Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs wrapped up Monday night in very familiar fashion: the completion of a Toronto Maple Leafs meltdown.
That episode is the freshest in our minds, but is far from the only talking point out of the opening round. With Round 2 already underway, here's one last look back at what we're taking out of Round 1.
WHERE DO THE PENGUINS GO FROM HERE?
Honestly. What do you do now?
The Penguins have won a single round of playoff hockey in the past four years, and despite being the hotter team coming in this time, they still lost out to the NY Islanders in six games.
New management under Ron Hextall and Brian Burke bought into the core, added Jeff Carter at the deadline, and it was a successful move. It worked out. But it only amounted to two playoffs wins -- which, granted, are two more than they got in 2019 and 2020 combined.
The thing is you're not going to rebuild, right? Sidney Crosby will be 34 in August and you're not likely to toss away any remaining years he has. Same goes for Evgeni Malkin (35 in July) and Kris Letang (34), if they're still with the team going forward.
That's right, we're returning to Malkin and Letang trade speculation, which harkens back to some of Pittsburgh's other playoff exits in the six seasons between Cup wins in 2009 and 2016. Now, though, both of those players will be entering the final season of their contracts aged, and in a flat-cap scenario where salary cuts are likely necessary.
When Hextall and Burke met the media in February after being hired by the Penguins, the message was that they'd make this year's team the best it could be...and then we'll see.
Hextall told the Pittsburgh Tribune that "the playoffs are going to dictate" how the team reacted from here. So what does that mean now?
Goaltending will be under the microscope after the series Tristan Jarry had. He has two more years on his contract though, and Casey DeSmith has one, but it's hard to imagine them not returning with at least one more established or veteran option (ahem, Marc-Andre Fleury anyone?).
That isn't likely to be the only change.
Hextall is known as a builder, Burke as one not afraid to make a splash. The Penguins don't have their own first-rounder this year and are in no position to blow it up. They are in a spot where change is necessary, though.
What shape will that take?
The Penguins off-season should be fascinating.
#Pens Letang: At the end of the day, I truly believe Tristan Jarry is a number one goalie who got the job done for us all year long. He's been one of the best in the league the last two seasons and I truly believe we have a great goaltender on our hands.
— Josh Getzoff (@PensJG) May 28, 2021
ANOTHER INTERESTING GOALIE MARKET IS TAKING SHAPE
The Penguins gave us another lesson on why it's so important to find reliable goaltending in the playoffs. They're not the only team with a goalie need, or an interesting question facing them at the position.
The good news is, there could be options.
Consider some of the goalies who could become free agents in July: Darcy Kumper, Frederik Andersen, Chris Driedger and Linus Ullmark. Tuukka Rask and Philipp Grubauer are most likely to stay where they are but, you know, they don't have contracts right now either.
In trade, you wonder if the Anaheim Ducks explore moving John Gibson because boy does that team need a shake up and he might bring back an attractive asset. Will Vegas make Marc-Andre Fleury and his $7 million cap hit available again? Columbus could trade Joonas Korpisalo.
And the competition for these names and more runs deep.
Edmonton might want to return Mike Smith, but can they run him back at 39 years old over an 82-game season and have only Mikko Koskinen as the backup? If Toronto moves on from Andersen, how will they support Jack Campbell? Ottawa has an interest in moving things forward now and have already invested $6.25 million in one goalie, but they could use a 1B. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit and San Jose all could be in the market for a goalie.
Everyone needs a good one and, sometimes, we don't know how to find them. Fleury could have been had for peanuts last off-season. Alex Nedeljkovic was left unclaimed on waivers just before this season started. The goalie market will continue to be fascinating because of all the possible moving parts, but also because... the position is such a mystery.
OVECHKIN CONTRACT WATCH, IS KUZNETSOV A GONER?
Similar to the Penguins, the Washington Capitals haven't won a playoff series in the three years since winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. They were ousted in five games both this season and last, which leaves open questions about where they go from here, how they change, if they change, or when a rebuild might happen.
Caps GM Brian MacLellan acknowledged a need to search for younger players, or promote from within, but made it clear that he wasn't ready to engage in a rebuild just yet. As long as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are part of this team, the Caps are trying to win.
"The priority for us is to have these guys finish their career here and we're going to work around that situation," MacLellan said. "I think it's important for this organization to have Ovie and Backie finish their career and the rebuild would be a little bit premature, but I do realize it's coming."
Backstrom has four more seasons left on his contract, but Ovechkin will be a free agent this summer if he's still without a contract when the market opens July 28. With 730 career goals, Ovechkin could move into the top-three all time in 2021-22 if he scores at his average pace and then be in position to pass Gordie Howe for second the season after. Wayne Gretzky's record of 894 career NHL goals would then be a couple years away with good health.
By all indications, both Ovechkin and the team are confident an extension will happen here. The flat cap and the fact Ovechkin will be 36 in September may make it a little harder to settle on a number (where do you go from a $9.538 million cap hit signed 13 years ago?) but it's hard to imagine him leaving at this point.
But a real questions exists around the future of Evgeny Kuznetsov. He finished with 29 points in 41 games and, for the third season in a row, had declining point per game totals. MacLellan acknowledged that Kuznetsov's bout with COVID-19 makes it harder to judge how it went wrong for him this season, but also that his inconsistencies the past few seasons are having an adverse effect on the team.
"I think it's the key to our organization what decisions get made or how he plays or comes out of this," MacLellan said. "We won the Stanley Cup because we had a great 1-2 punch (at centre) and Eller at the third spot. So centre depth is important. We need him to play at his highest ability and if he can't play at his highest ability we're not going to be a good team and will have to make some other decisions."
When asked if he was still confident Kuznetsov would find that consistent ability again he said: "I don't know. It's been inconsistent for a few years here and it's hurt our team."
Add Kuznetsov's name to the growing list of off-season trade candidates. He's halfway through an eight-year contract paying him $7.8 million against the cap.
THE GOOD AND BAD OF NAZEM KADRI
You like having Nazem Kadri on your team because he's a productive player who also brings the sandpaper element that is so valued come playoff time. The problem in Toronto was that he crossed that line one too many times in the playoffs, getting suspended in the 2018 and 2019 post-seasons, and it cost the team at the most critical moment. So they had to move him and found a trade partner in Colorado.
“I talked to Naz when he first came to us, about his history in Toronto. Some of the penalties, his reputation,” Colorado head coach Jared Bednar said after a two-goal game from Kadri in last summer's bubble led Colorado to a series win over Arizona. “He stated right away that he had made some mistakes there, that he was past that, over it, and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Kadri was stellar for the Avs in his first playoff run with them. In the two rounds they played he totalled eight goals and 14 points in 12 games. Had the Avs not been decimated by injury in goal, they very well could have beaten Dallas and who knows from there. Kadri was a critical piece of that success.
But then we saw the bad side of what he brings again in 2021. Another bad hit in Round 1, this time on St. Louis' Justin Faulk, led to an eight-game suspension that's still working its way through appeals, but destined to be a long one anyway.
The hit occurred in Game 2 of their opening series and, thankfully for the Avs, hasn't hurt them yet. That's because the Blues were absolutely no match for Colorado's top line or its defence, and Vegas was clearly gassed for Game 1 of their second round match and it was never close. Maybe the Avs get away without feeling the pinch of Kadri's loss, but we have to imagine the Golden Knights will put up more of a fight as the series goes.
As the games get tougher, playing on without your second line centre will have a negative impact. Kadri brings a lot and can be an absolute difference maker at this time of year -- but for the third time in four years he threw a brutal hit that took him out of the lineup. Will this one be the last?
WHAT THE HECK TO THE LEAFS DO NOW?
It was supposed to be different this time. And then it finished exactly as it always does.
This was Toronto's greatest collapse yet, blowing a 3-1 series lead to the 16th-ranked playoff team and losing a listless Game 7 where their rush offence was stymied by a suffocating defence. No amount of high-end skill or veteran experience was able to get them through this one.
And, sure, there could be some excuses. John Tavares didn't even make it through Game 1 before getting injured and missing the rest of the series. Jake Muzzin missed Game 7 with a lower-body injury. Trade deadline pickup Nick Foligno was dealing with some injury of his own. It just doesn't matter -- you have to find a way through.
The frustrating part is that, in the end, this team wasn't even close to "breaking through." Would a Game 7 win over Montreal really have been a break through? One playoff series win, for this group, really? A win may have exorcized some demons, but the hump was still another four-to-eight wins away.
And now it's not clear where they go from here.
Luke Fox went over some of the decisions that lay ahead for the Maple Leafs. Do you simply try and rebuild the bottom-six again and run it back, or do you need something deeper? The idea of trading Mitch Marner is gaining steam on social media, but you better win that one or else you'll only set yourself back. Maybe Morgan Rielly (perhaps in a package) is the trade that needs to happen now that he's a year away from free agency.
Rage trading anyone, though, will only make this worse.
There are some very loose comparables to these Maple Leafs. Alex Ovechkin's Capitals, Joe Thornton's Sharks, Nikita Kucherov's Lightning -- all of them suffered through many years of disappointment before breaking through. Two of them won a Stanley Cup, the Sharks' best season landed them in the final, but they never won.
There are some key differences between any of those comparables though. One is that none of these Leafs are signed for as long as some of the core pieces on those teams were. Auston Matthews and William Nylander are now three years away from UFA, John Tavares and Marner are four.
And, of course, those other teams actually won playoff rounds. The Capitals had trouble getting past Round 2, but didn't get eliminated in the first round more than once in a row. San Jose made it to a couple conference finals. Before Tampa was swept by Columbus in 2019, they had already reached two conference finals and one Stanley Cup Final. Toronto is not in the same boat.
So now GM Kyle Dubas is... stuck. Now is not the time to lose trades for the sake of a shake up, but is running it back even an option? This team seemed destined for its breakthrough until just the past week, when again the stars at the top of the lineup couldn't will them through.
Is it between the ears? Was it a bottom six ill-designed for today's league? Was it simply the highest-paid players not doing enough? How do you add a "killer instinct"?
This loss is different and worse than the ones that came before. Where the Leafs go from here is harder to figure out than ever.
THIS IS WHY CAREY PRICE WILL BE CANADA'S OLYMPIC GOALIE AGAIN
We know Carey Price hasn't been the same regular season goalie in a few years. And with an NHL return to the 2022 Olympics on the horizon, it wasn't really clear who the best choice was to be Canada's starter.
Jordan Binnington? He hasn't been the same since the 2019 Cup win. Darcy Kuemper? Carter Hart, after his tough year? Mackenzie Blackwood, who struggled like Hart? Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury after another bounce back season put him in the running for the Vezina?
After everything, Price reminded us why he should be the guy next year.
Throw regular season performance out the window, because when the stakes are at their highest, Price is still one of the best in the world. His playoff save percentages have always been strong, and he led the Habs to an upset over the Penguins last year and nearly got them through the Flyers.
Now he got them through the Leafs with an MVP performance. Price is Canada's guy, and he's earning that job all over again right now.
SIGNS OF NORMALCY THE BEST NEWS OF ALL
Completing last summer's bubble was a heck of an achievement for the league and the players who had to get through such challenging and restrictive circumstances. Nothing about it felt normal.
In Canada this season, that feeling has continued, with every regular season game played in empty arenas. In the USA, one team (San Jose) had to begin its season with a weeks-long road trip because local regulations didn't allow for them to play at home. Eventually fans began to be allowed back into those arenas. Little by little the sounds and environments of NHL games south of the border started to become familiar again. In Round 1, we had a few packed houses and boy was that good to see.
We've come a long way.
January 23rd May 29th. pic.twitter.com/oy8Axl25Lq
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) May 30, 2021
— NHL (@NHL) May 27, 2021
And in Canada, for Game 6 between Toronto and Montreal, we finally got our first taste of fans back, with 2,500 allowed in the building. Game 7 in Toronto allowed for 550 health care workers in to Scotiabank Arena. It's a small step forward, but an important one and a reminder of how far we've all come from March 2020 when our world shutdown.
Better days continue to be ahead. We're looking forward to when you all can return to any NHL arena without any limitations.