Whenever we get this deep into the NHL playoffs, we tend to do the dance of sizing up the teams that are left standing. While there’s certainly a good chunk of randomness and luck that goes into any extended postseason run, there’s also just as many reasons why these particular teams have managed to keep winning games and advancing.
The beauty of it all is that there isn’t just one way to be successful in this sport, which provides us with plenty of opportunities to get valuable nuggets of information from a number of different sources.
Let’s bounce around the league and take a closer look at some of the prevailing themes from the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. Here are a few of the more notable winners that have emerged thus far, whether they be players, teams or big-picture concepts. We’ll leave all talk of controversial officiating and reviews to a potential “biggest losers” column, because that’s been the obvious elephant in the room this season, calling into question a process that desperately needs to be overhauled moving forward. Now, on to actual hockey.
Note: All data in this piece is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.
The most outstanding player
Even though they’re no longer alive in this year’s playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche are a big winner because they gave us a sneak peek at what looks like an awfully bright future. Not only do they already have a young nucleus in place that figures to continue improving, but they’re also primed to build on it further this summer with their financial spending room and draft capital (including two first-round picks, one of which is fourth overall).
But it all runs through Nathan MacKinnon, who was unequivocally the single most electrifying force we’ve been exposed to all postseason. He quickly became the talk of the entire league throughout the first two rounds, winning the attention of the hockey world and forcing us all to make Avalanche games appointment television. It really shows the importance of playing on the biggest stage in front of a national audience, which gives added credence to people’s frustrations with Edmonton Oilers management over how they have deprived us of getting to enjoy Connor McDavid in similar circumstances over the past two years.
MacKinnon’s combination of speed and power is unmatched, manifesting itself most often in absolutely breathtaking end-to-end solo rushes. There may be players who are faster straight-line skaters, and there may be players who are stronger on their skates, but there is no one who is able to jam both qualities together into the same frame as well as he does, going from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye.
Most impressive about his postseason production was the sheer volume of minutes he was able to play, averaging 23:43 per contest. In retrospect, it seems almost inhuman that he was able to play as much as he did, considering the force he was exerting on those shifts and the pace at which he was zipping around the ice.
The surest sign of respect for his play was the care with which the San Jose Sharks handled him in their second-round series. They certainly made sure not to fly too close to the sun, taking every precaution possible to protect themselves from MacKinnon’s blinding greatness. They went above and beyond in catering their entire defensive game plan and player usage toward trying to slow him down, making sure to have the duo of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture out there whenever he stepped on the ice. It ultimately proved to be successful as they squeaked out a Game 7 victory on home ice, but just barely, and not before he made them work for every single bit of it.
It’s a shame that MacKinnon and the Avalanche are no longer around in these playoffs, but it’s hard not to view their run as a smashing success, and it’s even harder not to be tremendously excited about what’s next for them.
Goaltender workload management
“Workload management” has become a trendy term in NBA circles, with star players selectively sitting out back-to-backs in an attempt to play the long game with their bodies. To the surprise of no one, it’s a concept that’s been slower to catch on in the NHL, where there’s an admirable, yet misguided, deep-rooted belief that players should continue playing through pain and injuries at all costs (even if bones are broken and organs are punctured).
But it’s only a matter of time before that begins to change, and we’re already seeing signs of it. For starters, earlier this season we looked at how workhorse goalies were becoming an endangered species. It’s a change in philosophy that’s been brewing for years now, and this season was just the latest natural progression in that evolution.
With more and more teams buying into the importance of sports science and performance optimization, we’ve seen goalie usage around the league dialed back as a result. Considering the physical and mental demands of the position, it makes sense that those with aspirations of playing deep into the spring would be wise to avoid burning out their goalies in the regular season.
It’s no accident that this has been somewhat of a recurring theme for teams that have enjoyed playoff success of late. This postseason has been an extension of that, because it felt like we saw more 1A-1B tandems than ever before, and considering the largely positive results, it stands to reason that we’ll only see more of it moving forward. Just look at how the teams that won at least one playoff round distributed their goalie starts throughout the regular season:
Even the two teams that bucked the trend and played their starters north of 60 times had their reasons. As shaky as Martin Jones was, Aaron Dell — who had an .886 save percentage and saved an astounding 14.75 goals below league average in just 25 games — forced San Jose’s hand because he was somehow even worse. The Blue Jackets were incentivized to ride Sergei Bobrovsky as much as possible because they were battling for a playoff spot until the very end, and with him likely leaving this summer anyway, there were no real concerns about any long-term ramifications stemming from the added wear and tear.
Of everyone on the list, the biggest beneficiary has undoubtedly been Tuukka Rask, who enjoyed a softer workload this season than he has in any full season since 2011-12. Looking fresh as can be, he has really turned back the clock this postseason, paying the Bruins back with a vintage throwback performance. In his 17 playoff appearances, he’s sporting a ridiculous .942 save percentage overall and has saved the team 13.65 goals above league average (both of which are easily tops among all playoff goalies). He has not only consistently held his ground, but has elevated his game when the team needed it most.
In the opening round against Toronto, he saved his best performance for the do-or-die Game 7 setting. Against the Blue Jackets he outplayed Bobrovsky rather thoroughly, giving up just four goals against combined over the course of the final three games after the Bruins went down 2-1 in the series. And against Carolina he stood on his head when the Hurricanes threw the kitchen sink at him in front of their raucous home crowd in Game 3, stopping 35 of 36 shots he faced and giving Boston a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. He then followed that up with a shutout in Game 4, closing out the feisty Hurricanes and punching Boston’s ticket to the Cup Final.
He’s been Boston’s best player throughout, and he’s fully earned his status as the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy through the first three rounds. He may be 32 years old, but he’s looking and playing like the 22-year-old phenom who came into our lives throwing milk crates in viral videos. While even the Bruins surely couldn’t have expected these kinds of playoff results, they’re being rewarded for how they handled the situation in the lead-up to this postseason.
Unlike in basketball, where the NBA has undergone a radical 3-point revolution, or baseball, where MLB hitters are obsessed with launch angles, the offensive innovation in hockey has been far more subtle.
NHL teams have been using four forwards and just one defenseman on their power play for several years now, and in recent seasons they’ve begun pulling their goalies when facing a third-period deficit earlier than they ever would’ve dreamed of before. But for the most part, the league still has a well-earned “conservative” label, and coaches largely remain reticent to try unorthodox things because it means exposing themselves to criticism, and ultimately the chopping block, if those ideas don’t work out.
The good news is that desperate times call for desperate measures, and the postseason typically lends itself to teams pushing the envelope in an attempt to squeeze out any additional offense they can muster. There’s been a number of notable examples where teams have admirably gone down swinging. I’m a big believer in the idea that if you’re going to lose, at least do it with your very best so that you don’t have to spend the entire offseason wondering what could have been.
It’s easy to forget now, because it will always be overshadowed by the phantom five-minute major to Cody Eakin and the eventual overtime defeat, but the reason the Golden Knights even made it that far in the first place was because they scored a game-tying goal in the final minute. With the goalie pulled and the clock ticking down on their season, they decided to forgo using any defensemen, giving all six available spots to the forwards that occupy their top two scoring lines. It’s a rare occasion that called for that type of aggression, but it was also fascinating to see a team not only do it, but successfully pull it off.
More typically, we’ve seen coaches make a habit of putting their usual player combinations in a blender depending on the game setting. More specifically, there are notable examples where they’ve capitalized on higher-leverage offensive situations by getting the most skilled players out on the ice, regardless of whether they typically play together.
Stars coach Jim Montgomery, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer and Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, in particular, often went to the well with their best offensive defensemen, scrapping their usual pairings and getting the two blueliners they deemed most likely to create a goal on the ice in the instances where they were guaranteed to at least start the shift in the offensive zone (and therefore keep the puck as far away from their own net as possible):
To put those offensive numbers into some quick perspective: The Sharks have been generating goals with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns out on the ice at 5-on-5 at roughly the same rate as they have overall on the power play. There’s some small-sample-size caveats there, but it reinforces how lethal they can be with the puck. Few teams have the luxury of having one, let alone two, players of their caliber offensively, but the idea here is that you should be trying to maximize all of your scoring opportunities.
The Stars took this one step further this postseason. Even though they split up all of their best players across two forward lines and defense pairs to become more difficult to defend, there were some occasions where they tossed all five of them out there together in 5-on-5 situations as if they were a five-man power-play unit. In the 26:49 that Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen played together, the Stars led shot attempts 49-16, outshot opponents 26-7, and scored three times without giving up a goal against. Unsurprisingly, of the 48 shifts that they started with a faceoff, 36 of them came in the attacking zone (and just three came in their own end).
None of this is necessarily groundbreaking, but it’s also the type of stuff that passes as “creative” in a sport where any break from the norm is met with resistance. The results speak for themselves, and in a game or series that could come down to a single play here or there, stacking the deck in your favor can go a long way.
Fortune favors the bold
One common thread among the four conference finalists is that each of them took some serious home run cuts in an effort to improve their teams, whether last summer or as recently as the trade deadline. Sometimes you wouldn’t know it based on how certain teams operate in this league, but the goal should be to do everything you can to get as many good players as possible — and you can never really have too many of them.
The acquisition of Ryan O’Reilly arguably wound up being the biggest addition anyone made on July 1 last summer, but it’s hardly the only upgrade the Blues made. They also added David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon through free agency, all of whom have contributed in a significant way. Bozak and Maroon have combined to form what’s somewhat surprisingly become the Blues’ most consistent line during this run alongside youngster Robert Thomas.
The three of them have played more minutes together this postseason than any other forward trio, moving the needle for St. Louis by controlling 53.4 percent of the shot attempts, 57.1 percent of the high-danger chances, and 55.3 percent of the expected goals when they’re on the ice. A big part of what makes the Blues special is their forward depth, and having a trio like that to throw against secondary opposing competition typically gives them a massive competitive advantage.
The Hurricanes made a pair of blockbuster trades themselves last summer, including a five-player trade that landed them Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox (later traded to the Rangers) in exchange for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.
The Blue Jackets fell just short of the Eastern Conference final, but no other team better personified the “go for it” mantra this season, holding on to pending free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, while adding two big pieces in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. They were rewarded with their first series win in franchise history, and it was one of such historic proportions that it won’t soon be forgotten. Even if some of those players leave this offseason and they take a step back next season, it’ll have ultimately been well worth it.
The team that beat them was the Bruins, who now find themselves just one win away from making it back to the Stanley Cup Final. The big question with them all season, as it’s been in years past, was whether they’d be able to muster up enough secondary scoring to complement their terrific top line. They’ve passed that test with flying colors, led by a pair of players who were acquired close to the trade deadline.
Marcus Johansson has nine points, four of which came in the first two games of the conference final and included a big goal to help swing the outcome of the opener. Most important, he’s provided them with another creator on the second power play and is a dynamic puck carrier through the neutral zone. Meanwhile, Charlie Coyle has six goals and 12 points this postseason and has been among their most dangerous offensive threats. The talent has never been in question with Coyle; he’s been a tantalizing player over the years, never quite getting the production to properly reflect his physical capabilities. To his credit, he’s put it all together in his new surroundings, providing the Bruins with the exact type of shot in the arm they needed.
The Sharks might be the best example of never being able to have too much of a good thing. They pounced on Erik Karlsson this offseason once the opportunity presented itself, even if it meant getting just one kick at the can with him before free agency. On a lesser scale, they also surprised people by adding another offensive talent in Gustav Nyquist at the deadline after already being flush with scoring. But after Joe Pavelski got injured in Game 7 against the Golden Knights, Nyquist was bumped up to the top line and hasn’t looked back.
His vision and playmaking has been a perfect fit alongside Logan Couture and Timo Meier, and the three of them have been downright dominant together. In just under 120 5-on-5 minutes this postseason, they’ve outscored opponents 8-4 and controlled 56.6 percent of the shot attempts, despite the fact that they’ve often been tasked with going up against the other team’s best offensive players.
Oops! They did it again
One final note on San Jose while we’re here: Couture is getting most of the headlines because of his clutch goal-scoring binge, and it’s justified. If you score 14 goals in 17 games and your name isn’t Alex Ovechkin we should all be talking about you.
But the ascension of players like Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl represents what makes the Sharks such a special organization. These are their ranks among all players this postseason in the key offensive categories:
Meier has been an absolute juggernaut at 5-on-5, playing like a prototypical power forward that fans and front-office executives love. While a larger chunk of Hertl’s production has come on the power play, where he feasts as a trigger man and generates an insane volume of scoring chances, his emergence as a legitimate 1B to Couture’s 1A down the middle that can eat up a large number of minutes and shrink the game for the rest of the roster has been just as important of a development this postseason.
It’s no accident that the Sharks are going on well over a decade now of legitimate relevance and are perennially in the mix as a contender with no real extended hiccups. They’ve missed the playoffs just once over the past 15 years, and when they did, they made the most of their rare lottery pick by walking away from the draft with Meier.
By continually bringing in new waves of young contributors to rise up the ranks and pick up the slack, they’ve managed to keep reopening their window as a contender without ever really needing to fully step back and rebuild.
Meier and Hertl have been the two latest names to step up in that conga line of star makers, and they’ve cemented their status as future foundational pillars for the Sharks with their tremendous play this postseason.