The Mighty 14: A Requiem for Those Who Didn’t Make the Stanley Cup FinalBruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images
And so we’re down to two. After a pair of weekend Game 7s, we finally have our Stanley Cup final matchup, as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks prepare to drop the puck for Game 1 tomorrow night.
We’ll spend the next few weeks picking apart the Hawks and Lightning, starting with a detailed final preview that will run tomorrow. But before we get there, let’s take today as an opportunity to look back at the 14 playoff teams that didn’t make it to the promised land and are left to ask the question: What went wrong? What fatal flaw kept each of this year’s playoff casualties from taking their place on the league’s biggest stage? And perhaps more importantly, can they fix it?
Needless to say, this will be easier for some teams than others. Sometimes a well-built team runs into another well-built team and somebody has to lose, and digging for some greater shortcoming feels like nitpicking. Of course, in other cases, we’ll have to work a bit to narrow the list of flaws down to just one.
Here’s a look at each of the 14 teams that fell short of the final and why it happened, in the order that they were eliminated.
What went wrong? Ondrej Pavelec just wasn’t good enough. That wouldn’t have been a surprise based on his career numbers, which are decidedly average, but he was very good for most of this season and downright fantastic over the season’s final month. So as strange as it now seems in hindsight, there was reason to look at the Jets-Ducks series and figure that Winnipeg held an advantage in goal.
Instead, Pavelec posted a sub-.900 save percentage and gave up four or more in three of the series’ four games. Would the Jets have won with better goaltending? Probably not. The Ducks just crushed them, and anyone short of late-’90s Dominik Hasek probably would have only delayed the inevitable. But Pavelec was the weakest link in a series full of them.
Can they fix it? The Jets have stuck by Pavelec for years, so they apparently don’t think there’s anything here to fix. Backup Michael Hutchinson was excellent as a rookie, and Team USA World Championship hero Connor Hellebuyck is in the system, so there’s depth at the position. Trading Pavelec now would be a gutsy move that could pay off, but it seems exceedingly unlikely.
What went wrong? There wasn’t enough depth. That’s been an issue in Pittsburgh for years, as a top-heavy lineup hasn’t been able to get the timely contributions from role players that seem to define Cup contenders. When Sidney Crosby didn’t dominate and Evgeni Malkin disappeared, there wasn’t enough talent to pick up the slack.
All that said, we’re leaving out a pretty important detail: The Penguins were devastated by injuries, especially on the blue line, where key players like Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff weren’t available. That kind of bad luck will thin out any team, no matter how well built, and the Penguins deserve credit for still playing a very good Rangers team fairly tight.
Can they fix it? They’ll get healthy again, and it’s always easier to add depth than top-end talent. The bigger question in Pittsburgh is whether they should tear down the core by moving a guy like Malkin. I don’t think they need to do that — you’ll notice that I didn’t go with “Malkin choked” as their biggest problem — but I don’t get a vote. The Pens wouldn’t be the first team to overreact to a disappointing playoffs, so they’ll be interesting to watch this summer.
What went wrong? Shea Weber got hurt. Oh, there were other flaws, not least of which was a lack of scoring up front and Pekka Rinne’s second-half regression into a merely average goaltender. But even with those problems hanging over them, the Predators still gave the Blackhawks all they could handle, and they did it while losing their best player to a dislocated kneecap midway through Game 2. If Weber had returned to the series, maybe it would have been enough to flip the result of Chicago’s triple-OT win in Game 4. And if that had been the case, then the Predators would have hosted Game 7, and … well, who knows, right?
Can they fix it?1 Weber is expected to be back at full health in time for training camp, so this one’s an easy “yes.” Now about Rinne and those forwards …
What went wrong? They just couldn’t keep up with the Flames. Calgary is a young, fast team and the Canucks are, well, not. Often, that works out just fine, and we end up writing about experience and veteran savvy trumping youth, but not this time. As the series went on, it became apparent that the Canucks were having all sorts of trouble with the Flames’ speed, especially along a blue line that features plenty of solid veterans but not much in the way of quickness and mobility.
Can they fix it? The Canucks are one of the oldest teams in the league, and right now they’re caught between the chance to contend in a weak Pacific and the need for a rebuild. They have some solid prospects on the way, so it’s not like they necessarily need to tear it all down, but a step back is likely coming at some point. For now, the bigger issue may be the salary cap, where they’re tight. A solution could come from breaking up that veteran blue line core, which would free up money while also making room for some fresh legs. That could mean a longtime Canuck like Kevin Bieksa could be on the move.
St. Louis Blues
What went wrong? All of the forwards but one went cold. Vladimir Tarasenko had six goals, but Patrik Berglund was the only other player to manage two. Other big names like T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny, David Backes, and Alexander Steen went quiet at exactly the wrong time, leading to yet another early exit for a team that, on paper, should be contending for the Cup.
Some people, including Blues fans, will want to see something bigger here, like, “This team just isn’t built to win the big one,” or, “Ken Hitchcock can’t get them over the hump.” I’m not sure I buy either of those, although at some point you do have to wonder if there’s a larger problem in play. The Blues have played at well over a 100-point pace over the past four years, and have won just one playoff round in that time.
Can they fix it? They could break up the core, an option that seems to be very much on the table. They did recommit to Hitchcock, sort of, bringing him back on a one-year extension, and they’ll probably do something weird with their goaltending, since we’re talking about the Blues. But all the key forwards are signed through at least next year except for Tarasenko (who’s a restricted free agent), so any changes up front will have to come through trade.
What went wrong? They went with the wrong goalie. Andrew Hammond was merely OK during the first two games of the series, both Ottawa losses. Craig Anderson took over in Game 3 and was fantastic the rest of the way, posting a league-best .972 save percentage, but it wasn’t enough to climb out of the 2-0 hole that the Senators had dug themselves.
Of course, this feels like the worst kind of 20/20 hindsight. Hammond almost single-handedly dragged the Senators to a playoff spot, and even though his numbers had fallen off late in the season, Ottawa fans would have howled if Dave Cameron had benched him. In fact, Cameron’s approach of starting Hammond but giving him a short leash was probably the best he could have done. Going to Anderson in Game 1 would have seemed crazy, even if it would have probably won the Senators the series.
Can they fix it? The Senators head into the offseason facing a goaltending dilemma. Hammond signed an extension, which would seem to assure him of an NHL roster spot. That would seem to leave Anderson battling Robin Lehner for one job. Lehner was a highly regarded prospect a few years ago, but poor play and injuries have taken some of the shine off of him. But he’s also just 23, exactly the age when you don’t want to be giving up on a goaltender. Anderson, meanwhile, is well established, but also just turned 34. Moving him would probably get the biggest return and set the stage for the future, but could leave the Senators once again playing goaltender roulette in the short term. This is a tough spot. Too much goaltending is a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem.
New York Islanders
What went wrong? The offense dried up. The Islanders managed just 15 goals in their seven-game series against the Capitals, and seven of those came in the first two games. The team’s best forwards didn’t score much, the power play went 0-for-the-series, and the whole thing ended with a pitiful Game 7 in which the entire team managed just 11 shots on goal.
Can they fix it? The Islanders were the league’s fourth-highest-scoring team during the regular season, so the talent is there. What happened in the playoffs? For one, they ran into Braden Holtby, who deserves to be mentioned among the very best goaltenders in the game right now. And they suffered through a series of injuries to key defensemen, leaving them thin on the blue line and putting pressure on the forwards to help out defensively. Add in the small sample of seven games and there doesn’t seem to be much the Islanders need to do here other than trust their talent to be better next time.
Detroit Red Wings
What went wrong? There were defensive breakdowns at the worst possible times. With the Lightning moving on to the final, it’s easy to forget just how close the Red Wings came to beating them. Detroit held a 3-2 lead in the series, and was minutes away from taking a 3-1 lead in Game 4. But they always seemed to commit a game-changing mistake — a turnover, a bad read, a missed assignment — just in time to bail the Lightning out. Some of that is about Tampa Bay, of course, since excellent offensive teams have a way of forcing their opponents into errors. But it was an uncharacteristic look from a Wings team that’s typically been one of the league’s most consistent.
Can they fix it? Yes, although they’ll do it with a new head coach. With Mike Babcock headed to Toronto, the Wings will have a new boss behind the bench for the first time in 10 seasons. That will presumably be AHL coach Jeff Blashill, although that hasn’t been confirmed yet. The Wings are at an interesting point, with several key veterans whose play may (or may not) fall off and several youngsters who may (or may not) be ready to step up to take their places. This team could go in a lot of different directions, and a new coach only adds to that intrigue.
What went wrong? They keep running into the Blackhawks. Maybe that’s a cop-out; the Wild aren’t a perfect team, and you could argue that they paid a price for overplaying Devan Dubnyk and Ryan Suter, or for whiffing badly on the Thomas Vanek signing. But this is a team that has faced the Blackhawks in the playoffs three times in the last three years, going 3-12 overall in those series. The official paperwork says that Craig Leipold owns the Wild, but recent playoff history says it’s Jonathan Toews & Co.
Can they fix it? Nope. Barring a leaguewide realignment, the Wild are stuck in the Central, which means yet another rematch with the Hawks is likely. That matchup might get easier thanks to the salary cap, but until further notice the path out of the division still runs through Chicago.
What went wrong? They just weren’t all that good. They spent the season defying the numbers while overachieving, lucked into a relatively easy first-round matchup, and then made a quick exit when they finally ran into a top-tier team in the second round.
That all sounds harsh. But it’s also what made the Flames’ season so much fun. Even their biggest fans had to know that it couldn’t last, but seeing them find ways to hang on well past their supposed expiration date made for one hell of a ride.
Can they fix it? Over the long term, sure. Whether they can pull it off or not depends on what they do in the short term. This offseason feels like a trap in Calgary. We’ve seen this story before: A team overachieves for one season, convinces itself that it’s better than it is, then loses its mind. The Flames sound like a team that isn’t going to do that, which is good. But the temptation will be there.
What went wrong? Their special teams were awful. The power play went just 2-for-36 in the playoffs, including 1-for-16 against the Lightning, and often looked so utterly harmless that you’d forget the Canadiens even had a man advantage until you saw an opponent hop out of the penalty box. The penalty kill was just as bad, clocking in at just 70 percent overall and 65 percent against the Lightning. Add it all up and the Canadiens came out a minus-8 in special-teams scoring2 over two rounds. In the postseason, where every goal is so crucial, that sort of gap is hard to overcome.
Can they fix it? There’s clearly a sample-size issue in play here — nobody can be that bad on special teams over the long haul, and the Habs were decent penalty killers during the regular season. But the power play was an issue all year long (Montreal ranked 23rd in the league), so there’s room to improve. Adding some firepower up front would certainly help, but certain strategic tweaks could, too — P.K. Subban acknowledged that the team was too predictable with the man advantage.
What went wrong? They foolishly took a two-game lead in their second-round series against the Rangers without remembering that they are the Washington Capitals.
Can they fix it? OK, clearly we’re having some fun at the Capitals’ expense here. But that’s because it’s awfully tough to find a glaring flaw to point to. Yes, they had some lapses along the way. Sure, they would have liked to have gotten more offense from key players like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. Granted, if you squint hard enough, you can probably find a way to make the whole thing look like Alexander Ovechkin’s fault.
But the reality seems simultaneously less interesting and more reassuring, at least if you’re a Caps fan: They faced a team they matched up well with, took the Rangers to overtime of Game 7, and lost. It happens. This team is headed in the right direction, and it should be fine — as long as it doesn’t get suckered in by narratives about resiliency, character, and the ghosts of playoffs past.
New York Rangers
What went wrong? They just didn’t have enough firepower up front. The Rangers could score; their 248 goals were the third most in the league, and they boasted the sort of balanced attack that most teams aspire to. But what they don’t have is a game-breaker or two in the Perry/Getzlaf or Kane/Toews or Stamkos/Triplets mode — maybe you count Rick Nash in that group if you’re feeling generous, but that’s it. That didn’t hurt them much in the early rounds, since Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliance was enough to win 2-1 on most nights. But with Mats Zuccarello hurt and Martin St. Louis fading badly, their lack of scoring caught up to them eventually against the Lightning, as they became the first team in NHL history to be shut out at home in Games 5 and 7 of a series.3
Can they fix it? There don’t figure to be many elite scorers available in the offseason, and the Rangers’ recent history of aggressive moves has left them without much ammo in the form of high picks and prospects, so most of the improvement will likely need to come from within. They’ll get Zuccarello back, and forwards like Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes are all 25 or younger, so there’s something to build on here. But with a sense of urgency around a team whose window to win a championship seems to be closing, the lack of a truly elite game-breaker up front could haunt them.
What went wrong? They got their butts handed to them in the last half of the series. That seems harsh, but it really was stunning to see how quickly the Ducks’ postseason script got flipped. Against the Jets and Flames, Anaheim barely had to break a sweat. And even early on against the Hawks, the Ducks were an overtime bounce or two away from taking a commanding lead. After three games, they were up 2-1 in the series and had yet to lose a single playoff game in regulation, Frederik Andersen was playing great, and the big names were producing. Then it all fell apart.
Over the last four games of the series, the Hawks pumped 19 goals past a Ducks team that had given up just 18 in the first two rounds combined. Their only win in those four was still marred by a stunning collapse in the game’s final minutes. They couldn’t handle the Blackhawks’ stars, guys like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry struggled, and Andersen sprung a leak. In the span of one week, the Ducks went from an odds-on Cup favorite to a team that has to be wondering if it really has what it takes to stay with the league’s big boys.
Can they fix it? There are two ways to look at a loss like the one the Ducks just suffered through. One way is to look inward, trying to figure out how everything could have gone so wrong. The other is to give credit where it’s due; maybe this was less about the Ducks failing than about the Blackhawks finding another gear, in which case you tip your cap to Chicago and move on. That latter option isn’t exactly reassuring, but it might make more sense than overreacting to four bad games.
Of course, that still leaves the Bruce Boudreau question. The Ducks’ coach is now 1-6 for his career in Game 7s, including home losses in each of the last three years. As you’d expect, that’s led to speculation about what he’s doing wrong, and whether he’s the right guy to lead a team to a championship. That’s probably not fair — Boudreau is a fantastic coach, easily one of the league’s best — but it’s the nature of the job. According to Elliotte Friedman, Boudreau’s relationship with GM Bob Murray isn’t great. That doesn’t necessarily mean his job is in danger, but the leash could be getting short.
Add it all up, and the Ducks still look like a team that’s well positioned for the near future. The Pacific Division doesn’t seem especially strong, they’ve got a ton of cap room, and there’s a good base of youth in place to step in for the inevitable veteran departures. That all should be more than enough to get them back to the final four someday soon. The question is whether next time they can be the team that finds that extra gear.
Filed Under: 2015 NHL Playoffs, Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks