It’s easy to read too much into a Stanley Cup Final run.
NHL franchises have done so whether they ended up raising the Stanley Cup or not. The Carolina Hurricanes seem like they’re just now open-minded to acknowledging that the Eric Staal - Cam Ward core might be rotten in a few spots. It’s possible that the New Jersey wasted a season or two with Martin Brodeur because of the run that ended in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, although it’s just as likely that the Devils’ loyalty to Marty would have remained as blind as ever.
Long story short, there are serious dangers in how much you weigh “clutch” performances. Even the intellectually mighty Chicago Blackhawks paid a handsome ransom for Corey Crawford and Bryan Bickell.
That being said, with the right management - and shockingly enough, my confidence in Glen Sather to be competent has (gulp) risen enough to believe that he’s at least smart enough to listen to what Alain Vigneault wants - both the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers could be highly competitive teams for some time to come. I picked the Kings to win this series like just about everyone else, yet I languished with the decision because I believe New York could end up stumbling upon something special.
Here are some takeaways from this series, the two teams, and the playoffs at large. Some observations stand a better chance of making an impact on your future fantasy teams, yet hopefully all of them are worth reading.
Henrik Lundqvist is, indeed, ‘The King’
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly jaded about goalies who are christened “The Next Big Thing.” Looking around the league, it seems like GMs are far too antsy to pay their No. 1 goalie like he’s elite, even if his resume is as jarringly skinny as Dominik Hasek without his pads.
Going into the 2014-15 season, you’ll probably ponder quite a few goalies. Personally, I’ve drifted more and more into the “Wait until later in drafts to grab bargain goalies” camp, but if you’re in a league that places a disproportionate amount of weight on goaltending, Henrik Lundqvist remains the man. Or at least among the select few worth a high pick.
Simply put, Lundqvist is year-in and year-out a top guy. He’s proven that he can rise to the top whether his teams are strong or weak. The best news from this season is that he’s adjusted to a more offensive-minded (albeit defensively stout) Vigneault system and only seems like he’ll be in a better situation next year.
I can see why someone might gravitate toward Corey Crawford (easy wins even if he’s not particularly special) or Tuukka Rask (is he elite or is he just another successful Bruins goalie?*), but if you want the most reliable guy, no one else comes close. At least with Roberto Luongo in puck purgatory.
Los Angeles isn’t exactly fantasy gold
Whether the Kings win it all again or not, the narrative seems to be steady through two Stanley Cup Final appearances in three seasons: Los Angeles hogs the puck during regular seasons but can’t score until the lights shine the brightest.
Extra Skater tracks various advanced stats that measure puck possession. During that Cup-winning 2011-12 season, the Kings generated the best possession numbers in “Fenwick For” yet they struggled to make the playoffs because of a mediocre seven shooting percentage. They led that category again this season, but struggled to fill the net even more with a pitiful six percent success rate.
The initial takeaway is that the Kings have been unlucky during the regular season and could finally win the Pacific Division next season (yes, this team could win two Stanley Cups before it tops the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in a recent regular season). There’s also the question that was actually posed - and dismissed - by Drew Doughty after Game 1: does Darryl Sutter loosen the leash and let them attack a little more in the playoffs?
Or, dare I ask, is there something about the Kings’ system that simply doesn’t lend itself to the “easy goals” that help teams win division titles, higher seeds and fantasy leagues?
I imagine many people are tempted to draft Drew Doughty as if he’s an elite fantasy defenseman next season, but I’d pause. Don’t get me wrong, he’s elite in reality, but he’s been disappointing in fantasy.
Consider this: Doughty has 221 points in 442 career regular season games, exactly a point every other game. While the Mason-Dixon line might change a bit now that the NHL's slipping more and more into the No Scoring League (unless this postseason inspires more teams to be aggressive oh please pretty please), there are a ton of blueliners with the potential to fall in that 40-point range. Doughty's solid in peripheral stats (64 PIM, a +17 rating that could conceivably be approached on a strong Kings team), but I wouldn't draft him in the league of early-rounders like beloved stat machine Dustin Byfuglien.** Doughty's basically a more promising name attached to mid-tier numbers, yet even as I type this, I could totally imagine him matching his 59-point career-high from 2009-10 ... I just wouldn't invest too high of a pick to see it happen.
Generally speaking, I’d be wary of investing too much in Kings in “coin-toss pick” situations, at least until their dominant puck possession finally translates to fantasy glory more discreetly.
The most obvious guy who could actually be an interesting value is Jonathan Quick, although it depends upon how the fantasy leagues value him. As mediocre as he’s been - I’m with those who think he’s overrated - the Kings are stubbornly committed to him, and they kinda have to be at that $6 million clip. If he can play reasonably well (i.e. closer to Ryan Miller .915 save percentage category and further away from Ondrej Pavelec nightmare territory), he could amass a ton of wins. It’s telling that former backup Ben Scrivens and current backup Martin Jones enjoyed dominant runs while he was hurt/struggling. If Quick can keep his head above water, he could be a great value.
In an ideal scenario, you draft him somewhere around your eighth-round pick, but I imagine his name recognition and OMG GOALIE RUSHES will eliminate that bargain.
(Then again, maybe this is a long way of saying: “Grab his backup if Quick gets hurt.”)
One area of intrigue
Normally, I’d be a buzzkill about the better-in-reality combination of Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. There are, however, a few reasons why they could be better in fantasy during the 2014-15 season:
1) Kopitar is a dependable asset - Like Pavel Datsyuk, Kopitar is an outstanding player who puts up merely strong fantasy stats, but that doesn't mean he lacks value. He's been a solid goal-scorer and point-getter (25-34 goals in full seasons since 2008-09, 70+ in four straight seasons excluding the lockout-shortened mockery in which he was close to a point-per-game) and a regular enough plus/minus demon that he's likely to be strong in that area (+34 this past season, no lower than +12 since 2010-11). Like many others, I don’t like plus/minus as a stat, but Kopitar is in that Jonathan Toews class of guys who are highly likely to dominate that category.
2) Williams is in a contract year - It’s doubtful that Williams “dogs it” during a typical season, yet greed can be very good for fantasy purposes. Especially when an underrated player is also grossly underpaid at $3.65 million.
3) Marian Gaborik might come back … and possibly on a short-term deal - Gaborik is likely to slow down from his playoff pace, yet he could be a valuable “finisher” for a line that is just flat-out greedy with the puck. The Kings aren’t likely to have the wiggle room to give an aging, brittle winger too much term, either. (I don’t think.) So that could mean you have a star motor (Kopitar), a two-way demon shooting for dollars (Williams) and a wild card also shooting for dollars (Gaborik). Not bad.
Is this my way of saying “Run out and get Kopitar and Williams?” No, I’d recommend not reaching for either one of them. Still, I’m a little bit more optimistic about their chances of providing appealing returns than they normally would.
Again, I think they’re both excellent players in “real life” regardless, though.
Other random lessons
-- The Rangers show the wisdom in being smart enough to admit you’re not that wise. Sather’s methods might not always be pretty, yet he’s found way to relocate or bury his mistakes into a talented roster. Fantasy owners should take note: it’s better to make the right move later rather than never.
-- The Kings show the value in bargains. In 2012, Quick was in the second-to-last year of a deal that paid him $1.9 million per season. The Kings have prospered from trading for guys who wore out their welcome (Jeff Carter in 2012, Gaborik this time around) and merely letting them play to their potential. Dean Lombardi’s made his mistakes, yet the basic principles are golden: buy low, be patient enough to believe in your vision and take advantage of those who panic.
-- More than anything else, these teams are succeeding because of the accumulation of good decisions. Sure, I don’t love the contracts Dan Girardi and Quick received. And, yes, the Rangers gave up a lot for Martin St. Louis, as wonderful as he’s been. Ultimately, Lombardi in particular just makes the right move often enough that he’s being justly rewarded with what could be a mini-dynasty.
To give you an idea of how fickle this could all be, he wasn’t that far from being fired in 2012 and resorted to a desperation hire of Sutter during that very season.
Really, that might be the best lesson of all: the difference between winning and losing can be small and sometimes cruel.
* - Basically every goalie not named Marty Turco has enjoyed some strong seasons behind Zdeno Chara, so it’s a tricky “nature vs. nurture” argument for people like me.
** - You won’t find many defensemen with Byfuglien’s ability to generate points, SOG, hits and PIM.