The Stanley Cup Playoffs are, if nothing else, about teachable moments. What a team learns one season can impact the next. If players, coaches and executives take the wrong lessons from the most pressure-filled time of the year, they could be doomed to fail next year’s final exam.
Some lessons are small. Like, for example, saying “I would’ve liked to not fall on him and use my stick as the landing point” will not get one out of a suspension for cross-checking. Duly noted.
Some lessons are larger and more nuanced. Here are seven hard lessons from the playoffs so far, both on the ice and off the ice. Enjoy!
Lesson: Matthew Tkachuk trade is now the “copycat league” thing
The trade to acquire Matthew Tkachuk had a transformative effect on the Florida Panthers. He gave them nearly as many points (109) but more goals (40) than did Jonathan Huberdeau, whom they traded to Calgary with defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to acquire Tkachuk last summer. But more importantly, he gave them swagger, confidence and clutch postseason play that Huberdeau — for all his gifts — could never give them.
The Panthers are on the precipice of their first Stanley Cup championship for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is the Tkachuk Effect.
The NHL is a copycat league. Physical team plays for the Cup? Gotta muscle up. Fast team plays for the Cup? Gotta get some burners in the lineup. Panthers play for the Cup? Gotta make our Matthew Tkachuk trade.
Florida’s trade is now shorthand for “breaking off a piece of your core for a star player who can rewrite your team’s competitive DNA.” There’s a reason Kyle Dubas referenced it during his postseason press conference when talking about the possibility of trading one of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ “Core 4” this summer.
“The team we just played serves as a great template,” Dubas said. “They won the President’s Trophy. They lost in the second round. They were disappointed. They get to the summer and they trade two of their core guys for a great younger player. That’s a big move but I don’t think that was hastily done. I would consider anything with our group that would help us to win the Stanley Cup.”
Of course, this is no longer “his group,” which we’ll get to in a second. But Dubas is likely not the only general manager who sees the Tkachuk trade as a template. Which would seem to ignore three sub-lessons within this lesson:
There is only one Matthew Tkachuk, a 25-year-old who plays all 200 feet, chews up opponents like they’re his mouthguard and is the greatest combination of offensive acumen and uncut agitation since peak Brad Marchand.
Matthew Tkachuk was available because he was a year away from a new contract and didn’t want to stay in Calgary. So to find a “Tkachuk Trade,” you need to find someone who (a) wants to leave their current team and (b) is willing to sign a long-term extension in your market.
Perhaps the greatest lesson here is that Florida wasn’t making a change for change’s sake.
“I didn’t think about it in terms of a big trade magnitude,” Florida GM Bill Zito told me. “There was a unique asset. A ‘unicorn,’ if you will. So what did I have to do to get it?”
The Maple Leafs might break up the “Core 4” because they haven’t found sufficient playoff success. Florida made the Tkachuk trade as much for business as for intangibles. Huberdeau turns 30 in June. Weegar turns 30 next January. Both were due new long-term contracts. Calgary supplied them. Florida wasn’t sure it would. When Tkachuk became available, the Panthers managed to get younger and save money. That’s the crux of the move. Take the right lesson from it, copycats.
What’s interesting about the Leafs is that they might actually be on the other side of the Matthew Tkachuk trade.
Auston Matthews is a UFA next summer. His no-move clause kicks in this summer. I believe he wants to remain in Toronto. I also know the ground has shifted under his feet after this season. What if he decides he’s not coming back? Should the GM double-down for a final run? Or find your Huberdeau and Weegar?
Lesson: The Leafs can go from “plan the parade” to “organize the wake” faster than any team in pro sports
The Maple Leafs eliminated the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 29, for their first playoff series victory since 2004.
On May 23, the general manager that put that team together, Kyle Dubas, released a statement explaining that he would “not get into the specifics” about “the circumstances of my departure,” except that it wasn’t his choice to leave.
It’s said life comes at you fast. The Leafs come at you like lightspeed.
One minute, a core of players and their wunderkind GM have finally shown playoff moxie and are contending for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. The next minute, the GM’s turfed, the core might implode and it turns out the Leafs’ lifecycle of total franchise annihilation every few years wasn’t in fact broken.
Here’s what I hope isn’t true about the departure of Kyle Dubas: That a public admission about consulting with his family about next career steps — and the strain that his job with the Leafs has put on his family — was actually processed as a sign of weakness and wavering commitment by team president Brendan Shanahan.
“As Kyle expressed, he might not want to be our GM,” Shanahan said. “And I have to take that very seriously.”
From a mental health perspective, this is gross.
We spend more time now talking about the full scope of life for players, coaches and executives than we ever have in the NHL. I’ve heard people claim Dubas wasn’t “all-in” for the Toronto job because of these comments, that the concerns for an individual’s wellbeing don’t apply when the job is as vitally important as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Heaven forbid.
Yet that’s exactly why we focus on mental health now in professional sports. To break that stigma. To not have a world where “I want to discuss this with my family” is met with “huh, I don’t know if this guy’s really committed here.”
I’ve known Shanahan for years. I’m hoping this was just something he seized on as part of the public justification for splitting with Dubas. I can’t imagine an individual with his character and moral compass would actually buy that.
What I believe to be true about Kyle Dubas: That he acted as any pending free agent would — and not just by saying he needed to talk to his family about next steps, which is what every player with a family says whether they re-sign or don’t.
His contract with the Leafs ends this summer. He famously bet on himself and won. OK, won a playoff round, but that’s more than Cliff Fletcher, Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and Lou Lamoriello won in Toronto. So he had that juice. And he also had options: The Pittsburgh Penguins have president of hockey operations and general manager openings. The Ottawa Senators‘ new ownership could potentially offer him their top job.
Multiple NHL sources have told me that Dubas was looking for equal hockey management power to Shanahan and a salary that would be commensurate with that power. If that’s the case, then I get it: What team president is going to fight to retain an underling that wants both of them sharing a chair at the head of the table at the same time? Ever try to sit two-to-a-chair? It’s as uncomfortable as having the person you supervise asking for your salary.
Dubas shot his shot. He flew too close to the sun in the centre of the hockey universe. The Leafs lost a brilliant young executive. Dubas lost a job he genuinely loved. That’s business. I truly want to believe that’s the determining factor in all of this rather than hockey culture once again trouncing someone’s emotional vulnerability.
Lesson: Jamie Benn is infallible (to some people)
After Game 3 of the Western Conference final, the Dallas Stars had more pointed criticism of their fans throwing garbage on the ice after disagreeing with a penalty than they did their captain taking the most garbage penalty of the entire postseason.
It’s less than two minutes into Game 3. The Vegas Golden Knights are already up 1-0 because Jack Eichel can’t stop making good passes and Jake Oettinger can’t stop letting shots in. Benn knocks Mark Stone to the ice. He then takes his stick and rams it downward onto Stone’s jaw, falling to the ice with the force of his large frame in doing so. The referees give him a match penalty, which carries a game misconduct with it.
And just like that, an act of selfishness gives the Golden Knights a five-minute power play during which they extend their lead and costs Dallas its fourth leading scorer in the playoffs.
Benn didn’t speak after Game 3, leaving his teammates to speak for him. And they defended him. Tyler Seguin, the second-longest tenured Stars player, said there was “zero” frustration with him in the Stars’ dressing room.
Joe Pavelski, one of the most respected leaders in the NHL, said Benn was tied up with Stone and “went for a little extra.”
At that point, I interjected, asking Pavelski — a captain for four years himself in San Jose — “are you disappointed in him though, Joe?”
He said “no,” as if the question was unfathomable.
“You guys ask if I’m disappointed in the guy I have so much respect for? Who battles so hard? I have no problems with [Benn],” Pavelski said.
No one was expecting Stars players or coach Peter DeBoer to trash their captain or hang the loss on him. Hockey culture states that you win as a team or you lose as a team. But that’s different than supporting him, which is inherently what they did after Game 3. This wasn’t a mistake. Ryan Suter coughing up the puck at the end of regulation in Game 2 is a mistake. This was inexcusable for a team leader. In another city, there would be take-out pieces written about the status of his captaincy.
In 2010, Matt Cooke took out Marc Savard with a check to the head. At the time, it wasn’t deemed a suspension-worthy hit. Bill Guerin was Cooke’s teammate on the Penguins. That didn’t stop him from criticizing the play and the player.
“We’re all under the same umbrella, whether the guy’s on my team and I’m sitting right next to him or he’s playing in California,” Guerin said. “It doesn’t matter. We’re all playing in the same league. We all want the same safety. We all want to be looked after the same way.”
But that was too much to ask from Dallas. Maybe they thought he just fell on Stone.
Friends, I wish I could explain how vigorously my phone vibrated with texts from around the NHL when Jamie Benn, in a press conference I was attending, attempted to explain his cross-check to Mark Stone’s jaw by blaming gravity.
“Obviously, didn’t want to take a five-minute penalty, but when the game happens fast, emotions are high,” he said. “Obviously I would’ve liked to not fall on him and I guess use my stick as the landing point.”
Ugh, right? It’s just a shame ol’ fumble feet keeps having to use the head and neck of opponents as a resting place for his stick like that. Like this play that ended Dylan Larkin‘s season a few years ago:
For no reason in particular, here’s Jamie Benn cross-checking Dylan Larkin’s neck/spine in 2021, ending his season and receiving no discipline. ☕ pic.twitter.com/slJG7WfrOA
— Winged Wheel Podcast (@WingedWheelPod) May 24, 2023
Stone, thankfully, wasn’t hurt. They only things that were: The Stars’ Stanley Cup chances and perceptions about the team and its captain.
Lesson: The Hurricanes are who we thought they were
Entering last summer, coach Rod Brind’Amour’s Carolina Hurricanes were seen as a playoff contender that was missing one fundamental ingredient: The ability to score that one goal in a critical spot that could tip a series in their favor.
That goal that could have helped prevent a 0-2 series hold against Tampa Bay in 2021; or could have built a 3-0 series lead against the Rangers in 2022.
Last summer saw them acquire Brent Burns, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty in an effort to address that deficiency. Stastny scored such a goal in Round 1 against the Islanders, the overtime series-clincher in Game 6. Burns has nine points in the postseason. But Pacioretty didn’t come through, playing just five games in the regular season and missing the entire postseason with injuries. Then they lost winger Andrei Svechnikov to a knee injury in March, too.
For most of the playoffs, the Hurricanes looked like they’d manage offensively without them. Their 3.54 goals per 60 minutes average was the third highest among playoff teams in the second round. But a lot of that was running up the score on the Devils, whose Gen Z angst helped balloon their margins of defeat. Otherwise, Carolina has scored two or fewer goals in seven of 10 games against teams not named the Devils.
The demise of the Hurricanes against the Panthers is one of missed opportunity. Yes, full marks to the Panthers’ defense that limited high-danger chances and a goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky who is leading the Conn Smythe race. But what if Carolina scored on that fourth-overtime power play? What if they added a second goal in Game 2 when they were outshooting Florida 17-1? What if they scored the first goal of Game 3 — or any goal?
In fairness, they’ve tried to get that scorer. They chased Matthew Tkachuk, and depending on who you talk to there was a chance he might have signed long-term there. But it’s frustrating to see the same story play out for a Brind’Amour team: tough, defensively sound, relentless, but falling short of a championship due to offensive deficiencies. Those winds have to shift for the Hurricanes.
Lesson: Game over after the second period?
Game 2 really turned the Western Conference final toward Vegas, and what turned Game 2 was the Stars’ inability to get that additional goal to build a 3-1 lead. That meant it was a one-mistake game, and they ended up making that one mistake.
Remember the offensive chaos of the regular season? All of those wild comeback wins? Does it feel like they aren’t happening in the 2023 postseason? Well, that’s because they aren’t.
In the regular season, a team trailing while headed into the third period rallied to win 11.2% of the time. Not super frequent, but often enough to make things unpredictable.
If it seems like we’re not getting the same kind of chaotic comebacks in the playoffs, it’s because we aren’t. Through Tuesday night, just 6.3% of playoff games (five of 79) have featured a team rallying for a win after trailing for two periods.
What about a two-goal lead? If a team had a two-goal lead in the third period during the regular season, teams rallied to tie the game 7.85% of the time. In the playoffs, teams rallied to tie the game after a two-goal deficit just 5.1% of the time.
The playoffs have mimicked the regular season in a number of ways. But maybe “defense wins championships” means we’ll never see them at that level in the playoffs.
Lesson: Maybe rest your goalies?
In Game 3 against Vegas, Jake Oettinger faced five shots, gave up three goals and saw his night end just 7:10 into the most important game of the season.
By his own admission, Oettinger hasn’t played up to his standards this postseason. Per Evolving Hockey’s analytics, Oettinger has been below expected in goals against in nine of his last 10 playoff games, tracking back to the series against the Seattle Kraken. Objectively, he’s had one great period in the Western Conference final, when he stopped all 17 shots he faced in the first period of Game 1 in Las Vegas. Otherwise, he’s not been close to the goalie many expected to outplay Adin Hill and potentially steal the series on his own (raises hand).
I spoke with a few sources around the Stars after Game 3 and they were split on Oettinger. A couple pointed to the mental strain of having to live up to the elephantine expectations of his previous postseason: When you’re 24 years old and your calling card is a 64-save performance in a Game 7, that’s a lot.
But others mentioned his workload this season potentially catching up with him. Oettinger has played 78 games in total between the regular season and the postseason. Thanks to an injury that limited backup Scott Wedgewood in March, Oettinger started 12 of 14 games. That’s where Oettinger started to wobble, with a .908 save percentage in his last 17 games. In 16 playoff games, he has a .895 save percentage.
“Down the stretch, we didn’t have the option of not playing him. We were fighting for position and Wedgewood was hurt,” DeBoer said. “I know he feels great and doesn’t have any energy issues.”
DeBoer said that goalie workload will be looked at in the offseason, but let me save him some time: Goalies with designs on long playoff runs should not play that much down the stretch.
Bobrovsky was injured for the Panthers. His last game was March 27 before Game 3 against Boston. Coach Paul Maurice has talked about how much the team owes backup Alex Lyon for getting them into the playoffs, playing so well he earned the first three starts against the Bruins. But when Bob was ready, he was rested.
Bobrovsky played 50 games in the regular season. Carolina’s Frederik Andersen played 34 overall and 14 after March 1, but missed the first five games of their series against the Islanders before debuting in the playoffs. He gave up one goal or less in the first six of eight playoff games.
Thanks to the never-ending adventure that is Vegas goaltending, Adin Hill didn’t see action from March 8 through May 5. Since taking over the Golden Knights’ crease, he has a .940 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average in eight appearances. And he’s outdueling Oettinger.
Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said teams typically chart starts by month. “It never got to that for us,” he said of the five goalies that saw time for Vegas this season. “We were just trying to find two healthy guys and see how they can handle it.”
I asked Cassidy about “franchise” goalies and the playoffs, seeing as how he had one with Tuukka Rask in Boston.
“I guess you don’t think about that position much when you have a guy who is No. 1,” he said. “All we spoke about with Tuukka was how many starts he needed. How many can he handle to be ready for the playoff load?”
The last goalie to appear in 60 or more regular-season games and win the Stanley Cup was Marc-Andre Fleury with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins (62).
Less is more.
Lesson: Multiple overtimes are our last bastion of hockey purity
As I reached for my second Mountain Dew of the four-overtime classic between the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh — the coffee was long gone by this point — my body was jacked with sugary vibes like I was 14 years old again, playing Nintendo until dawn in my parents’ basement.
I was ready for the ride. Five overtimes? Six? Could the end of Game 1 be the start of Game 2? Let’s go!!!
When Tkachuk’s goal ended it at 139 minutes and 47 seconds, it became the sixth-longest playoff game in Stanley Cup playoff history. I walked out of the arena at 3 a.m., my body vibrating from extreme soda intake and a natural hockey high.
I loved the aftermath of it the next day. Talking to the players about how their bodies reacted to the marathon game. About what they did between periods to recover. Learning that some players ate four bananas while Eric Staal ate none of them. Having Carolina make a goalie change because Andersen played the equivalent of more than two games in one night.
It’s kind of amazing in this world of early start times and pitch clocks that there haven’t been more clarion calls for Stanley Cup playoff overtimes to be artificially capped through some mechanism like a shootout. It’s like the league, its teams and fans have made a sacred pact that we’re not going to touch multiple-overtime games. That they’re pure and beautiful. That the bleary-eyed exhaustion on the ice and in the stands drills home the physical sacrifice of the NHL postseason. That we can play around with the postseason format all we want, but not the playoff games themselves.
It’s the randomness that brings us back to sports, and it doesn’t get more random than a multi-overtime game. What moment ends it? Who plays the hero? Will it last 30 seconds or until 3 a.m.?
I relearned a lesson that night in Raleigh: Overtime marathons are the last bastion of purity in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And also — make sure you stock up on Mountain Dew before they lock the soda fridge. That, too.