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Tweaking a Veteran Roster Can Lead to (Some) Success

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Lessons the Wild can learn from other veteran teams that have found success without tanking.

Minnesota Wild v Phoenix Coyotes
The Wild are getting older, and choices must be made

The Minnesota Wild are a good hockey team. Really, they are.

They’ve made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons in a highly competitive division and have posted back-to-back 100-point seasons. However, they have failed to make meaningful progress in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2003, when they shockingly reached the Western Conference Final.

Teams at this point in their competitive cycle have a choice to make: tweak the roster and continue to be competitive, or start trading away veteran players to stockpile picks and prospects in hopes of building a new core.

To Tweak or Not to Tweak?

With Wild owner Craig Leipold having already made up his mind on this, this debate is somewhat pointless, but here is the short argument in favor of continuing to try to win now: (i) Hockey is random; sometimes Jake Allen turns into Hasek, and sometimes Jake Guentzel goes nuclear, so keep trying. (ii) In the age of parity, the teams are so close that minor tweaks can help a good team get over the hump. (iii) With the team’s current contract status, you can’t even do a proper rebuild anyway.

With Leipold’s decision made, let’s look at some teams that made the same choice (to varying degrees) and managed to find some level of success in the postseason.

San Jose Sharks - Trust the Process

This is the team that first jumped to my mind when I was thinking of teams who kept coming back and finally broke through.

San Jose Sharks v Arizona Coyotes
Old Gray Beard (Almost) Did It
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Low Point: 2013-14. After spending many seasons as preseason Cup favorites and postseason disappointments, the Sharks truly hit rock bottom in the spring of 2014. After finishing the regular season with 111 points, the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead over their Southern California rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round of the playoffs. It was so bad, some poor bloke took a pie to the face. There were calls to blow it up, strip it down, and start over.

San Jose Sharks 2013-2014

Players: Points:
Players: Points:
Joe Pavelski 79
Joe Thornton 76
Patrick Marleau 70
Logan Couture 54
Brent Burns 48
Defenseman: TOI:
Dan Boyle 21:17
Justin Braun 20:59
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 20:43
Regular Season Leaders Information from NHL.com

Break Through: 2015-16. Just two seasons later, the Sharks got into the playoffs with 98 points and started things off right with a “Gentleman’s Sweep” of the same Kings that nearly caused the whole team to disintegrate. They follow that up with wins over Nashville and St. Louis before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

2015-16 San Jose Sharks

Player: Points:
Player: Points:
Joe Thornton 82
Joe Pavelski 78
Brent Burn 75
Patrick Marleau 48
Tomas Hertl 46
Defenseman: TOI:
Brent Burns 25:52:00
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 23:08
Paul Martin 20:44
Regular Season Leaders Stats courtesy of NHL.com

What Changed? A lot. The Sharks jettisoned their coach, switching from Todd Mclellan to Pete DeBoer at the end of the 2015 season after missing the playoffs. They #strippedtheC from Thornton, gave the role a one-year hiatus, and eventually slapped it on Joe Pavelski’s chest. They acquired Martin Jones to be their new starting goaltender and added Joel Ward and Paul Martin for depth.

Perhaps the biggest change was the emergence of Brent Burns. He exploded offensively and began scoring like a forward. He finished third in the voting for the Norris trophy in 2015-16, and the voters gave it to him in 2016-17.

What Can the Wild Learn? Don’t overreact. Don’t trade guys just to trade them. Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and find creative ways to address your needs (like using Boston as an intermediary to acquire Jones from Los Angeles). Hope your star players break out and that lightning strikes.

And who knows....maybe changing which player has a letter on his chest actually makes a difference(?).

Pittsburgh Penguins - Don’t be Afraid of Change

Now, if you want to say the reason the Penguins started winning Cups again was because they have two of the best centers in the world, you would be absolutely correct. However, the two of them weren’t enough to keep the Penguins on top of the league after winning it all in 2009. The team had to evolve and grow to get back to the top of the mountain.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three
Phil the Thrill

Low Point: 2013-14. After winning the Metropolitan Division with 109 points, the Penguins had a tough time dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in 6 games in the first round, and then got bounced in the second round after holding a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers. Immediate changes were implemented: Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were both handed pink slips and replaced by Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston (more on him later).

2013-14 Penguins

Player: Points:
Player: Points:
Sidney Crosby 104
Evgeni Malkin 72
Chris Kunitz 68
James Neal 61
Jussi Jokinen 57
Defenseman: TOI:
Paul Martin 24:34:00
Kris Letang 24:14:00
Matt Niskanen 21:18
Regular Season Leaders Stats courtesy of NHL.com

Breakthrough: 2015-16. The season got off to a rough start. After going 15-10-3, Rutherford gave Johnston the boot and hired Mike Sullivan. They made significant in-season trades, and wrapped up the campaign with 104 points. We all know how the story ends, with this being the first of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

2015-16 Penguins

Player: Points:
Player: Points:
Sidney Crosby 85
Kris Letang 67
Phil Kessel 59
Evgeni Malkin 58
Patric Hornqvist 51
Defenseman: TOI:
Kris Letang 26:57:00
Trevor Daley 20:27
Olli Maatta 19:58
Regular Season Leaders Stats courtesy of NHL.com

What Changed? The most significant change was empowering Jim Rutherford. Rutherford proceeded to make bold changes to the organization, and was willing to admit when he made a mistake. Johnston, who was Rutherford’s hire, was replaced with Sullivan. Rutherford also pulled the trigger on major trades adding Phil Kessel, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bonino. He tweaked around the edges too, utilizing his farm team (Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray) and free agency (Matt Cullen) to supplement his depth.

What Can the Wild Learn? If it is broke, fix it. Sometimes the answers are largely inside your organization (like with the Sharks), and sometimes, you need to wheel and deal... and then deal some more to build around your strengths and give your coach the tools he needs. The Wild have to know what’s broken and be willing to do what it takes to fix it.

Finally, clarity of purpose. The Penguins knew they were all-in with Crosby and Malkin still in their primes, so they were not afraid to mortgage their future, including picks and prospects like Kasperi Kapanen, to win now.

Boston Bruins - Take One Step Back to Take Two Steps Forward

Now, I might be stretching my own definitions a bit, but hear me out. After winning it all in 2011, the Bruins were struggling to stay relevant and ended up missing the playoffs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Keeping the same core largely intact, the Bruins were able to reshape their roster to become a factor again in 2017-18.

Boston Bruins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Two
No Caption Needed
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Low Point: 2014-15. After winning both their division and the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points the previous season, the Bruins failed to even qualify for the playoffs in 2014-15, mustering 96 points. GM Peter Chiarelli was fired, presumably for his erroneous decisions to trade away both Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin.

Untitled

Player: Points:
Player: Points:
Patrice Bergeron 55
Loui Eriksson 47
Milan Lucic 44
Carl Soderberg 44
Brad Marchand 42
Defenceman: TOI:
Zdeno Chara 23:21
Dennis Seidenberg 22:06
Dougie Hamilton 21:20
Regular Season Leaders Stats courtesy of NHL.com

Breakthrough: 2017-18. I am being a bit premature here as they only made it to the second round, but this team was GOOD. They finished with 112 points, just one point shy of winning the division and the conference. The Bruins looked to be the team to beat in the East until the Lightning woke up, realized they were even more stacked with talent, and beat the Bruins in a 5-game series.

2017-18 Bruins

Player: Points:
Player: Points:
Brad Marchand 85
David Pastrnak 80
Patrice Bergeron 63
Torey Krug 59
Danton Heinen 47
Defenceman: TOI:
Zdeno Chara 22:54
Charlie McAvoy 22:09
Torey Krug 20:24
Regular Season Leaders Stats Courtesy of NHL.com

What Changed? One thing you can say about the Boston Bruins: they are not afraid to cut people loose. Charelli was replaced with Don Sweeney, who traded or let walk all of the following: Dougie Hamilton, Loui Erikkson, Carl Soderberg, and Dennis Seidenberg. They pushed Claude Julien overboard and replaced him with Bruce Cassidy. Most importantly, the Bruins turned aging assets into draft picks, and turned those draft picks into impact players. David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Donato, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen are all young impact players on the current squad. Through it all, the Bruins kept their cornerstones in place.

What Can the Wild Learn? Whether it was intentional or not, the Bruins weren’t uber competitive for a couple years. They used that opportunity to get younger and add more talent while keeping their core of Bergeron, Marchand, Chara, and Rask intact. Two things, however, I would prefer the Wild not learn: (i) don’t sign David Backes or someone similar to that contract... just don’t do it. And (ii) never trade for Rick Nash.

Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights

The Washington Capitals’ roster got objectively worse from the previous season and the Golden Knights were an expansion team whose roster made us all go “huh....alright”. These are the teams that played for the Stanley Cup in 2018.

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I’ve got nothing.