The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the best. Rounds two, three, or four don’t compare. There’s so much hockey on and so many good storylines happening simultaneously.
For fans of teams outside the playoffs, it’s another reminder what their teams need to do to get back in the hunt. The NHL is a copycat league. People raved about the need for a big bruiser that can play, like Tom Wilson when Washington won it all last season. Teams saw what a group of depth players can do if given an extended role with Vegas. Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Cups meant elite skill over anything.
The NHL borrows ideas from each other because they work. Mostly. It’s why the Edmonton Oilers hired Peter Chiarelli and tried to recreate the 2011 Boston Bruins.
What can the Oilers take from this year’s first-round? More importantly, what should they take?
The Columbus Blue Jackets sweeping a historically good Tampa Bay Lightning team is the biggest story. The New York Islanders sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes defeating the Washington Capitals are other noteworthy upsets.
Calgary couldn’t handle a fast, skilled Colorado Avalanche team. San Jose clawed their way back down 3-1, with some help from a generous penalty call.
Boston and Toronto was a fairly even series.
It’s important not to overreact to Tampa’s performance or to diminish Columbus’ win. This is a massive upset, but the Blue Jackets are a good team who probably under-performed in the regular season. Victor Hedman got hurt prior to the playoffs starting and missed two playoff games as well. Nikita Kucherov missed a game for a dumb hit.
The Lightning should have won, and they probably do win nine times out of ten, but they’re still a very good team. Signing Brayden Point will require sending a good player away for cap space, but the Lightning need help on defence too.
Talent is necessary. Does Columbus beat Tampa Bay without Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel? What if they traded Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky? They likely miss the playoffs entirely.
Goaltending is huge. It can make or break a series. San Jose isn’t down 3-1 if Martin Jones has a save percentage that starts with a 9, but they don’t come back if Jones doesn’t suddenly turn it around. Calgary would have been swept if Mike Smith didn’t channel the Mike Smith of 2012. Alternatively, Colorado wouldn’t be where they are without Philipp Grubauer’s play over the past month. Not a bad pickup for a second-round pick and buying out the last year of Brooks Orpik’s contract.
The Oilers have the elite, top-of-the-roster talent up front. Unfortunately, that’s all they have. Can they reach a level similar to Colorado? Their speed is unmatched. They were flying in overtime against Calgary in game four.
The Oilers are paying Mikko Koskinen like he’s their answer in net, but he’s probably more suited to a backup role. His .906 save percentage isn’t good enough. Could Koskinen hold it together for seven games? Possibly. But I could also see teams exploiting his brutal glove hand.
The Oilers can’t rely on Koskinen for the next three years. Yes, they’re paying him $4.5 million but they still need to add a goaltender. The Sharks are a much better team and Jones almost cost them the series.
Toronto added John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and still lost in seven to the Boston Bruins. So much has to go your way to win in the playoffs. Do the Leafs win if Nazem Kadri doesn’t make that pointless cross check on Jake DeBrusk? Now the Leafs have to sign Mitch Marner to a contract that probably reaches eight digits. Auston Matthews’ mega extension kicks in. Jake Gardiner, for all his defensive warts, is a top-four defenceman they won’t be able to re-sign. Jake Muzzin will mitigate that loss a bit, but their right side still needs a significant upgrade.
NHL playoffs are the best because anything can happen, but parity is a double-edged sword. It means anyone has a chance if they make the cut, but it also means good teams have to have so many things go their way to win the Stanley Cup. This year’s Lightning team looked like a surefire Stanley Cup Champion, but they didn’t even win a game.
McDavid and Draisaitl give the Oilers an excellent base to build from, but there’s significant work to be done.