So it took one game longer than I thought it would, and most thought it would. And for at least two periods, it was probably the best the Sharks have looked in this series last night. But because their coach couldn’t stop playing Polak and Dillon, they immediately surrendered the tie they had just gotten, and couldn’t find a way through the smothering Pens defense. It’s too simplistic to pin it all on the Sharks’ third pairing (though awfully tempting), because the Penguins were clearly the better team in this series. But still, that was opening the door and rolling out a red carpet sprinkled with flowers for Pittsburgh to stroll on in.
Whenever we have a new Cup champion, there is a rush to see what we can learn from them and how teams should apply their plans going forward. That’s a little harder to do with this one.
On the one hand, there’s only one team that’s going to have Crosby and Malkin and Letang. The Penguins were never going to fade too far out of the championship picture as long as they were all there. They might have hung around the fringes for far too long, but they were never out of it. As McClure has said, this has a feel of a “your turn” Cup, which is probably what the NHL dreamed of and about the only thing they can mimic from the NFL.
This is not a great Penguins team. It’s not as good as the ’09 team for sure, and probably not even all that close. They were able to add pieces, either smart veteran pickups like Cullen and Bonino along with some rookies in their own system to finally bolster the forward group behind the two big stars. But the Penguins also benefitted from there being now power in the East they had to chase down. The Caps had an incredible start but probably fatigued their own goalie in playing him over 65 games (again), and he was still the main bedrock of their regular season success. The Lightning didn’t take a step forward from last year, and now probably can’t. The Rangers are on the decline, if they were ever that good to begin with (spoiler alert: they weren’t). The Bruins fell off the map. The Islanders haven’t made the big leap yet, and might not. Essentially the East remains an ooze where if you get a couple decisions right and a couple bounces, just about anyone can rise out of. Hang around long enough, and things might just come back to you. The Penguins could come back here next season if Maatta becomes what he’s shown before again and Derrick Pouliot finally lives up to the hype. But you could also seem them being a 1st round exit again.
The story could be the same in the West though. The powers that used to be are coming down, and may be gone forever in the Kings case. The players the Sharks depend on most are still old, aside from Vlasic. Anyone claiming they know what the Blues will look like when the season starts and after it’s been going on for a few months is lying to you. Who’s poised to make a leap? Not the Stars with those goalies. The Ducks seem intent on shooting themselves in the face repeatedly. The Oilers and Flames are too far away. This is probably the dream the architects of the salary cap had all along.
If there’s anything to be gleaned, it’s that the Pens this year much like the Hawks last year pinpointed what is usually the biggest weakness on most teams. That’s bottom-pairing d-men. In a salary cap league, it’s really hard for teams to have four or five really good d-men. The Penguins feasted on the Sharks’ third pairing, while the Sharks didn’t have the third or fourth lines to make the Pens pay for really only having two d-men. Much like the Hawks survived the Hedman Siege last year and then ground the bones of Carle, Coburn, Sustr, and Garrison into dust.
Think of it this way. When the Moneyball era began in baseball, the A’s, Red Sox, and Yankees among others, and the Cubs now, pinpointed that the middle relief of almost all teams was the part you could get all your nourishment from. Extend the starter early, get him out, and be taking your ABs off the 11th, 12th, and 13th pitchers on the roster in the other dugout.
If you can find the forwards to roll four lines, most likely you can give teams headaches because there just aren’t enough d-men around (especially when teams are valuing the likes of Polak, Orpik, Carle, and yes TVR). The Hawks got away with four d-men last year by emptying the tank on them and having four lines that could shield them about as well as possible given what they had.
If the Hawks can’t find the fourth d-man they’re going to need, and they probably can’t given the pennies they’ll have available. they could learn from the Pens in having a couple kids who can at least skate manning their third and fourth lines. Speed is better than nothing. The salary cap means you can’t keep that kind of forward depth together for very long, like the Red Sox and Yanks were able to keep their lineups together. But in a league that will continue to see it’s water level fall due to the cap, you can jump and get your parade if you can manage a year or two with that kind of depth.
The task is known. Getting there is another matter.