Welcome back to Insights and Observations of the NHL playoffs, where only four teams remain as the conference finals are in full swing. We also have the world championships to satisfy our appetite for hockey. Let's get into it.
Revisiting what the Panthers, Hurricanes, Stars, Golden Knights did at the trade deadline
With four teams left standing in the NHL, it’s worth noting what they did, or didn’t do, at the trade deadline. Of all four teams, the Vegas Golden Knights probably added the best player overall in Ivan Barbashev. They also added some depth in Teddy Blueger (who has played just two playoff games so far) and Jonathan Quick (who has played none).
At a trade deadline where big names like Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Timo Meier, Patrick Kane, Tyler Bertuzzi and Mattias Ekholm all moved, there is perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale at play here. Bringing in good players that shake up your entire roster has a trickle-down effect. It takes time for rosters to build continuity and chemistry, not just between players, but between lines and within the framework of a team.
All of these conference finalists made moves of note over the past year or so. The Panthers added Matthew Tkachuk, the Hurricanes added Brent Burns, Vegas added Jack Eichel. The Stars did not make as big of a move, but the emergence of Wyatt Johnston has been a significant development. Mason Marchment can be added to that mix, too.
Last season, the Avalanche made a collection of moves at the deadline before winning the Cup. There is more than one way to do this, to be sure, but their core was largely in place and the offseason move of adding Darcy Kuemper was significant.
Don’t think the takeaway here is that you shouldn’t add big at the deadline necessarily, but relying on those additions to be part of your “core” as opposed to supplementing it doesn't always work.
Coyotes are a mess, but the team's foundation of players is promising
We would be remiss to not share a few words about the Arizona Coyotes situation. Their arena proposal is dead and that opens up a whole new set of questions. Even their Twitter account is posting polls as to where they should go (which, truthfully, is super bizarre).
There is always talk about moving another team to Canada and while the appeal is understandable, the obvious truth is that the United States market is just so much bigger and makes more sense to pursue. Growing the game is a great thing; markets like Carolina, Dallas and Las Vegas are great examples of what success can look like. These are complicated decisions with all sorts of factors to consider, including market interest, the viability of an arena, market potential, etc...
Where things get dicey is what happens in the time being? Who will want to sign there, other than players just trying to hang around in the league? On the ice, the Coyotes sneakily started putting some good things together this season as Clayton Keller took another step and Barrett Hayton emerged. There are some good players on this team.
They can build something on the ice with their foundation. Can they build something off the ice too?
New 'Kid Line' emerging in Florida
One of the big stories of last year's playoffs was the Kid Line in New York. Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko gave the Rangers the kind of depth for a really fun run. There might be a new Kid Line this year, and that would be comprised of Panthers forwards Anton Lundell (21), Eetu Luostarinen (24) and elder statesman Sam Reinhart (27).
They are, admittedly, a little older than the trio the Rangers trotted out but that shouldn’t diminish their accomplishments. They have become an excellent checking line that Paul Maurice has leaned on in all sorts of critical situations.
So far through these playoffs, the forward Lundell has played the most against is Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak. Against the Leafs, the unit was regularly deployed against the John Tavares-William Nylander line.
As a line, they have outscored opponents 4-1 at 5-on-5 so far in these playoffs. With that line capably holding up against some of their opponents' top scorers, it has made the Panthers a bit of a matchup nightmare up front.
Hintz faces stiffest test yet amid incredible postseason
One of the more unfortunate absences of the playoffs was Joel Eriksson Ek of the Minnesota Wild trying to return from injury and playing all of 19 seconds in the first round. There will be no sympathy from the Stars, who lost Joe Pavelski in that series, but what that meant was even more room for the likes of Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson to roam around and wreak havoc.
Hintz is having a monster playoffs. He is second in the postseason in scoring, trailing only Connor McDavid, who just got eliminated. This is not to take anything from Hintz, but he hasn’t exactly gone up against top-of-the-line checking. The forwards he played against the most on the Wild were Marcus Foligno, Gustav Nyquist and Kirill Kaprizov. Against Seattle it was Yanni Gourde, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Eeli Tolvanen. On defense it was either Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba, or Jamie Oleksiak and Will Borgen. There are some nice players in there, but maybe not the elite of the elite checkers.
Vegas is a different animal. Mark Stone is one of the best two-way wingers in the league. Chandler Stephenson won’t be overwhelmed by Hintz’s speed because he, too, can fly out there. William Karlsson is not exactly a slouch defensively, either. And that's to say nothing of the veteran pairing of Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo.
The Golden Knights could conceivably have the worst goalie the Stars have faced so far, but their roster is deep and versatile. The Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski line has been a blast so far. How will it fare against its stiffest competition yet?
Why the world championships are worth watching
The world championships can be an afterthought to some but they are well worth your time. Without the Olympics, it is the most notable international hockey we have that features professionals. That alone makes it enthralling. The atmosphere for the tournament is always fun and exciting. All of that plays into it.
In many ways, what the tournament also represents is opportunity. It is an opportunity for Adam Fantilli, who will likely get drafted second overall regardless, to start preparing himself for the next level. Somewhat famously, it is where Brian Burke watched the Sedins play and decided he wanted to pursue them.
More recently, we've seen situations like in 2021, where Adam Henrique had a really tough season, including getting put on waivers and going unclaimed. That spring at the world championships, he captained Team Canada to gold, putting up 11 points in 10 games (six goals), and scored in the gold medal game. He was excellent. The following NHL season, he put up a career-high in terms of points per game.
For players on poor teams that struggled throughout the NHL season, this tournament is an opportunity to win some games, feel good about themselves and perhaps breathe some life back into their game. That's particularly true when pending free agents like Milan Lucic, Ethan Bear (RFA), Nick Bonino, and Denis Malgin (RFA) attend. It is a risk/reward proposition for them.
Because of the timing of the tournament, you often see players from teams that didn’t make the playoffs and likely even had very bad seasons. Perhaps the player himself struggled, too. We are seeing some early returns already as the tournament’s leading scorer is Dominik Kubalik, who had a hot start before fizzling out, much like his Detroit Red Wings. The second leading scorer in the tournament is Calgary Flames defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who just came from a very frustrating season.