes up, every GM should try everything they can to maintain roster and cap flexibility. Particularly after your team has a run of success it’s easy to get generous with the guys that got you there. It’s been proven over and over this is a mistake and leads to long, painful rebuilds to escape tough contracts. Yzerman has generally proven to be pretty shrewd when it comes to dolling out term and dollars, even to the best players. It will serve him well to keep that up.