Friday, April 27, 2012

First round post-mortem: There is no secret formula

"I once asked Al [Arbour], what's the secret to building a team? He said no secret, it's not complicated, get good players."

- Darcy Regier
It's been a strange first round this year in the playoffs: several recent superpowers - Vancouver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago - have gone down in the first round to the surprise of fans and pundits alike.

At the end of every Stanley Cup, it seems, we close with a new conclusion on what it takes to win in today's NHL. Without fail, that conclusion is based entirely on the makeup of the team that wins the cup.

Eleven years ago, after the Avalanche won, it was all about having 'two star centres'; other years, apparently, the key is an unbeatable top D pairing. Some years, you'll never win unless you've got a superstar goalie; other years, Chris Osgood will do just fine. Pile up the offence like the Lightning? Or get a lot of good checking forwards? When the Hurricanes won in 2006, it was thanks to all those veterans; when the Blackhawks won in 2010, they were carried by their young legs. Last year, we were told the Bruins won because they had so much toughness.

None of these formulas is the single answer to playoff success. Arbour had it right: just get good players. Pile up as many of them as you can. Your first line can't play every shift; you can't play your first D pairing 40 minutes a night.

GMs must avoid falling into the trap of trying to mold their teams after what's fashionable. They'll pay more in the FA market for that marginal tough guy or 'veteran presence'; they'll turn down great trade offers for the ones they have.

There are, of course, some differences in the playoffs. Perhaps most notably, the teams are better. You can't just have one shutdown line and D-pair; every player on your team needs to be able to match up against top players on the opposing team, because otherwise good coaches can exploit them. That sort of depth is important; your third-pairing D-men, for example, will be playing 15 minutes a night. Obviously that's not as much as the 24-25 the top pair gets, but your third pairing will now be playing against quality guys on the other team. If they're going to get 60% of the ice time the top pair gets, you had better make sure you get someone good in there. Sending out some bum who'll go -4 in a series reverses all the good your top players have done.

The other point I'll make is that teams need to rest their players more in the regular season. What's the point of having Ryan Kesler play 77 games in the regular season if he's injured in the playoffs? Kesler played every game down the stretch, often playing over 20 minutes a night. Even if he doesn't tell the coaching staff that he's injured, why keep playing him so much? Once a playoff spot is clinched, teams need to rotate the healthy scratches in to get the starters some nights off. Key players can thus be fresher for the late rounds of the playoffs - let alone the first round. Nagging injuries can be given time to heal and you give your depth players a chance to play - and at least show you whether they have anything to offer come playoff time. MLB and NFL teams rest starters late in the regular season; why can't NHL teams?

To their credit, the Canucks did play Andrew Ebbett for the last 4 games of the season, though largely as a fill-in for Daniel Sedin. There's no excuse, though, for scratching Kassian, Weise, Tanev, Alberts or Gragnani anytime in March or April. Those players should be shouldering the load while the front-line players get some rest.

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