Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In a copycat league, what lessons can we learn from the four conference finalists?

We often hear about how the NHL is a copycat league. A few teams do well and everyone else decides to try to be just like them. Then somebody new comes along, has success with a different approach and the entire league pivots and goes chasing after that. NHL GMs who’ve been tasked with building a Cup contender often end up reminding you of the flustered student in the back row desperately trying to copy off of the smart kid’s paper.

Now that we’re down to four teams left in this year’s playoffs, can we figure out what the league might be about to learn? Maybe, because when you look at the final four as a group, there are some similarities that stand out. Today, let’s look through a half-dozen lessons you might learn from this year’s conference finalists – you know, if you happened to be the copycat type.

Lesson No. 1: Be bold when it comes to coaching changes

Making a coaching change can’t be fun for a GM. You never like to see anyone lose their job, especially when they’ve worked hard for your organization over the years. Mix in an owner who might not appreciate paying somebody not to work and you can understand why a GM might prefer the status quo.

But as this year’s final four has shown, sometimes it pays to pull the trigger. The most obvious example was in St. Louis, where making the change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube may have saved their season. At the time the move was made, you could understand why Doug Armstrong may have hesitated. After all, Yeo had only been given one full season behind the bench and it’s not like Berube’s resume made him an obvious upgrade. Armstrong probably could have talked himself into waiting another month or two, or maybe even the whole season. But he didn’t and the Blues were eventually rewarded.

The Hurricanes also have a first-year head coach and the change came under odd circumstances. Technically, they didn’t fire Bill Peters; he exercised an out clause in his contract. But the team didn’t exactly seem like they were all that eager to keep him, with owner Tom Dundon expressing disappointment at the team’s record, acknowledging that he was willing to be “pretty flexible” in regards to whatever decision Peters made. When Peters left for Calgary, the promotion of rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour turned out to be a near-perfect fit for a young team looking to find the next level.

Boston and San Jose have had more recent stability behind the bench, but both have seen good results after making changes that took some courage. The Sharks moved on from Todd McLellan in 2015 after the first playoff miss of his career and then watched him get snapped up by a division rival within weeks, but Peter DeBoer has done well in four seasons since. And the Bruins took plenty of heat for firing Claude Julien midway through the 2016-17 season and replacing him with little-known assistant Bruce Cassidy, especially when the Habs hired him just one week later. But Cassidy has done a fantastic job ever since.

Who could learn from them: I know you all want me to say Toronto here, but it seems like it’s one season too early to really dig into that possibility. Rather than call for any specific coach’s job, I’ll just point out that there are seven teams in the league who’ve had the same coach since the 2015 offseason, and only one – the Sharks – made it out of the first round. Tampa, Winnipeg, Nashville and Toronto all went out early, while New Jersey and Detroit didn’t even make it in.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t be afraid to take a big swing on the trade market, especially in the offseason

One of the early themes of the 2019 playoffs was the positive impact that a team could gain from being active at the trade deadline, as big movers like the Golden Knights and Blue Jackets started strong. But with those teams out, that narrative has faded. Instead, maybe we should be talking about summer blockbusters, since three of these teams made big trades in the 2018 offseason.

The biggest was the Sharks acquiring Erik Karlsson in a move that’s paid off nicely now that he’s healthy enough to play. The Hurricanes pulled off the Dougie Hamilton blockbuster with the Flames and also sent Jeff Skinner to the Sabres, while the Blues pulled off the Ryan O’Reilly deal (not to mention Brayden Schenn the summer before). Those were four very different types of deals, but they all took some guts to pull off and all of them are big parts of why these teams are where they are today.

The outlier here is Don Sweeney and the Bruins. He’s not much of a trader – he’s been on the job for four years and his NHL Trade Tracker entry still doesn’t have a second page. And after a busy first offseason in which he made deals featuring names like Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic and Martin Jones, he’s basically taken summers off. He’s more of a deadline guy, but that’s paid off for Boston, as the additions of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson have helped.

Who could learn from them: Any GM who prefers to sit on their hands and mumble about how making big trades is just too hard, which is to say most of today’s GMs. That could even include David Poile in Nashville, an aggressive trader who somewhat surprisingly hasn’t made a big summer move since the P.K. Subban trade almost three years ago.

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