This year, the Stanley Cup Final served two purposes. It confirmed that the Blackhawks are the best team in the league and the top organization following the 2004-05 lockout.
The six-game series also acted as a time machine. It gave observers a preview of the game of the future.
Size and strength will always play a part in the NHL. But hockey is moving rapidly, in all senses of the phrase, toward a speed game. The teams that skate the best give themselves the best chance to win.
Scouts, executives, and coaches will no longer discriminate against 5-foot-8-inch, 183-pound waterbugs such as Tyler Johnson, the postseason’s leading scorer. They’ll recognize that smart and mobile defensemen such as Duncan Keith play elite defense by spending as little time in their own end as possible and constantly moving the puck north.
This is what else they saw in the Final:
■ Get the puck out. No team retrieves the puck and shuttles it out of danger like Chicago. Before the defensemen chase it down, they’re already processing what to do with the puck. Their first move is almost always up and out — along the walls, off the glass, or up the middle. They prefer not to go D-to-D or hinge the puck back to their partners. This negates the efficiency of the opposing forecheck.
■ There’s nothing wrong with weak-side players. In Game 6, five of the Chicago’s eight wings played on their off side: Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg, and Teuvo Teravainen. Most coaches like their wings to play on their strong sides. The Blackhawks proved it doesn’t really matter. If you’re a good player, you can play with your stick upside down.
■ Man-to-man defense can work. The NHL’s preferred template is collapsing zone defense. This emphasizes airtight, multilayered protection in front of the net. Teams are allowed to blast away from the points all they want. The puck simply isn’t going to breach three perimeters of defense. But the Lightning proved that man-to-man defense isn’t a bad alternative. They defended well because they could skate with the Blackhawks. Tampa limited Chicago’s time with the puck. The Lightning closed down options. Because they were always in motion as defenders, the Lightning got a jump-start on their transition game. Had they been sitting back, it would have taken more revs of their wheels to get up to speed.
■ Skill matters. For 20 of Tampa’s 26 postseason games, coach Jon Cooper informed Jonathan Drouin that his presence was not required. Drouin is only 20 years old. He is like Tyler Seguin as an NHL rookie — overwhelmingly gifted offensively, hard to be trusted defensively. But Tampa needed offense late in the series. It could have used more of Drouin’s speed, touch, and vision. Swapping out Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow on the fourth line for Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov would not have been the safe move. Boyle and Morrow had gained Cooper’s trust. But their ceilings do not come close to approaching the offensive potential of Drouin and Namestnikov. It would have been a drastic play. But maybe the right one.
■ Get a big goalie. Ben Bishop submitted a memorable performance. A groin tear did not keep the former University of Maine puck-stopper from repeatedly foiling the Blackhawks. In Games 3, 5, and 6, Bishop posted a .939 save percentage. He had no chance to stop Keith’s walk down the middle on the Game 6 winner. Kane sealed the win on an odd-man rush. Bishop competed like nobody’s business. But that Big Ben remained a brick wall tells you something about the position. Even if he’s using a cane instead of a stick, a gimpy 6-7 goalie with inflated equipment can stop almost every puck.
■ In front, size isn’t everything. Coaches regularly tab their biggest and strongest players for net-front duty on the power play. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville asks one of his smallest forwards to take the beating. Andrew Shaw is 5-11 and 179 pounds. But Shaw is excellent at finding soft spots in front of the net on the No. 1 power-play unit. It’s all about smart positioning with Shaw. He’s good at getting right in front of goalies to take away their eyes. Then when shots arrive, Shaw is terrific at moving out and tipping pucks. If Shaw remained stationary in tight against goalies, tips would carom right into their gear. Because Shaw steps out, saves aren’t as automatic.
■ In-zone power-play setups aren’t as important as flow. The Lightning went 1 for 15 on the power play. Their lone goal was in Game 3. Victor Hedman carried the puck with speed into the offensive zone. Seven seconds later, Jason Garrison hammered a one-timer off traffic and past Corey Crawford. The key to the goal was Hedman’s entry and the movement it forced Chicago’s penalty kill to make. This is why coaches should have the option to start power plays in the defensive zone. It allows their teams to use the neutral zone as a launchpad. When the power play starts in the offensive zone, everything is stagnant. There’s no speed. Shorthanded teams drop quickly into their defensive formations.
If you’re fighting for NHL employment, Chicago-Tampa confirmed that you’d better be able to skate. The NHL is now no place for heavy legs.
MAKE AN OFFER
Saad, Kruger to draw interest
On July 1, Brandon Saad will become a restricted free agent. He will then become eligible to sign an offer sheet. The left wing will be like Dougie Hamilton — a player whose offer sheet will be matched at any cost, regardless of the cap implications. The 22-year-old Saad is that good already. He will become Chicago’s version of Jamie Benn.
Marcus Kruger is another story. Kruger will also reach RFA status on July 1. He will also become offer sheet-eligible. Unlike Saad, Kruger has a price ceiling the Blackhawks will not exceed. Teams seeking value will have Kruger in their sights.
On the Blackhawks, Kruger is a fourth-line center. He takes faceoffs. He kills penalties. Because the Blackhawks are so stacked up front, Kruger averaged only 13:05 of ice time in the regular season.
On a lesser team, Kruger could be a second-line center. He skates well. He’s strong on the puck. And he’s smart.
Kruger has been a positive possession player in each of his four NHL seasons. He plays against tough competition. He starts more shifts in his own end than in the offensive zone.
In Game 5 of the Cup Final at Amalie Arena, when Tampa had last change, Kruger took six of the nine faceoffs following TV timeouts. Four of those six draws were in the defensive zone. There are not many fourth-liners who would be trusted in such situations on the road in the Final.
“We know our role out there,” Kruger said. “Just take pride in doing that job and do everything we can to be successful. We try to be good on the forecheck and be good in our end, as well.”
Kruger isn’t the traditional offer sheet candidate. But he would be a good value target. He is coming off a two-year, $2.65 million bargain. Kruger is worth three times his current $1.325 million average annual value. Whether the Blackhawks can afford such a raise, however, is undetermined. Saad is their No. 1 priority. If another team signed Kruger to a $4 million annual payday via offer sheet and the Blackhawks declined to match, Chicago would receive first- and third-round picks as compensation.
Regardless of his destination, Kruger could become a top-two center. Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette will be UFAs on July 1. Chicago is unlikely to re-sign either veteran.
Kruger will get paid. A smart team would cut Chicago in line.
Teams sizing up smaller players
In 2013-14, Conor Garland scored 24 goals and 30 assists in 51 games for Moncton of the QMJHL. It was not good enough for any team to consider spending even a late-round pick on the Scituate native last June.
That may change next Saturday. This past season, the 19-year-old shredded his opposition for 35 goals and 94 assists in 67 games, good enough to lead the QMJHL in scoring. Garland could be selected next Saturday during Rounds 2 through 7. If so, Garland has Tampa’s Tyler Johnson to thank.
Johnson is serving as the example of how a small, undrafted player can make a big difference.
In one of his draft years, Johnson was a point-per-game player for Spokane of the WHL. In 2008-09, Johnson scored 26 goals and 35 assists in 62 games.
Yet it wasn’t until Tampa signed Johnson as an unrestricted free agent on March 7, 2011, that the sparkplug center became NHL property. The signing turned out to be one of general manager Steve Yzerman’s sharpest decisions. Had Johnson not broken his wrist in the Final, the No. 2 center might have helped lead the Lightning to the Cup.
Like Johnson, Garland’s size has teams concerned. He is 5-8 and 163 pounds. NHL Central Scouting pegged Garland as the No. 86 North American skater in its final rankings. Garland was not invited to the NHL Combine in Buffalo.
Scoring in the QMJHL is not necessarily an indicator of pro success. On April 2, 2009, the Bruins signed Yannick Riendeau. That year, Riendeau scored 58 goals and 68 assists for Drummondville. Riendeau never played a game for the Bruins. On Feb. 27, 2012, the Bruins traded Riendeau and Marc Cantin to the Islanders for Brian Rolston and Mike Mottau.
But Johnson’s success is making teams wary of missing out on a possible impact player.
“He earned himself a lot of respect and a lot of recognition,” Central Scouting director Dan Marr said of Garland. “Just look through the league. There are smaller players who step up and contribute. It just bodes well for someone who has confidence and who believes in Conor Garland and other players. He’ll get his opportunity one day. That’s the thing all players are working for. It doesn’t matter where you get drafted. You just have to be ready for the opportunity when it’s presented.”
Massachusetts is well-represented
Garland is one of six Massachusetts players granted invitations to participate in this summer’s US national junior evaluation camp. The others are Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford), Noah Hanifin (Norwood), Colin White (Hanover), Johnathan MacLeod (Lowell), and Erik Foley (Mansfield). Thirty-nine players will attend the camp, which will take place in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Aug. 1-8. The camp is one of USA Hockey’s benchmarks in determining the roster for the World Junior Championship. Eichel and Hanifin played for Team USA last year. If Eichel is playing a big role for the Buffalo Sabres, it’s possible he will not be released for the tournament. Other invitees with New England ties include Alex Tuch (Boston College), Brandon Fortunato (Boston University), Jake Walman (Providence, Providence College), and Ryan Hitchcock (Yale).
Sullivan back behind the bench
Former Bruins coach Mike Sullivan had a good week. On Monday, the Marshfield native celebrated on the United Center ice. Three days later, he was named the head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. This past season, Sullivan worked on Chicago’s player development staff. Sullivan’s primary charges were Chicago’s AHL forwards, including Teuvo Teravainen. Sullivan, a former Boston University forward, will be replacing fellow BU alum John Hynes, now head coach in New Jersey. Terrier out, Terrier in. Typical BU.
Good value in Pageau
The Senators acted before Jean-Gabriel Pageau even qualified for restricted free agency. On Thursday, 13 days before he reached RFA status, Pageau re-upped for two years at an annual average value of $900,000. That’s peanuts for a player the Senators consider a good third-line center. Pageau worked between Erik Condra and Curtis Lazar and became a dependable two-way player. On March 19, Pageau scored a backbreaking shorthanded goal in Ottawa’s critical 6-4 win over the Bruins. In 50 games, Pageau scored 10 goals and nine assists while logging 14:11 of ice time per appearance. For the next two years, Ottawa will have no worries on the third line behind Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad. Pageau, meanwhile, won’t have to think about returning to the AHL now that he’s on a one-way contract.
Talbot in demand
On the trade market, Cam Talbot and Robin Lehner are 1-2 among available goalies. If Edmonton closes on Talbot, it will be a good return on investment for the Rangers. New York signed the undrafted goalie as a free agent out of Alabama-Huntsville on March 20, 2010. On Dec. 19, 2014, the Rangers re-signed Talbot to a one-year, $1.45 million contract. Talbot’s price, performance history, and age (27) are making him the top draw on the trade market. It’s unlikely the Rangers will receive the return the Canucks got on Cory Schneider. Two years ago, Vancouver nabbed the No. 9 pick from New Jersey for the Marblehead native and selected Bo Horvat. But the Rangers could push for the No. 16 pick, which Edmonton owns courtesy of the David Perron trade with Pittsburgh.
Reese could become a star
If Jeff Reese can work the same magic with Kari Lehtonen as he did in Philadelphia with Steve Mason, the Stars will be in good shape. Dallas hired Reese as its goaltending coach on Monday. Reese held the same position with the Flyers last year before leaving the organization near the end of the season. Reese did excellent work in turning Mason, once adrift in Columbus, into a top-10 goalie. This past season, Mason went 18-18-11 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. In Dallas, Reese will be responsible for turning the 31-year-old Lehtonen back into an above-average puck-stopper. In 2013-14, a 2.41 GAA and a .919 save percentage were good enough for Lehtonen and the Stars to qualify for the playoffs.
Duncan Keith was the unanimous selection for Conn Smythe Trophy. Keith’s prize: $0. As an entry-level player, Teravainen would have been the only Blackhawk eligible for a playoff bonus. All winners of major trophies should be able to collect some extra cash . . . Toronto filed for club-elected arbitration with Jonathan Bernier before Wednesday’s deadline. Toronto was the only team to file. The goalie will be restricted on July 1. Player-elected arbitration filings must be filed by July 5. The Bruins should not have any arbitration filings . . . The first buyout period is open until June 30. So far, Matt Cooke is the only player involved in the process. Cooke was placed on waivers on Thursday, the precursor to a buyout. Cooke had one season remaining on his contract with the Wild at a $2.5 million annual cap hit, according to NHL Numbers . . . The Cup was a late arrival at the United Center on Monday after downpours caused massive traffic jams in Chicago. Softie Gary Bettman didn’t mind. Bill Belichick, on the other hand, would have sent it right back into traffic.
Continuity has played a big role in the Blackhawks’ run of three Stanley Cup titles in six years, and that starts on the blue line. Duncan Keith (this year’s Conn Smythe winner), Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson are the only defensemen on the team to be a part of all three championships, often logging their heaviest minutes in the final round. Here’s a look at their minutes over Chicago three title runs:
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.