Thoughts on Thursday: “Getting Hot”, Team Building, and Jeff Gorton

1. With only a few more hours left until the champion of the Eastern Conference is crowned, we will find out soon enough who will be representing the East in the Stanley  Cup Finals. Whether the Ottawa Senators or Pittsburgh Penguins win Game 7 and take home the Prince of Wales Trophy, they’ll have to begin scheming and strategizing what it will take to knock off the Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators. Nashville, who went 12-4 en route to becoming the third 8th seed in their conference, as well as the first 16th overall “seed”, to advance to the Cup Finals, are far from your typical wild card team. While a majority of the people within the hockey world didn’t give the Predators much of a chance, they have always had a handful of believers:

As if their spot in the final two wasn’t telling enough, their underlying metrics were strong throughout the season, much like a majority of the recent Stanley Cup finalists. While luck has been a critical factor in the Predators’ run to the Finals, (Their 103.44 PDO is the third highest of any playoff team behind the 2009 and 2011 Boston Bruins) simply brushing them off as a team that got “hot” at the right time is ignoring reality. During the regular season, Nashville was 5th in the NHL in Adjusted Corsi For%, and 8th in Adjusted Expected Goals For%. Individual players have gotten hot for the team, but the same can be said of nearly any team to make to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Ryan Ellis has 11 points in 16 games from the blue line. Colton Sissons has 10 points in 16 games after putting up the same amount of points in 58 regular season games. Most importantly, Pekka Rinne’s currently rocking a .941 SV% in the playoffs after getting outplayed by his backup during the season.

To me, the concept of getting hot is a myth. Are the Predators an unstoppable juggernaut in the mold of the 2012 Kings? Of course not, they’re still a very flawed team. If Pekka Rinne comes back down to Earth at some point in the next couple of games, then either Derick Brassard or Carl Hagelin will be skating laps with the Stanley Cup over their head. Even if Rinne continues his stellar play, a team with Colton Sissons and Mike Fisher as their top two centers isn’t one I’d be too eager to throw money on. But regardless of that, the Nashville Predators are a good hockey team, and they’ve earned their mantle of Western Conference Champions. With any luck, they’ll earn their spot in hockey history as Stanley Cup Champions as well.

2. Speaking of the three teams with that still harbor dreams of bringing home the Stanley Cup, this year is unique in that all three teams represent three different philosophies in how to build a winning hockey team. The Predators have become renowned for their elite defense corps, sporting three defenseman capable of being #1 players across the league. P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis have playing at elite levels throughout their careers, but Nashville’s playoff run has allowed the hockey world at large to see how great that trio is. Add in one of the most gifted offensive defenseman in the league in Roman Josi, and you’ve got the best, most exciting top four defensive unit the NHL has seen in years.

While David Poile has acquired a handful of impact forwards like James Neal, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg the rest of his team’s forwards are a veritable who’s who of name-brand veterans whose reputation exceeds their skills, (Mike Fisher, Vernon Fiddler and Cody McLeod come to mind) and under the radar, homegrown forwards like Sissons, Pontus Aberg, and Colin Wilson. Despite all the years of being known as a defense-first time under Barry Trotz, and the change in style that Peter Laviolette was supposed to bring, the organization has found success by utilizing effective, puck moving defenseman that have adapted to today’s game.

In the Eastern Conference, the defending Stanley Cup champions have been utilizing a different approach for the last decade and given the two Stanley Cups they’ve taken home in the Crosby and Malkin era, it’s no wonder they’ve stuck with it through thick and thin. While the team’s two superstar forwards are the most important pieces of the team’s core, Jim Rutherford has managed to surround them with high quality offensive players. Veterans like Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz all bring essential elements to a Stanley Cup contender, as do young guns like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.

However, the Penguins defense corps is, to put it lightly, absolutely abhorrent. With Kris Letang out until next season, there isn’t a single name on Pittsburgh’s blue line that jumps out and makes you think the opposing team’s stars won’t find their way onto the scoresheet. Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are quietly effective, but players like Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, and Ron Hainsey don’t do much to move the needle, and Trevor Daley and Chad Ruhwedel hurt the team every time they hop over the boards.

As for what Pierre Dorion and Guy Boucher have attempted to do with their Senators’ squad, I mostly covered it in my series preview of sorts before the Rangers began their series against Ottawa. They’ve got Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson, and a couple of nice forwards. But mostly Erik Karlsson. It’s truly incredible how this team is a good sixty minutes away from the Stanley Cup Finals, because they are a flat out bad team. Getting to face two of the most injured groups in the playoffs really does wonders for how a team can fare in small samples.

3. With all of the different ways general managers can go about building teams, there is no particular way that will work for every franchise. Some teams can opt to go for heavier teams that use their size and frame to win puck battles and maintain possession, such as the Bruins and Kings teams in the early part of the decades. Others can go for highly skilled squads that prefer to push the pace, knowing that they can always out-skate and out-score their problems, like the Penguins and Blackhawks teams that have hit the ice since the latter portion of the 2000’s.

No matter what path Jeff Gorton opts to take his team down, he needs to be aware of two critical things. The first of which is that the New York Rangers are not in need of sweeping changes. Trading Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, or any other good player for the sake of cap space is a dumb idea that needs to be avoided. Additionally, Gorton needs to restrain from forcing himself into questionable moves when he has other options available. One of those situations will be the Brendan Smith negotiations. While the rugged defenseman was a solid acquisition and could be a useful player on New York’s second pairing for years to come, Gorton needs to recognize he has options.

If Smith is asking for something in the range of a four year deal at $4 Million per year, the only sensible move the Rangers can afford to make is to tell Smith to kick rocks. Signing Smith to a deal like that essentially cuts off any chance of revamping the team’s right side of the blue line. Assuming the team moves on from Dan Girardi, there’s no reason New York can’t boast one of the best top four units in the league next year with the right moves. A group of Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and a quality right handed defenseman out of the bargain bin like Cody Franson instantly turns this team into an upper echelon contender.

Whatever he decides to do, all Gorton needs to do is not drastically screw up and the Rangers will be in a better place. After a timid first two seasons on the job, the time has come for New York’s general manager to do his job. If he fails in doing so for the third consecutive summer, the 17-18 season will end before it even begins.