Lessons the Vancouver Canucks can learn from round one of the NHL playoffs

Photo credit:© Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Liu
11 months ago
An early offseason for the Vancouver Canucks leaves the team and fans sitting on the outside looking in yet again. The postseason thus far has produced some wild results and upsets aplenty in an action-packed slate of opening series. It’s been entertaining to watch without too many stakes attached, bouncing from team to team and seeing what playoff action is on offer.
But, even so, there are takeaways that can be made from the first round. Looking at the teams who are currently having postseason success can be pretty helpful in seeing what works, especially when you’ve only made the playoffs twice in the last 10 years.
Here are a couple of lessons for the Vancouver Canucks after the first round of the playoffs.

The importance of cap management

A repeated adage that can be a source of ire is that “cap space wins cups.” The first round of the 2023 NHL playoffs isn’t so much giving evidence, but more so adding context to that claim. The teams that have advanced to the second round of the playoffs have creatively managed their cap situations to best suit the needs, styles, and players that they are building around for playoff success.
Capitalizing on the cost-controlled years of young players in their entry-level deals is definitely important and handy in accumulating talent, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all that determines a team’s success in the postseason. Among the teams that made it out of the first round, the Edmonton Oilers had the most ELC’s on their roster with 7, while the Carolina Hurricanes were a close second with 5. Both teams only had two of those players record any significant minutes thus far.
So what’s up with that? Well, it’s how these teams are allocating their cap space. Take the Oilers for example. Connor McDavid commands a $12.5 million cap hit, while Leon Draisaitl takes up $8.5 million and Darnell Nurse’s albatross eats $9.25 million. That’s 36.66% of your cap committed to three players. How do they get around that to fill out the roster? Edmonton will need the cheap depth that provides great value for the cap hit they record, thus being able to have their big guns supplemented by suitable depth through the lineup. It’s likely why they are the team that’s rostering the most ELC’s this postseason, where their young talent is able to fill in the gaps that a free agent signing wouldn’t. Of course, it’s helpful that they have Stuart Skinner on his first contract and playing to the level that he is right now.
The top-heavy approach is also true with Toronto, whose big three of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares combine for 40.6% of the Leafs’ cap. Where they differ from the Oilers is that they lack a sufficiently ready prospect pool to pull from in regard to ELCs. Instead, the majority of their depth is made up of players making 2 million dollars or less, with a total of 8 skaters who have a cap hit of below 1 million. This approach takes intensive pro-scouting to see who would be the best fit, as value-per-dollar is so key when trying to put together a competitive team around three massive earners. It’s the first time in 19 years that the Leafs have made it out of the first round, so perhaps they’ve finally found the combination that works.
But what about other teams? In the cases of the Hurricanes and the Devils, it’s a consistent wage structure that sees their top guys making a lot but not quite those massive $10 million deals. What this allows them to do is flush out the rest of the roster with quality players that make higher cap hits. It’s generally expected that these players would outperform cheaper depth, thus allowing them to add premium quality to their lineups that a team like Toronto, Edmonton, or Vegas wouldn’t. These are two very different approaches, but both require identifying what the team’s identity is, and how to best supplement the weapons that they currently have.

Elite goaltending is no longer as important as it used to be

Controversial, I know. Historically, fans have born witness to legendary runs by the likes of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur backstopping their teams to Stanley Cups. More recently, Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, Corey Crawford have all been seen as key reasons why their teams have had the playoff successes that they did during the early-to-mid 2010’s. But recently, that paradigm has begun to shift.
Obviously, this isn’t to say that you can win in the postseason with poor goaltending. Rather, it isn’t a key requirement to have the best goalie in the league. Teams can probably make do with a solid, mid-to-upper-tier starting netminder in the NHL and still find postseason success. The Pittsburgh Penguins won their first of back-to-back Cups thanks to Matt Murray getting hot at the right time, before finding himself back down to earth in the Leafs’ platoon this season. Jordan Binnington had one incredible run to help the Blues to a 2019 Cup victory, while Philipp Grubauer benefitted tremendously from a very strong Colorado team in front of him in 2022.
This isn’t to ignore Andrei Vasilevskiy’s incredible playoff performances in 2020 and 2021. But, what this is saying is that he wasn’t the key reason for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s success, being surrounded by an excellently constructed roster built to win in the postseason. In 2023, we’ve seen top-notch goalies such as Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin, and Connor Hellebuyck put in performances of a lifetime, yet find themselves knocked out after the first round. Mostly, thanks to their teams evaporating around them. Even Vasilevskiy, who had to contend with Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak being out for their series with injuries, found himself exposed a little with adjustments from the opposition.
It emphasizes the importance of roster construction, and how sacrifices have to be made to try and find the right balance. A team should only feel comfortable downgrading in the goalie position if they have an adequate top 4 and defensive structure to balance it out. At the same time though, it appears that this stepdown isn’t the worst option, with clubs using the extra money that would’ve been spent on a netminder to instead bolster the rest of the lineup. What can make the difference to a deep playoff run is either finding a cost-controlled elite-adjacent netminder (not unlike Thatcher Demko) or a solid starter that heats up during the spring.

Structure and adjustments

This was touched on briefly in the piece about Gerard Gallant, but having a set structure and making concrete adjustments in the playoffs is so important for success. In the regular season, teams can get away with experimenting and letting high-end talent do their thing, bailing them out in 3-on-3 overtime or a shootout. But in a playoff series, where a team is specifically scouting, practicing, and executing ways to neutralize the way that you play, it becomes a lot harder to just go out and play your game.
For instance, as mentioned previously, Andrei Vasilevskiy was a familiar opponent to the Toronto Maple Leafs, coming up against them in the first round of 2022. Something that the numbers had shown was that Vasilevskiy seemed to struggle with tracking shots from the point, conceding the most amount of goals from that area. Toronto adjusted their offence to exploit that, increasing the volume of attempts from the point, and was able to find success in getting pucks past a previously insurmountable opponent.
Lindy Ruff’s New Jersey Devils made life difficult for the Rangers by clogging up the neutral zone, pressuring the puck hard on the forecheck while keeping New York’s main weapons to the perimeter. Strategically starting Akira Schmid was a bold choice as well, though it paid off in spades with the second-round appearance. Gallant’s lack of response to this basically set the load onto Shesterkin to carry a faltering team forwards, a load that he wasn’t able to handle due to not being able to also score goals.
A team’s structure is very important to have as a fall back too, an identity that they can stick with when all things aren’t going their way. Being defensively organized and doing the simple things right is so important when the pressure is on, and can be a foundational building block for a team’s success in a game, and in a series. Executing their identity and making real-time changes during the games is something that all the teams that moved on to the second round have done, while the ones eliminated didn’t do as good of a job in response.
With the second round well underway, it’ll be interesting to see the patterns that emerge from these series. For any team on the outside looking in, such as the Canucks, these games can provide a blueprint as to what kind of hockey club they will need to build for postseason success.

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