It’s become increasingly apparent that there isn’t one prevailing method or uniform strategy required to build a championship-level hockey team. There are specific things hockey operations staffs simply must do well, and other procedures that would be certainly advisable, but no two title contenders are constructed exactly the same.
It is, then, an opportunity, when teams survive three rounds and vie for the chance to lift the Stanley Cup, to muse over the decisions and inner workings of organizations that have managed to have success.
Each taking uniquely different paths to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues have along the way reinforced practices, disproved others, and helped us reconsider the processes of NHL executive teams.
Here’s what we can learn from the two teams that will carry us into the summer months.
One failed run doesn’t make an entire coaching career
There was a time when the light didn’t shine so favourably on coaches Bruce Cassidy and Craig Berube. Both in their second stints in the NHL, it’s possible that chances with the Bruins and Blues, respectively, were the last to prove they could have success at this level. Cassidy’s first NHL opportunity was particularly disastrous. Taking over behind the Washington Capitals’ bench six years after his last game as a player, and quickly being labeled green and unprepared for such a high-profile job, his relationship grew contentious with his veteran roster (and perhaps in one case even physical). Cassidy even had to issue an apology after dragging some of the players’ personal lives into the reasons for their struggles before being fired early in his second season. Berube’s two-year run with the Flyers was far less controversial, but he was eventually dismissed in 2015 for failing to “get enough” from the talented roster. Both have apparently learned from their mistakes with Cassidy reversing his reputation completely, and Berube extracting the best from a talented roster that had been failing under Mike Yeo.
Rebuilds mustn’t always be complete teardowns
While both teams have taken a step back at points over the last half decade and have taken those opportunities to turn over portions of their rosters, neither the Blues or Bruins have had a truly non-competitive season since the last lockout. With only small gaps in otherwise steady regular-season success, the clubs have each been without the chance to select a can’t-miss prospect in the lottery, but it hasn’t stopped them from supplementing their existing cores through the draft. As much as the Bruins were killed for winding up with just a single useful asset from three consecutive picks spent in the 2015 lottery, the club answered its only non-playoff seasons in the last decade by completing the assembly of its next wave of championship talent with the selections of Jake DeBrusk, Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. This, after stealing David Pastrnak late in the first round of the 2014 draft. Meanwhile, St. Louis has used different means to acquire talent, but added Robert Thomas, Vince Dunn, Sammy Blais, Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev with picks spent over the last five years, in addition to the top selection used to pry Ryan O’Reilly out of Buffalo.
Mixing players from opposite ends of the hockey lifecycle, both the Bruins and Blues have struck a working balance with their rosters. But with declining assets on both teams, the clubs have managed to put those players in the best positions to succeed, while also massaging the transitional dynamic happening organically within their rosters. Players like Zdeno Chara and Jay Bouwmeester have been helped to remain effective despite each losing something from their fastballs through deployment, while veterans like David Backes and Alex Steen have accepted reduced roles to make room for the talent emerging on each roster.
You can splurge
The destination for veteran free agents last summer, the Blues’ method reeked of desperation after the franchise’s first failure to make the postseason in seven years. Signing David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon (albeit the latter to a bargain-rate contract) last summer belied the emerging principle that successful teams don’t buy up diminishing assets at a premium on the open market. And yet that veteran trio has allowed the Blues to construct one of the deepest forward fleets in the league, while lessening the reliance on players further along on the aging curve. Boston hasn’t made a significant free-agent addition since carving out far too big of a piece of the pie for David Backes, but they too dabbled in luxuries — at the trade deadline. Picking up middle-six forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson before the stretch run has really strengthened the framework up front and so far proven to be worth the price.
Support in goal no small thing
Where would the Bruins and Blues be without their option in net? For St. Louis, the answer is, of course, really not very far at all. While improved mightily under Berube, the season didn’t turn on a dime until the turn of the calendar when Jordan Binnington took the net from long-time Blues starter Jake Allen. The rookie netminder is 36-10-3 with a .921 save percentage since he was first given the chance to fight for the crease. On the flip side, the support from Jaroslav Halak has benefitted the Bruins in a different but perhaps equally effective manner. Having their goaltenders split carries almost evenly throughout the season, a preserved Tuukka Rask has shown up with his finest form when it matters most. He is the unequivocal front runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy with a .942 save percentage in 17 postseason starts.
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