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What lessons can the Devils take from recent Stanley Cup champions?

The Devils are good, but they still have work to do to become Stanley Cup champions. What lessons can they take away from the last few teams that hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup?

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Florida Panthers at Vegas Golden Knights
What can the Devils learn from past champs to become champs themselves?
Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

The National Hockey League, like most other professional sports leagues, is a copycat league.

A team has success and perhaps even wins a championship. The other teams that didn’t win a championship reflect on why they came up short. They carve out a roadmap and determine how they can improve, which usually results in emulating something the previous champion(s) did to some extent. After all, those teams are successful for a reason, right?

Sometimes, that results in prying personnel away from the champs. Assistant general managers and coaches may get consideration for a promotion somewhere else. Role players from those rosters chase free agency dollars elsewhere, like Nazem Kadri and Darcy Kuemper did last summer after being part of the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. It’s very difficult to keep the band together once the band hits it big.

That’s not necessarily the only way teams try to replicate the success of the Stanley Cup champions though. Some of it is with long-term team building and how teams draft and develop. Some of it might be stylistically and how the teams actually play. Other franchises might look to tweak the group in ‘the room’ and make moves that might impact the culture more so than the on-ice product because they feel the changes with the former leads to successes with the latter.

For the New Jersey Devils, Tom Fitzgerald has spent the last few years making the bigger moves that will directly impact on-ice results. The Devils had a good base to work from when Fitzgerald took the mantle from former GM Ray Shero. He has since added to that by rebuilding the blueline, adding high-end talent, and continuing to build through the draft while making this group his own. Finally, after many years of rebuilding, the Devils broke out last season with a franchise-record in points for a team before their season ultimately ended in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now that the Devils have had a taste of success this past season, they want more. But how does one get more? There’s not a lot of dramatic, big moves left for the Devils to make in terms of roster building itself. One way they could take that next step though is continuing to see what has worked around the league and apply what they have seen to what they’re doing as an organization. The teams that are most successful are the ones that adapt to their surroundings and evolve.

This week, we’re going to take a look at the last several Stanley Cup champions. All of these teams faced adversity at some point. These teams also had a good core in place, made the right moves to add to what they had and achieved a measure of vindication from their previous failures. What can the Devils learn from those teams and how can they apply it moving forward? And how is this different from the lessons they should have learned from their own run, as John pointed out back in May? Let’s find out.

2022-23 Champions: Vegas Golden Knights

The Lesson: Feelings apparently don’t matter when it comes to being aggressive and unapologetic in regards to team building

In a lot of ways, the Vegas Golden Knights were the feel good story of the NHL back when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Vegas management was undeterred when the so-called ‘experts’ panned their expansion draft haul, but they knew better. They assembled a collection of misfits that exceeded everybody’s expectations, went on a magical run in their inaugural season, and came within a few wins of a championship. Even though they came up short, the Knights were in a good place with a boatload of assets that they accumulated through a series of savvy moves a year prior.

The chase to bring a Cup to Vegas was on.

Gerard Gallant and Peter DeBoer, two of the better head coaches of their era, were ultimately dismissed when the Knights didn’t live up to expectations. Vegas continually dipped into their war chest of picks, players, and assets to make trades, managing their roster like a 12-year old might on the EA Sports NHL video game. Popular players like Nate Schmidt and Alex Tuch were traded to make room for Alex Pietrangelo and Jack Eichel. Future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury was discarded the second the Knights thought they had a chance to upgrade in net. Feelings were hurt and promises were reneged on.

And yet, none of that mattered. Six years into their existence as a franchise, their efforts were rewarded with a championship. The end justified the means.

Vegas is still a top destination among players in the NHL despite this cold, calculated, and sometimes heartless approach to team building. Players around the league want to be there and put the Golden Knights on their preferred destination list, even though we can all read CapFriendly and see they’re up against the cap every year. A lot of that has to do with the weather, taxes, and quality of life living in the Vegas suburbs. But players also want to be there because they know they will receive that level of commitment from ownership and management that they will do whatever they can to win a championship.

What the Devils can take from the Golden Knights: Now that they Devils are contenders themselves, continue to be aggressive with the moves you make going forward. But know there might come a time where there’s an awkward conversation to be had when management determines someone is no longer good enough to be part of the group.

The Devils have already started being aggressive. They have traded for and extended Timo Meier through the 2030-31 season. They made some savvy moves this summer like trading for Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller. And they still may or may not do something with their goaltending, which would be the biggest move remaining that probably needs to be made if they want to be serious about winning a championship as soon as possible. The Devils have gotten that commitment from ownership to provide Fitzgerald with the resources he needs to do his job. It wouldn’t be accurate to say they’ve been as aggressive as Vegas has been, but Vegas has also been contenders for longer than the Devils have been.

With that said though, there will come a time where the Devils may be faced with a tough decision and feelings might get hurt. Lindy Ruff built up a lot of goodwill last season with a Jack Adams nomination, but he wouldn’t be the first coach fired from a team if they thought they could get more out of that group. The same could perhaps be said for Tom Fitzgerald at some point should the Devils continue to come up short year after year with a group that ownership might deem championship-worthy. Dougie Hamilton, Erik Haula and Ondrej Palat are fine players now, but will that be the case a few years from now if their play slips as they get older. All of those deals were structured in a way where there’s a way out for the Devils in the final year if things go south, whether its trade or buyout. Everyone likes Vitek Vanecek the person, but there’s a very real possibility the Devils move on from “The Vitek” right now if they can get better at the position.

It’s a cold business, but sentimentality can’t get in the way of doing what might need to be done at some point. And if the Devils have a chance to get better, it does needs to be seriously considered. If the Devils are icing a team that is good enough, a callous approach won’t matter. It might not be for everyone, but there will be players around the league that view New Jersey as a destination if they think they have a chance to win.

2021-22 Champions: Colorado Avalanche

The Lesson: There’s a fine line between not paying goaltenders that aren’t elite, yet being diligent in addressing the position adequately

The Avalanche have made the playoffs six seasons in a row.

Here’s a list of their goaltenders during that timeframe (goaltenders who have played at least 30 games in a regular season): Jonathan Bernier, Semyon Varlamov, Phillip Grubauer, Pavel Francouz, Darcy Kuemper, and Alex Georgiev.

If there is one thing all of those guys have in common, its that they all played well during their time in the Mile High city. If there’s another thing they have in common, it’s that Colorado has been smart not to invest too much money into the goaltending position long-term with players that aren’t exactly elite.

That’s not a knock on any of these players, who were all fine players for the Avalanche. Bernier went out to post a .907 for the Red Wings and Devils after leaving Denver, which is ok, but not great. Varlamov has been very good with a .917 for the Islanders while transitioning to becoming a veteran understudy and mentor. But the other side of that argument is Phillip Grubauer, who has played .891 hockey two years into a six year, $5.9M AAV deal with the Seattle Kraken. The jury is still out on Darcy Kuemper, who was ok in the first year of a 5-year, $5.25M AAV deal with the Washington Capitals, as well.

If you take a step back and look around the league, you can see how bad goaltender contracts hamper teams. Florida likely regretted the Sergei Bobrovsky deal right up until this postseason when he finally showed flashes of the goaltender who was previously a two-time Vezina winner in Columbus. John Gibson, Jordan Binnington, Grubauer, Elvis Merzlikins, and Jack Campbell have mostly been disasters since signing their deals. And of course, one doesn’t have to look much further than the New Jersey Devils, who are on the hook for one final season of a dead cap charge from Cory Schneider’s buyout this season. No one can predict injuries, but the Devils saw first-hand how carrying a guy who can’t play anymore at a big number can hurt them.

The list of elite goaltenders in the NHL is very short, and at no point in the last few years did the Avalanche have one. There is no Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin, Andrei Vasilevskiy, or Connor Hellebuyck on that list. Rather than pay the market value for a goaltender that isn’t a difference maker, the Avalanche have cycled through quality options on short-term deals and brought in imports via the trade market whenever the need popped up.

What the Devils can take from the Avalanche: Just because the Avalanche haven’t invested big money into the position doesn’t mean that they’ve ‘settled’. Teams that have as much high-end talent elsewhere on the roster as Colorado shouldn’t settle, and the same is true for the Devils.

The Devils probably need to upgrade over Vanecek (and perhaps Schmid as well, although the jury is still out on him) if they want to be serious about winning a championship. When you post an .825 in the postseason and look completely lost out there, smart people are going to say that the Devils, once again, need to be in the goaltending business.

The smartest thing the Devils could do though is not make the same mistake other teams have made though and pay the flash in the pan player like a franchise goaltender when he’s not one. That applies to Vanecek on his next deal, but it also applies to whoever the top UFA goaltender is most years. It takes time to find, draft, and develop the right guy. Until the Devils do, they’d be smart to approach their goaltending situation like how Colorado has and churn through quality short-term options. That might mean a Hellebuyck-rental trade or one of the other suggestions I had a few weeks back, but not necessarily a Hellebuyck extension that could hamstring the organization down the road.

It’s a fine line for Tom Fitzgerald to walk, and its certainly not easy. If Fitzgerald can successfully navigate this, it would give the Devils flexibility to pivot much easier than if they, say, gave next year’s top UFA goaltender five years and now they’re stuck with the guy for better or worse.

2019-20 & 2020-21 Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Lesson #1: When your core is intact, you should always trade draft picks for the so-called final piece(s) you need.

The 2018-19 Lightning were one of the great regular season teams in NHL history, going 62-16-4 and winning the President’s Trophy.

They then suffered one of the biggest upsets in NHL history getting swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Generally speaking, a lot of the narratives around grit, energy, and being tough to play against can be silly, but its foolish to just outright dismiss them. After losing to a Blue Jackets team that they frankly had no business losing to, the Lightning knew they needed a little more SOMETHING in their lineup to compliment the elite skill players they had.

Enter Blake Coleman, who the Lightning acquired from the Devils for a 1st round pick and former first round pick Nolan Foote. Enter Barclay Goodrow, who the Lightning got (along with a 3rd) in exchange for another first round pick and Anthony Greco.

On the surface, giving up a 1st round pick for either player is silly. Goodrow is your classic bottom six, grinder, energy forward with size who had 71 points in 268 games in San Jose. Coleman is a good, but not great, middle six forward who can play in all situations, is defensively responsible, and chips in his 30-40 points a season. But both players were on team-friendly contracts and were a perfect fit for what Tampa needed to get over the hump. Both players, along with Yanni Gourde, comprised a third line that was a matchup nightmare for the opposition and ultimately had a lot of big moments in the bubble as the Lightning beat the Dallas Stars for the Stanley Cup.

What the Devils can take from the Lightning: The Devils are in a similar place to where the Lightning were where their core is intact and now all they need to do is find the final pieces to put around them.

What the Lightning (and frankly, every Stanley Cup champion has done dating back decades) did that the Devils should emulate is simple. Trade any and all future picks necessary in pursuit of the Cup now that their core is in place.

It might be tough to process. The Devils spent many years in the wilderness where trading any picks for ‘win now’ help could’ve been viewed as short-sighted. Where trading first round picks in particular was a bad idea when the team had perennially picked in the lottery. But the Devils are no longer a rebuilding team where they need to hoard picks. They’re a ‘win now’ team that should be making ‘win now’ moves.

NHL Draft Picks, particularly late first rounders (which is where the Devils should be picking over the next decade if things go right), are overvalued. Nobody the Devils drafted last month is going to help the Devils win the Stanley Cup next season. The same is probably true for the following season as well, and perhaps the season after that. Lightning GM Julien Brisebois echoed these sentiments when he traded FIVE draft picks for Tanner Jeannot at the deadline this year. Is it an overpay? Sure. Was it a failure because the Lightning didn’t get out of Round 1 this past season? Not necessarily. The GM of the team that won the Eastern Conference the last three seasons knew exactly what his team needed and made the right move at the time to help his group out. It didn’t work out, but it doesn’t mean it was the wrong move. Even though Tampa lost Ross Colton to trade and Alex Killorn to free agency this offseason, they have Jeannot locked in for the next two years for a couple more stabs at proving Brisebois right. And while its fair to suggest Tampa might be mortgaging their future, Brisebois, Jon Cooper, and most of the players won’t be around for that. It’s about maximizing the window they have now, which is exactly what the Devils should be doing with their core signed through 2027.

The Devils should have a good enough track record of drafting and development under this regime where they have earned the benefit of the doubt that they will make do with the picks they do have, and they’ll find creative ways to recoup draft capital. I’ll sleep easy knowing that they traded a ninth-grader to be named later if they think it addresses a need right now and it gets them closer to winning a Stanley Cup. You should too.

Lesson #2: When you have time, you use it.

After the Lightning won that first Stanley Cup, it was believed that they would have to shed some pieces in order to keep the band together. After all, they’re a team that is perennially up against the cap ceiling and the ceiling had remained flat.

This would be true if the salary cap was real. But what is the cap is actually fake?

Prior to the 2020-21 season, the Lightning announced that Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season due to hip surgery. This move, combined with moves like trading for Marian Gaborik’s contract two years after he played his final game, allowed them to utilize LTIR with his $9.5M AAV, which in turn allowed the Lightning to essentially delay the breakup of their team by a year and keep players that they otherwise might not have been able to keep.

By now, you know how the rest of this worked out. Kucherov was able to return for Game 1 of the playoffs, the Lightning exceeded the cap ceiling by $18M thanks to their utilization of LTIR, and they won in part because they were able to skate a lineup that had $98M worth of players. People around the NHL got mad while Kucherov trolled everyone while celebrating another championship.

It’s not just that though. As we’ve seen time and time again the last few years, there is a market for salary cap dump trades. If you’re creative enough to use all of the tools at your disposal, there is always a way out of a sticky situation. And in the case of Kucherov, I believe Lou Lamoriello said it best years ago. “When you have time, you use it.”

What the Devils can take from the Lightning (again): If the league is gonna let you go $18M over the cap ceiling, you should probably do it.

The Lightning weren’t the first team to take advantage of LTIR rules to play the postseason over the salary cap. But they did so pretty defiantly with Kucherov basically extending the middle finger to any critiques. It sucks and its annoying, but the Lightning gamed the crappy system and won. More power to them.

I’m not saying that players like Nikita Kucherov weren’t injured, even if the timing of their return is awfully convenient. But the NHL has shown zero inclination to close the LTIR loophole that Tampa (and Vegas as well) have taken advantage of for several years now. The league had the chance to do this when the CBA was last renegotiated a few years ago and did nothing. So if there happens to be a year where, say, Ondrej Palat or Dougie Hamilton are out for 3 months, but will be back for the playoffs, and the Devils all of a sudden have an extra $6M or $9M to play with? Who am I to judge if they wind up exceeding the cap ceiling to add another second pairing defenseman or middle six winger? Championship banners fly forever. I checked the rulebook and they don’t get an asterisk if a team is $18M over the cap when they win.

The rules stink and should’ve been changed years ago. They have not been. They probably won’t be changed until the Devils try it for themselves and win as a result. But until they are, its a tool in the toolkit. Use it if you need to.

Final Thoughts

That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see them differently. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.