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?
Dallas StarsWhat 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 WingsWhat 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.
Minnesota WildWhat 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.