Exhilarating. Heart-stopping. Unpredictable.
Those are perfectly suitable ways to describe Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. Since the league expanded the number of postseason teams to 16 back in 1980, never have there been so many opening-round upsets.
For the first time in NHL history, both No. 1 seeds were ousted in the first round. In fact, all four division winners were eliminated, marking the first time that has happened in major North American pro sports history.
This is the first time in major North American pro sports history (NHL/NBA/MLB/NFL) that every division winner was eliminated in their opening series /game
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) April 25, 2019
Furthermore, the favoured Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins also bowed out to underdogs.
So, what can the Vancouver Canucks take away from all of this mayhem? Here are four lessons from the playoffs so far.
Lesson 1: More than one way to win
If there’s a beacon of positivity from the playoffs, it’s that teams won by playing different styles of hockey.
Two surprising teams, the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets each pulled off shocking upsets but accomplished them in different ways.
Colorado bewildered the Calgary Flames by absolutely peppering goaltender Mike Smith. The Avs averaged 41 shots per game. They didn’t just fire pucks on net either, as they created more high-danger scoring chances than any other team in Round One.
Columbus on the other hand, frustrated the Tampa Bay Lightning with tight, defensive hockey. Jacques Lemaire would have been proud of their effort.
As the Canucks are currently constructed, they would benefit from playing a style similar to Colorado. However, that’s tough to do when your bottom lines aren’t built for speed.
Lesson 2: Special teams are crucial
This one might be obvious, but it’s something for the Canucks and their 22nd ranked power play to remember for next season.
If the Nashville Predators scored a goal or two on the power play against Dallas, we might not be talking about a Central Division dethroning. How about the Blue Jackets or Bruins, who both had penalty kills over 80% and power plays clicking above 40%?
Another intriguing squad to look at is the Carolina Hurricanes. If it wasn’t for their poor special teams (12% power play, 75% penalty kill), they might have knocked off the Washington Capitals sooner. They were by far the better team at even strength but lost the special teams battle.
The Canucks penalty kill was strong in the latter half of the season, as they finished 11th overall in the NHL. They need to keep that going into next year, and a full year of Quinn Hughes should benefit the power play.
In this department, things look promising for the Canucks.
Lesson 3: Goaltending is vital
Speaking of things that look promising for the Canucks, the goaltending position looks solidified with Jacob Markstrom and a newly re-signed Thatcher Demko in the crease.
This isn’t rocket science, but strong goaltending is needed to win a round. Especially in the sweeps by the New York Islanders and the Blue Jackets, the goaltending battle was lopsided.
Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop, and Sergei Bobrovsky all out-duelled their counterparts by a large margin. Some other battles were closer, but there isn’t a team with spotty goaltending that moved on.
The only outlier might be that Braden Holtby was better than Petr Mrazek overall. The Canes were so dominant at even-strength that it allowed them to overcome their shortcomings on special teams and in net.
One other interesting note. Of the eight teams that moved on, only two had goalies that started more than 55 games (Sergei Bobrovsky and Martin Jones), while five of the losing teams had starters that crossed the 55-game threshold.
That should signify to Canucks management that Thatcher Demko should start at least 30 games next season. He played just as well as Markstrom in limited action, so sheltering him shouldn’t be an issue. If the Canucks actually think Markstrom can be the guy to carry them on a long run, they should be aiming to have him start a maximum of 55 games.
Lesson 4: Difference makers needed on defence
There were a couple of scenarios in Round 1 where difference makers on defence turned the series.
The San Jose Sharks should have bowed out to Vegas Golden Knights, but one of the reasons they didn’t lose, was because of Erik Karlsson.
Even though he’s clearly playing hurt, Karlsson still made a difference. He had four multi-point games and set up the series-clinching goal in overtime. He led all defencemen with nine points in seven games.
How about the Dallas Stars, who surprisingly outplayed the daunting Nashville Predators defence? Miro Heiskanen had a big Game 1 with two goals, and John Klingberg scored the series-clincher in overtime.
Seth Jones, Jaccob Slavin, and Alex Pietrangelo were three other very prominent defencemen from Round 1. However, the teams that moved on collectively have blueliners that perform as a group. There might not be a better example than the New York Islanders, who have Ryan Pulock as their top defenceman.
The lesson here for the Canucks is that they need more difference makers on defence. Hughes is bound for stardom, but more is needed. Troy Stecher is a nice piece as well, but Alex Edler and Chris Tanev aren’t getting any younger.
One of the biggest priorities for the Canucks this offseason should be finding an impact right-shot defenceman. It won’t be easy since their options are:
- Draft Victor Soderstrom (the best right-shooting defenceman available) at 10th overall.
- Chase Erik Karlsson vigorously (he’s the only elite right-shot defenceman available).
- Make a trade.
Unless San Jose bows out to Colorado, it’s hard to see Karlsson wanting to leave, meaning that Jim Benning will have to get creative to find an impact right-shot defender. PK Subban’s name has floated around in trade rumours after the Predators’ early exit. Could Benning circle back on Subban, as he did in 2016?