Lessons for the Red Wings from the Qualifying Round
What can Detroit learn from the teams eliminated in the play-ins?
After an exciting return to play Stanley Cup Qualifiers round in the NHL this past week featuring games all day every day, Monday brought a sudden empty schedule as the dust settled. For eight teams it was a day of packing up to leave the playoff bubble after what probably seemed like the blink of an eye. For their respective fan bases it gave a bit of time to reflect on the sudden onslaught of do or die hockey followed now by a not yet fully determined off-season.
But what did it mean for the Red Wings and their fans? Despite not being a part of the brief play-in tournament, many Red Wings fans were glued to their screens soaking in as many of the games as they could after almost five months of stoppage. Monday also offered an opportunity to gain some wisdom from the play-in round.
A qualifier for the following, this is a look at the eight eliminated teams and what can be gathered from their shortcomings. There may be mention of individual series or opponents but the focus is on the teams sent home from the bubble early.
New York Rangers
The Rangers were the first team eliminated from the play-in round getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers were a big underdog coming in and unfortunately for them proved why quickly. This series was never all that close as even in the first game the Rangers were only able to make it close by scoring a late goal to make it a one goal finish. Henrik Lundqvist may have closed the door on his time in New York after riding the bench for the final game of the series as the future between the pipes, Igor Shesterkin, took over.
What can the Red Wings learn from the Rangers? The Rangers are different from the rest of the teams on this list in that they are a promising team on the rise after focusing on a rebuild for the past few seasons. They are a team where the Wings perhaps hope to be in a couple of seasons. But they are still a long way from being contenders. This team added a potential MVP stud in Artemi Panarin, a lottery pick in Kaapo Kakko, a blueline fixture in Jacob Trouba, and some other young exciting players like Adam Fox. Yet they were still quick work for a team in Carolina that has slowly, methodically built a contender.
Ultimately the lesson here is perhaps to be patient with the rebuild. Even as things turn the corner it’s still a long climb back to the top of the mountain. Maybe the Rangers could also give the Red Wings some tips on how to beat the lottery system.
Winnipeg was the next team eliminated playing their fourth and final game last Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Winnipeg put up a good fight, especially when considering all they were against in addition to their opponent. The Jets lost the bulk of their offense when both Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine went down in Game 1 and never returned. The pair were responsible for 57 of the 213 goals scored by the team in the regular season.
Winnipeg was also a team that not long ago was considered among the few contenders with many players still in their prime. But their blue line in particular was torn apart last offseason losing Trouba, Myers, Chiarot, as well as the sudden retirement of Dustin Byfuglien. What was once the strength of their roster was suddenly the most glaring hole and most had them pegged for a massive dropoff. If anything the Jet probably overachieved to get to 9th in the Western Conference.
What Detroit can take from the Jets’ story is that even when the day comes that their roster looks to be nearing a potential contending one, the league today has a high turnover of players. Other than a core of just 3-4 players, you’ll likely see the supporting players come and go and it’s up to management to ensure they can replenish the ranks as quickly as they disappear.
The Panthers were the first among many victims of Elimination Friday of the Qualifiers round. They fell to the the New York Islanders and their shut down brand of hockey. Florida scored 7 goals in the 4 game series which just simply won’t get it done. The Panthers top players were decently productive against a stingy Islanders squad with Barkov and Huberdeau putting up 4 and 3 points respectively. Hoffman punched above his weight with 3 goals and 5 points in the series. Yandle did his part from the blue line with 3 points. But the rest of the lineup barely registered on the stat sheet with a combined 2 goals and 4 points from the rest of the roster.
That’s a quick lesson right off the top that gets preached a lot during the playoffs. You have to have support scoring and a roster with some depth. A less generic lesson that can be taken from this group includes a reminder that goaltending can be a fickle science. By all accounts the signing of Sergei Bobrovsky should have provided security at the critical position between the posts. Not only because of the dollar figure he’s signed to, but he had a decent history of performing well. Yet he struggled in Florida all season with only a .900 SV% and a 3.23 GAA. His playoff numbers weren’t much better in the short series.
From a more top level perspective, Florida is a team that seems to be constantly undergoing change. Whether it’s the roster including the oddly timed dealing of Trocheck at the deadline, or in the coaching or management positions. Just this week it was announced Dale Tallon’s contract was not renewed. While that may be a change for the better, it’ll bring another GM with yet another vision. This team needs some stability before they waste away the prime of players like Barkov.
So ultimately the takeaway here is to have a vision and stick with it which likely won’t be a problem for Steve Yzerman who has shown conviction in his roster construction in the past. Also, try not to play 4D chess at the expansion draft and giveaway the farm in the process.
Nashville was the next to go down, in what many considered at least a bit of an upset, falling to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly was the downfall for the Predators. The easy answer is probably goaltending with Saros posting a tough .895 SV% and a 3.22 GAA. While the Coyotes got a stellar performance from Kuemper putting up a .933 SV%. Of course the answer likely goes deeper than that when you have the supposed roster advantage Nashville had. Some of their big boys came to play including Forsberg, Arvidsson, Johansen, and Norris candidate Josi. Others like Matt Duchene and Kyle Turris fell flat.
But Nashville seemed to sort of sputter all year other than Josi. The defenseman led the team in points, with Forsberg being the next top performer with only 48 points. It resulted in a 6th place finish for the Preds.
There could be a few things to take from the Predators performance but I think the one to focus on is a big picture one. This team’s window is closing if not already shut. It was only 3 seasons ago they were in the Cup Finals. More and more is the case now that teams often only have 2-3 chances to capitalize on their peak and grab a Cup. Nashville came close but the opportunity may be gone.
Pittsburgh is likely the biggest surprise in the group of castoffs from the Qualifiers round. Not only were they a 5 seed taking on a 12 seed. They were considered among the small group of contenders and they were taking on the biggest afterthought in the Montreal Canadiens. But then along came Carey Price, as everybody warned backstopping the Canadiens to a 3-1 series victory with a .947 SV%. It’s easy to point the finger at Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry and say you couldn’t keep up. But their performances weren’t bad to be honest.
The bigger problem for the Penguins was the performance of their supposed stars. The Penguins might be filling out a missing persons report for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang who combined for 0 goals and 1 assist. Even after Malkin called himself and the other stars out, he faded away in the deciding game. Jack Johnson while not a star, might as well have worn a Habs jersey in this series. It’d be easy to write this off as a consequence of the odd circumstances. It was a short series and the quick startup left it up to luck. Except this is a repeat of last year when they were swept by the Islanders. Change is coming to Pittsburgh and has already started with the clearing out of assistant coaching staff.
Pittsburgh is a bit like the ghost of Christmas past for the Red Wings. The bottom fell out quickly after their ‘08 and ‘09 runs. Yes they continued to make the playoffs but they quickly faded to the back of the pack rather than leading the way. The key to remember here for Yzerman and Co. is what drove the success of the Penguins. They kept their core constant in Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. But they weren’t afraid to keep shuffling the supporting cast until it worked. The problem for them now may well be they became infatuated with the support guys from the back to back Cups and now complacency has set in. Even when things are going well, you have to keep retooling.
Oh, the Edmonton Oilers. Yes this was a 5 seed vs a 12 seed and Chicago’s glory days seem a long way gone, but it almost felt like this was an “upset” that everyone saw coming. But why? Scoring certainly wasn’t a problem with the Oilers scoring 15 goals in the 4 game series. Their stars came to play in just like throughout the regular season. Even some of the supporting guys behind the stud duo of McDavid and Draisaitl posted decent numbers. Nugent-Hopkins posted 8 points. James Neal scored twice.
So what’s the problem? Obviously goaltending wasn’t great. Mike Smith in particular was largely at fault for the Game 1 result. Koskinen was was decent enough the rest of the way. You’d like to see him post better numbers but part of that is the dangerous chances this team gives up. This team’s defense is far from playoff caliber and leave their goaltender’s out to dry often. Yes there’s some things to like about players like Nurse, Klefbom, and Bear but collectively as a whole they are not near good enough. In addition to that, although I mentioned a couple of the second tier forwards above, the rest didn’t achieve much. Former Red Wings Riley Sheahan and Andreas Athanasiou posted 0 points and so did several others.
The lesson for Detroit here is relatively simple and pretty clear to most onlookers. Even if the lottery balls fall your way, and you’re also lucky enough to have the league’s best player; you have to build around them. Despite McDavid’s best efforts to put this team on his back he at least needs the rest of them to tread water when he’s not out there. On top of that there’s no easy way to reconstruct this roster, they are cap-strapped. So even though you need a superstar center piece now is the time to start laying the groundwork for the supporting cast around those eventual stars.
The Minnesota Wild were the last team eliminated on Elimination Friday. In a series filled with shutouts they fell to the Vancouver Canucks in 4 games. Getting shutout twice in a short series is hard to overcome and they didn’t.
The Wild are sort of a forgotten bunch. Everyone remembers when they made the huge double signing of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to two of the last lifetime contracts awarded in the NHL. But since then they’ve mostly floated in mediocrity. They are often either just inside or just outside the playoff bubble. This afforded them the chance to make noise as a 10 seed in the qualifier round. But they didn’t have the juice to keep up with the rising talents of the Canucks.
Minnesota is trapped in no man’s land, the last place you want to be in today’s league. Their roster is filled with veterans, some with rather decorated careers. But for the most part those players are past the primes of their careers and are on the slow decline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you are still in your contender window. But the Wild never really reached that level the way they were expected to. By doing enough to tread lightly on the edge of the playoffs year after year they also don’t have any top notch prospects to speak of to help boost the current roster. It’s time to offload whatever they can and begin a proper rebuild, and from what it sounds like Bill Guerin has started to do just that. There was rumor of a trade deadline deal that would have shipped out Parise but that fell through.
The point of this for the Red Wings is, if there comes a time where the team gets stuck as a mid-pack team for a couple of seasons, they are better off to bite the bullet sooner and pick up prospects and higher picks again rather than stall out.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Everybody’s favourite kicking can. It was clear before the Qualifier round even started that Toronto drew arguably the toughest opponent in the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were the David to Tampa’s Goliath last season sweeping the Lightning in the first round. They are the defensive shutdown contrast to the Leafs high octane offense. This series may have been the most entertaining especially as it got to the end with both teams trading 3-goal comebacks before a deciding Game 5.
Ultimately it was the defensive effort of Columbus that won out over the firepower of the Toronto offense. But there’s certainly a lot of factors at play here. Goaltending is always an obvious one. Korpisalo, and Merzlikins for a time, were both ridiculous in this series. Korpisalo had a .960 SV% in a Hasek-esque performance. There’s no denying that the Blue Jackets goaltending stole the show and the series. A lot of people but the blame largely on Frederik Anderson’s shoulders following the Leafs’ elimination. But he himself played well, with a .936 SV%. His trouble has been the untimely weak goal that cripples his team, which is a factor no doubt.
But miracle goaltending aside the Leafs have well documented troubles advancing past the first round (or qualifying round). While the Leafs still have plenty of contention window left there are justifiable doubts as to why they can’t get past the first round. There may be several key lessons for Detroit from Toronto’s experience. The as mentioned above hot goalie conundrum cannot result in an overreaction. This shouldn’t be a problem for Yzerman as he ran into several in his playing years.
Another is how to assemble a Cup winning roster. In a salary cap world it’s hard if not impossible to assemble a roster that is strong throughout. The Toronto experiment isn’t over but they may prove one way or the other if you can break through being so top heavy offensively and made with spare parts defensively. We shouldn’t be ready to write them off yet as some tinkering moving forward may get them over the hump and potentially into contention, which makes them worth keeping an eye on. Pittsburgh’s Cup rosters were constructed similarly, albeit the contrast of offense to defense wasn’t quite as steep.
Something else to note as we roll into the eventual off-season is how many significant changes the Leafs make. There’s a fine line between staying the course on a sinking ship and jumping the gun too early shaking the foundation of a roster that’s just been the victim of bad luck. The trouble is determining which this is and it’s critical to have the person in charge be able to tell the difference.
So although the Wings season ended many months ago now, there are still quite a few things the team and their leadership can learn from the experiences of others. Hopefully they’re watching carefully and taking notes.