Welcome back to Insights and Observations of the NHL playoffs, where only three teams now remain. This week, we look at how to build a winner, possession teams, Florida's physicality, defense handedness and the world championships.
There's no one way to build a winner
When you look at how each team in the final four was built, it will be interesting to see what teams take away from it.
You can’t replicate Vegas exactly because they are an expansion team still benefiting from some of their selections, such as Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore. It should be noted, though, they aggressively traded for Jack Eichel and Mark Stone. They signed Alex Pietrangelo in free agency. To a lesser but still important extent, they nabbed players like Chandler Stephenson, Alec Martinez, Barbashev and Howden in smaller deals.
All of the teams in the final four made significant trades to add to their drafted core. Florida drafted Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov first and second overall, respectively, but they traded for Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour and Sam Reinhart. They claimed Gustav Forsling on waivers. They signed Carter Verhaeghe and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency.
Carolina and Dallas, on the other hand, have been far less aggressive. The Stars made their big splash a decade ago when they acquired Tyler Seguin from Boston. They also quietly made some nice additions at this year's trade deadline. Carolina's big move came last summer when they traded for Brent Burns. Signing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet was a bold move that has paid off nicely, as well. Both rosters, however, are largely comprised of drafted and developed players with the odd move of note sprinkled in, as any team would have.
There is no certified right way to build a champion, no matter what anyone tells you. If it was that easy, every team would do it.
Picking elite talent at the top of the draft certainly helps, although three of the final four teams aren’t particularly where they are because of that. They found talent later in the draft who emerged as leading players, such as the Stars with top forwards Jason Robertson (39th overall) and Roope Hintz (49th overall) and Carolina with Sebastian Aho (35th overall) and Jaccob Slavin (120th overall). Vegas opted to cash in its draft capital in big trades for Eichel and Stone.
Florida making a blockbuster trade for Tkachuk seems to be all the talk and to a lesser extent, Vegas with the Eichel trade. The other two teams have largely stayed the course though, drafting, developing and adding to their group where possible.
Panthers' physicality paying off
In Florida's first-round series against the Boston Bruins, there were all sorts of extra-curricular activities. Most notably, a cheap shot on Eric Staal that fired up the Panthers and Linus Ullmark trying to fight Tkachuk. It was a physical series and as it went on, the young players on Florida got stronger while Boston's veterans appeared to wear down.
After the Panthers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round, Tkachuk suggested their physicality wore the Leafs down as the series went on. Ryan O’Reilly agreed with that assessment.
“For sure, they were more physical than us," he said. "They kind of grabbed control of the series that way, which we need to respond to a little better than we did with it. It was definitely a factor for them that helped them beat us.”
Against Carolina in the next round, it was more of the same. Most notably when Bennett knocked Slavin out of the game. Side note: It is nice to see players saying it was a clean hit afterward, as Slavin did, because for some reason every big hit turns into a debate, which is exhausting to say the least.
The Panthers are, technically speaking, 10th in hits per 60 minutes. They are second in total hits in part because they have played more games than all but one team to date. But when they do hit, they get their money's worth. Gudas and Bennett are among the hit leaders in the playoffs and are constantly leaving their mark on the opposition. You could put together full video packages of all the big hits they have delivered to date.
The playoffs are, in part, a war of attrition. Bobrovsky and clutch scoring are the main reasons the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final, but they are physically wearing teams down and their confidence has grown along the way. Now, thanks to needing just nine games (technically 10 if you want to count the four-overtime thriller) to win their last two rounds, the Panthers get time to heal up ahead of their final test.
Puck possession still a recipe for success
When the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup back in 2011-12 as an eighth seed, one of the common things pointed out was how they were an elite possession team all season so it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
The Kings struggled to score despite controlling the play, but at the deadline went and acquired Jeff Carter and the rest, as they say, is history. Carter was a key component of their offense and chipped in with a league-tying eight goals in the playoffs.
Florida's run this year might be surprising, but they were also an elite possession team all season. They finished third in 5v5 corsi and in the Eastern Conference final they played the team that finished first in 5v5 corsi. Of course, Florida’s goaltending was inconsistent all season and has become nearly unbeatable in the playoffs.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the fifth ranked team in 5v5 corsi, the Seattle Kraken, went deep into the second round. The Dallas Stars finished 10th but have yet to play a team that ranked higher than them. The only real surprise is Vegas, who finished 22nd in the regular season, but they didn't have Mark Stone for half the season (granted, they weren’t much better with him) and missed some underrated players like William Carrier and Brett Howden for long stretches plus added Ivan Barbashev at the deadline. Even still, they have struggled in the possession game during the postseason, but goaltender Adin Hill has been excellent.
Possession is still important and that conversation seems to have been muted to some degree as stats like expected goals emerged and more focus has been placed on shooting talent. Obviously, all of it is important. Having legitimate game breakers matters — look no further than Vegas. Having a hot goalie is about the best gift you can receive, too. But from game to game, controlling play and how you do it (strong forechecks, cycling, suffocating the neutral zone) leads to regular-season success and still translates well to playoff success.
The importance of handedness in the playoffs
One thing that gets underplayed every season but seemingly becomes important every playoffs is defense handedness. If you look at the final four teams, they all generally run three left-hand shots and three right-hand shots, with the one exception being Shea Theodore, who has some high-end skill to his game.
In the regular season, you can get by on your off-side. The checking is not as tight, teams are not game planning as well for opponents and there isn’t as much detail to the game. At least a third of the league is not particularly good either, giving you easier games with more time to make plays.
Last year’s Stanley Cup final followed the same pattern. The Avalanche dressed three lefties and three righties the entire playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning generally dressed three right-handed shots as much as possible, the problem being their options beyond Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian and Jan Ruuta were not exactly guys you could trust at the top of your lineup. This playoffs, the Panthers and Hurricanes have only dressed three lefties and three righties. The Stars have tried but Colin Miller and Jani Hakanpaa, both dependable righties, have given them no choice at times.
Ultimately, when you are playing on your off-side, everything just takes a second longer — for example, taking a D-to-D pass, rotating your hips and turning your body up ice to make a transition pass. Off the rush, it is also easier for attackers to drive wide. A defenseman can’t follow you with his stick when he’s defending on his off-side because he has to bring it all the way across his body.
Look at this example between Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar and Stars stud Miro Heiskanen. When Kolesar drives wide, Heiskanen initially waves his stick and once he misses, he has to regather himself which allows the Vegas forward an extra second of time and space to cut in and get position on him. At that point, it’s already over. Heiskanen can’t recover.
In the playoffs, we see guys play higher up in the lineup than maybe they should in part due to handedness and we see players get moved back to their strong side because they are otherwise struggling — like the Leafs did with TJ Brodie. It is very difficult to play on your off-side in the playoffs and year after year the teams that go far generally have an even distribution on the backend.
Sabres' Peterka showing out at world championships
Last week we mentioned how the world championships is a great tournament for players to grow their game, re-establish their confidence and benefit from playing in a different environment. One player who continues to emerge is Buffalo Sabres winger JJ Peterka, who is playing for Team Germany.
A second-round pick in 2020, he just finished his first full season in the NHL, playing on a kid line so to speak with Dylan Cozens and Jack Quinn and putting up a reasonable 12 goals and 34 points. As a line they treaded water possession-wise, came out ahead in expected goals but got outscored 18-24, which is not specifically on Peterka and in part has to do with the Sabres' goaltending last season.
In March, he had 11 points in 13 games but fizzled out in April with one goal (his only point) in eight games. At the world championships, it has been a different story, though. Germany is in the semifinals and he leads their team in scoring. His 10 points in eight games is tied for third in tournament scoring and at just 21, he has a lot of room to grow and is showing glimpses of his potential.
This is a big-time finish in the quarterfinals and the video clip doesn’t do justice to how he dominated the entire shift. When he gets the puck in a prime scoring position, he shows some savvy by faking the shot, pulling it in and stepping around a desperate defender laying out. A lot of players rush that shot as they're just happy to have it in a prime scoring area. Peterka holds it and toe drags, and once he knows he’s beat the defender he leans into the shot and puts it far side, across his body. That’s not an easy shot to get some heat on, but he gets just enough muscle on it to beat the goalie.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) May 25, 2023
He was already one to watch going into next season by virtue of playing on a young and emerging team and being in their top six already, but he’s really taking a step in this tournament and putting himself firmly on the map as a player.