Monday, June 21, 2021

Three lessons to learn (and one to avoid) from each of the final four teams

With the postseason winding down and most of the league on the sidelines watching the remaining teams, it’s the time of year when fans start to wonder what lessons we can learn from the final four contenders.

After all, we’re always told that it’s a copycat league, and we know that GMs around the NHL love to pivot their gameplan to whatever the eventual champion just did. Once a team wins the Cup, everyone immediately starts picking them apart. Were they big? Small? Skilled, or fast, or neither? Did they build through the draft? Did they fire their coach? Did they play a certain style? Cool, a bunch of teams inevitably say, then we need to do that too, starting right now.

This year, there seems to be a certain amount of dread among NHL fans about how this is going to go. Two of the remaining four teams have been winning with a commitment to defense, or at least that’s been the narrative. What if one of them wins – or worse, they both meet in the final – and every other GM decides to double down on dull, defensive hockey?

I’ve got some thoughts on that we’ll get to in a bit. But for now, let’s think a little bigger. And for once, we’ll even look on the bright side. For each of the remaining teams, let’s focus on the lessons that other GMs could learn that would be, from a fan’s perspective, good news for the league. The NHL is an entertainment product, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with hoping that any shifts in thinking point towards more fun, not less. And with this year’s final four, there are a few ways that could happen.

Let’s find a few of those, by picking three lessons we hope other teams take away from each of the final four, both in terms of how they play and also how they were built. And then, to keep it from getting too positive, we’ll also pick on lesson per team that we really hope the GMs ignore.

New York Islanders

Fun lesson 1: The trade deadline isn’t dead.

We’ve been hearing it for years – maybe we need to rethink the deadline, because only one team can win in any given season, and surrendering prime assets for short-term rentals usually backfires. Then came teams like the 2018 Capitals and 2019 Blues that had relatively quiet deadlines and still won it all, and you started to wonder if teams should just be sitting the market out altogether.

That was bad news for fans, because deadline day is one of the highlights of our season. So it’s nice to see a team like the Islanders, with a crusty old school GM in Lou Lamoriello, find success with an old school deadline. They gave up a first-round pick to get Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from New Jersey, and they’ve been rewarded with seven goals from Palmieri, including an overtime winner. Mix in continued strong play from Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a 2019 deadline pickup who also cost a first, and the Islanders are showing that giving up high picks for playoff reinforcements can pay off. If other GMs decide to play copycat, future deadline could be a lot more fun.

Fun lesson 2: Getting aggressive on the draft floor can pay off.

Let’s stick with the trading theme. The Islanders’ win over Boston gave us another chance to relitigate the Mathew Barzal draft, which saw the Bruins pass on Barzal with three straight picks before the Islanders took him. But while that’s an important part of the story, let’s not forget how the Islanders got that pick in the first place: By making a draft floor deal with the Oilers, sending Griffin Reinhart to Edmonton for that pick and another. The deal was officially done with the Oilers on the clock and just minutes to spare. It’s fair to say it worked out.

Draft floor deals are great fun for fans, who love it when Gary Bettman shows up at the podium to tell us he has a trade to announce. But pulling them off is tricky, especially when they involve players and not just picks. GMs love to tell us how much time they need to put even straightforward deals together; how often do you hear that a team “just ran out of time” on a midseason trade that’s been rumored for months? On the draft floor, you might have hours or even minutes to make up your mind, and it would be easy to panic and make a mistake. It might be tempting for a GM to just forget about even trying anything more complicated than moving up or down a few picks.

The Islanders didn’t see it that way in 2015, and their reward was the best player on a Cup contending team. If they win it all, there’s no excuse for NHL GMs not to work the phones with the clock ticking on the draft floor.

Fun lesson 3: It pays to be aggressive in who you hire.

This one’s a bit dicey, since nobody likes to root for anyone to get fired. But changes, both behind the bench and in the front office, are a part of life that no NHL team can avoid. So when that moment comes, who do you hire?

You could go the safe route, promoting from within. You could find a candidate who isn’t well-known but deserves a shot. Often, those are the best options. But for pure entertainment value, there’s nothing quite like finding out that your team just hired a big name. And that’s what the Islanders did in 2018, hiring Lamoriello as team president. Lamoriello quickly fired Garth Snow and Doug Weight, named himself GM, and hired Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz. Three years later, Trotz has a Jack Adams, Lamoriello was last season’s GM of the year, and the Islanders have been contenders ever since they went big on hiring the best.

And one lesson to avoid: Defense wins championships.

OK, let’s get this out of the way, because it’s the big one when it comes to the Islanders. We’re all terrified that they’re going to win the Cup, followed by every GM trying to implement a boring, grind-it-out, put everyone to sleep and win 2-1 type of style. Bring back the dead puck era, because it’s the 1995 Devils all over again.

But while there’s some truth to that reputation – the Islanders really can shut down just about anyone when they’re on their game – it’s gotten out of hand. If you listened to some fans (and media), you’d think the Islanders are playing a passive trap and trying to clutch-and-grab their way to wins. That’s not what they do, as Justin Bourne broke down here.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

No comments:

Post a Comment