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The Stanley Cup playoffs’ final four teams: Lessons to learn, and avoid – The Athletic

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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.
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 1. 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 GOAL OF THE SEASON.
NUMBER 10. ARTEMI. PANARIN. pic.twitter.com/q5wjGsKBZe
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) May 16, 2022

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 periods 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 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.
Fun lesson 1: Signing UFA power wingers can sometimes work.
Zach Hyman has been just about a perfect fit in Edmonton. He didn’t come cheap, and every seven-year deal carries risk. And no, nobody is confusing him with a Panarin-level star. But free agency is one of the most entertaining times of year for a hockey fan, even if (or maybe especially if) it’s not your team throwing around the big bucks.
The last decade has seen way too many examples of disastrous deals to physical wingers like Milan Lucic, David Clarkson and Andrew Ladd, the sort of mistakes that could convince teams to sit out free agency. We need a few success stories too, and the Oilers have given us one. Go sign those gritty UFA wingers again, NHL GMs.
Fun lesson 2: Bring in big-name veterans.
Trading for Duncan Keith at full salary was widely panned when it was made, and even today you could certainly argue that it wasn’t a smart move, and the Oilers are winning in spite of it.
Great. But here’s the thing: It used to be fun when your team would bring in a big name from the past and you could feel excited instead of immediately thinking about cap hits and aging curves. As a fan of a team that used to go out and get greybeards like Brian Leetch, Ron Francis, Grant Fuhr and Eddie Belfour, I miss those days. It’s not a great strategy anymore, because the NHL is a young man’s game. But if Duncan Keith making the occasional play for a winning team helps us fool ourselves into thinking it still works, I’m all for it.
Fun lesson 3: Fire your coach.
This one’s a bit touchy, because nobody ever likes to see someone lose their job. But the reality is that being fired is part of the life cycle of almost every coach, and sometimes you can just see the writing on the wall. Often, GMs don’t want to make the obvious move, and they end up watching a season drift away rather than do what needs to be done. Ken Holland had somehow never fired a coach before making the move from Dave Tippett to Jay Woodcroft, and it saved the Oilers’ season. Sometimes, you just need to rip off the bandaid.
And one lesson to avoid: My first thought here was to go with something related to the Evander Kane signing. Yes, he’s been a great addition, with a league-leading 12 playoff goals. No, we shouldn’t want teams to view that as a free pass to sign any player with a troubled history as long as they can help on the ice. The signing, and the team’s tone-deaf reaction to it, is maybe the only thing keeping the Oilers from being the most likable playoff story in years. Oiler fans might be able to shrug it off because that’s what fans do, and maybe the rest of us would do the same if it was our team. Here’s hoping we don’t have to find out.
That said, the Kane situation — with a star player becoming available midway through a season after essentially being fired by his own team — is so unique that I’m not sure it works as a leaguewide lesson. So let’s note it, but use this spot for something else.
How’s this: Let’s hope the lesson of the 2021-22 Oilers isn’t to just tank for lottery odds.
Connor McDavid has been so good that it’s tempting to take the lesson that one player really can drag a team all the way to championship contending.
(Yes, Oiler fans, we know, Leon Draisaitl is there and also Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and more. We didn’t say the lessons had to be right)
Why build out a top-to-bottom contender if you can just draft a mega-star and be done? And look, there just happens to be one on the way at next year’s draft. He’s even named Connor too. Tanking sucks, but it can work, at least until the NHL smartens up and goes with the Gold Plan. Let’s hope half the league isn’t taking a knee for most of next season in hopes of landing the next McDavid.
Fun lesson 1: Overpay at the deadline.
For the last few years, one of the key lessons from the Lightning was to be aggressive at the trade deadline. That was especially true for players with term, as Tampa went after names like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman rather than focusing on pure rentals the way every other contender seemed to.
This year, they took the concept one step further by giving up two first-round picks to get Brandon Hagel, who you had definitely heard of. The deal raised eyebrows at the time, and Hagel’s got one goal in 11 playoff games so far, but that’s not the point. The key here is that the Lightning are smarter than your team, and if they’re willing to give up multiple firsts to land a third-liner, your GM can’t complain about prices being too high.
Julien BriseBois, out here reviving the trade deadline one super-aggressive deal at a time.
Fun lesson 2: Be as aggressive as you can with the salary cap, then retrench when you need to.
One of last year’s Lightning stroylines was their ability to, uh, exploit loopholes to get around the cap. Some called it cheating, but the league didn’t, and their vote is the one that matters. The Golden Knights certainly seemed to take note, and it didn’t work out as well for them.
Still, it’s worth noting that the Lightning had to move on from a lot of key pieces last year. Coleman and Goodrow both left as UFAs, while they had to pay to move Tyler Johnson. It was the sort of summer that the hard cap is supposed to force on good teams, yanking them back to the pack so everyone gets a turn to win. Instead, the Lightning navigated it well enough to basically shrug off the losses.
Sure, it helps to have a few discount deals already on the books, and this is where some of you will start moaning about local tax rates. But the bigger point is that a team can spend aggressively, up to and even beyond the cap ceiling, and then work their way out of the mess when the time comes. If your GM tells you he can’t make a big move because of the cap repercussions years down the line, he’s telling you that he’s not as smart as BriseBois.
Fun lesson 3: Draft a goalie in the first round.
Goalies are weird. OK, yes, I have to be more specific. Goalies are weird, among many other things, in terms of how they’re drafted a developed. They take years to wind their way through various levels of hockey before finally arriving in the NHL, sometimes well into their mid-20s. Often, those years see top prospects disappear and late-round picks emerge. Because of that, a rule-of-thumb emerged that smart teams should just pass on goalies until the middle rounds, focusing instead on forwards and defenseman who’d arrive sooner and be easier to project.
But then there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. He was a first-round pick in 2012, arrived in the NHL just two years later, and is already in his sixth year as a full-time starter at the age of 27. He’s also been the best goalie in the world over the last half-decade or so.
Does that mean your team should draft a goalie in the first round? Maybe, although it’s still pretty hit-and-miss — the other goalie taken in the first round in 2012 was Malcolm Subban, while Connor Hellebuyck went in the fifth round. But the draft is fun for fans, and it’s weird that the most important position gets almost completely ignored in the pre-draft. Let’s get some GMs pushing goalies up their boards. Just maybe not your favorite team’s.
The first time Steve Yzerman met Andrei Vasilevskiy, he was drawing.
That picture ended up prescient, and franchise-changing.@JoeSmithTB details how the Lightning drafted Vasi ⤵️ https://t.co/Uc8ELHik9s pic.twitter.com/BeajMgOaR4
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) May 30, 2022

And one lesson to avoid: You have to know how to win.
Let’s face it, this is the lesson that teams will decide to learn from the Lightning. Does it mean anything? No. Can you really do anything with it, in terms of your strategy? Other than overpaying for rings in the room, not at all. Does it make sense that you can’t win unless you’ve already won, which implies that nobody could ever win? Look, don’t think too hard about it. The point here is that hockey people love to tell us that you have to know how to win, and most go along with it. Please don’t be one of those people.
Fun lesson 1: Bottoming out doesn’t have to mean five years of not trying.
The 2016-17 Avalanche season was quite possibly the worst of the cap era. It was also somewhat surprising, because while Colorado had missed the playoffs two years in a row, they hadn’t been awful. Nobody saw them as a last-place team, but then everything went wrong and they transformed into a laughing stock.
Conventional wisdom told us what came next: Joe Sakic had to throw up his hands and declare a lengthy rebuild, and fans and media had to lower any expectations for years to come.
Nope. Instead, the Avalanche made the playoffs the very next year, and have been marching towards Cup favorite status ever since.
Not every team can do that, obviously, because not every team already has a Nathan MacKinnon in place to build around. But Colorado’s success over the last five years can at least serve as the counterpoint to the idea that a bad team just has to be bad for five years or more, and nobody should ask that team’s GM to do much of anything about it because fans have to just trust the process.
Fun lesson 2: Build through the draft, sure, but take advantage of trade opportunities
The Avalanche core was built through the draft, with names like MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Miko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog all being early picks. Good for them, but bad for us, because patient drafting and developing doesn’t give us the dopamine hit we’re looking for.
Trading does, though, and the Avalanche have been good there too, often by taking advantage of other teams’ circumstances. They robbed the Islanders for Devon Toews due to New York’s cap squeeze. They got Nazem Kadri from Toronto after the Leafs gave up on a hothead. Darcy Kuemper didn’t come cheap, but so far he’s been good enough. And they got Josh Manson at a reasonable price at the deadline by moving before other conteders did.
So yes, your favorite team’s GM is telling the truth when he says that it’s a draft and develop league. Just remind him that that doesn’t mean that’s all he has to do.
Fun lesson 3: It’s OK to let your stars get to free agency.
We’ve already encouraged GMs to chase big stars and useful depth on the UFA market. But there has to be a market for that to work, and that’s been a problem. Conventional wisdom says you never let your key players get close to UFA status, because then you might end up committing the worst of the GM sins, losing a guy for nothing. So you either trade him early, or (far more likely) you give him way too many years on an extension before it ever gets to that point.
But not Colorado. They had two key stars heading towards UFA last year in Landeskog and Philipp Grubauer. That’s your captain and your goalie, both ready to walk for nothing. But Sakic didn’t panic, eventually extending Landeskog on the eve of free agency and then watching Grubauer walk (and have an awful season for his new team).
NHL free agency is fun, but it’s way more fun in other sports where the list of available players includes far bigger stars, because GMs in those leagues understand that expiring contracts are part of the business. If Sakic has the nerve to let key players go to market, or at least get dangerously close, then other GMs can do it too. And then we all win, because there will be more than two or three stars available to bid on.
And one lesson to avoid: Stay the course.
Ever since emerging from that last-place season, the Avalanche have had a string of playoff disappointment that included losing in the second round for an unbearably long stretch of (checks notes) … wait, three years in a row? Did it feel longer than that to anyone? Weird. Still, the Avs were playoff underachievers, and that meant that they could have blown it all up.
They didn’t, and it was obviously the right call. It usually is. We can point to the Lightning as another example of a team that stayed the course and had it pay off. Sticking to the plan is almost always the right decision for teams that are having the debate.
So yes, stay the course is smart. It’s also boring. And worse, it can be an excuse for teams that are nowhere near as good as the Avalanche or Lightning. It’s one thing for Sakic to stick with a stacked lineup because he knows their time will come. It’s another for the GM of your favorite team, who just went fake .500 and missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, to point to Colorado while preaching patience.
Truly great teams can stay the course. For the rest of you, start making panic moves for the rest of us to laugh at.
(Photo: Jared Silber / NHLI via Getty Images)

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