Lessons For the Red Wings From the First Round
Detroit can learn from the last 8 teams eliminated in the playoffs
The last couple of weeks delivered an official first round to the Stanley Cup playoffs. While they were many exciting elements and matchups in this round, one thing that stood out was the lack of balance in these series for the most part. Only three series made it to 6 games with the other five only going as far as Game 5.
We’ve already looked at what the Red Wings could learn from the 8 teams eliminated in the Qualifying round. Now we’re set to look at what Yzerman and Co. can gain from watching the 8 teams eliminated in the first round.
Montreal was one of the biggest surprises from the qualifying round, upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins as a 12-seed. But they ran out of magic against the Philadelphia Flyers who used a strong round robin to become the first seed in the east. Philadelphia took the Habs down in 6 games.
For the Red Wings there’s a few things to take from the Montreal Canadiens. The first is that while a strong defensive core is important and elite goaltending can be critical, they are not enough alone to take you on a deep playoff run. Carey Price never gave up more than three goals in any game in this series. Montreal’s offense however came up dry when it was needed. They did post two 5-goal outbursts in their two victories but more telling was their combined 3 goals over the 4 losses in the series. That’s quite simply never going to get it done. That shouldn’t be surprising though given that Montreal’s top goal scorer this season was a tie between Brendan Gallagher and former Red Wing Tomas Tatar with only 22 each. Youngster Jesperi Kotkaniemi surprised with a strong performance in the playoffs. But this team was never going to score in bunches, and that’s largely what made them a the 12th seed to begin with.
So for the Red Wings it’s pretty black and white what to take from the Canadiens. You have to have a superstar to lead your offense, or at the very least a deep lineup that can come at the opponent in waves. The Canadiens were a team that could ride out the storm of the opposition offense but didn’t have enough counter punch for it to matter.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus more than any other team in these playoffs represented chaos. They faced two of the most talent rich teams and made life incredibly hard for them at the very least despite lacking quite a bit of skill through their lineup. The Blue Jackets tried to repeat their performance from a year ago with their shocking upset of the Lightning. But they couldn’t provide a proper encore to last year’s magic. Tampa ousted the Jackets in five games, but don’t be fooled because this wasn’t your typical short series. Every one of Tampa’s wins were one goal victories including overtime in the deciding Game 5 and the marathon five-overtime Game 1.
What Columbus did have is something absolutely required to pull off any large upset, goaltending. Joonas Korpisalo went full cheat-code with a stellar performance throughout. He set the playoff saves record in the Game 1 marathon match. The Cinderella team any given year has to have the goaltender that steals games. The other key component Columbus had was the hard, grinding style of play led by players that can drive the other team insane and to make out of character mistakes. Pierre-Luc Dubois was public enemy #1 to the Jackets’ opposition and he played the role well.
But perhaps what Detroit can take from Columbus isn’t what they did have, but what they didn’t. Elite level goaltending and a hard sandpaper style are good for underdog teams, capable of an upset or two. There’s even the odd year that a team like this goes on a deep run. But they inevitably end up coming short of the ultimate goal. That’s because it’s near impossible to win four rounds against teams with superior skill by grinding them down without in turn wearing yourself out before the final prize. So Columbus is a team you want to match in terms of attitude and punching above their weight. But it’s not a squad Yzerman should look to model his roster after. But these intangible elements could be the things he talks about when he says he wants players that are 100% committed day in and day out.
The Washington Capitals fell to the New York Islanders in just five games in their first round series. What brought the Capitals down is likely a combination of factors.
First and foremost was the loss of Nicklas Backstrom early in the series. The critical first line center is the setup man for Ovechkin and losing him crippled the Capitals for the remainder of the series. However the rest of Washington’s stars still managed to produce with Ovechkin putting up 4 goals in the series, Carlson tallying 6 points, Kuznetsov had 4 points. With production like that you’d think the Capitals could have won more than one game in this series. While plus/minus is widely regarded as among the least important statistics to consider, it would seem at least noteworthy that Norris candidate Carlson was -11 in the the short series and T.J. Oshie was a -7. Those are big numbers in a short series.
UFA to be Braden Holtby also wasn’t anything special in the playoffs. He finished with .906 SV% through 8 games. Maybe not quite bad enough to have the finger pointed at him, but certainly not good enough to steal a game or two.
But perhaps the most critical reason to the Capitals downfall was the smothering style of the New York Islanders. It’s painful to watch the way they trap up like it’s the mid 90’s again. But it’s difficult to argue with the results it’s achieved for a roster that many didn’t predict would still be here. Behind that style of play is none other than former Capitals coach Barry Trotz. It’s well known that Washington allowed Trotz to walk the to Islanders immediately after winning the Cup in 2018. While Reirden has certainly been serviceable as Capitals coach the team has lost in the first round in each of his two seasons as the main man behind the bench. You can also point to his lack of previous head coaching experience prior to assuming this position.
That’s probably the best thing to take from the Capitals here for Steve Yzerman. Even if he puts together a talented roster capable of big things, you need the right person to lead them. All indications are that Jeff Blashill is likely not that person, but he also hasn’t had much to work with. Either way Yzerman will need to determine the right candidate in time for when this team is ready to turn the corner.
Carolina has been an up and coming team for awhile now. They showed everyone what they were capable of with a Conference Finals appearance last season. This was supposed to be the year that they rose to the status of contender with their young star-studded lineup that is among the darlings of the analytics world. But they didn’t, they fell to the Boston Bruins in just 5 games for the second year in a row.
One of the factors in the Canes demise was the mid-series loss of Andrei Svechnikov to an ugly looking knee/ankle injury that ended up not being as devastating as it looked. He did however bow out from the series in Game 3. The other two top forwards through the regular season, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen fell short producing 2 goals and 7 points between them in the series. Not enough production for a team that relied somewhat heavily on those three. Carolina also continued with their tandem goaltending approach with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer getting 3 and 2 starts respectively. Both played admirably but not well enough to steal games. Norris candidate defenseman Jaccob Slavin was MIA on the scoresheet throughout the series despite averaging over 27:00 a night.
But as far as Detroit is concerned it’s a bit tougher to decipher. Carolina’s built their roster in a way that Yzerman could model his rebuild after. They built gradually through the draft, eventually getting a lottery boost in the form of Svechnikov before starting their climb up the standings. They made a well timed addition in Dougie Hamilton. They’re a young squad still with only three players over the age of 30 in Jordan Staal, Justin Williams, and Reimer. They have a strong blue line both in leaders like Slavin and Hamilton, as well as other depth guys. If they lack anything, it’s depth up front. But the key here to remember is a proper rebuild is rarely a straight climb after you hit bottom. Even when you’re doing it right there will be setbacks, and that’s likely the case with the Hurricanes.
The Blackhawks were the Western Conference’s big 12-seed upset in the qualifying round beating the Oilers. But like the Canadiens they fell flat in the official first round losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in 5 games.
The truth of the matter for the Blackhawks is they aren’t the team they were 5 years ago anymore. Vegas was the much stronger team and it showed. The Blackhawks have some good young pieces in Kubalik, DeBrincat, Boqvist, and stumbled into the lottery to get Dach last year. But the guys that drive the bus still are Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith. They remain productive but are on the wrong side of 30 and are running out of time to contend again.
But where Chicago is at now is the price of success. Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, etc. all got their payday and long term deals as a result of those Cups. There’s a lot of overlap between where this team is at now and where the Red Wings were as their dynasty closed in the early 2010’s.
In a salary cap world you have to make the difficult decisions to either ride your stars into their declining years or cut bait while they’re still loved but can also warrant a big enough return to jump start the next roster cycle. While players like Larkin, Mantha, and Bertuzzi are among the few things going right for the Red Wings, they are also in their mid 20’s. To be a part of the next contender this rebuild needs to turn the corner in the next 3-4 of seasons in order to still utilise their prime years.
It has been a cruel August for the Arizona Coyotes. Perhaps the least of their concerns oddly was their first round loss to the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs took the Coyotes down in 5 games and made Darcy Kuemper look human. The Avs posted 7 goals in each of the last two games of the series. Arizona couldn’t hop on the first jet out of the bubble fast enough after being a team that essentially went all in on these playoffs.
The irony of the Coyotes fizzling out after pushing all their chips in is the man calling the shots ducked out before the playoffs started when Chayka had a very public split with the team after being handed the keys not long ago. Whatever the real reason, legitimate or not, that is a tough blow for a organisation struggling for relevance for a long time.
Chayka might as well be the captain of the Titanic hopping in one of the life rafts, because this ship is sinking. The Coyotes have generally been a cap floor team that seek out bargains in the free agency market. But they weren’t this year, swinging a big move giving up draft capital to get Taylor Hall among other moves. Going into next year they have 17 players signed and only $1.5M in cap space at this time. They’ve locked into long term deals with young players hoping their production will exceed their early paydays, which could go either way. There will be no reinforcements due to trades and the recent punishment by the league stripping key draft picks as a result of Coyotes prospect testing fiasco.
Perhaps the best thing to learn from Arizona is something the Red Wings already have, stability in management. You must have a steady hand at the wheel. Yzerman is widely considered a good GM who’s able to make solid roster moves, handle the tough negotiations on contracts, and maintain a large picture focus rather than short term gains. This will be critical to one day create a 4-5 year contending window rather than 1 or 2 years.
The Calgary Flames took advantage of a wounded Jets team in the Qualifying Round. But they were toppled by the Dallas Stars in 6 games in the opening round of the playoffs.
One large factor in their demise was Matthew Tkachuk only playing 2 games before exiting the series with an injury. But even with his absence scoring wasn’t the problem for the Flames as they managed to score 17 goals in the series. The problem is they gave up 21 goals. That’s hard to overcome for any team. Cam Talbot posting a .913 SV% wasn’t awful, especially given expectations for the Flames netminder.
In terms of roster construction the Flames have a good pretty good mix, maybe a few too many guys locked up for too many years. Lucic is probably the only albatross contract and that was what they had to take on to move James Neal. Giordano is now 36 years old with 2 years left but is the team’s leader and won the Norris just last season. They’ll have to fill some holes on the blue line with four veterans set to hit free agency.
It’s hard to really pinpoint what makes the Flames “just ok”, a playoff team, but not a contender. They’re stars are pretty good but maybe not elite, and they seemingly have decent depth. They have a roster that runs a healthy mix of skill and sandpaper. Without being able to point at one or two things it makes it difficult to improve on where they’ve failed. It could be that sometimes a roster just doesn’t work. Not that the Flames should overhaul things quite yet, but another season or two without advancing past the first round will call for some shakeups. It’s up the to the GM to find the right mix of players for success.
St. Louis Blues
The defending Stanley Cup Champions bowed out in the first round to the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games. The young exciting Canucks proved to be capable of breaking through the veteran Blues tough brand of hockey.
Crazy pandemic times aside, repeating as Cup champions is a tall challenge. The Blues didn’t fall flat in this series however as their relied upon players showed their worth with Ryan O’Reilly notching 8 points in the series; David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo totalled 7 and 6 points respectively. What did hurt the Blues attempt at a repeat run though was the injury maligned campaign for Vladimir Tarasenko who only managed two games in the series and is due for yet another shoulder surgery. Even with how deep the Blues are, Tarasenko is an important piece to driving this team. The largest pitfall to the Blues this year though was likely the performance of last year’s breakout star, goaltender Jordan Binnington. He exited the series with .800 SV% in 3 starts. His counterpart Jake Allen tried to salvage the series with .920 SV% but ultimately Binnington was supposed to be the go to guy and failed this time.
That is honestly the most obvious thing to identify about the Blues as the Red Wings move forward. Otherwise you’d be in great shape to follow their roster construction. They have a good blend of talent, speed, size and two way players as well as an enviable 6 man rotation on defense led by a legitimate number one defenseman. Binnington came out of nowhere last season to backstop this team to a championship, but this year even in the regular season Allen’s numbers were superior. It turns out they may have been best served going to Allen sooner than they did. Goaltending can be fickle, and the Red Wings would be best served remembering that moving forward. It’s good to have multiple options and ride the hot hand rather than anointing one as the go to guy. It may also leave you with salary room to assist somewhere else on the roster.
There you have it, 8 more teams eliminated in a short time. All once Cup hopefuls with something to offer the Red Wings in terms of learning from others mistakes. There’s no single way to build a Cup winning team and taking pieces and parts from all these teams will help pave the way in the future.