A brief look at why the teams ousted from the opening round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs made their early exits. Each club is listed in the order they were eliminated.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings five-game ouster by the Tampa Bay Lightning wasn’t surprising. The once-dominant team from “Hockeytown” has been in decline in recent years.
Stalwarts such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk looked like aging veterans against the Lightning. Their best days are now very much in the past. Datsyuk, the magic man who dazzled the NHL for a decade with his two-way wizardry, is expected to return to Russia for family reasons..
Goaltending was inconsistent throughout the season. The Wings began the series with Jimmy Howard as their starter but gave way to Petr Mrazek for their final two games. Mrazek showed flashes of brilliance this season but stumbled badly down the stretch. He played well against the Lightning, but his miscue behind the net late in Game Five lead to the game winner. In a way, it was a metaphor for his season.
Forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, supposedly in their playing prime, were largely invisible against the Bolts. The defense needs improvement, their power-play was largely ineffective and promising youngsters Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou have yet to reach their playing prime. Management’s offseason moves could make the difference between missing the playoffs in 2016 or extending their postseason appearance streak to 26 years.
Los Angeles Kings: Having rebounded well from missing the 2015 postseason, the Kings looked like possible Stanley Cup contenders entering this year’s playoffs. Instead, they were bounced from the first round by the San Jose Sharks, the very club that blew a 3-0 opening-round series lead to the Kings only two years ago.
So what did in the Kings this spring? A lack of skilled blueline depth was the biggest factor. Luke Schenn and an aging Rob Scuderi weren’t suitable replacements this season for Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell, who were key components to their two championship runs in 2012 and 2014. Losing Alec Martinez to injury further weakened their defense, leaving Drew Doughty to carry the lion’s share of the work.
GM Dean Lombardi did what he could to creatively free up cap room and plug the holes in his roster. His moves helped the Kings reach the playoffs, but they obviously weren’t enough to get his club beyond the first round.
It won’t get any easier for Lombardi this summer. He’s got over $66 million tied up in cap space for next season, which won’t leave much room to re-sign top power forward Milan Lucic. He must also re-sign or replace forwards Kris Versteeg and Trevor Lewis, blueliners Schenn and Jamie McBain and goalie Jhonas Enroth. He also has to look ahead to next summer, when key forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson become restricted free agents with arbitration rights.
New York Rangers: Since 2011-12, no other NHL team played as much playoff hockey as the Rangers, advancing to the Eastern Conference Final three times, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. But if there were any lingering thoughts their championship window was still open in 2016, it was swiftly slammed shut by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Several of the Blueshirts core players – goalie Henrik Lundqvist, defenseman Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, forwards Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccaraello – struggled against the younger, swifter Penguins. They looked like a weary bunch of veterans whose best years suddenly seem behind them. It didn’t help that captain and blueline linchpin Ryan McDonagh was hampered by injury in this series.
Not even the late-season addition from the Carolina Hurricanes of Eric Staal helped them. Indeed, Staal’s ineffectiveness in his brief tenure with the Rangers puts to rest the myth that all he needed to regain his offensive mojo was playing for a deeper club. It was painfully obvious in this series that Staal is no longer an elite player. Buyer beware when he hits the UFA market in July.
Meanwhile, younger forwards Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes didn’t blossom into stars as projected this season. They still have plenty of time to reach their full potential, but their slower-than-expected development could be cause for concern.
Changes will likely be coming to the Rangers, but they won’t be easy ones to make. They lack first and second round picks in this year’s draft. Nash, Girardi and Marc Staal carry expensive contracts with no-trade clauses, likely limiting potential trade partners. With nearly $57 million invested in next season’s payroll, they can’t afford a big raise for puck-moving defenseman Keith Yandle unless they can shed some salary.
Philadelphia Flyers: In the first three games of their opening-round series against the Washington Capitals, starting goalie Steve Mason was lit up like a Christmas tree. Backup Michal Neuvirth replaced Mason and promptly stole Games Four and Five and almost did the same in Game Six before the Capitals won it with a razor-thin 1-0 victory.
Don’t let Neuvirth’s heroics fool you, the Flyers were still widely out-played by the powerful Capitals. Despite rallying back from a poor opening two months of this season to squeak into the 2016 playooffs, they’re still very much a rebuilding club.
And there’s work to be done. The Capitals did a good show snuffing out Flyers scorers Claude Giroux, Jakub Vorecek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Scheen. Puck-moving defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was a rookie darling in the regular season, but he was largely stymied by the Caps. The Flyers defense remains a work in progress, as the Capitals effortlessly picked them apart for quality scoring chances.
Flyers GM Ron Hextall has been patiently revamping his roster, eschewing quick-fix trades and expensive free-agent signings. He’ll likely stick to that plan this summer, though he could dip a toe into this summer’s free agent pool. The Flyers will be a better team next season, but as this series against the league’s best team made plain, they still have a ways to go before they can compete with the big boys.
Minnesota Wild: Their six-game series against the Dallas Stars was often a reminder of their regular season: full of fits and starts, highs and lows, impressive performances, boneheaded plays and luck both good and bad.
The Wild backed into this series and few gave them a chance against the powerhouse Stars. At times, the Wild always seemed on the verge of a meltdown. But in spite of themselves, they actually made a series of it, coming oh-so-close to forcing a seventh and deciding game.
Wild fans might take some comfort in that, but the glaring flaws that dogged the club all season were in full display in this series. In some periods, the Wild looked like they had no business in this series. In others, they played like world beaters. The lack of reliable offense, the defensive breakdowns and wildly inconsistent play are not traits of a reliable playoff contender.
GM Chuck Fletcher recently got a vote of confidence from Wild ownership, but he’s facing some tough decisions. He’s got too many under-performing players carrying expensive, difficult-to-move contracts. They need reliable scoring depth (especially at center) and a skilled backup to help take some of the burden off starter Devan Dubnyk. They could dangle a defenseman (Jonas Brodin? Matt Dumba? Marco Scandella?) this summer in hopes of bolstering that offense. Most importantly, Fletcher has to find a coach who can get the best out of his inconsistent roster.
Florida Panthers. Their six-game elimination by the New York Islanders was a heartbreaker, with three games going to overtime and the final two to double overtime. While it was disappointing end to a season that saw them clinch only their second division title in franchise history and advance to the playoffs for only the fifth time, the future is bright for the young Panthers.
It’s not as though the Panthers didn’t get their chances to win this series, but their struggles to hang onto leads proved costly and their inability to rise to the occasion in overtime was their undoing. Losing center Vincent Trochek and Nick Bjugstad to injury also took a toll, as did undisciplined penalties. Finally, they simply couldn’t contain Islanders captain John Tavares, who lit them up for five goals and nine points, including the game-tying and winning goals in Game Six.
The inexperience of the Panthers young players also contributed to their demise. First-liners Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were each held to only three points and top defenseman Aaron Ekblad to just one. The seemingly ageless Jaromir Jagr looked at times very much like a 44-year-old, held to only two assists. 37-year-old starting goalie Roberto Luongo played well as the series progressed, but the consecutive double overtimes didn’t do him any favors.
However, this series should prove to be a worthwhile learning experience. With their depth in rising young talent, the Panthers should be a much better team in 2016-17.
Chicago Blackhawks: There will be a new Stanley Cup champion crowned in 2016, as the Blackhawks fell to the St. Louis Blues in seven games. The Hawks nearly pulled off the comeback, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to force the seventh and deciding game. They even overcame a 2-0 deficit to tie Game 7 and were two goalposts away from forcing overtime before falling 3-2 to the Blues.
A lack of depth, particularly on the blueline, crushed the Blackhawks hopes for their fourth championship in seven years. Blame the need to become salary-cap compliant for that. Having invested nearly $48 million in just seven players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niclas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford), the ‘Hawks had limited cap space this season to adequately fill out the rest of their roster.
GM Stan Bowman’s done a tremendous job swinging trades and finding affordable gems via free agency and within his system. However, it was only a matter of time until his cost-cutting moves in recent years (particularly trading away Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya last summer) caught up with the Blackhawks. And that’s just what happened this season.
It won’t be any easier for Bowman next season. With almost 67 million tied up in 17 players, he can’t afford to re-sign UFA winger Andrew Ladd unless he sheds significant cap space (over $6 million) to do so. Gritty RFA center Andrew Shaw could also be a tight fit under the cap. He’s still trying to find a taker for fading winger Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit. The Blackhawks will still be a talented team next season, but barring some significant shakeups, their odds of reaching the Cup Final could be longer than they were this season.
Anaheim Ducks: After overcoming a poor start to the regular season to vault into a high playoff spot and rallying back from a 2-0 series deficit against the Nashvlle Predators to take a 3-2 lead in the series, the Anaheim Ducks laid another Game 7 egg. Their 2-1 loss to the Preds marked the fourth straight time they’ve lost at home in a Game 7 situation.
GM Bob Murray has displayed incredible patience with his club, but after this latest face plant, changes are likely coming behind the bench and perhaps on the roster. They were plagued by poor starts, lack of even-strength scoring and an absence of clutch play from their top players, notably leading goalscorer Corey Perry, who came up snake-eyes in this series.
Given the superstar status of Perry and team captain Ryan Getzlaf, they’re unlikely to be part of the offseason changes. Bench boss Bruce Boudreau, on the other hand, has probably coached his last game for the Ducks. He was unable to find a way to motivate his players or find the right combinations to defeat the Predators. RFAs such as defenseman Sami Vatanen and goalie Frederik Andersen could hit the trade block. Murray could have other moves in store, but those seem the most likely right now.
Put simply, the Ducks cannot afford another season with the same coach and virtually the same roster offering up the same scenario yet again. Changes are unavoidable now. Some will be obvious, some could perhaps surprise. It will be an interesting summer in Anaheim.