By Lori Bennett
With the first round of the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the history books, and Round 2 already underway, it’s time to pause and look at the eight teams whose post-season was cut short. We won’t criticize them too harshly – after all, they did form the better half of the league. Sixteen teams were worse than the eliminated eight and did not see one second of post-season action.
There are some lessons to be learned from the first round exits, and you can be sure every team is watching for what is unfolding for their competitors. The NHL has been called a copycat league – as teams find success or don’t, their counterparts pay attention. Let’s look at these eight eliminated teams, in the order they were ousted, and consider what can be learned.
The Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators were the first team out, thanks to a convincing sweep by the Colorado Avalanche. Here’s the lesson: when you look in the mirror and see a kitten, you can’t deal like it was a lion looking back. The writing has been on the wall for a closing Preds window, and they were one of the final teams to scrape their way into the playoffs.
GM David Poile could have moved Filip Forsberg, who looks done in Nashville, for a haul at the trade deadline. Instead, Poile kept Forsberg as an “own rental”, a sensible plan for an actual contender. What was gained was just four playoff games, one goal, and the slimming chance that Forsberg may return to Tennessee. A deadline return could have really helped a retool, and the decision to keep Forsberg might prove regrettable for the Preds. Where do they go next, with a collection of tough contracts and a team not good enough to genuinely compete?
The Minnesota Wild
The second team to have their immediate future freed up was the Minnesota Wild, eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in six games. The lesson from the Wild is that your best players need to be your best players. Aside from an elite performance from Kirill Kaprizov, who scored seven goals in six games, their other top players were mouse-quiet.
How does a team determine the players that get you to the playoffs and those that get you through the playoffs?
The Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals were the third team to be eliminated, after taking the President’s Trophy winning Florida Panthers to six games. The Caps also needed more from their stars, as is obvious in Ovechkin’s lone goal. But the real lesson from Washington is that insanity lies in doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.
It’s been four years straight of first-round eliminations, with negligible off-season changes. That’s not a recipe for success.
Will the Capitals make genuine changes to the core and maximize the time that remains for Ovechkin?
The Boston Bruins
The fourth team to be eliminated was the Boston Bruins, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of their first-round series. The lesson the smart teams will learn from Boston is to recognize when your window is closing.
David Krejci and Zdeno Chara left. Tuuka Rask retired after a failed comeback attempt. Patrice Bergeron’s future is questionable. That’s the Cup Core.
The Bruins have some great pieces remaining, but maximizing those pieces depends on their ability to accept reality. Can the Bruins pivot, retool quickly, and be dominant again?
The Toronto Maple Leafs
In another first round heartbreak, the Toronto Maple Leafs became the fifth team to be eliminated when they lost in seven games to the reigning champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning. An entire book could be written about the lessons to be learned from the Leafs, including how teams should resist spending on luxuries they don’t need (Tavares) until they have built a complete core (defence).
This season’s lesson for the Leafs is this: if you want to swim with the sharks, you’re going to need some killer instinct.
Toronto lost to a formidable opponent, but the series was winnable.
Tampa was tired and semi-satiated from two consecutive past Cups. Leading the series 2-1, the Leafs should have smelled blood in the water in Game 4 and backed the Lightning tight against the ropes. Instead they mailed it in, content with one road win. Cup winners smell that blood and move in for the kill.
What can Kyle Dubas do next season to get this team out of the first round before new contracts are due?
The Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings were the sixth eliminated team, losing to the Edmonton Oilers. The lesson from this elimination, and one that teams should remember when they take the stage at this year’s draft in Montreal, is that there is no replacement for elite skill that has been dialed in.
The Kings have on their roster two elite 200-foot centres in Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. But in the end it was Connor McDavid who carried the Oilers on his back for the series win. With four goals and ten assists, McDavid produced more than the four L.A. centres combined.
With limited generational talents to go around, how can teams without one build to compete?
The Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in game seven to the New York Rangers and became the seventh team to be eliminated. The lesson from the Penguins is that the devolution of a modern-day dynasty team is properly painful.
The Stanley Cup has most recently found its way to Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017. Four guys formed the core on those teams – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury was moved after the last Cup run, and this summer both Malkin and Letang are unrestricted free agents. Crosby has three years left on his deal, and some rumours have the brass trying to re-sign Malkin and Letang for a three-year term and perhaps reunite the whole band by bringing back Fleury. Still others have both Malkin and Letang leaving in free agency.
The Penguins are short on prospects after years of being deadline buyers. Is this the end of Crosby’s dominance in the NHL?
The Dallas Stars
The final team to be eliminated in the first round was the Dallas Stars, losing the seventh and deciding game to the Calgary Flames. The loss cannot be blamed on Jake Oettinger, and that’s where we find our lesson.
A dominant goalie can be the difference for a team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This series should not have been this tight, but it was the netminder that prolonged the series.
What is the perfect balance of how much you commit to your goalie and what you ice in front of him?
Here is a clue. Don’t look to the Habs or the Leafs for the answer.
Eight teams are fighting to make it out of the second round of the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sixteen teams have already turned their minds to the business of improving their teams for another year.
Which teams will learn the most from the ones left behind at the end of the first round?