And so we approach the end. A battle royale between the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and a team that’s been preparing for this moment for a number of years in the star-studded Colorado Avalanche.
While the spotlight shines on these worthy finalists, the hockey world continues to spin for the 30 other teams with the draft now just a little more than three weeks away and free agency to follow soon after.
Storylines? Of course. What are you waiting for?
Was thinking about the many times I’ve been fortunate enough to sit down with Tampa head coach Jon Cooper in his office at Amalie Arena over the years or grab him on the phone to chat or have him connected for a podcast. Part of the reason we have such memories is that Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning ooze consistency. Cooper worked closely with Julien BriseBois when Cooper was coach and BriseBois GM of the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk after BriseBois joined the Lightning from Montreal when Steve Yzerman took over as Tampa GM in 2010. BriseBois of course took over for GM Steve Yzerman when Yzerman left to become GM in Detroit, by which time Cooper had already made a name for himself as one of the top coaches in the NHL. Consistency. It’s a real thing.
It made us think about the first time we spoke to Cooper when he was coaching the Lightning’s AHL team. It was during the 2011-12 season and the Admirals were in the midst of an unprecedented 28-game winning streak. Cooper and I chatted about the streak and the players and his approach. At that point Cooper wasn’t a blip on anyone’s radar screen but what stands out from that conversation is that he was then as he is now: open, affable, funny, intuitive. Sometimes when you win two Stanley Cups, take your team to another Cup final (in 2015) and get named to coach the Canadian Olympic team (even if the ’22 Olympics got scuttled) you might be excused for developing a bit of an attitude. Not Cooper, who remains very much a man of the people, even the media. As it turned out, almost exactly one year after our first discussion about the Admirals and their winning ways, Cooper was hired by the Lightning, and it’s hard to imagine a circumstance that would see him depart anytime soon. Even with all the success, Cooper remains a coach who readily gives back to the coaching community, serving as president of the NHL Coaches’ Association’s executive board, an important connector with up and coming coaches in the game. He also led one of their head coaching panels during the summer of 2020.
Over the years even Joe Sakic got in on the joke that maybe he wasn’t the most loquacious of sorts. Can’t remember exactly where we were, but it must have been after Sakic had retired from his Hall of Fame career and had dipped his toes in the management pool with the Avalanche when he happened upon a group of reporters at a league event. “Look out, here comes ‘Quoteless Joe,’ ” Sakic quipped.
But on the verge of returning a Cup to Denver for the first time since Sakic captained the Avs to the pinnacle back in 2001 (the second time he did so after the team won their first Cup after moving from Quebec in 1996), it’s hard not to be a little bit in awe of the work Sakic has done as an executive. And I’ll admit to some surprise given that it hasn’t always been a smooth ride atop the management ladder in Colorado.
Remember when Sakic hired his old pal and teammate Patrick Roy to coach the team and the team took off like a rocket? The Avs made the playoffs in 2013-14, Roy’s first season, and he won the Jack Adams Award in a landslide. Then, with Roy taking on a personnel role with the team along with his coaching duties, the rocket crashed. By the end of the 2016 season the Avs had fallen once again beneath the hockey surface and Roy abruptly resigned late in that off-season, leaving the Avs scrambling for a new head coach. Jared Bednar came aboard and suffered through a miserable 2016-17 season before helping the Avs back to contention. But it’s Sakic — quiet, calm — atop the organization even in the face of the fiery Roy’s angry departure, one that suggested more than a little internal dysfunction, which was critical to the Avs not just overcoming but elevating themselves to the edge of greatness once again, Quoteless Joe or not.
Who Gets the Cup First?
Having watched that particularly poignant moment when the Cup-winning captain hands the Cup over to, well, that’s the fun part, no? Happened to be on hand back in 2001 when Sakic turned and handed the Cup to Ray Bourque, the first and only time the Hall of Fame defenseman would have that honor. Chills. Same in 2011 when venerable Bruins captain Zdeno Chara took the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman after Boston had vanquished host Vancouver in Game 7 and then passed it to Mark Recchi who had just completed his Hall of Fame career.
The greatest I’ve ever seen was in 1998, though, when Detroit captain Steve Yzerman took the Cup after Detroit had won its second straight championship and turned and set the great chalice on the edge of Vladimir Konstantinov’s wheelchair on the ice in Washington. Konstantinov had been severely injured in a limousine accident after the Wings’ Cup win the previous summer. There’s a framed picture of that moment in my office. A keeper for all-time.
For the Bolts it’s old hat, of course, if they win, but you have to think Corey Perry, playing in his third straight final for a third different team (Dallas, Montreal and now Tampa) would be a good bet to get his hands on the trophy shortly after Stamkos. It would be Perry’s second Cup after winning back when he was a pup in Anaheim in 2007. How about Gabriel Landeskog’s task for the Avs if they win it all? Tougher for sure. Nathan MacKinnon would be a natural, but what about long-time Avs defenseman Erik Johnson, who has seen so much up and down during his tenure in Colorado?
Fair or not, what were those decisions about?
Always seems a bit hard-handed to criticize a team that bows out in a conference final. And we always recall chatting with former Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma long ago about how at some point in the playoffs some teams just take a knee, they’re all done. It’s not about effort or will or anything. It’s just they’ve given it all and there’s nothing left no matter the stakes. The New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers seemed to be at that point. Injuries, fatigue, the sheer daunting task of playing against teams as good as Colorado and Tampa were just too much.
So you tip your cap. But it doesn’t mean you can’t wonder aloud at some things. Like what the heck was Gerard Gallant thinking in putting Ryan Strome on the ice for Game 6 in Tampa? This after making Kaapo Kakko a healthy scratch in favor of Dryden Hunt, who hadn’t played since the first round? And then, when almost predictably Strome, who’d whiffed on a glorious chance to give the Rangers a key goal in Game 5, went out mid-game with an injury, not to answer questions about it? In a one-goal game those decisions could easily have cost the Rangers a shot at Game 7. Very curious indeed. And in Game 4 of the Western Conference final, I still don’t understand why Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft inserted rookie Dylan Holloway into the lineup that was already missing Evander Kane to suspension and with Leon Draisaitl hobbled and then used Holloway for only 3:27? Makes no sense and, in a one-goal game, that miscalculation may have cost the Oilers a chance to at least extend the series for a game. Just saying.
Rangers’ Drama Part Deux
So, conspiracists’ ears perked up quickly the day after the Rangers were eliminated when the team announced they’d signed erstwhile prospect Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth overall pick in 2018, to a one-year extension. Kakko, the second overall pick in 2019, is a restricted free agent and it must have stung like hell to be a healthy scratch in Game 6 especially given how the lineup was constructed on Saturday night. And what does that say for the Rangers’ plans moving forward with those two young talents?
Sammy Blais is a restricted free agent and is a useful piece moving forward, so he factors into the lineup construct. There are a handful of UFA forwards from this emerging Ranger squad GM Chris Drury will have to consider including but not limited to Strome, Tyler Motte, Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano. Not all will stay of course, but the Rangers are close. We know that. Drury knows that. And we know Kakko hasn’t tracked in terms of his development as quickly as the team would like. But he’s 21. Could he become the subject of an offer sheet a la Kasperi Kotkaniemi was last summer? Will the Rangers look to turn Kakko into picks as soon as this summer’s draft? Do they look to move Kravtsov with whom the team has endured a rocky relationship? Interesting times ahead for the final-four Rangers, whom our very own Chris Gear has already picked to win the Cup in ’23.
Let’s be honest, in many seasons the trade deadline payoffs are negligible. Doesn’t stop us from falling all over ourselves predicting who gets traded where at the trade deadline. But the fact is often those deals make little difference when it matters come playoff time. Lots of factors. Fitting in with a new team especially if you’re a skilled player. But this year has been chock-a-block with rentals or deadline deals that were worth every penny for the acquiring team and will ultimately pay dividends for the players who will be hitting free agency in mid-July.
Let’s start with Nick Paul, who has been so good for the Lightning and who will be able to chart his own course this summer at age 27 after coming over from Ottawa. He has proven he has the tools to be a top-nine power forward anywhere. Across the Stanley Cup Final aisle there have been some ups and downs to Josh Manson’s game in Colorado but a Stanley Cup ring – or at the very least the trip to the final – counts for a lot in most GMs’ books. Even a guy like Andrew Cogliano, an afterthought in some ways after he was acquired by the Avs from San Jose for a fifth-round pick, has likely played himself onto some team’s radar as an experienced depth guy with his strong play for the Avs. Pull back the lens to the rest of the final four and rentals Copp, Vatrano and Motte all fit in nicely with the Rangers and, I have to admit how impressed I was with Justin Braun’s play as a third-pairing guy even though he’s not getting any younger at age 35. No room at the Ranger inn for all those players, but their collective play should make them attractive on the market. Brett Kulak should also reap the benefits of a strong run for Edmonton after being sent to the Oilers by Montreal at the trade deadline. Just 28, Kulak showed nice versatility and if the Oilers can’t keep him he’ll have no shortage of suitors come mid-July. Kulak, Paul and Copp were all included on Matt Larkin’s list of UFAs who have upped their values the most this postseason.
As noted, these deadline success stories are rare. More often the fit is less seamless and as a result may dampen free agent talks. For instance, nothing wrong with Claude Giroux’s play for Florida but everyone on the Panthers will be stained on some level by being swept aside by Tampa and scoring just three times along the way. Giroux, a pending UFA, is included in that group along with defenseman Ben Chiarot, for whom the Panthers gave up a small fortune (a first-round pick, fourth-round pick and a prospect) but never really fit in the way the Panthers had hoped.
Has Tampa captain Steven Stamkos ever been better than he has this spring? Such a nice reward for a guy who’s seen some ups and downs in his career on a personal level. Stamkos missed all but one playoff game back in ’20 and then played in just 38 regular season games last season, and that’s to say nothing of missing the Sochi Olympics with injury and so on and so on. But this season, as he turned 32 and is officially entering the twilight of a stellar career, Stamkos turned back the hands of time collecting a career-best 106 points during the regular season, and he’s within a handful of points of establishing a career-best in playoff production, currently leading the Bolts with nine goals. Conn Smythe Trophy consideration? For sure. Maybe not nearly as close to the end of the road as we might have believed a couple of years ago? Indeed.