What We Learned: Stop overpraising Blues, Sharks management
A thing you saw a lot this week, in the lead-up to Sunday night's Western Conference Final matchup between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, is praise for the teams' respective general managers and fellow Dougs, Wilson and Armstrong.
They have put together some good teams over the years, to be sure. Both rosters are talent-rich at all positions. Both have a healthy mix of older players who have been through the wars before and still contributing at a high level and younger players who are throwing in their own solid performances. Both are well-coached. Both are getting strong goaltending.
But was either GM actually “patient” with their rosters?
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The San Jose example is the one for which there was obviously no real patience displayed. Back in 2014, when the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead to the Kings, Wilson saw his divisional rivals go on to win the Stanley Cup, and thought, “There but for a lack of Leadership and Grit go I.”
He tried to trade Joe Thornton. He tried to trade Patrick Marleau. Neither would wave their no-trade clauses. He also brought in some largely useless veterans (like future All-Star captain John Scott!) to try to move the needle and ended up setting his team back in some ways.
If Wilson had gotten his way back in the summer of 2014, this Sharks team looks a lot different than it does now. And probably a lot worse as well. Who knows what selling low on Thornton and Marleau at that time gets him on the trade market, but when you look at the impact those two have had not only in this postseason, but in the last two years, you have to say that any return would probably have not produced commensurate numbers.
The only thing you can say in Wilson's defense here, honestly, is that the no-movement and no-trade clauses he wrote into the contracts those two players signed for three years beginning in 2011 and 2014, respectively, prevented him from making his team worse.
I'm not sure if that's patience. I'm positive it's not praiseworthy.
Another thing Wilson did that wasn't exactly patience to actually help his team is go out and acquire a solid goaltender. Not that Antti Niemi was in any way bad for the Sharks on the whole, as he was perfectly fine in his time there, but “perfectly fine” doesn't usually win you many playoff rounds, as anyone can see. It should surprise you not at all that Martin Jones's save percentage in this postseason is the second-best any Sharks team has seen since the start of the Behind the Net era in 2007-08. Combine that with the transformation Brent Burns has given the Sharks on the blue line and yeah, it's inarguably a really good team.
Wilson deserves praise for keeping that team together only insofar as he didn't do a good enough job convincing his veteran forwards to waive no-trades, and didn't do anything dumber. With the exception of Jones, I'm not sure he actively sought to improve the team or its core at any point in the last two years. He signed Paul Martin this summer, and Martin has been... fine? I guess? Which, okay, it's nice to have serviceable defensemen, but the price point and term is worrisome on that deal. He got rid of Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan retired. (Can we reasonably count that?) In fact, his big trade at the deadline, bringing in Roman Polak and Nick Spaling, has gone about as well as you'd think “giving up two second-round picks for Polak and Spaling” would go.
But again, you can say Wilson made some moves to improve his team while accidentally sticking with a very good core. Not really sure you can say the same for Armstrong.
The Blues made a number of transactions in the offseason, signing big-time contributors like Danny Kristo, Jordan Caron, Peter Harrold, Kyle Brodziak, Andre Benoit, and Justin Hodgman in July. He also added Scottie Upshall, Scott Gomez, and Martin Havlat in-season. Mostly depth moves, obviously. But of all those additions, only Upshall and Brodziak are still with the big club, and both are playing about nine minutes a night in this postseason.
Further, Armstrong actively made his team worse this summer by trading T.J. Oshie to Washington for Troy Brouwer. The latter is a subpar possession player who didn't even crack 40 points this year. The former isn't exactly a possession driver but did okay relative to his club, and at least chipped in 51 points. That was a net loss for Armstrong, except it did save him a measly $500,000 or so against the cap.
And let's not forget, it's tough to make trades in the NHL these days. St. Louis has some pricy contracts Armstrong has given out that are therefore difficult to deal even if the player in question is somewhat sought-after. In addition, there are also guys where it's just a no-brainer you don't trade them. Is that what we're qualifying as patience these days?
Here are two actual smart things he did, but one would have to qualify “smart” as simply being “not dumb.” First, he didn't fire Ken Hitchcock, or let him walk without a new contract, when everyone thought he would. Fine.
Second, he didn't try to upgrade from a great goaltender in Brian Elliott. Well, not especially hard anyway. Because man did they ever try really hard to give the starting job to Jake Allen over the course of the last two seasons, but Elliott was always there, being better. No “solutions” to a non-problem that didn't need solving. You just stick with your really good goalie.
But should we really be praising someone for having the patience to keep one of the demonstrably best coaches in hockey around? Or for finally saying, “Ah hell, let's see what this above-average goalie does with the opportunity?” Come on.
Hitchcock was better than anyone the team was reasonably going to get over the last few summers. Elliott is only now starting because of flameouts from Allen last year (.904 in six games), and Miller the year before that (.897 in six). In 2012-13, the only other season in which the Blues were especially good, they lost in six games with Elliott, but he was .919 against Chicago. Sometimes you run into a better team, especially in that conference.
Sometimes the puck bounces the other team's way for years at a time in the postseason, until it doesn't. Smart general managers understand this and don't make over-reactive moves. Remember when the Capitals overreacted to Bruce Boudreau flaming out in the playoffs and then starting a little slow, and set their team back two-plus years? Their roster still has problems, especially on the back end, but there's no doubt they're one of the most talented teams in hockey.
What's really worked out for the two general managers in this case is the fact that young talent which wasn't there a few years ago, at least not in any significant role, is now a major contributing factor to winning and losing. I guess you praise teams for identifying and developing those players successfully. But beyond that it's hard to give credit for “patience” in either case because that's the bare minimum any intelligent general manager with a good roster should do. And in both cases, it was only for a stunning lack of success in previous attempts to tinker that they finally arrived here in Patientville.
Not-blowing-up good NHL rosters is like not-stepping in dog crap in the middle of the sidewalk. As long as you're paying the slightest bit of attention, you should be able to avoid it with ease.
And certainly you don't deserve adulation for it.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: I think we can safely file this under “duh.”
Arizona Coyotes: This is a truly shocking turn of events.
Boston Bruins: Not surprising at all to see Joonas Kemppainen jump to the KHL. Bruins' goal getting awful crowded at all levels.
Buffalo Sabres: Sam Reinhart is playing a marginal role for Canada at the Worlds, which is fine all things considered.
Calgary Flames: The Flames are looking for a head coach who has “been involved with winning programs.” Hey gang, Randy Carlyle won a Cup.
Carolina Hurricanes: Major upgrades will be made to the Hurricanes' practice facility this summer, perhaps including no longer being the Hurricanes' practice facility because they might move to Quebec or Las Vegas.
Chicago: This is embarrassing whining.
Colorado Avalanche: This is the worst-run team in the league.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets' arena may host a playoff game after all. On Wednesday, if necessary, the AHL club will play Game 7 there because their usual building will be the site of a Carrie Underwood concert instead.
Dallas Stars: This is going to get very expensive very quickly.
Detroit Red Wings: In four years when these kids are all 26 they will finally get a shot with the Red Wings.
Edmonton Oilers: Turns out Taylor Hall is really good. Who knew!
Florida Panthers: I know we're supposed to be chagrined by all the changes the Panthers are making but like, I'm not convinced that getting the guy who gave out contracts to Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton a little more removed from the decision-making process is such a terrible move.
Los Angeles Kings: This is bad news for anyone hoping the Kings would completely fall apart this summer.
Minnesota Wild: No way to anyone could've seen this coming.
Montreal Canadiens: Okay so we're officially looking at another Offseason of No Good Decisions, eh?
Nashville Predators: Just happy to be here.
New Jersey Devils: The many 27-year-olds on the Albany Devils have pushed the youthful and mega-talented Toronto Marlies to the brink.
New York Islanders: Going with Greiss as your No. 1 for a full 82 seems like a huge gamble but it's one that probably has to be made.
New York Rangers: Hey can this kid play defense?
Ottawa Senators: The one word that came to mind when watching Guy Boucher's Lightning teams a few years ago was............... creative? Hmm, no that's not it.
Philadelphia Flyers: The good news is 10 to 12 weeks isn't a long time when you don't have another game until October.
Pittsburgh Penguins: So would you say, then, that he in fact has not matured?
San Jose Sharks: Seems like the Sharks got the memo on “cover that 91 guy.” Easier said than done, though.
St. Louis Blues: Ken Hitchcock got a similar memo about the San Jose power play. Also easier said than done.
Tampa Bay Lightning: I'm just gonna go ahead and say right now in advance that if either Andrei Vasilevskiy or Matt Murray gets lit up over the course of this series, any media backlash against them for “inexperience” or anything else is going to be silly and unreasonable.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The “or Laine” here should be followed by a wink emoji.
Vancouver Canucks: I feel like “room for panic” about the Canucks is the biggest understatement in league history.
Washington Capitals: They really shouldn't say stuff like this when so many mitten-stringers are more than happy to say it for them.
Winnipeg Jets: Not a lot going on between the Jets and Mark Scheifele, extension-wise. That's something that really ought to be prioritized.
Play of the Weekend
This finish from Jo Drouin with the puck still in the air is ridiculous.
Gold Star Award
Andrei Vasilevskiy has stopped 33 of 34 in two appearances in this postseason. Seems like he is going to be very good.
Minus of the Weekend
I can't believe how bad the Department of Player Safety is getting. It's truly embarrassing at this point.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “SnizzMitch” wants to make something happen.
1st overall pick
7th overall pick
If it's clear and yella, you got juice there fella. If it's tangy and brown, you're in cider town.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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