Wednesday, June 1, 2022

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

With four teams left, we’re firmly into the time of year when everyone will start telling you that the NHL is a copycat league. That’s become an annual late-playoff tradition, right up there with conspiracy theories about the refs and getting weird about whether players touch a trophy.

It’s mostly true. This does seem to be a league where many teams’ strategy seems to involve waiting to see who does well, then pointing at them and saying “let’s do that”. Does it work? Not often, no, but it might be an easier sell to an owner or a fan base than trying to lead the way on something unique.

As fans, this is our chance to try to push the narrative in the right direction. Far too often, the copycat lessons are boring ones: More defense, fewer trades, be dull and conservative and risk averse for years at a time. Those might be the right lessons, but they’re not what fans want to see. We want action, and intrigue, and big bold moves. We want fun.

So let’s get ahead of the copycat trend, with my annual attempt to find some fun lessons we can learn from the final four teams. For each of them, we’ll come up with three lessons that we can hope that other teams will learn and try to emulate. And then we’ll find one that we hope they don’t, and try to stamp it out before it takes hold.

Again, we’re not necessarily looking for the right lessons – we want the fun ones. So here’s what we hope the other 28 teams learn from this year’s final four.

New York Rangers

Fun lesson 1: Swing huge in free agency.

At a total of $81.5 million and an AAV north of $11.6 million, Artemi Panarin’s 2019 deal is the biggest UFA contract of the cap era. And it’s worked out beautifully, with Panarin scoring at well over a 110-point pace in New York when he’s in the lineup and finishing as a Hart finalist in year one. With four years left on the deal, it’s on track to deliver excellent value for the Rangers, even in an unexpected flat cap world.

The Rangers swung big, and they crushed it into the upper deck. Other teams should do the same, and get involved in the sort of frenzied bidding wars for top stars that make other leagues’ free agency period so fascinating. Don’t worry about John Tavares or Sergei Bobrovsky, other GMs – just look at Panarin’s numbers, imagine them on your first line, and start throwing money around.

Fun lesson 2: Rip off other teams in lopsided trades.

The 2016 Mika Zibanejad trade was weird. He was 22 years old, just five years removed from being the sixth overall pick, and coming off career highs in goals and points. Then the Senators traded him to the Rangers for Derick Brassard, who was six years older with a more expensive cap hit and similar numbers. And the Sens also kicked in a second-round pick.

As always with Ottawa, there were financial considerations, with Zibanejad needing a new deal in 2017 and Brassard having a cheaper salary than cap hit. Still, the trade was an odd one at the time, and has since escalated into one of the worst of the cap era.

That’s bad for Ottawa, but good for the rest of us, because lopsided trades are fun. So let this be a reminder to GMs: Stop trying to find a win-win deal that works for both sides, and start trying to rip each other off. If it’s good enough for my fantasy football league, it’s good enough for you too.

Fun lesson 3: Let your crazy owner fire the GM and coach because he’s mad about something.

Is that what actually happened last year? Not really, as the notion that James Dolan went full Knicks Mode on his hockey team after the whole Tom Wilson mess got out the door before anyone could really question it. But that’s OK, because when it comes to a copycat league, the narrative matters more than reality. And from an entertainment standpoint, nobody’s more fun than an owner making rash decisions.

(Uh, unless it’s your guy. Then it’s the absolute worst.)

And one lesson to avoid: Just get a superstar goalie and the rest of it will work itself out.

You may have heard that the 2021-22 Rangers were a so-so team that survived on elite goaltending and strong special teams. That was reasonably true in the first half of the season, less so down the stretch, and has shown up at times in the playoffs. As with most teams, the consensus has some validity but doesn’t tell the whole story.

Still, you can’t talk about this team without focusing on Igor Shesterkin. He’s the likely Vezina winner, and this series feels like his title shot for Andrei Vasilevskiy’s “best in the word” belt. He’s clearly the Rangers’ most important player.

That’s great, and well-earned. We just don’t want the lesson from the Rangers’ run to be that goaltending is everything. We already had to hear that with last years’ Habs, so another season of best-goalie-wins hand waving is bad news. It’s a reason for teams with elite goaltending to relax. Worse, it’s an excuse for the ones without it to shrug and tell us they can’t be expected to win (never mind that they also don’t have a Panarin, or a Zibanejad, or an Adam Fox or Chris Kreider). Goaltending is the most important position in the sport, but it’s more fun when you pretend otherwise.

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