Lessons For the Red Wings From the First Round, Part 2
What can Yzerman and his team take away from the clubs eliminated early?
On Monday, we took a look at four of the teams eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and what the Red Wings could learn from their respective demises. With the first round officially coming to a close Monday night we can now look at the other four teams who had to head home early. The four teams being looked at here in Part 2 are from the West and North divisions, specifically the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The intent here is to analyze the eliminated teams and look at why they lost, and secondly what the Wings can do to avoid the same mistakes during their rebuild. For some of the teams the flaws are more obvious, while for others we have to pick things apart a bit, or are even left scratching our heads at what went wrong.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues battled hard late in the season to leap frog Arizona for the final playoff spot in the West Division. It was the kind of late season surge that brought their fans warm memories of they 2018 Cup run where they finished the season on a red hot pace to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Blues, grabbing that last division spot this year meant drawing the President’s Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche. 19 points separated these two teams in the regular season standings and this series looked every bit of that gap. Colorado disposed of St. Louis in a four game sweep with the Blues losing by at least three goals in every contest. The overall goal differential was 20 to 7. This was one of the most lop-sided sweeps in recent memory.
So what was wrong with this Blues team that they didn’t even look like they belonged on the same rink as the Cup favourite Avs. Well the short is answer is obviously a lot. For one, leading scorer this season, David Perron, missed the entire series due to Covid protocol. Against a high powered Colorado team, the Blues could not afford to lose him. But even with him in the lineup the Blues would not have closed the wide margin between the two clubs. In net, Grubauer outplayed Binnington which was the Blues only chance at keeping things close. The bottom line is the Blues played a juggernaut. The Blues are still good enough to be a playoff team but this series showed how far they’ve fallen since winning the Cup in 2018.
That’s probably the best jumping off point for what the Wings can take from the Blues. When the team does eventually return to winning hockey, don’t get overcommitted to the guys that got you there. The Blues, somewhat understandably, have had very little turnover from their Cup winning team. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking you’ve found the secret recipe for success, and forgetting that without updating the parts of the roster, things can get stagnant. In terms of key changes the largest was the loss of Alex Pietrangelo, replaced by Torey Krug, who unfortunately is not quite up to the same level of play. Other defenders to leave included Joel Edmundson and Jay Bouwmeester, replaced by Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella. Overall the blue line took a step back. Up front the Blues had largely the same group losing only Alex Steen and Pat Maroon, replaced with Mike Hoffman and a larger role for Jordan Kyrou. Sometimes the biggest detriment to a good team is complacency and the Blues seem to have a bit of that after winning it all. This summer they should be looking to make a significant change or two to get the entire locker room a bit uncomfortable. The Blues should have that opportunity only having approximately 9 forwards under contract including RFAs they are projected to resign.
Similarly, Jordan Binnington has fallen off a bit since he burst onto the seen, and this is just in time to see his 6 year, $6M AAV extension kick in. That one could come back to bite the Blues if he can’t right the ship.
The Blues have had their success but it does seem the pitfall they’ve tripped into is allowing complacency to take root. Yzerman has shown he’s not a GM that will let that happen, shipping Mantha out in the same season he resigned him. He wasn’t afraid to move guys out in Tampa either, so the Wings seem well set not to fall into this trap.
The Minnesota Wild have been a middling team for a little while now. So they caught some people by surprise when they got on a run this season and ended up finishing 3rd in the West division behind two contenders in Colorado and Vegas. When Bill Guerin took over this team two seasons ago it looked like he was ready to tear it down, which made the team’s resurgence this season all the more surprising.
Unfortunately for the Wild a good year in this division still meant a first round matchup with Vegas. But once again to the surprise of many Minnesota made this series close, dragging Vegas all the way to 7 games after going down 3-1, before fizzling out in the deciding game. It’s hard to look at the Wild and wonder about what went wrong, because they seemingly overachieved based on what they are. They bowed out in a full series to the league’s stingiest defensive team, with Marc-Andre Fleury also playing spectacularly in this series. But for his part Cam Talbot also performed admirably in this series so it wasn’t goaltending that let Minnesota down. After being scratched early in the series, Zach Parise emerged from the press box to be fairly productive in the tail end of this series. At the end of the day it just seemed like Minnesota while punching well above their weight couldn’t quite come out on top against a very deep and battle-tested Vegas team.
All that being said, the Minnesota Wild are certainly not a team the Red Wings should look to model their roster after. They have two very large headaches on their cap in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. These two signed their matching 13 year lifetime pacts with the team back in 2012. Notably Detroit was one of the teams rumored to be in on that chase, and thankfully were not able to ink the pair to deals. With both being 36 now and Zach Parise as mentioned already becoming a healthy scratch at times this season, the hard part of their contracts has arrived. The Wild only have to deal with that for another FOUR years, assuming neither gets LTIR(etired). These deals are of course against the CBA and Detroit couldn’t fall into this trap if they wanted to. But in the window the Wild were supposed to contend to offset the ends of these deals, they never really went on a deep run, failing to ever advance past the second round.
Even ignoring these two, the Wild are locked into Mats Zuccarello (33) for 3 more years, Jared Spurgeon (31) for 6 more years, and Jonas Brodin (27) for 7 more years; all of which are on big money deals well into their 30’s. They are a team that’s been stuck in the middle making it hard to bring in blue chip prospects, and having their cap dollars largely tied up, which is unfortunately one of the worst spots to be in during the salary cap era. They likely would have to give up the kinds of assets they want to bring in to get out from under some of these deals. This is a hard lesson that has found itself repeated a few times already, don’t give up flexibility, term, and dollars for players on the back half of their careers. Minnesota is in for a likely long rebuild and the Wings would be wise to avoid these types of deals, something they’d be familiar with themselves from not that long ago.
The Edmonton Oilers finished this season the way they have often, early. This time may have even been the most disappointing, getting swept out of the playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets who they were fairly heavily favoured over. This included an epic Game 3 collapse in which they gave up 3 goals in 3 minutes late in the 3rd period to send the game to overtime where they ultimately lost. Yes there was a bit of bad luck in losing in a sweep, with 3 of the games going to overtime. Connor Hellebuyck performed like he’s capable of with a .950 SV% in the series. But Mike Smith was fine at the other end, not great but serviceable for what the Oilers should have needed from him. Some may point to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl not looking quite like the NHL’s version of Batman and Robin like they did during the regular season. But they were still both over a point per game in a series in which they didn’t win a game.
The Oilers are a perennial disappointment. They have now had McDavid, the game’s undisputed best player, for 6 seasons. In that time they’ve qualified for the playoffs three times, advancing to the second round only once. They are wasting away the primes of McDavid and Draisaitl and don’t appear to be correcting it anytime soon. The problem has been obvious for some time, they need to put a mildly competent roster around these two. If the rest of the roster was even average they may fall short of being a top tier contender but could at least get on a run.
Looking closer at why the rest of the roster is so poor, they have James Neal and Zack Kassian tying up nearly $9M for at least two more seasons. Neal was of course acquired in exchange for arguably a worse contract in Milan Lucic that was doomed from the day it was signed. But the lesson clearly hadn’t been learned as Kassian, a similar type player now in his 30’s, was signed to his extension just before the pandemic hit. This offseason will be telling because they have a chance to rework parts of this roster. Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins include some of the bigger money expiring deals. While have performed decently at times, Holland could use a good shakeup to this roster and look for bargain short term deals to fill out his lineup. The kind of deals that can be changed in and out. Nugent-Hopkins and Barrie are probably looking at contracts with a bit of term, the Oilers can let them walk. This offseason will be pivotal because if they don’t get it right, their dynamic duo would be well within their rights to ask out of this mess.
The other part of why they’ve failed to build around their two stars is drafting. Sifting back through the past 10 drafts (this excludes the Taylor Hall draft in 2010), there is only a small handful of players that have played a significant chunk of time WITH the Oilers. In order of drafting: Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Yakupov, Khaira, Nurse, Draisaitl, McDavid, Bear, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto. In 10 years of drafting that is all the Oilers have turned out onto their roster. Another important detail, from that group only Khaira and Bear were taken outside of the first round. That is perhaps more telling than the free agency misses.
So there are a few important takeaways here for Detroit. Despite all their poor lottery luck, that could change and they could draft the next generational player. But look no further than the Oilers at what not properly building around your superstar(s) and taking them for granted can do. The other critical part is you need to draft well in the cap era. You are expected to get your first round picks right, particularly those in the top 10 picks. But what makes the difference is are you able to mine talent from the 2nd round and beyond. Things look promising for Detroit in that category but we won’t know for sure until they get onto the roster and prove it.
Toronto Maple Leafs
This was the year that was supposed to be different for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After years of first round meltdowns, they seemed primed to finally get King Kong off their back. They torched the admittedly weak North division all season, allowing teams to get close and then pull away again as needed. But you can only play the team in front of you.
Their reward was a first round matchup with the rival Montreal Canadiens, who after a hot start limped into the playoffs largely because nobody behind them was any good. What should have been a landslide series, started with a bad omen when their captain John Tavares was injured on a freak accident play that left everyone who watched it with an upset stomach. But despite the adversity early, they marched on, and earned a 3-1 series lead. Then a familiar story began as they gradually fell apart and had no answers for a resurgent Carey Price and a blue collar Habs group. In the final three games of the series, Toronto only ever seemed to make a push after they got down in games. By Game 7 they looked like a team that already knew the end result would not favour them, it was a sad sight even for observers with no rooting interest. Their superstars, aside from Nylander, went missing. A single goal in the series from league leading goal scorer Matthews and none from partner Marner was a disaster.
So here’s the tricky part, what was wrong with this group. In contrast to Edmonton, Toronto management identified their team’s flaws like their depth, backend, and big game goaltending. They seemed to address all of them, bringing in the likes of T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and seasoned veterans like Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton. Their forward group looked deep, they looked all around better defensively. Jack Campbell was a revelation in goal and even performed well in the series despite giving up a weak goal in the deciding game. But they still lost, and yes Carey Price was a factor in that, but not really accounted for in the aftermath was the fact Campbell actually had a better SV% in the series.
Shanahan, Dubas, and their group have to go back to the drawing board and the honest truth is it is incredibly unclear what to do differently. Do they make another run with a similar group? Can you even return with largely the same group? One of the main culprits in their demise was the disappearing act by Matthews and Marner in particular. But do you move one of those huge pieces and shake the foundation? Who’s going to want to take on Marner’s contract right now while providing proper value in return? The Leafs have a lot of expiring details through the bottom end of their lineup, but only changing those players seems like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Something that was pointed out is that teams with player(s) making the magic number of $10M or more simply have not advanced in the playoffs. There may be something to the argument that committing that large of a piece of the pie to individuals leaves you vulnerable through the rest of the lineup in the playoffs. But we’ve also been told you can’t win without stars.
For Yzerman and his group there is a somewhat open interpretation to what happened with the Toronto team. You do want to obtain those superstar level players. You want to ensure you build around them correctly and learn from failures, obtaining pieces you were missing before. But maybe the lesson here is to remember who the one in charge is. Dubas for all his talents and cap wizardry, was largely panned for his negotiations with his star players. Yzerman has historically negotiated well and has shown he is not afraid to cut bait with stars or fan favourites. He bought out Lecavalier, he sent St. Louis packing, he negotiated shrewd deals with Tampa’s current cast of superstars. If and when the time comes, the Wings look well positioned with Yzerman to handle the weight of their star players.
That’s a wrap on the teams eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs. If you’re looking for the short version of what can be learned from these teams here is the quick and tidy:
- St Louis - Don’t let yesterday’s success dictate tomorrow’s decisions. It’s easy to reward a group for making it to the mountain top but that is also an easy way to complacency that can undermine it all.
- Minnesota - Don’t get caught up in the mushy middle. You also want to maintain cap flexibility and avoid getting locked into long term deals with players well into their 30’s.
- Edmonton - If you’re lucky enough to have the star of superstars, make sure you build around them properly. A key part of that is drafting well, and avoiding long term deals with secondary pieces.
- Toronto - If it fails, try try again. But at some point you have to question the foundation. You also want to remember who is running the show. Even your best players need to know that they are just a piece in the puzzle, and aren’t the ones in charge. If you have leverage with them, you need to use it./