“The NHL is a copycat league.” We’ve all heard it before and it’s become a bit of a cliche but it’s true. A big, heavy team wins the Cup and we hear about how teams need to get more grit in their lineup and then the next year. A skilled team like the Penguins captures a title and everyone wants to get fast and win with offence. The pendulum is constantly swinging in the NHL and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
The best organizations will try to stay ahead of the curve and not just follow trends. Still, with every Stanley Cup Champion, there are things you can learn. Here are three things that I believe the Oilers could learn from this year’s Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues.
3 – MORE THAN ONE WAY TO BUILD A TEAM
Take a look at the St. Louis Blues roster and you’ll see plenty of homegrown talent like Vladamir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko, and Jordan Binnington, amongst some other key players. But you’ll also see a very large handful of players that were acquired via trade or free agency.
Their Conn Smythe winner, Ryan O’Reilly was acquired less than a year ago, their reliable top-six centre Brayden Schenn was also brought in via trade. Jay Bouwmeester, David Perron, Patrick Maroon, Carl Gunnarsson, Tyler Bozak, and Alex Steen were also all either traded for or signed in free agency.
Last season, the Capitals had key players brought in via a trade too, but not to the extent that the Blues did. When you compare this year’s Blues roster to the one that existed two years ago, there are lots of differences.
Yes, drafting is important but this season, Doug Armstrong proved that you can build a winner by digging through free agency and making big trades.
This also goes to the whole debate about whether or not it works to build a team based on speed and skill or if you need big, heavy hockey players to win in the playoffs. Doug Armstrong had a fantastic mix of both.
On the back end, guys like Parayko (although he did it all), Bouwmeester, Gunnarsson, and Edmunson could be trusted to eat tough minutes at even strength while Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn could provide the offensive skills needed to transport the puck up ice. They had a good blend of defensemen who could do it all.
Up front, they had plenty of players who injected speed into their lineup, but also a large contingent of players who could control the game with their physical play. The key word there is control. You don’t need to have blazing fast speed to be successful but when the puck is on your stick you need to be able to control the pace of the game. That’s what guys like Perron and Maroon do. When they get possession in the offensive zone, they can control the pace with their patience and ability to work a cycle. That’s just as important as scoring off the rush and in the playoffs, some would say it’s even more crucial.
2 – GOALTENDING IS EVERYTHING & IT’S RANDOM
If someone would have told you on September 22nd that Jordan Binnington would finish second in Conn Smythe voting, you would have said that’s impossible. Why did I use that specific date? Because on September 22, 2018, Jordan Binnington cleared waivers.
Every single NHL organization had a chance to grab him FOR ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Less than nine months ago, the Blues organization thought that Chad Johnson gave them a better chance at winning hockey games than Binnington did. It’s insane to think about that.
Other examples of this existed throughout the playoffs as well. Petr Mrazek and Robin Lehner were bargain bin free agent additions last summer and they found ways to get their respective organizations into the playoffs.
You never really know when a goaltender is going to come out of the shadows and figure things out, or just go on a ridiculous heater. That fact alone should give Oilers fans a little bit of hope for next season. We saw Mikko Koskinen play some damn good hockey at times last year, but he was also awful for some stretches. Who’s to say he can’t figure it out for a season?
Now, I’m not comparing Koskinen to a 23-year-old Binnington, but who’s to say the Oilers can’t find the next stud young goalie? If you look at their current depth chart and say you can’t see a player with the potential to be a starting goaltender, just remember that at the beginning of this season, the St. Louis Blues were saying the exact same thing. This also proved that the next great goalie might be out there and available to acquire.
On a separate note, if you don’t have goaltending, you are absolutely screwed. I think Binnington was robbed of the Conn Smythe this year. He stood on his head routinely throughout the playoff run and if it wasn’t for his play in the first ten minutes of game one, I don’t think they win the Stanley Cup.
You can get good goaltending in the NHL and still find ways to lose hockey games, but if you have bad goaltending, you don’t stand a hope in hell of winning anything.
1 – EXPERIENCE IS A MYTH
Stop me if you’ve heard someone rant about how a team “hasn’t learnt how to win in the playoffs yet”. It’s a garbage argument. If the experience was as valuable as some make it out to be, the Boston Bruins would have won that series in four games.
How many players on that Blues team had played in a Stanley Cup Final before? David Perron would technically count, but he was being healthy scratched last season as a member of the Golden Knights.
The only experience that really matters would be what you went through to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Take the Washington Capitals for instance. For years they were known as the NHL’s resident choke artists and experts around the game would say that they’ll never win anything because they aren’t built for playoff success. Then all of a sudden, they win and now they’re viewed as a grizzled team who knows how to get it done in the clutch. All it took was one run to change that perception.
Teams will forever be viewed as inexperienced until they win that first Cup. I don’t think it’ll ever change, but I don’t think it’s the right way to look at a team. I’m not saying it’s a complete non-factor, but if it was truly as important as some make it out to be, then we would see far more repeat champions than we currently do.