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What Can the Devils Learn from the Teams Who Advanced to the Second Round

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We are officially in the 2nd round of the playoffs, and with a little information about the teams that did and did not advance, it’s worth considering whose footsteps the Devils are following.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

There are a ton of ways to win in the NHL. But there are just as many ways to lose. So, when building a team, it does ultimately help if someone else has succeeded before in doing what you’re doing so that you know if it’s even possible to win on that approach.

Entering the 2nd round of the postseason, we have a few very unique approaches to team-building to learn from. We’ve got the LTIR shenanigans and cost-controlled acquisitions of Tampa, the analytics-heavy Hurricanes, the Lou-model veterans on the Island, the ageless wonders in Boston, the all-skill Avs, the perennial contending expansion Knights, and ... whatever the hell is going on over in Canada.

Given what we’ve seen in the postseason, in whose footsteps are the Devils following? I want to take a look at of the most successful teams to be built recently and reflect on what the Devils can learn from them. In this piece I’m going to look at the teams who I think have the clearest rebuild stories to discuss. That means I’m not going to include teams that haven’t made the playoffs at least the past two seasons (Habs/Jets) or teams who are towards the tail end of their contention (Penguins) or teams that were immediately amazing and have yet to require a rebuild in their history (Golden Knights). That leaves us with four 2nd-round teams: The Avalanche, Hurricanes, Lightning, and Islanders.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are likely the best team in the NHL when healthy. They may not win the cup, because hockey, but you could easily make an argument that they have the best 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th forward lines in the NHL as well as the best 1st and 2nd defensive pairings. How did they get so good? Well it’s a mix of luck and savvy transactions.

Here’s the luck part. Nathan Mackinnon is one of the top 10 players in the league inarguably, and at times (like the past two postseasons) he’s seemed as high as #1. His elite regular season performance has been typically worth about $14M a year on average over the last 4 seasons. His cap hit is $6.3M AAV — less than half that. How did that happen? Well, despite being a #1 overall pick, Mackinnon floundered on a historically inept Colorado squad for the first 4 years of his career and signed his first post-ELC contract without much bargaining power.

That Mackinnon turned out to be who he is right after he signed his deal was very, very lucky. But what the Avs did with the rest of their money was not. They traded picks for Andre Burakovsky and Devon Toews, traded gritty defender Zadorov for skill forward Saad (with salary retained, somehow), and then spent money extending Rantaen, Burakovsky, Girard, and Nichuskin and went out and added Joonas Donskoi and Phillip Grubaer. Those names no make up the core of this titan of a team.

Carolina Hurricanes

Like the Avalanche, the Hurricanes have derived a lot of value from their defense — spending between $4M and $6M on 5 separate blueliners. Also like the Avs, the Canes acquired key top-4 members via trade, and extension. Dougie Hamilton was acquired (along with Michael Ferland and Adam Fox?!) for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm and Brady Skjei was acquired for a 1st round pick. Jacob Slavin and Brett Pesce were extended in 2019.

Among the forwards, the Hurricanes are driven by youth. Last season, 4 of the Hurricanes top 5 forwards were 23 or younger and half of their top 6 wingers are currently still on ELCs. They padded their top 6 by acquiring underachieving Nino Niederreiter for Victor Fask and Vincent Trocheck — who has been a revelation — at last year’s deadline.

In general, the Hurricanes have managed to build one of the best NHL teams with fairly little top-end draft capital— only Svechnikov was even a top-10 pick (Staal, Nino, and Hamilton were too, but Carolina acquired them). They’ve done so by continuously winning trades and exploiting market inefficiencies.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay’s rebuilding strategy can probably be summarized thusly: 1) Draft well, 2) Extend everyone, 3) Figure out the cap later.

The Lightning are one of the best teams in the NHL this season, but I think it’s informative to look at how much better they were just a couple years ago. The 2018-2019 Tampa Bay squad was one of the greatest teams regular season teams ever. I know I’m going to have a hard time convincing people that a team who was swept in the 1st round was better then the cup-winning version of that team, but I just think an entire regular season tells you more than a 4-game stretch does.

In 2018-19, like the Hurricanes, the Lighting were driven by their youth on bargains. Kucherov ($4.77M AAV) and Vasilevskiy ($3.5M) were on bridge deals, and Point, Sergachev, Cirelli, and Cernak were on ELCs. That’s an entire very good core of players counting for only about $11M against the cap. It’s no wonder that team was able to rack up 62 wins.

But all of those players are off their ELCs now, so how did Tampa win the cup last year and make the 2nd round again this year despite all those added expenses?

Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman were UFAs which gave them some room. They also traded J.T. Miller for future assets. They used those funds to give Kucherov and Vasilevskiy their long-term deals — they only commanded $9.5M as opposed to the 8-digit salaries earned by their statistical peers, which some have attributed to the Florida tax situation. And they had enough leftover to bridge-deal Brayden Point.

And this season we’ve got even more bridge deals, funded largely by the LTIRing of Kucherov and the acquiring of LTIRed Gaborik and Nilsson in exchange for the superfluous Coburn and Paquette. They also acquired Barlay Goodrow and Blake Coleman on cost-controlled deals in exchange for high draft picks (one of which was acquired in the Miller deal) and prospects.

The cap problems may come home to roost — no one making more than $1.8M (Coleman) is a UFA and they need to find $9.5M of cap space to get Kucherov back in — but they’ve historically found it easy to use other GMs and the NHL’s loose rules (for everyone but the Devils) to solve those problems as they come by.

New York Islanders

The Isles are very distinct from the previous three teams on this list in that 1) they are generally not expected to do well by the public analytics community and yet, year-in, year-out, they are in at least the 2nd round of the postseason, and 2) their rebuild was done a bit on the fly. Every season since hiring this blog’s former namesake, Lou Lamoriello, to GM their team, well-known modelers like Dom Luszczyszyn (‘19, ‘20, ‘21) and Micah McCurdy (‘19, ‘20, ‘21) have projected them as having a <50% chance of even making the playoffs; and every season they are one of the last 8 teams playing hockey. That’s not a knock on those modelers, by the way — I use them as examples because I think they’re two of the best at what they do and are generally good indicators of “consensus” picks.

Recall that Lou inherited a team that had fallen off each of the past 4 years, missing the playoffs the last two, and then lost John Tavares. So how did Lou do it? And is it replicable?

The first thing he did was hire an excellent coach in Barry Trotz and hand him the keys to build a contender. Whether you are pro-analytics or anti-analytics, having the coach and GM on the same page is always preferrable. The best analytic team in the most old-fashioned coach’s hands, will look awful. Same goes for a modern coach with a squad of gritty vets.

After trying (and failing) to retain Tavares, Lou had some money to play with to build the team he and Trotz wanted. His immediate move was to go the exact opposite direction with the team and acquired Leo Komarov, and extended Thomas Hickey and Ross Johnston all to 4-year low-AAV deals — a practice he continued in order to extend Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin later. And, while the first 3 forward investments didn’t really pan out, the last two (Martin/Clutterbuck) did, forming a line with Casey Cizikas that’s been among the most consistent defensive lines in the NHL over the past 3 seasons.

The next season, he also used his extra cap space to extend Jordan Eberle, and a strong 200-ft player in JG Pageau. He also added the entire Devils veteran core (Palmieri, Zajac, and Andy Greene) to round out the depth and leadership.

Lastly, Lou has added a key goaltender to the roster every year — Lehner in year one, Varlamov in year 2, and Sorokin in year 3 (though, Sorokin was in the system already). All 3 have been home runs under the tutelage of goalie guru and Barry Trotz assistant, Mitch Korn. In the past 3 seasons, no NHL team tops the Islanders’ Sv% of 0.924.

That’s everything Lou added. But, what Lou inherited was also very underrated. Barzal was already a superstar, but defenders Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock have become one of the best top pairs in the NHL and were already breaking into the NHL when Lou was brought in. Lou also extended Lee, Nelson, and Bailey who were top 6ers already.

So Lou inherited a top pair, most of a top 6, and cap space, and added depth forwards, goaltending, and a coach. Unlike the previous 3 teams, this unit doesn’t seem built to last — they’ll be paying $25M to 6 30+ year olds in 2023-24, none of whom are Barzal, the top pair, or the goalies. Lou expedited the postseason timeline, but it’s not clear that this team is a cup threat, and their roster is already on the wrong side of the age curve so they don’t seem likely to get much better than they already are. Nevertheless, for the moment at least, the Islanders are a well-coached team with an elite top D-pair and exceptional goaltending that can roll 4 lines. Sound familiar? Ah, Lou.

Lessons

What can we learn from these teams? I think it’s up for debate what things they have in common (especially the Islanders), but these are some similarities I observe.

1) You don’t build a team through free agency. You build it through the draft, through trades, and by extending those acquired through those avenues. Almost no important skaters on any those three teams were initially acquired through free agency.

2) ELCs are game-changers. Having Point, Sergachev, Cirelli, and Cernak made the Lightning a behemoth. The Avalanche have, debatably, the best defencemen in the league (Makar) on an ELC and you see what it’s done for them. Two of the Canes top 5 scorers (Svechnikov and Necas) are on still on ELCs. Two of the Islanders top 3 players in per-minute value (Beauvillier, Lee, Wahlstrom) are on ELCs.

These aren’t just good value depth guys, they are key contributors on every team making <$1M.

3) 5v5 defense is a market inefficiency. Several forwards (Nichushkin, Niederreiter, etc.) fit this description, but every one of the four teams also has a very good defender that’s underpaid because they don’t score and/or play on PP1 or PP at all (Pesce, Pelech, Cernak, Toews).

How Lessons Apply to the Devils

So, are the Devils on their way to follow any of these models?

Like Colorado, the Devils had some top picks (Hischier, Hughes) not immediately put up elite offensive numbers due to the overall ineptitude of the team and could set themselves up for very good value on those skaters long-term if they are extended before their stats ripen. Hischier’s already extended, and the sooner we can lock in Hughes the better.

Like Carolina, the Devils went all-in on the forward youth some of which will still be on ELCs for a few more seasons, others which can be extended or bridged without too much cap investment.

Like the Islanders, Devils management hired and established head coach and let him decide who did (Wood/Zacha) and didn’t (Butcher/Gusev) fit.

And like the Lightning ... okay we’re basically not like the Lightning at all.

The Devils are pretty damn close to a blank slate in terms of contracts and so they will absolutely be able to avoid big UFA deals like these teams mostly did, and should be able to capitalize on either this or the next round of ELCs (Holz, Mercer, etc.). The only thing that is not yet clear is if they will be able to get anything close to the blueline these teams have. Ty Smith could develop into it (though, he’s not there yet) but it’s pretty barren after him.

If the Devils had struck gold on any of Johnsson, Subban, Johansson, etc. they could have easily built around those just like the Avs and Canes did with their acquisitions. They didn’t, of course, but the broader philosophy does appear to be there and one of these trades is gonna hit eventually.

Overall, it seems the Devils are doing the things that tend to work, and avoiding the things that tend to not. If these strategies come to fruition at the same time Hischier gets healthy and Hughes finally puts the puck in the net, the future for the Devils may come sooner than you think.