When the season is over, and the Stanley Cup awarded, the players, coaches and managers of the 30 other NHL teams all wonder just how close they really are to the championship and start making the moves designed to get them there.
Ironically, Ryan O’Reilly — the Conn Smythe-winning heart and soul of the St. Louis Blue — spent some time over the summer contemplating just how close the Blues came to not winning the Cup. Not just from the fact they emerged from last place overall to become champions, but how those “little things” could have gone either way.
“It’s crazy how small it is, those little small things that can make a difference, and that there’s multiple times where it could have swung either way,” said O’Reilly. “So many things have to line up perfectly to win.
“And, yeah, it could have been different.”
Specifically, O’Reilly mentioned a Jamie Benn wraparound in double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Dallas that was inches from being a goal that would have sent the Stars to the next round instead.
“We would have been sent home,” said O’Reilly. “So it’s crazy how tight it is and how hard it is to win. And it’s a lot of things (that have to) line up. It’s one thing getting into the playoffs, but then getting through them and staying healthy. And there’s just so many things that go into that.”
That’s the fascinating part of the NHL when compared to other sports. The favourites don’t always win. The richest teams often miss the playoffs. There’s parity. You might not like the salary cap, or how your team manages it, or how it constrains trades. But the NHL’s cap is at the core of the league’s competitive balance.
“If you look at the end of our regular season, with less than 10 days to go, nine spots were uncertain,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “None of the eight series were aligned.
“We want fans to believe that anything can happen. And if any season proves it, it was last season with St. Louis. Who, in any sport, has ever heard of a team in last place in the entire league in the middle of the season going on to win it all? That is great for the game, great for our fans.”
The players and the owners at least see eye-to-eye on that front.
“Being part of a team that’s missed the playoffs the last two years, I love it,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “To me, it means that if you can kind of cultivate the right ingredients in your team and you can go from the bottom to the top pretty quickly.”
In the NBA, players work with each other during their free agency to form super-teams, like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant (and others) in Golden State. LeBron James did it with Miami. Kawhi Leonard is hoping to do it with the Clippers.
That kind of player-driven change is next to impossible in the NHL.
“The mindset of how our league works is entirely different than the NBA,” said Toews. “The game is different. You have more guys. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the team (and there’s) no guarantee they are going to win the Stanley Cup every year. It’s much more a team game, you know?”
And the cap always gets in the way; Toews’ Blackhawks had to move players for no other reason than to be cap compliant after they won Cups. But an influx of young players league-wide the last three years puts pressures on general managers. The Leafs, who haven’t won a round in the playoffs in this new era, had to trade the likes of Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev and let Jake Gardiner walk as a free agent simply out of cap concerns.
“Teams that have some young stars are going to deal with cap issues,” said Toews. “Their window gets even smaller when that happens because pressure mounts and if you don’t win a Cup, or if you don’t make a round of the playoffs, then you go into rebuild mode and say: ‘Well, the what the heck happened there?’”
The answer? Parity.
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Drouin nose best
One reason Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin is hopeful he will add a step to his game is because of nose surgery he had over the summer. “It was a Thomas Hickey hit in the playoffs when I was in Tampa, three or four years ago. It got worse and worse. (The air passage) was 95 per cent blocked on the one side, but I didn’t know it was getting worse,” he said. He thinks the problem inhaling might have led to problems for him late in the season, and late in games. It was repaired in May. “I feel way better.”
Take a bow
Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Detroit’s Anthony Mantha and Mika Zibanejad of the NY Rangers picked up the NHL’s season-opening three stars of the week. Matthews was the third star, with five goals in his first three games of the season. He’s the fourth player in league history to score in the opening game of his first four seasons. Mantha had five goals — including four Sunday night against Dallas — and two assists in two games to claim the second star. Zibanejad, with four goals and four assists in two games, was the first star.
Hot out of the gate
The Kontinental Hockey League kicked off its 12th season with record-setting attendance for September. A total of 946,327 fans took in the first 140 games of the season, averaging 6,759 per game. The previous record was set during the 2014-15 season, with an average crowd of 6,300. The new mark in attendance is a record not only for September but for all the months before January. The only exception came in August 2015, when the league’s 45 games had an average crowd of 6,847. The average capacity of the arenas involved in the September games was 9,053.
Nikolaj Ehlers was blunt about his poor play and the play of the Winnipeg Jets last season. “We don’t know what happened last year. No one knows. I wish you could just figure it out, move on and fix it. We’ve been building something for the last couple of years and it’s looking good. So we’re gonna just keep looking forward and keep going.” The Jets were eliminated in the first round and Ehlers took some heat. “Not scoring in the playoffs sucks. There is no other word for it. It sucks. But it’s not like I get to the playoffs and I just shut myself down. I work as hard as I can to help this team win every single day. I’m happy with where I’m at right now. I wasn’t happy with (last) season because of injuries. But it’s a new season. I’ve walked through every single game last year, literally on my iPad this summer, been working as hard as I as I can and and just trying to get better.”
Par for the course
Ex-Maple Leafs forward Par Lindholm has landed as a fourth-liner with the Boston Bruins, having signed a two-year, $1.7-milllion deal with Toronto’s playoff rival. He hasn’t scored much —not unlike his time in Toronto — but coach Bruce Cassidy praises his defence. “He doesn’t quit. His work ethic’s outstanding,” said the coach. But just like in Toronto, there’s plenty of competition for fourth-line roles with Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner and David Backes pushing for playing time. “We’re trying to find the best fit,” Cassidy said. “I think Kuraly’s a better centreman than wing. I’d say the same about Lindholm, so we’ve got a problem. I’ve got to change them up, what line they’re on, yet they all play a similar style with Wagner or Backes, whoever happens to be in there.”