Author’s Twitter: @_MikeLuci_
The New Jersey Devils were outsiders looking in at the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. While they probably wouldn’t have gotten past the first round if they reached the postseason anyway, the consensus of New Jersey’s fan base is optimistic about the direction the team’s headed. The circumstances leading to the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals, contained a lot of compelling pertinent themes that the Devils should incorporate in their rebuilding process, if they ever want to become a relevant postseason force again. Out of the three most fundamental takeaways the Devils could get from this year’s Stanley Cup Finals, you’ll recognize some as pages taken straight out of Lou Lamoriello’s book that brought three championships to New Jersey.
Stay committed to your team’s core…Pittsburgh and San Jose were notorious for their implosive postseasons. Both teams suffered upsets and failed to close out series matchups when they were up 3-1 or 3-0. Despite years of persistent speculation and rumors, both teams kept their cores intact, knowing they were talented enough to reach the postseason. Pittsburgh has stuck with the same cast that’s included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who’ve respectively spent 11 and 10 years with the organization, along with Chris Kunitz (eight seasons), and top-tier defenseman Kris Letang (nine seasons). The Sharks made their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history with one of the longest-tenured core groups in the NHL. Patrick Marleau spent all 18 seasons of his career as a Shark, veterans Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have respectively played 11 and 10 seasons, while all-star defenseman Brent Burns completed his fifth year with the organization. Not only have recent repeating Stanley Cup champions like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit gone with the same cast of core skaters to build their teams around, but this strategy attributed strongly to the Devil’s three Stanley Cup championships. From the mid-90s until late 00s, New Jersey had repetitive success with core players that are household names amongst the Devils faithful like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias, and Brian Rafalski (just to name a few).
The essentiality of star-caliber scoring…Even with all-star goaltending like what the Devils have in Cory Schneider, it doesn’t cut the chase in the modern-day NHL. If a team doesn’t have any marquee goal-scoring forwards, they’ll only go so far in the postseason. New Jersey hasn’t had a true first line, let alone a playoff-worthy offense since 2011-2012, when offensive talents like Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias paved way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Pittsburgh as we all know, is equipped with the aforementioned duo of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and first-year Penguin Phil Kessel. In addition to leading scorer Joe Thornton, the Shark’s offense features additional scorers like captain Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The presence of star-caliber scoring among Stanley Cup champions and finalists has become an ongoing trend over the years. The Blackhawks won their cups with all-stars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa anchoring their forward lines, while the Los Angeles Kings had Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Jeff Carter. Recent runner-ups like the Tampa Bay Lightning (2015) had scoring threats like Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov, while the New York Rangers (2014) had an offense spearheaded by Matt Zuccarello, Rick Nash, and Derek Stepan.
Timing is everything…This strongly pertains to the manner in which the Penguins entered the playoffs. They went on a 16-5-0 tear since March, which set the tone for their eventual championship run. With Marc-Andre Fleury dealing with injury complications, it set the stage for the unprecedented rise of rookie goaltender Matt Murray. He went 7-1-0 in nine starts over that span, and rode that momentum when the Penguins coaching staff turned to him after losing game two in the conference quarter finals against the New York Rangers. Simply put, a conveniently timed late-season hot streak can carry a team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, as we’ve seen in recent years. The Los Angeles Kings went 11-4-3 going into the 2012 playoffs, where the breakout play of Jonathan Quick guided the King’s to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Chicago Blackhawks went 11-2-2 going into the 2013 postseason, and won their second championship since 2010. The significance of timing also reflects the series matchups a team has along their playoff run, and how important establishing winning tendencies are against those teams during the regular season. Pittsburgh went 6-5-1 in the regular season against the Rangers, Capitals, and Lightning, while the Sharks went 6-4-1 against the Kings, Predators, and Blues. This trend stretches back to the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals where the Blackhawks went 8-4-0 against the teams they beat to reach the finals, while the Lightning went 11-1-0 against their first three opponents. It shows how important success against future playoff opponents in the regular season (especially late-season) can be going into the playoffs, and become a strong determining factor in the extent of a team’s playoff run.
With everything said, the Devils appear to be on the right track, even if they’re not quite where we as fans would like them to be. Shero has established a solid young core in front of Cory Schneider in Adam Larsson, Adam Henrique, and Kyle Palmieri, all of whom are (or will soon be) signed to long term deals. With young up and comers like Damon Severson, Reid Boucher, Pavel Zacha, and other notables coming through the pipeline, the Devils have plenty of assets within the organization to build around, and add to their aforementioned core. Let’s keep in mind that Ray Shero played a huge role in the construction of the 2016 Penguins roster, which I’m sure he’s going to use several components from during his upcoming years in New Jersey.