Monday, August 24, 2020

In a copycat NHL, 8 lessons to learn from the 8 remaining teams

The NHL is a copycat league.

We know that, because we hear it all the time. That’s especially true around playoff time, as the list of eliminations grows and those teams try to figure out what went wrong. Inevitably, as we narrow down the field and eventually crown a champion, everyone comes up with the same plan: Point at whoever won and say “do what they did”.

Of course, those lessons keep changing. If a big team wins the Cup, everyone wants size. If it’s a smaller team, we pivot to speed and skill. You need a stud blueliner, unless you don’t. Never spend big on goaltending, unless you should. Build around veteran depth, but stay young. Make trades, but don’t disrupt chemistry, and sign lots of free agents, but don’t mess up your cap.

What lessons will we learn from 2020? Nobody knows yet. But based on the teams that are left, there are some lessons that fans can hope the league will learn. After all, some ideas and concepts just make the NHL more fun, and all else being equal we should hope that teams decide to copy those. So today, let’s take a look at the eight teams left, and take a fan’s perspective on the copycat lesson we’d like to see everyone learn from them.

(Will it all be wishful thinking when GMs inevitably include that the answer is “more grit”? Yes, but shut up, let us have hope.)

The team: Vegas Golden Knights

The lesson: You can still trade your way to a championship.

Remember trading? Trading was fun. For you kids out there, teams used to occasionally exchange assets, often in large transactions that we used to call blockbusters. This was back before the salary cap made every GM’s job too hard. Ask your grandparents, they’ll tell you.

OK, I’m getting dramatic here, and this is a topic I may have already mentioned once or twice or roughly a million times. Trading is still part of the NHL, even if we don’t see the sort of wide-ranging moves that we used to. But for many teams, it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Build through the draft, the thinking goes, and then supplement with a few well-timed moves only when the moment’s right.

The Knights didn’t do that. Granted, they kind of couldn’t; being an expansion team has a way of limiting your options. I doubt many teams are going to bother with trying to copy a team that’s only existed for three years. But it’s still worth pointing out how aggressive the Knights have been when it comes to making trades, not just around their expansion draft but in the seasons since. They went big for Max Pacioretty. They won the Mark Stone sweepstakes. And this year they went out and got Robin Lehner even though they already had a goalie. That seems to be paying off. Guess they had to take a stab at it.

Again, nobody can point at the Knights and say “copy everything they did,” because expansion drafts aren’t an option for anyone outside Seattle. But if they win it all in Year 3, it’s at least going to get tougher for GMs to tell us about how they just can’t be expected to make important trades anymore. (Especially at the deadline, but we’ll hit that point again in a little bit.)

The team: Vancouver Canucks

The lesson: Offense isn’t the enemy.

This one’s not complicated. Defense might win championships, but goals are fun, and if you watch the Canucks you’re going to see more goals in a typical game than you will for any other contender.

The Canucks scored 228 goals in the regular season, good for second in the West behind Colorado. But they also gave up 217, more than any other team that’s still standing. At nearly 6.5 combined goals per game, the Canucks lead the remaining teams by a decent margin.

I’m not naive enough to think that a Canucks Cup win would change the defense-first mentality that permeates the league – that ship sailed decades ago. There are no offense-friendly NHL coaches. There are only defensive coaches who can’t get their teams to lock it down as much as they want.

Still, we can hold out hope that an unexpected Canucks run might at least remind a few coaches – or the GMs that hire them – that the idea is to put the puck into the other team’s net more often than it goes in yours, and that a 5-4 win still counts as a win. Wishful thinking? Probably, but we need all the help we can get.

The team: Philadelphia Flyers

The lesson: You can trust your young goalie (maybe).

Goalies are weird. That’s not exactly breaking news to longtime fans, but try explaining the position to a newbie. The goalie can be the most important player in any given matchup, with the ability to single-handedly win or lose a game or even a series. But we’re never completely sure who’s good and who isn’t, and sometimes guys we’ve never heard of become superstars, at least temporarily.

And oh yeah: goalie prospects take forever to develop. Your team drafts a guy, you get excited hearing about how good they’ll be someday, and then they just … disappear. Not completely, of course. But while your team’s best forward and blue line prospects start making their NHL debuts within a season or two, if not immediately, that goalie just lingers off in the distance. For years.

Look around the league. Thatcher Demko just finished his first year as a full-time NHLer, six years after he was drafted. Ilya Samsonov took five. The KHL means Ilya Sorokin still hasn’t arrived, and he’s already 25. Your favorite team’s best goalie is probably in a similar boat.

It didn’t used to be this way. Top goaltending prospects used to show up fairly quickly, just like other positions. Tom Barrasso had a Vezina-winning season at 18. Patrick Roy’s big breakout came when he was 20. Martin Brodeur’s Calder season came at 21. Grant Fuhr was the Vezina runner-up at 19.

Enter Carter Hart, the Flyers goalie who debuted at 20 and has established himself as a star despite just turning 22 this month. That’s old school, and it’s been fun to watch a team make a run with a baby-faced goalie. And hey, it’s not like the Flyers haven’t watched a young rookie have some playoff success before.

Granted, not every team has a Carter Hart waiting in the wings, and nobody wants to see young goalies rushed into starting jobs before they’re ready. But maybe not every goalie needs six years in the minors and three more as a backup before they’re ready to handle the big job. Watching Hart dominate might help nudge us back to trusting the kids.

(Just please get him to stop talking about how he grew up watching Carey Price, it’s making me feel very old.)

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