December 17, 2017

What we did and did not learn from this year’s playoffs

What we learned:

Clutch matters

In this age of analytics this is a phrase you may hear a lot: “There’s no such thing as clutch.” (For example, you can see that here, here and here).

The math may say it doesn’t exist, but there’s just no mathematical formula for players like Joel Ward or Jonathan Toews.

Ward already cemented himself in Capitals’ history with his Game 7 overtime winner against Boston in 2012. This season, not only did he score in Game 7 against the New York Islanders, he also had the “buzzer-beater” goal in Game 1 against the New York Rangers.

WIth Chicago trailing by two late in the third period of Game 5 against the Anaheim Ducks, Toews scored twice in 72 seconds to tie the game and force overtime. His contributions were not limited to the scoresheet. He was phenomenal in the Cup-clinching Game 6 with key shot-blocks and puck battles. He just has an extra gear in key moments that has helped the Blackhawks win three Cups in six years.

I’m not bashing analytics — numbers reveal a lot of things about sports we never knew before. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for the eye test anymore. There are always players who seem to shine when the pressure is at its peak. Some may call this experience and they would be right — Chicago has been on the game’s biggest stage before and they knew how to handle it better than Tampa — but the two are not mutually exclusive.

Chicago won their third Stanley Cup in six years on Monday despite being outplayed for most of the series by Tampa Bay and they did it because they never looked frustrated when they trailed, they never looked overwhelmed when they were being dominated and they always found a way to score when they needed to the most.

Sounds pretty clutch to me.

The Capitals have found their starter in net

It seems silly to think about now, but coming into the season this was seen as a make or break year for Braden Holtby, who many believed had not established himself as a consistent NHL starter. Those questions were emphatically answered with his stellar season and confirmed in the postseason.

Holtby was the Caps’ workhorse, appearing in 73 games with a .923 save percentage and 2.22 GAA over the course of the regular season.

Any shred of doubt in Holtby’s abilities should be gone after yet another phenomenal playoff performance. The 25-year-old netminder appeared in his third postseason and went toe-to-toe with both Jaroslav Halak and Henrik Lundqvist. In 13 games, Holtby had a .944 save percentage and a 1.71 GAA. For his career, Holtby has the best ever playoff save percentage with .936.

Whatever the Caps’ playoff weaknesses may be, goaltending is not among them. Holtby is this team’s franchise goaltender and, barring a Jim Carey level collapse, he will be for several years.

Burakovsky and Kuznetsov are going to be really good

Andre Burakovsky finished the regular season cycling back and forth between the NHL and AHL as Barry Trotz wanted to make sure he was getting consistent playing time. Evgeny Kuznetsov, on the other hand, spent a significant amount of time on the fourth line before finally beginning to establish himself. Both players, however, had breakout performances in the playoffs.

Kuznetsov scored five goals in the postseason, tying Alex Ovechkin for the team lead, and scored the series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the Islanders. Burakovsky started the playoffs in the press box, but came into the lineup and scored two goals to lead the Caps past the Rangers in Game 4.

While both players still need to work on their positioning and defensive awareness, their potential showed throughout the season and how much they improved from the start of the season to the end should have everyone excited for what these players can bring to the team in the coming years.

Successful teams have smart cap contracts

Every team in the NHL gives bad contracts. It happens. What both Chicago and Tampa show, however, is the importance of being able to stretch the cap.

Both teams in the finals had an unreal amount of talent. It’s hard to fit players like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane onto one roster.

One way to do that is through young players and the draft. Younger players have more cap friendly deals on restricted contracts and draft picks are more likely to give a home team discount on new contracts allowing teams to fit more talent onto the roster. Granted, it is no real revelation to say that drafting well is the ultimate key to a team’s success, but both Chicago and Tampa emphasize that point.

Keith, Seabrook, Toews, Kane, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Teuvo Teravainen, Corey Crawford all were Chicago draft picks while Alexander Killorn, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Cedric Paquette were drafted by the Lightning. Each player had a key role in their team’s success in the playoffs.

Overall, however, cap space is what matters and that’s what makes contracts like Brooks Laich’s worrisome. It also shows why the Caps can’t afford to pay Mike Green $6 million to play on the third pair.

What we didn’t learn:

Bruce Boudreau is a great/terrible coach.

The few and proud diehard Boudreau fans who don’t understand why he was fired in Washington thought their day had come when the Ducks defeated Calgary in the second round. Boudreau emphatically got over the second round playoff hump with an 8-1 record.

Finally! Proof that the Caps had made a mistake! See? Bruce can make the second round! Heck, he may make it all the way to the Cup!

The Ducks, however, were unable to close out the series and the conversation quickly shifted from how great Boudreau was to whether or not he should even remain as coach.

Both extremes are ridiculous.

Let’s please put the Boudreau era of Washington to rest. As the coach, he was a major part of the Capitals’ resurgence back into relevancy. His contributions cannot be understated and it was a sad day when he was fired, but the only mistake the Caps made with Boudreau was not firing him after the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in 2011. The fact that he led one of the most talented teams in the NHL past Winnipeg and Calgary this year doesn’t change that.

That doesn’t take away from what he accomplished here, it is simply the nature of the business. The team had gone as far as they were going to go with him.

As for the criticism he is now facing out west, it’s time for Anaheim fans to pump the brakes. The Ducks have improved in each season since Boudreau took over. In his four seasons in Anaheim the Ducks missed the playoffs in 2012, made the conference quarterfinals in 2013, made the conference semifinals in 2014 and made the conference finals in 2015. They came within one game of defeating Chicago in the conference finals which is one game closer than Tampa Bay came.

Settle down Anaheim, you’re in good hands.

These are the same old Caps

It may not feel like it given how the Caps gave up a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers, but the Trotz Caps really look like they may have turned a corner.

Think about where this team was at the end of the 2013-14 season. They had missed the playoffs, there were questions in net and on defense, Ovechkin finished with a minus-35 and there was no secondary scoring to speak of.

The difference between a year ago and now is night and day.

More than anything else, the Caps needed to recover from the Adam Oates era and the did that. I wrote about this in a previous article so I won’t go on too long about here, but just consider how different this season would feel if the Caps had lost in seven games to the Rangers without giving up a 3-1 lead. It would be hard to argue this year was not a success.

The Orpik signing was a success/failure

The Caps made headlines in the offseason by signing veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to a five-year, $27 million contract. The Caps needed to get better defensively, but they broke the bank to sign a defenseman who will be 38 by the time his contract expires. It will be hard for him to live up to the contract with each passing year, but in the short term at least, Orpik appeared to be an upgrade.

In his first season with the team, Orpik neither led the Caps to a Stanley Cup nor flamed out to become a healthy scratch in two of every three games. Thus, one year is far too early to declare this deal a success or a failure.

Orpik looked very good in his first season and played significant minutes in the postseason, ranking third on the time in ice time. He helped solidify the team’s top four defense and added leadership and experience to the locker room.

But that was year one. The real question is what he will look like in years four and five.

Orpik remains under contract until 2019. It’s far too early to say he lived up to the contract and he played too well to already declare the deal a failure. The true test will be the final two years of the deal, unless of course the Caps win a Stanley Cup before then.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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