Lessons For the Red Wings From the Playoffs, Part 3 (Second Round)
Learning from the four teams eliminated in the 2nd round
A couple of weeks ago we analysed the teams eliminated in the first round to find what the Red Wings could learn from their mistakes, team construction, and any other relevant information. We broke the first round down into two parts, the teams eliminated in the East and Central divisions, and then the teams eliminated in the West and North divisions.
Today we’ll be looking at all of the teams that bit the dust in Round 2. That includes the Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Colorado Avalanche. Each of these teams present a unique circumstance at where the team’s are at in their contention cycle as well as how they were constructed, as well as the shortcomings that ultimately resulted in their undoing.
What separates the Jets from the rest of the teams eliminated in Round 2 is they were the only ones not really expected to be here. They surprised most pundits by not only beating Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, but sweeping them in the first round. They rode that momentum into this round to meet the other major surprise in the North division, the Montreal Canadiens. Unfortunately for the Jets, they ran out of magic and suffered the rare occurrence of getting swept after completing a sweep. The playoff built Habs proved to be too much and sent Winnipeg home rather unceremoniously. Despite fairly low expectations coming in, the Jets were one of the worst teams to make the playoffs, getting swept still stings, in particular by another team who had a weak season in Montreal.
Looking closer at why the Jets fell so flat after looking so promising just a week earlier, a couple of key points stand out. First, Winnipeg’s Vezina-calibre goalie, Connor Hellebuyck looked very human against Montreal. He posted only a .908 SV%, although his advanced stats say he may have played a bit better than it seemed. Nevertheless Montreal scored 12 goals in 4 games and with the way Carey Price was playing that proved too difficult for the rest of Winnipeg’s roster to overcome. But while he had a tough series, Hellebuyck is certainly the backbone of this team rather than the Achilles heel.
The other obvious point from this series was the suspension of Mark Scheifele after his brutal hit on Jake Evans at the end of Game 1. There’s already been a lot made of the hit and subsequent suspension so we won’t rehash it here. But needless to say Winnipeg looked lost without their scoring leader. Somewhat overlooked, but the Jets also lost standout defender Dylan DeMelo on his first shift of the series. Center Paul Statsny also only played 2 games in the series. Losing several pieces like that, including key ones, left the Jets with major holes they couldn’t fill.
But looking beyond a mediocre goaltending performance and the loss of a couple of key players, Winnipeg has fallen short of expectations. With Hellebuyck locked into the middle of his prime, they could always surprise, parts of their roster have gradually deteriorated. After bursting onto the playoff scene three years ago on a run to the Conference Finals, the Jets have seemingly stalled with this season being the only time since then that they have advanced past the 1st round.
That can largely be attributed to the shambles remaining on their blue line compared to what was once the team’s strength. The Jets in three years went from Byfuglien, Trouba, Myers, Morrissey, Kulikov, Chiarot, and Enstrom to Morrissey, Pionk, Forbort, DeMelo, Poolman, Beaulieu, and Stanley. It’s certainly a decent enough defensive group but that is a huge drop-off from that previous core.
The leaders of the forward group largely stayed intact over that time, with their leading scorers being a very similar list with one notable exception. Gone is Patrik Laine, the disgruntled sharpshooting winger who may have been too one-dimensional. The Jets dealt him in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois, a similarly unhappy forward in Columbus. Dubois was supposedly going to bring a more complete game to Winnipeg, but he largely fell short in his first season with the Jets. He posted only 20 points in 41 games after the trade and was a non-factor in the playoffs. That trade may turn out to be a lose-lose for the teams involved.
The irony of that trade is it’s the type of trade that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has largely failed to make in Winnipeg, the big swing trade. Throughout Winnipeg’s window the last few years, they’ve allowed key pieces to walk away and haven’t done much for acquiring players, particularly through trade. Dating back the last three years, Cheveldayoff has made very few notable trades. They include acquiring Paul Statsny twice, Kevin Hayes in 2019, Nathan Beaulieu proved to be a shrewd move of a 6th round pick, Pionk and and a 1st (Heinola) for the the rights to Trouba, and the aforementioned Dubois and Laine swap. None of those deals were home run moves with the best potentially being a somewhat adequate replacement of Trouba at some point. Their free agent signings aren’t anything to get excited about either.
That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway here for Yzerman. Cheveldayoff looks to have been too hesitant to make big moves when he should have. His core group still has some time left, but he’ll need to be more aggressive in the future if he wants this particular group to be a real contender. It’s rare that a GM gets rewarded for sitting on his hands.
The Carolina Hurricanes started the playoffs with a scare against the Nashville Predators who made things a little more interesting than many thought they would. The Preds pushed the Hurricanes to 6 games, including 4 games requiring overtime. They then squared off with the Tamp Bay Lightning in the 2nd round. Despite winning the Central Division this season, the Hurricanes were the underdogs in their series with the cap-busting Bolts. In the end the high-powered Tampa squad proved too much for the Hurricanes, bouncing them in 5 games.
There is a noted shift here though from what’s been written above about the Jets and most of the other teams in Parts 1 and 2 of this analysis. Beginning with Carolina and some of the clubs that will follow, there begins to be more positives to follow rather than mistakes to avoid. However there are still some flaws that led to their downfall.
Firstly goaltending, it’s come up a lot so far in these breakdowns and Carolina’s is at least worth mentioning. It was one catch with this team that everyone pointed to before the puck even dropped to start the season. Carolina was committed to the growing trend of the goalie tandem, riding the hot hand of whoever was playing better at the time. Carolina opened the series with youngster Alex Nedeljkovic. He looked promising through two games giving up two goals in each contest, unfortunately both were losing efforts. This led Carolina to turn to former Red Wing Petr Mrazek. Mrazek was strong in a Game 3 win before getting shelled for 6 goals in Game 4 on 26 shots. Down 3-1 Carolina turned back to Nedeljkovic for Game 5 but couldn’t get him any support in a 2-0 loss to end the series. But despite two goaltending switches it’s hard to call the Canes goaltending a problem. They gave up 2 goals in every game but one in the short series. Anytime your goalie can keep it to 2 or less, you have to win the majority of those games. So while tandem goaltending didn’t prove to be an advantage here, it wasn’t the massive red flag many claimed it was.
That leads to the question of what happened on offense. The Hurricanes showed some good firepower up front during the regular season, led by young stars Sebastien Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Martin Necas, as well as other strong more veteran supporting players in Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Staal, and Nino Niederreiter. They also had Norris calibre defensemen in Jacob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton on the blue line.
Looking at the production from these players, even in a short losing series they seemed to post pretty decent numbers: Svechnikov (5 points), Aho (4), Teravainen (4), Slavin (3), Staal (3). Some of their forwards had the series cut short by injuries. The only players to really fail to produce were Hamilton (1 point) and Necas (0), which can happen in any individual series for some players, as by comparison both of these players were quite productive in the Nashville series.
Coaching certainly isn’t a weakness for this well-built club either, with coach Rod Brind’Amour nominated for the Jack Adams trophy. The biggest news here for Carolina is getting the well-respected coach locked up to a long-term deal as he could potentially hit the market this summer if he wanted to.
The simplest answer here seems to be not so much what’s wrong with the Hurricanes, but that they ran into a buzz saw in Tampa that have a well documented payroll in these playoffs. As Hamilton put it “we lost to a team $18M over the cap or whatever”. That’s a decided disadvantage to overcome. However in the Brind’Amour era of the last 3 seasons Carolina has come off as a team not quite ready to join the real contenders, being knocked out in quick fashion by the Bruins twice and Tampa this season winning a combined 2 games in those 3 series.
The Hurricanes are an analytics darling, built with depth all the way up and down their lineup. They ride the goalie platoon and are well-coached. They built their team largely through homegrown talent stockpiling high picks, but more importantly hitting on those picks. They want out and got a blue-chip defenseman in Dougie Hamilton through trade 3 years ago. They haven’t committed their cap dollars to aging vets, with the longest term contracts belonging to Aho and Slavin. Staal, their captain, is the only member from their playoff roster over the age of 30 and he was very productive with two season left to go on his contract. The Hurricanes only problem looks to be their core may still be a bit young and needs these tough losses to learn from, and if their top players can use this experience to elevate their games just a bit more in the seasons to come. If Aho, Svechnikov, and some others continue to improve as they reach their prime Carolina is likely headed for a breakthrough.
Carolina is exactly the model Detroit would be happy to follow, spending cap dollars wisely, developing their own talent, depth throughout the lineup, and well-coached, assuming he doesn’t get away this summer. Yzerman’s moves thus far look like a GM who sees the Carolina model and is closely mirroring it with his own club.
Boston has been a perennial contender for over a decade now with the exception of a couple of seasons. This season was no different as they were a favourite among many playoff predictions despite only finishing 3rd in the East division. They are a team built for the playoffs, when time and space are reduced. They proved that in taking down the Washington Capitals in 5 games in the 1st round. However they had the tables turned on them when going head to head with the New York Islanders, falling in 6 games.
The Islanders prove to be a stumbling block for would be Cup contenders every year and Boston is the latest victim. Barry Trotz is among the league’s best at adopting strategies that best fit his group. But contrary to what usually happens with teams facing off with the Islanders, the Bruins stars were actually quite productive. Brad Marchand David Pastrnak each had 9 points, Krejci had 7, and Bergeron perhaps fell behind a bit with 5 points, but he’s also 35. On the backend Charlie McAvoy did his best to pull along an injury-riddled group, posting 7 points from the back end.
The problem with the Bruins is what it has often been, the depth fell woefully short. Against a team where you expected their stars to be held up a bit, it was the rest of the lineup who couldn’t get on the stat sheet. If you exclude those top five aforementioned players, the rest of the lineup combined for 10 points in the entire series. Newcomer Taylor Hall had 2 points, proving to be a non-factor.
Beyond depth, the Bruins defensive group was walking wounded all season and was very thin in this series after McAvoy. The other problem was Tuuka Rask, who posted only a .897 SV% in the series. It was announced he had a torn hip labrum that requires surgery that will keep him out deep into next season. Looking back it was clear the veteran netminder laboured during this series. Rask is 33 now and has a lot of miles on him. Goaltending was just as much a factor in this series for the Bruins as the lack of depth scoring and thin defensive group. They outshot the Islanders by an average of 12 shots a game.
The Bruins are at the end of a very long contending window, and credit should be given for maintaining that status for as long as they have. It’s not something that happens often in the salary-cap era, teams rise and fall quickly with the cycles getting shorter and shorter. Boston has largely ridden the same core group for a decade. But the problem for them is looking back, only a single Cup banner despite all those strong teams. They fell short in the Finals twice since winning in 2011. It will be interesting to see how they handle it from here. Do they try to make another run or two with what’s left of this group? They kind of seem tied to that whether they want to be or not. There aren’t reinforcements coming with only Pastrnak and McAvoy with a lot of years still in front of them, and some of their older group have multiple years left on their contracts. The Bruins will likely reshape their depth up front chasing value contracts, and completely makeover their defensive group. Rask and Halak are UFA’s with Rask likely to return following his surgery so there’s opportunity in net.
For the Red Wings, the Bruins are definitely a good example to follow for the most part. Establish a core group that’s capable of being among the league’s best. Get them all to buy in. Ride them out for as long as they’ll let you, moving the peripheral pieces around them throughout. There will eventually come a time when you have to cut them loose and try to establish a new group, but hopefully a banner or two is hung before you get there. Boston fans likely feel bittersweet about their run, so many good teams but only one Cup to show for it. But don’t let that deter from their group being a good example for the most part. The exception is they generally didn’t do a great job of adding the right pieces around their core group and that’s what kept them from coming out on top more often than they did.
Colorado were among the favourites for the Cup both to start the season and when the playoffs began. They proved what a juggernaut they were when they ran over the St. Louis Blues with a very tilted sweep in the 1st round. They then squared off with the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2nd round in a matchup everyone circled as the heavyweight tilt of the playoffs. The Avs looked to continue their roll when they ran over the Knights in Game 1 and took Game 2 as well. But holes started to show as early as that win in Game 2, as Vegas largely carried that game. Sure enough Vegas turned the momentum, and stunned the Avalanche beating them 4 times in a row to take the series in 6 games.
How does a powerhouse team like that lose 4 straight games to anybody? Well as noted by their faces in their series-ending press conferences, the Avs players didn’t have any answers. They looked like a team that didn’t face any adversity for the most part all season and didn’t know how to handle it when it finally arrived. But with as star-studded a group as they have they were expected to have a better response to getting punched in the mouth like they did. This wasn’t a matter of Fleury stealing the series from them either, he had a decent enough .913 SV% in the series, compared to Grubauer’s .901 SV%. The Kadri suspension certainly played a role in not being able to match Vegas’ depth. Colorado as talented a group as they could not afford to lose their second line center given the lack of depth behind MacKinnon and Kadri.
The second round has been a hurdle Colorado hasn’t been able to conquer for three years and counting with their current group. This year they carried the weight of expectations from the President’s trophy and stumbled, it’s happened to many before them. But they still have a lengthy contention window in front of them assuming they can juggle their roster as needed. The biggest keys for them this offseason will be managing a new contract for their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, signing likely Calder winner Cale Makar to a likely large raise, and seeing if they can still squeeze someone like Brandon Saad into the mix after he had a good playoff. They’ll also need to make some decisions in goal with only the injured Pavel Francouz under contract for next season.
Nevertheless of all the teams so far that Detroit has looked to model after, Colorado is probably the best example. Doing all the same things Carolina has done well and then taking it to yet another level above that. Where Colorado and Carolina have both acquired solid depth, the Avs stars are a level beyond Carolina’s. Mind you they’ve also been around longer to establish themselves and Carolina’s may still get there. Colorado did have the draft’s highest picks to land two of their studs, MacKinnon (1st overall) and Landeskog (2nd overall) but they also did well when sliding outside the top 3 picks. They landed Makar and future stud Bowen Byram both at 4th overall in their respective drafts. Despite Colorado’s struggles they offer a lot of similarities to a team like Tampa before they got over the hump, certainly good company to keep. They are an offensive powerhouse 1st in goals for this season, but also stellar defensively at 3rd in goals against. They have a deep blueline full of guys who can really skate and move the puck. They just ran into a battle-hardened Vegas group that also happened to be very strong and just did a better job imposing their will in the series. It’s no reason they can’t run it back again with this same group next season.
Yzerman has likely studied his former rival Sakic’s team very closely, between draft pedigree and other shrewd moves. The Mantha deal is somewhat reminiscent of when Sakic had to deal Matt Duchene. He held to his price and orchestrated a 3-team deal that brought him Sam Girard, Shane Bowers, 1st round pick (Byram), as well as 2nd and 3rd round picks. That turned out to be a hell of a haul for the guy who is now fizzling out in Nashville after being traded twice since. The bottom line is despite Colorado failing to advance past the 2nd round yet, they are team Red Wings fans have looked at from afar and said “do that!”
There you have it for the teams eliminated in the 2nd round and what to learn from them. A quick summary:
- Winnipeg - Don’t be afraid to make bold moves when the time calls for it. To get over the hump from also-ran to legitimate contender a GM has to make a bold move or two. Winnipeg has failed to do that thus far, at least successfully, but still have time with their current core.
- Carolina - Draft your talent, build depth, maintain good salary structure, and when all that is in place remember to be patient with the group you establish. There’s nothing wrong with tinkering, but believe in what you built and allow the team to take a few swings.
- Boston - If you can establish an elite core, especially one that are on team friendly deals, ride that group out for as long as you can. But you have to ensure you add the right secondary pieces to get you over the top, something Boston has missed the mark on more often than not.
- Colorado - If you land one of the top picks, take full advantage. If you don’t, if you’re scouting is good you can still land one of the premiere players of the draft. Don’t be afraid to move prime players if they don’t fit your window (Duchene, Mantha). Build your team on speed and puck moving. Despite Colorado not getting over the hump yet in the playoffs, this is clearly the direction the league is headed, always faster./