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Lessons to be Learned: What the Conference Finalists can teach the Canes

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With the 2020 NHL playoffs wrapped up, it’s time to look towards next season. As they prepare, the Carolina Hurricanes can pull a few lessons from the teams that made it to the final four.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The 2020 NHL bubble playoffs have come to an end, and despite all the problems and questions leading up to it, it was pulled off seemingly without a hitch.

The Carolina Hurricanes weren’t long for bubble life, being eliminated in the first round by the Boston Bruins in five games, but if we take a look at the four teams that made it to the Conference Finals, there are some lessons that can be taken.

Here are a few lessons the Canes would do well to study for next season.


Conference Finalists

Vegas Golden Knights

  • Puck Possession

Vegas is a team that dominates most all possession metrics and can overwhelm their opponents with their speedy transitional play and relentless effort on pucks. Sound familiar?

According to Naturalstattrick.com, Vegas led the entire league during the regular season in xGF% (Expected Goals For Percentage) and SCF% (Scoring Chances For Percentage) at 5-on-5.

Oh yeah, and they also led both of those stats during the playoffs as well.

Their second line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are all speedy players that generate plenty of chances on the rush, but they also provide 200-foot games being responsible in their own zone.

It makes it hard for opponents to not only get the puck, but also to obtain clean entries when you have not only players like that, but also mobile and steady defensemen like Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez and Zach Whitecloud.

There is also that other guy, Mark Stone, who is potentially one of the greatest defensive forwards in the league.

Of all their struggles, the inability to score goals was the one that made the least sense when looking at the Golden Knights.

The problem with the Knights wasn’t a lack of effort, but rather a lack of elite scoring talent. They have a lot of higher-end, two-way players, but lacked that elite difference maker to pot those goals they were desperate for.

That and they ran into two goaltenders playing their hearts out.

Lesson to be Learned: It takes a full effort all down the lineup if you want to maintain dominance continuously in all three zones.

New York Islanders

  • Patience and Adherence

The Isles are a team that’s primary aim is to impart its game on its opponent. Constructed and coached perfectly for that role, the Islanders embody one of the most frustrating defensive teams to play against, but what makes them so effective is the patience they employ leading to their pouncing on every small mistake by their opponents.

The Islanders are a team that is constantly outshot and out-possessed, with the third lowest CF% (Corsi For Percentage) in the league during the regular season at 5-on-5 play, but the way they force the puck to the outside of the ice and clog up the middle in their zone prevents a lot from getting through them.

Defense can only go so far though, and New York’s counter attacks prove to be the difference in many of its games.

Many teams can become frustrated playing against the Islanders’ system and will try to force plays leading to small mistakes, and that’s all a team like New York needs.

Speedy players like Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier can collect a loose puck or an errant pass and blow out of opponents zones leading to either breakaways or odd-man rushes that they more likely than not bury.

Lesson to be Learned: Capitalize on opponents’ mistakes.

Dallas Stars

  • Adaptability

For the Stanley Cup Runner Ups, the biggest takeaway from their success outside of the unlikely heroes — Anton Khudobin, Joel Kiviranta — was their ability to switch up their game style based upon opponents.

The Stars first faced off against the Flames and advanced — to the surprise of everyone — off of their offense. Three of their four wins in that series all saw five-plus goals scored by Dallas, including scoring seven goals — the most they scored in any game this year, playoffs or regular season — in Game 6 to advance after falling into a 3-0 hole in the first seven minutes of the game.

The Stars then took that same game into the second round against the Colorado Avalanche — one of the supposed cup favorites. The most shocking thing was seeing how a typically defensive team like Dallas, threw its plan out the window once it became evident that they couldn’t contain the prowess of Nathan MacKinnon and instead decided to go into an all out shootout with the Avs.

And it worked for them.

Capped off by the Game 7 hat-trick of Joel Kiviranta, the Stars advanced to the West Finals after averaging four goals per game against Colorado.

That’s where the Stars’ capabilities became much more evident. The Stars went from a team throwing defense to the wayside and opting to shoot everything to one of the stingiest teams in the playoffs.

While the Golden Knights were struggling to score, it was still evident that a big part of that was Dallas’ game style that denied Vegas a lot of high danger looks.

The team eventually ran out of steam against the Lightning, not being able to fully contain their offense nor outscore it, but they kept it close near the end and with a bounce here or there, it might have been a different outcome.

Lesson to be Learned: Be able to adapt to opponents if need be.

Tampa Bay Lightning

  • Key Construction

The Stanley Cup Champion Bolts are a perfect example of a team whose elite talent shined at the highest level. They combined overwhelming offensive talent, with elite goaltending, solid defense and key depth.

A big thing about Tampa Bay was also its construction.

Starting from the offseason, the Lightning made cap-space by moving both Ryan Callahan and J.T. Miller. They then signed Patrick Maroon, Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk to near or around league minimum deals.

They also signed their number one center, Brayden Point, to a three-year bridge deal.

Finally, they went for it at the trade deadline, trading for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the cost of two first round picks and some higher valued prospects.

Not to mention the signing of Zach Bogosian after his contract was terminated by the Buffalo Sabres.

So let’s take a look. They have the high skill level of Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman already signed. They get their number one center for three more years and move out cap space to leave room for additions.

They added sizeable veteran presence at the blueline for very cheap.

They added Maroon as a big, net-front body and someone who just won a Stanley Cup.

And at the deadline, they add two great wingers who not only bring physical and grit-based skillsets, but are a defensive specialist and a guy with a 20+ goal campaign.

It wasn’t just adding size and grit, it was adding skilled players with those attributes.

The biggest lesson from the Tampa Bay Lightning was betting on your skill guys to be your best players, but also surrounding them with talent and not just physicality. It was also to not overreact to a heartbreaking loss and bet on the team you know can accomplish the goal.

Lessons to be Learned: Smart team management is looking for complete players and to favor skill over grit, but realizing that physicality is important and that all players need to be simply able to handle tougher opponents rather than changing their game. And that you shouldn’t be afraid of going for it at the deadline.


Overall Lessons

  • Depth Scoring

It’s a trope as old as time. Depth scoring is essential in the playoffs. No matter how effective your top line is *cough* — Tampa Bay — you won’t go far if the rest of your lineup can’t chip in.

Of the four conference finalists, three of those teams’ bottom nine all outscored the top line by or near double the amount of goals.

Only the Bolts’ top line outscored the entirety of the rest of their forward lineup.

Compared to Carolina, the Hurricanes’ bottom nine combined for only seven goals to the top line’s 10 and if we want to get even more down to it, Martinook scored his two while playing on the top line, and Necas’ and Niederreiter’s goals came off of lucky power play bounces.

The Hurricanes got nearly no help from their lineup and even in what was supposedly a defense with a handful of offensive minded players, virtually no help came from the blueline.

  • Special Teams

In terms of power play success, the Hurricanes struggled a lot. I went over this in much greater depth already, but it is fitting to retouch on. Of the 16 teams that qualified for the actual playoffs, the Hurricanes ended up ranked 13th in power play percentage — with only a 13.8% success rate.

While the New York Islanders weren’t much better on the power play — operating at a 15.4% success rate, the Stanley Cup finalists each had around a 22% success rate.

If the Hurricanes want to succeed, they need their power play to score.