Down Goes Brown: Lessons from the NHL’s final four teams

The Penguins were all over the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy didn't enjoy it.

The NHL is a copycat league. We hear that a lot around this time of year, as the field narrows and the number of teams watching sadly from the sidelines grows. All of those teams will have to get better if they want to win a Cup, and some have more work cut out for them than others.

But how do they do it? By cribbing notes from the teams that are winning, of course.

Luckily, this year’s conference final teams will make that a relatively easy job. While every team is different, this year’s final four share some significant similarities. So if you’re a GM facing pressure to improve and you’re looking for a successful formula to borrow, we’ve got you covered. Here are eight lessons we can learn from the teams that are still alive in this year’s Cup hunt.

Lesson #1: Playoff-tested goaltending is overrated
We all know the old clichés: You build a winner from the net out. Goaltending is what wins in the playoffs. And when push comes to shove, you want a goalie who’s been there before, because those are the guys who know how to win, whatever that means.

But recent history has shown that that none of that is necessarily true, as teams have managed deep playoff runs without a veteran star in the crease. This year, there were five goalies in the league with 70 or more playoff starts on their resume, all of whom led their team to a playoff spot. But four of them went out in the first round, and the fifth, Marc-Andre Fleury, is watching the Penguins’ run from the bench.

Heading into this year’s final four, the most experienced starting goaltender left standing in terms of post-season action was Ben Bishop – and he’d never even started a playoff game until last season. Brian Elliott had lost his starting job in each of the last two post-seasons in St. Louis, Martin Jones had never started a playoff game before this season, and Matt Murray was a rookie who didn’t even debut until December.

Lesson #2: Have a young backup you can trust
So you don’t necessarily need to go all-in on a veteran star, at least based on this year’s final four. But there’s a corollary to this rule: Having a capable young backup as an insurance policy sure seems to help.

We’ve already seen that come into play in Pittsburgh as well as in Tampa, where Andrei Vasilevskiy has once again been pressed into action for an injured Bishop. The Blues haven’t had to start Jake Allen yet, but he’s good enough to give them that option. And in San Jose, Jones was the capable young backup until the team went out and made him the starter this summer. And the Sharks still made sure to go out and get James Reimer at the deadline, just in case Jones faltered.

Add it all up, and heading into the playoffs with two solid options – even if one of them is young and cheap – may be just as good if not better than having one veteran star. (Or maybe not. Goaltending is voodoo.)

Lesson #3: Have a Norris candidate (or two)
We won’t dwell on this one too much, since the importance of a stud defenceman has already been well established. Each of the last six Stanley Cups has gone to a team with Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty or Zdeno Chara, so it’s not like any GMs are looking at these four teams, slapping their foreheads and realizing for the first time that guys like that are valuable.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that once again, we’re going to have a Cup winner with a top tier defenceman eating big minutes on the blue line. Brent Burns is a Norris finalist this year, and Kris Letang just missed. Alex Pietrangelo is 26 and has already had two top five finishes. And Victor Hedman looks like he’ll be in the running for years. Three of those four found a spot on my Norris ballot, and I won’t be the only one.

On top of that, it’s worth mentioning that two of the best #2 defenceman in the league are represented, in Anton Stralman and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and the Blues have a deep blue line that include veterans Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester.

You might be able to get away with a goaltender who’s merely above average, but with every year that goes by it seems like a genuine star on the blue line is mandatory. GMs knew that already, but if the ones who don’t have that workhorse were hoping there was another way, they’re not finding it in this year’s final four.

Lesson #4: Don’t sweat the trade deadline
If we’re being honest, this year’s trade deadline was a bit of a dud. We didn’t get as many trades as we were hoping for, and only a few big names were moved. But be warned: If NHL GMs decide to follow the blueprint of this year’s final four, future deadlines may be even worse.

That’s because this year’s remaining teams were remarkably quiet at the deadline, while the teams that did make noise are all long gone. The most aggressive team was the Blackhawks, who added Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise and Christian Ehrhoff. They were out in the first round. The Rangers landed the biggest name in Eric Staal. They were also out in round one. So were the Panthers, who added Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell. The Dallas Stars paid heavily for Kris Russell, but were out in the second. And the Avalanche, who added Mikael Boedker, and the Bruins, who traded several picks for depth players, didn’t make the playoffs at all.

Meanwhile, most of our final four stayed quiet. Among players who are playing any sort of post-season role, only San Jose’s Roman Polak and Nick Spaling were deadline pickups, and that was hardly a blockbuster. The Penguins’ biggest addition was Justin Schultz, who’s barely played. The Sharks and Blues each added a backup goalie who hasn’t seen the ice yet. And the Lightning sat out the action entirely, even though there had been all sorts of rumours of them moving a big name (more on that in a minute).

If the trade deadline has been on life support for years, then this year’s final four may be the moment that pulls the plug. But don’t worry, trade fans. There’s at least a little bit of good news here.

Lesson #5: Make your big moves in the summer
While all four remaining teams stayed quiet at the deadline, three of them made major trades in the off-season that have been crucial to their playoff success.

Arguably the biggest trade of the summer was Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Phil Kessel, and he’s been their leading scorer in the post-season. The Blues traded T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer, and were rewarded with a strong playoff run that included the winning goal in Game 7 against the Blackhawks. And the Sharks added Jones, who may stand as the best acquisition of the several goalies moved around last summer’s draft.

Granted, the Lightning are the exception – Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a single trade involving an NHL player since last March. But he was busy back in 2014, making a series of moves that freed up enough cap space to add Stralman.

So if you’re an NHL GM looking to take next season’s deadline off because it worked for this year’s final four, just remember: You’d better be willing to pull the trigger on some major deals this summer.
Easy, right? Just one thing: Make sure your big move is the right one.

Lesson #6: Know which big moves not to make
At some point in recent years, all four remaining teams have been faced with calls to make a major move, the sort of franchise-defining decision that can be felt for years. All four decided to stay the course. And all four look awfully smart for doing it.

The Lightning actually faced two such decisions this year, with possible trades looming for both Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin. Despite plenty of rumours and a conventional wisdom that says you can never let a pending free agent walk away for nothing, Yzerman never seemed to come close to moving Stamkos. Drouin was a different story, with the Lightning actively shopping him, but fair value never materialized and Yzerman decided to hold onto his cards rather than sell at a discount. Now Drouin is playing a key role in this Lightning run, and Stamkos may be nearing a return.

In St. Louis, Doug Armstrong could have blown things up last year after yet another playoff disappointment, but decided to give Ken Hitchcock and company one more year to get it right. That patience has paid off. So has Doug Wilson’s, as the Sharks’ GM never made the sort of major moves we all expected after the 2014 meltdown against the Kings. (In fairness, Wilson may not have had much choice in the matter, given Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau‘s no-trade protection.) Even the Penguins have dealt with annual calls to make a major move after each playoff run – remember the constant Malkin trade rumours? – but have kept the core of the roster intact despite changes in the front office and behind the bench.

Hockey fans and media love to speculate about the big move. And sometimes, a shakeup really is needed. But as these four teams have shown, sometimes the old cliché is true: The best move really is the one you don’t make.

Lesson #7: High picks are golden
This is another one that’s already well established as conventional wisdom. It’s awfully hard to win in today’s NHL without a player or two who went at the very top of the draft. Complain all you want about tanking, but it works.

The Penguins are the poster child of this approach, and with apologies to Brian Burke, the Pittsburgh model has worked out pretty well. Sidney Crosby was a No. 1 selection and Evgeni Malkin went No. 2. Fleury hasn’t seen the ice yet this spring, but he was also a No. 11. And Kessel was a No. 5, although he’s had two stops along the way to Pittsburgh.

The Sharks have both of the top picks of the 1997 draft; their own (Marleau, who went second) and the Bruins’ (Thornton, the top pick). And the Lightning have Stamkos (No. 1 in 2008), Hedman (No. 2 in 2009) and Drouin (No. 3 in 2013).

The Blues are a bit of an outlier here; the top pick on their roster is Pietrangelo, who went No. 4 in 2008. They had the No. 1 pick in 2006, but only ended up with Erik Johnson, although they did turn him into Shattenkirk. (Out of kindness, I’ll refrain from mentioning who the Blues could have had with that ’06 pick.)

Lesson #8: Don’t fear free agency
NHL GMs make their biggest mistakes on July 1. You hear somebody ominously muttering some variation of that phrase every year, and history bears it out. In the cap era, unrestricted free agency has been a minefield, and it’s tempting to suggest that the best move might be to just sit it out entirely.

But there are smart moves to be had on the open market, and our final four found them. The Lightning’s signing of Stralman probably stands as the best of the 2014 off-season. The Blues went big that year too, adding Paul Stastny to the summer’s biggest deal in terms of annual cap hit; they also used free agency to snag Elliott back in 2011. The Sharks were active last summer, bringing in Joel Ward and Paul Martin. And while the Penguins were focused on other things last July 1 – that was the day they made the Kessel deal – they did eventually add Matt Cullen, who’s turned out to be one of the best stories of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Cullen (7) has proved to be an excellent off-season addition by GM Jim Rutherford. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Cullen (7) has proved to be an excellent off-season addition by GM Jim Rutherford. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

There have still been more bad deals than good ones over the last few years, and even some of the contracts handed out by our final four could hurt down the road. But after a 2015 offseason that was notable for GMs around the league finally pumping the brakes on UFA spending, this year’s final four could offer some small degree of encouragement that it’s still possible to supplement a Cup contender on the open market.

So let’s sum up for all those GMs out there furiously scribbling notes. You don’t necessarily need a battle-hardened veteran in net, but if you don’t have a stud defenceman, you’re probably screwed. You can’t be afraid to make a big trade, although the deadline isn’t the time to do it. You’d better hope you already have a top pick or two on the roster or on the way. Don’t be afraid to work the phones over free agency. And while you’re doing all of that, make sure to avoid any major moves that you’ll look back and wish you hadn’t made.

Easy, right? Hey, it worked for these four teams. Get to copying, GMs.

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