What the Ottawa Senators can learn from the Stanley Cup finalists

There are lessons to be learned from these teams

For the 11th time in a row, the Ottawa Senators will not being playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. It might sting a little more this year, with the Sens coming within a double-OT goal last year of making it, and with people reliving some of the most memorable goals on Twitter recently:

Now with this year’s playoffs, there’s still a reason for Sens fans to pay attention other than mild interest in non-Ottawa hockey. I think things can be learned from the teams that made it this far. There’s always a temptation to boil these things down to either the exaggeration based on a single data point (“William Karlsson went from 9-goal scorer to 43-goal scorer, therefore Fredrik Claesson should be next season’s top-line centre”) or the impossible (“The Sens should sign Alexander Ovechkin”) in an attempt to be funny, but this is a serious site, and I am a serious writer, so I will take a serious stab at what these finalists mean for building a Stanley Cup winner.

Systems may be overrated. We’re moving towards a higher complexity of hockey with every season, with many of us Sens fans praising The System for how far it took the Sens last year. That being said, Gerard Gallant has the Golden Knights playing pretty simple, pretty effective hockey. For starters, they use a man-to-man defence. I’ve never played organized hockey, but based on my knowledge of soccer and especially ultimate, a “man defence” is generally simpler, taught to younger kids, and phased out as you grow up or move up a level of competition. But the Knights are using a much simpler brand of hockey, and it seems to be working. The Jets could enter the Vegas zone, but then were forced to the outside, cycled the puck a bunch, and either lost possession or were forced into an easy-to-save point shot.

On offence, the Knights aren’t quite as obvious, but they still seem simple. So much of their offence is done on the rush. Enter the zone, put the puck on net. When cycling the puck, it’s still get it to an open guy, put the puck on net. This doesn’t give teams time to set up on defence, and gets in the heads of goalies used to having to follow a pattern. I don’t know if it will work forever, but Gallant simplified his coaching for a team without an elite player, and it’s working wonders. Maybe we’ve been brainwashed into believing that the teams with the best systems win championships. Maybe hockey’s moved to a point of being overcoached.

Patience can be important with prospects. One name I’ve noticed somewhat these playoffs is Jakub Vrana. He’s not a world-beater, but he’s been playing 10-15 minutes per game for the Caps these playoffs. He was the 13th-overall pick in 2014, and took a season to come over to North America. He played a full AHL season, and then most of another while playing 21 games in the NHL last year. This year, he got a full-time NHL chance and was OK, putting up 27 points in 73 games. He has six points in 18 games these playoffs (though half of them came in one game against the Penguins). He’s not lighting up the scoreboard, but he’s a reliable player to have, and a guy you need to win: someone who scores often enough to be a threat when teams focus too much on your top line. So maybe it’s OK that Colin White only played 21 NHL games this year; it’s probably fine that Filip Chlapik only put up four NHL points this season. These guys had more claim to an NHL spot than say Gabriel Dumont, but it’s not a bad thing to let your prospects develop. You could argue that patience with your prospects could also be learned from guys like William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, though for everyone of them, there’s also a Jared Cowen or a Rick DiPietro who gets lots of undeserved patience and never lives up to it. Which leads into my next point...

Hockey isn’t as predictable as we thought. With the rise in analytics, one thing people have been able to check is how repeatable a stat is. That’s why people are throwing out things like +/-, where a guy like Ovechkin can be a -35 one season and a +10 the next because his goalies start making saves and his teammates stop scoring on 3% of their shots. It’s not that repeatable. By contrast, something like even-strength score-adjusted unblocked shot attempts has a repeatability of about 39% year-over-year by team. That’s still not very high, but that’s because there’s still a high degree of luck in hockey. You do everything you can to push the things you can control in your favour, but you can’t control the bumps on the ice at the moment you try to shoot a puck, or the angle at which the puck will hit a goalie’s glove, or any of the other myriad things that basically boil down to luck. It’s why after saying “This team should easily win on paper,” people add the caveat, “but that’s why the games aren’t played on paper.” On a given night, anything can happen.

Washington wasn’t supposed to be in the Cup finals. Their two-year window was over. They had to ditch Marcus Johansson and Nate Schmidt. Their entire core got another year older. But they defied the odds and the predictions by making it this far. Vegas is even a bigger story - everyone believed they’d crapped the metaphorical bed in the expansion draft. But by giving a bigger role to players who’d shown promise in sheltered minutes on other teams, they’ve found a formula that’s worked at least for this season. Old school hockey commentators and stats aficionados alike got this team wrong — anyone who says Vegas just proves the other side is wrong is wrong. Vegas didn’t just will themselves to the Cup finals — if that’s all it took, why couldn’t the two-time Cup champion Kings with almost the same core will themselves to win a single game? Vegas didn’t prove analytics work — any stats expert laughed audibly at how favourable the expansion draft rules were, and how much George McPhee whiffed. No, it’s that hockey isn’t as predictable as we think. What are the odds of Vegas having ~15 of its expansion draft picks exceed expectations? What are the chances of Marc-Andre Fleury putting together his best playoff campaign ever at age 33? It doesn’t matter, because it’s happening.

Before this season started, I would’ve told you that 50-75% of hockey is predictable, but there’s still a big room for luck, or at least factors that aren’t predictable. I’d say now that the unpredictable part is over 50%. Which begs the question, why do I base my mood so much on an event that a) I have no control over, and b) the people taking part still only have a small amount of control over? It may be a soul-searching kind of summer.

I do have one last thought, and it’s a little harder to hear: you can’t win without goaltending. The last two Sens seasons would show you that. Craig Anderson’s .922 last post-season took the Sens within a goal of the Cup finals. This year’s .898 sunk the team by mid-November. Vegas wouldn’t be where they are now without Fleury’s gaudy .927 (.960 at 5v5!!), but Braden Holtby’s .924 has been good enough, and his .938 at 5v5 is still good enough for 4th among starters in these playoffs. The thing is, it’s unpredictable too. Holtby had a rotten year by his standards, posting a .907, and allowing two or more goals in every game he played after November 18th. Philipp Grubauer seemed ready to steal the crease, and yet the playoffs hit, and it was all Holtby. Why? Hockey’s unpredictable.

The good news there is that you wouldn’t expect Craig Anderson to bounce back from his worst full NHL season at age 37, but then maybe that will happen because hockey’s unpredictable. The bad news though is that if he doesn’t, this team can’t go very far without goaltending. In the words of Harry Neale, “Goaltending’s 75% of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100%.” On a team with stars and promising prospects at each skating position, this may be the biggest problem the Sens face in 2018-19 or even beyond.

So that’s where I’m at. There are some things to be learned here as a fan of one of the 29 teams who didn’t make it this far. Will I remember come September that systems are overrated, prospects can be developed slowly, and that this whole thing is just a messy gongshow of unpredictability anyway? Probably not. I’ll argue with you all and hold steadfastly to my erroneous beliefs. But for now, with the clarity of being removed from my emotions, I can see that things are not always as I believed.

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