We covered Winnipeg’s Stanley Cup contender checklist, showing how Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Connor Hellebuyck are the Jets’ best bets at a return to Cup contention.
Now we’re going to look at the NHL’s conference finalists — Colorado, Edmonton, Tampa Bay and New York — for clues as to how Stanley Cup contenders get built.
Yes, each team has a No. 1 pick on its roster. Winnipeg can’t compete with that; there’s no Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon on the horizon.
But each team has made the best of its situation, turning its unique strengths into a deep run in perhaps the most exciting Stanley Cup playoffs in recent memory.
What can Winnipeg learn from the way Colorado’s pro scouts extended the Avalanche’s window to win? How are the Rangers beating Tampa Bay and to what extent can Winnipeg’s coaches learn from the way New York plays?
We’ll look well past the analytics and focus on how each conference finalist was built. We’ll look at each team, investigate its success and choose a key item from each that Winnipeg can emulate on its quest to return back to the postseason.
The lesson: Pro scouts can win playoff series, too
It’s no surprise that an elite team has procured outstanding talent through the draft. MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are Colorado’s homegrown elites. It also helps that, while every team on this list has a No. 1 pick on its roster, MacKinnon is closer to McDavid in terms of value than he is Alexis Lafrenière, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Steven Stamkos.
Winnipeg can’t touch Colorado when it comes to top talent but I’m pretty sure the Jets would have taken MacKinnon in 2013 if they’d had the chance.
Instead, it’s Colorado’s long list of devastatingly good trades that all teams can look to for lessons.
It is not MacKinnon or even Makar who leads the Avalanche in five-on-five minutes this postseason. It’s Devon Toews, who was acquired by Colorado in October 2020 for second-round picks. Nazem Kadri was the hero against St. Louis and is tied with Landeskog for fourth in playoff scoring; Colorado picked him up, along with a third-round pick, for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot.
Whereas Edmonton leans heavily on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Colorado can counter with a deep run of pro-scout wins like Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen, Andre Burakovsky and J.T. Compher. The Matt Duchene trade that yielded Bowen Byram and Samuel Girard was a genius stroke by GM Joe Sakic — one which appears to extend Colorado’s Cup window.
The lesson: It is possible to recover from your worst mistakes if your top end talent is good enough
It’s difficult to include Edmonton on a list of “what to do” — not because there aren’t viable lessons to learn from the Oilers’ decade of darkness but because it’s difficult to find a consistent and cohesive strategy aside from winning the draft lottery at an opportune time.
McDavid is the best player in the world. He has never failed to reach the point per game plateau and has won four of the last six Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer. If Edmonton makes it to the final, he’s a legitimate threat to win the Conn Smythe.
He has also played for more head coaches (four) and the same number of general managers (three) as he has playoff series wins (also three) in seven seasons.
I don’t think that’s how ownership drew it up, nor do I admire trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, just to give Hall’s money to UFA Milan Lucic. Lucic became a cap dump; Hall became the league’s MVP. More objectively bad: Edmonton traded the 16th and 33rd picks in 2015, thereby missing out on Mathew Barzal or Kyle Connor in the first round — for Griffin Reinhart, who only played 29 games for the Oilers before taking his career to the AHL and various European professional leagues. He is currently a Belfast Giant and, while the Jets have their hits and misses too, nothing quite compares to Edmonton’s series of misses throughout McDavid’s tenure in the NHL.
This is all in one series (!). McDavid played at an incredible level vs. Kings. Games 6 & 7 were the two best games of McDavid’s career.
Regardless of which team you cheer for, appreciate greatness in the moment. Unbelievable!
— Tony Brar (@TonyBrarOTV) May 17, 2022
That Edmonton has kept McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins happy should be lauded. Winnipeg’s one lottery pick since relocation (Patrik Laine, taken No. 2 in 2016) was traded in a package for Dubois. The Oilers have three more years of Draisaitl and four of McDavid to work with.
Outside of this, Edmonton’s biggest transformation took place when it brought Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson on board to coach midway through this season. Woodcroft’s predecessors — Dave Tippett, Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan — were highly reputed, showing that it is possible to land veteran coaches with strong resumes in a northern market, while his immediate success shows the value in modernized approaches to solving hockey problems.
Perhaps Woodcroft’s success can be a lesson that Winnipeg can still hire a transformational head coach even if his name doesn’t end up being Barry Trotz.
Edmonton’s other transformational midseason move involved Evander Kane’s contract with San Jose being terminated “for breach of his NHL standard player contract and for violation of the AHL COVID-19 protocols.” It’s tough to game plan for moments like that. I don’t think “sign Kane” is the answer for Winnipeg but perhaps “be ready to strike” could apply.
If it seems as though I’m being particularly harsh on one of the NHL’s final four teams it’s because I am. I just don’t believe “win the draft lottery four times, draft a generational talent and otherwise make a series of downgrades from Hall, Jordan Eberle and the pick that became Barzal to Larsson, Ryan Spooner and Reinhart” is a repeatable strategy.
The day Edmonton won the 2015 draft lottery, it became clear that the Oilers would spend 2015-16, 2016-17 and especially 2017-18 in possession of the single most cost-efficient superstar contract of the salary cap era. They didn’t qualify for the 2018 playoffs. Now, several seasons of cap hell thanks to inefficient money spent on players like Lucic, James Neal, Mikko Koskinen, Sam Gagner and Mike Smith are about to end. McDavid and Draisaitl are still under contract and still great players. But now Darnell Nurse is carrying a $9.25 million cap hit until he is 35, Oiler writers are already talking about cap casualties and Smith is Edmonton’s only goaltender under contract for next season.
What can Winnipeg learn from this?
Ask me again if the Oilers extend Woodcroft or Winnipeg finds a way to draft Connor Bedard.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The lesson: Every last exploitative advantage counts
While it’s possible New York finds a way to complete the upset, Tampa Bay remains the class of the NHL.
Tampa Bay has won the most playoff games (78) in the NHL since the Jets came into the league. Pittsburgh is second with 62 wins, meaning New York could sweep Tampa Bay, the Lightning could miss next season’s playoffs altogether and even if the Penguins won the Cup in 2023 they would still just tie the reigning champions at 78 Jets-era playoff wins.
Tampa Bay is tied with Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles at two Cups each since 2012, and is still alive on its quest for three in a row. No one has accomplished that feat since the New York Islanders won four in a row in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983. That the Lightning have an opportunity to three-peat in the salary cap era is astonishing.
So how have they done it?
It’s commonplace for people to point to Tampa Bay’s salary cap shenanigans, placing Nikita Kucherov on long term injured reserve after hip surgery last season only to see him suit up for the start of the 2021 playoffs. Kucherov’s injury was legitimate and the maneuver was legal but the timing was suspect; Tampa Bay went on to dress a playoff roster that was $18 million over the cap maximum. If Winnipeg ever ends up with a player injured under similarly timed circumstances, then the Jets should do the same.
Kucherov is also a good example of a superstar acquired outside the top few picks of the draft. Tampa Bay has those too, of course, with Stamkos taken first in 2008 and Victor Hedman taken second in 2009, but the biggest stars on Tampa Bay’s roster are Kucherov (taken 58th in 2011), Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th in 2012), and Brayden Point (79th in 2014.) Winnipeg’s collection of lottery picks is low (Laine became Dubois, who was taken third in 2016), although Blake Wheeler (fifth), Mark Scheifele (seventh), and Ehlers (ninth) are also top-10 picks. The Lightning have succeeded by hitting at the very top of the draft and throughout it as well; every bit counts.
Nick Paul carves through Toronto’s defense and beats Campbell for his second of the night, restoring the lead for Tampa Bay!#GoBolts 2 – 1 #LeafsForever
(Game 7, Series Tied 3-3) pic.twitter.com/aUHveO0kd8
— NHL Highlights #StanleyCup | HockeyDaily365 (@HockeyDaily365) May 15, 2022
Off the ice, I’m told Tampa Bay is good at investing in areas of hockey operations outside of the confines of the salary cap. Whereas Winnipeg lists 17 scouts, split between professional and amateur scouting, the Lightning employ 19. It’s not quite the same level of spending as, say, Toronto, whose player development staff is nine people deep and includes multiple skill development consultants, covering a wide range of skills, but the Lightning do appear to outspend the Jets in hockey operations.
The Lightning also won when Steve Yzerman hired Jon Cooper from the AHL and stuck with him through their most recent ascent to power. In the post-Yzerman era, Julien BriseBois’ trade record involves cap-complex acquisitions of players like David Savard, Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul. It’s easy to forget but these tweaks (where there could have been major roster reconstruction) took the confidence to stand by a Presidents’ Trophy-winning group that got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019.
The Jets will never beat Tampa Bay at “be a warm place close to year-round beaches and sunshine,” nor can Winnipeg go back in time and add a No. 1 pick (or a Kucherov) to the team. Instead, the lesson is to emulate Tampa Bay’s commitment to success at every single available margin.
New York Rangers
The lesson: Know exactly what you’re good at (and what you’re not)
The story of this Rangers generation is still being written. The question “Why are they good?” has several answers. Not all of them are sustainable, nor do they all apply to Winnipeg in a one-to-one sort of way.
It would be great if Winnipeg could trade a Derick Brassard-type centre at precisely the moment his career numbers begin to decline for a Mika Zibanejad-type centre at precisely the moment his production explodes. It would be wonderful if a defenceman like Adam Fox would dodge his way out of two organizations, forcing a trade to Winnipeg that results in a Norris Trophy and a long-term contract.
Mika Zibanejad makes it 3-1 early in the third pic.twitter.com/wN1CWXY8nu
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 4, 2022
Those seem like difficult transactions to repeat, as does New York’s 2019 signing of Artemi Panarin at an otherwise low point for the organization. I don’t think Patrice Bergeron is coming to Winnipeg this summer but that’s just one writer’s opinion.
I think New York’s approach to how it plays on the ice — informed by one of the few elite coaches, Gerard Gallant — is where Winnipeg could take notes.
The Rangers are one of four teams to produce a top-10 power play and a top-10 penalty kill this season. Their power play results are backed up by top-10 shot and scoring chance creation numbers, while their penalty kill is backed up by Igor Shesterkin. They don’t dominate at five-on-five but seem to maximize their chances in a repeatable fashion. For one example, New York made as many cross-seam passes against Tampa Bay in Game 1 as Toronto managed in its full seven-game series.
Final score undersells how good Shesterkin was in this game. 7 (!) cross-seam passes for the Rangers, which is the same number Toronto had in their entire series against Tampa. Three of them from Panarin & almost half of their controlled entries led to chances. pic.twitter.com/3NH5Qs9pzv
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) June 2, 2022
There is also the matter of New York picking on Vasilevskiy’s blocker or activating its defence in the form of Fox’s four assists.
The Rangers know they can’t dominate the flow of play against elite possession teams like Carolina or Tampa Bay but their coaches are finding tiny edges wherever they can.
Winnipeg has its full-court press going for Trotz — who, like Gallant, is one of a small number of elite head coaches — and can only hope to be the team with tiny advantages all over the ice thanks to their preparation next season.
(Photo of Nathan MacKinnon and Mark Scheifele: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)