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.

Jump ahead: Most outstanding player | Workload management
Offensive innovation | Making big trades | Sharks’ run continues

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:

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