With the conference finals underway, we’re down to the NHL’s final four. The eyes of the hockey world are focused on the Sharks, Blues, Lightning and Penguins, and rightly so. One of those four teams will be our next Stanley Cup champion.
But four teams in the conference final also means 12 playoff teams sitting at home, wondering where it all went wrong. So let’s help those teams out and look at each of the dozen franchises that didn’t make the cut, and try to pinpoint the key flaw that sent them packing. And, more importantly, let’s ask the question: Can they fix it?
What went wrong? Goaltending. Hey, we might as well start off with the easy one, right?
The Stars were one of the league’s best stories, roaring back from a playoff miss to finish as the West’s top seed while leading the league in goals scored. They were also one of the most entertaining teams we’ve seen in years. But they went through the season with a massive question mark, and we all saw it: the goaltending duo was weak. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were good enough to get them to the second round, but a Game 7 meltdown against the Blues ended their season and drew a big red circle around the sport’s most important position.
Can they fix it? It won’t be easy. Before they can add anyone, the Stars will presumably need to subtract, and that’s no simple task. Their two incumbents carried a combined cap hit of $10.4 million, and both are locked in for two more years. Neither will have much trade value at that price. That doesn’t mean they can’t be traded – a willingness to retain salary and/or taking back an equally bad deal can open doors – but it’s possible that a buyout ends up being Jim Nill’s best option.
Even assuming that Nill can clear a spot on the roster, who does he go out and get? There are always goalies available in the off-season, but the tough part is finding the right one. The reality is that this is a league with about a half dozen sure-thing goalies, and a whole lot of question marks after that. Those sure-things aren’t going to be available, so Nill and the Stars will have to roll the dice.
History has shown that you don’t need a future Hall-of-Famer in net to win in this league. This year’s final four has shown it too. But you do need a guy you can trust, and the Stars just reminded us that finding that guy is no simple task. They’ll try again this summer, but it’s no sure thing that they’ll do any better.
Detroit Red Wings
What went wrong? The offence couldn’t finish. The Red Wings produced plenty of pressure against the Lightning, averaging 32 shots per game. But they never managed to score more than two goals in any game of the series, and ended up with just eight goals total. That included just one on the power play despite 25 attempts.
Can they fix it? We’ll cut the Wings some slack here. They were facing a strong defensive team with a hot goaltender, and their power play was decent over the regular season, ranking 13th. But the lack of offence wasn’t strictly a post-season problem. Detroit only scored 209 goals on the season, ranking just 23rd overall, and didn’t have a single player finish with more than 50 points.
So how do they get better? Losing Pavel Datsyuk won’t help, and if he heads home for Russia, as expected, he’ll leave a huge void. Henrik Zetterberg is 35-years-old, and his production has dropped sharply in each of the last two years. On the other hand, guys like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist should improve with age and expanded roles, and Dylan Larkin is only just getting started.
Add it all up, and the Red Wings probably need help from outside the organization, either via free agency or trade. And to do that, they’ll likely need to find a home for Datsyuk’s cap hit first. That won’t be impossible, but Ken Holland has got some work cut out for him this summer.
What went wrong? After splashing out on big-money franchise players in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild have failed to surround them with enough talent to truly compete in a very tough Central Division.
The Wild spent big to build a team that could contend, but they could never beat the Blackhawks, and this year they were eliminated by what turned out to be a very flawed Stars team. Now they’re left with a core that’s old and expensive, most of whom are well into the stage of their careers where we should start expecting to see a decline.
Can they fix it? They’ve already made a big improvement, upgrading to Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Adding one of the best coaches in the league could go a long way.
It may have to, because upgrading the roster is going to be a massive challenge for GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s largely locked into this core – they have nearly $50 million tied up in just nine players through 2017-18, and six of those guys are already over 30 today. Finding takers for any of those players in trades will be tough, and buyouts just kick the cap pain down the road.
Maybe Boudreau can work his magic and turn this group into contenders. The Wild had better hope so, because if there’s another realistic path to improvement here, it’s a tough one to find.
New York Islanders
What went wrong? John Tavares picked the wrong time to go quiet. After a fantastic first round and a strong performance in an opening game win, Tavares was held off the scoreboard for the four straight losses that ended the Islanders season.
Can they fix it? Call this one a case of bad timing. Tavares had been fantastic, and even over those last four games he still had his chances. The puck just stopped going in for him and his linemates. It happens.
The bigger question is who those linemates might be next year, with Kyle Okposo on the verge of unrestricted free agency. But whoever the Islanders surround him with, Tavares will be the team’s best player and key offensive factor. Unfortunately, that means that when he does go cold, the Islanders will have trouble filling the void.
What went wrong? The defensive depth wasn’t what it needed to be. Granted, we said that last year too, when the Blackhawks basically ran with four guys for two months and we all waited for it to blow up on them. It never did.
But this year’s Hawks were already a weaker version than previous editions, one that looked vulnerable heading into the post-season. The blue-line looked even thinner than last year’s thanks to the loss of Johnny Oduya, and a rotating cast of veterans had failed to replace him. That left Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson to handle the heavy lifting, along with younger guys who were playing tougher minutes than they may have been ready for.
Can they fix it? It’s tempting to say no. The Blackhawks are locked in to some big money contracts that have them up tight against the cap. Some of those deals still look good (Keith), some are expensive but represent fair value (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane) and some are already looking bad (Seabrook). But they all add up to a cap crunch that will make it tough to add another solid blue-liner. And that’s especially true given the team doesn’t have a first or second round pick this year to work with.
Still, this is Stan Bowman we’re talking about, and he’s been here before. Every year, we count out the Blackhawks because of cap pressures, and most years they somehow find a way. That didn’t happen this year, but with the Hawks’ championship window still wide open, expect Bowman to get to work patching the holes. The bigger question may be whether he tries to do it this summer, or waits for next year’s deadline.
Los Angeles Kings
What went wrong? The defensive depth wasn’t what it needed to be. Wait, this sounds familiar. I’m starting to think that defensive depth may be important.
Like the Blackhawks, the Kings went into the post-season with blue-line questions. But the loss of Alec Martinez in Game 1 turned a question into an outright emergency, and forced Drew Doughty to log ridiculous minutes. He’s handled that load in the past, but this time he struggled, and with the exception of a solid series from Jake Muzzin, there weren’t enough other pieces to compensate.
Can they fix it? Martinez will be back, and Doughty isn’t likely to have another series like that for a while. But the Kings still need help here; they’ve never fully recovered from losing Slava Voynov, and guys like Luke Schenn and Rob Scuderi aren’t the answer. Like the Blackhawks, the cap situation is tight and the prospect/pick cupboard isn’t especially well-stocked. Dean Lombardi has some work to do here.
What went wrong? They couldn’t hold a lead. The Panthers led at some point in three of their losses against the Islanders, including into the final minute of the decisive Game 6. But they kept letting the Islanders up off the mat, and it contributed to a disappointing series that saw them lose three overtime games.
Can they fix it? You want to be careful here, since it’s tempting to get into the narrative business. The Panthers are still a young team, with several key pieces like Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov who are still getting better. So you could probably get away with playing the “still learning how to win” card on this one, if you were so inclined.
But we’re also talking about a six-game series here, one where misleading patterns can emerge from the noise. The Panthers emerged as a good team this year, but they’re one that still has a way to go before they can be true contenders. Maybe the new front office helps them get there. Or maybe the improved play of their young core is enough. Either way, they were good enough to win a round this year, and we should resist reading too much into a few blown leads that kept them from doing it.
What went wrong? The big names up front disappeared in the playoffs. With all due respect to Colin Wilson, when he runs away with the team scoring lead, you may have a problem.
Wilson aside, Nashville’s best forwards were quiet. Ryan Johansen and James Neal were OK at times, but Filip Forsberg had just four points in 14 games and Mike Ribeiro was a healthy scratch. The playoffs tend to be the realm of tight, low-scoring games, but at some point somebody needs to score. Too often against the Sharks, the Predators couldn’t find that someone.
Can they fix it? Nashville beat one favourite and took a second to a seventh game, so it’s not like their post-season was a disappointment. And they’re not a team that’s built around their forwards – this is a team with an excellent blue-line and a goalie who can be very good, this seasons’ pedestrian numbers aside. And after years of not scoring enough, they were decent in that department this season, finishing fifth in the West in goals scored. They’ll need to add some help up front, especially with a 36-year-old Ribeiro entering the final year of his deal. But Forsberg and Johansen should still be getting better, so there’s room for at least some optimism here.
What went wrong? It’s just not their time yet.
Oh, there were other problems. Their best players went cold, injuries took a toll, and Steve Mason conjured ghosts of Flyers goalies past with That Goal. But in the bigger picture, the Flyers are a team that’s rebuilding on the fly under new GM Ron Hextall, and they’re doing it well. Even making the playoffs this year was an accomplishment, and there’s no shame in losing to the Presidents’ Trophy winner.
Can they fix it? As long as Hextall continues his smart and patient approach to rebuilding the roster, the Flyers should be just fine.
New York Rangers
What went wrong? They’re not good enough anymore.
Harsh? Maybe. But after years of being right in the mix among the East’s best teams, the Rangers really do seem like a team on the decline. They couldn’t score, the special teams failed, and the Penguins made them look old and slow. Too often this season, New York looked like a flawed team that needed Henrik Lundqvist to be at his best to compete with the league’s elite. When he wasn’t – like during the opening round – they looked outclassed.
Can they fix it? Has the Rangers window closed? That’s been the debate for much of the season. The Rangers themselves, not surprisingly, have said no. Others aren’t so sure. General manager Jeff Gorton finds himself with an aging core, many of them tied into long-term contracts that now look questionable or worse. They have some prospects – every team has prospects – but the pipeline isn’t impressive and they’re thin on draft picks.
There’s still talent here, and this won’t be a bad team. But the Penguins are the class of the Metro, and the Rangers now know that they need to get a lot better to keep up. It’s hard to see how they manage that.
What went wrong? They’re not clutch.
OK, granted, there’s plenty of debate of whether that’s even a thing. But the Ducks’ track record in big games, especially Game 7s, is uninspiring. Does that hint at a bigger problem? Bob Murray seemed to suggest that it does.
Can they fix it? Depending on how much you buy into this stuff, you may feel like the firing of Bruce Boudreau has already taken a big step in that direction. Boudreau is the poster child for the Church of Clutch, a guy who’s enjoyed unprecedented regular season success but just can’t seem to guide his team to big wins in the post-season. We don’t yet know who’ll replace him behind the Ducks bench, but we know that person won’t have a lifetime record of 1-7 in Game 7.
Of course, maybe all this clutch talk is really just so much small sample size noise, and the Ducks haven’t been guilty of anything beyond poor timing. But even if that’s the case, psychology can be a funny thing. If the Ducks think they can’t win the big one, and that Boudreau was part of that problem, then maybe the coaching change is the move that turns everything around.
(Or maybe they just fired one of the best coaches in the league because of what basically amounts to glorified superstition. Stay tuned on this one.)
What went wrong? Let’s end with what could be the most controversial answer on our list: Nothing.
The Capitals are a very good team that had the misfortune of running into another very good team in the second round, and they lost a close series that could have easily gone either way. Good teams lose sometimes. That’s it. That’s the whole story.
Not everyone agrees. After yet another playoff disappointment, there’s been plenty of talk that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this Capitals team. Maybe it’s Alex Ovechkin‘s leadership, maybe it’s the organization’s culture, or maybe it’s something else, but for whatever reason this team just can’t win the big one. They can’t, as Justin Williams put it, rise up in the big moments. And if that’s true, the thinking would go, maybe they need to take a good long look in the mirror.
And it’s true. They should look in the mirror. And when they do, they should see one of the best teams in the league. And they should stay the course.
Can they fix it? Since we’re putting forward the argument that there’s nothing significant to fix, maybe the better question is: Can they blow it?
History tells us that they can, because the Capitals have been here before. Back in 2010, they won the Presidents’ Trophy and then made an early playoff exit. That brought on all sorts of introspection and analysis about where they’d gone wrong. That led to a new philosophy, new systems, and (eventually) a rotating cast of head coaches trying desperately to fix… something. It was a mess, and it cost the Capitals years of Ovechkin’s prime. And it didn’t have to happen, just like it doesn’t have to happen all over again now.
That’s not to say that the current Capitals are a perfect team. They could use more depth, especially on the blue-line where they had to lean too heavily on Brooks Orpik, and adding a bit more speed wouldn’t hurt. There will be changes, because this is the NHL and there are always changes.
But there’s no fatal flaw here, as much we might want there to be. Now let’s find out if the Capitals believe it.