Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

Inside the NHL

We’ve got plenty of Kraken-related items worth discussing after another week of Stanley Cup playoffs, with good news off the ice and developments on it that the expansion team is undoubtedly considering.

Canada’s federal government announced an exemption to its COVID-19 border rules, allowing the North Division champion Montreal Canadiens — wait, what? — to play host to U.S.-based teams in semifinal and potentially finals action without those opponents facing a 14-day quarantine.

Minus that exemption, the Canadiens would have relocated to a U.S.-based “home” arena, further throwing the integrity of these playoffs into question. Even now, U.S. teams are playing before near-capacity crowds while the Canadiens have been limited to 2,500 fans, which still gave them an advantage over defeated Toronto and Winnipeg opponents capped at 500 apiece. 

The exemption also stands to benefit the Kraken and entire NHL going forward, as it signifies a possible permanent loosening of border restrictions sooner than anticipated.

A few weeks ago, word was the restrictions might remain deep into fall — bumping up against the Kraken’s planned October launch. If that happens, NHL owners could delay next season’s Oct. 12 start rather than enduring another campaign of regionally modified divisions and lost revenue.

Remember, the NHL doesn’t exist in a U.S. vacuum. What happens with the seven Canadian-based teams directly impacts business as usual.

Some might argue — and wouldn’t be entirely wrong — the North Division was an example of a Canadian vacuum in which inferior teams gained a simpler semifinal path by playing only each other. Montreal, anchored by netminder Carey Price, looks nothing like its past dynasties, and it’s a stretch even comparing these Canadiens to the franchise’s most recent, somewhat lucky 1993 champion that similarly rode a hot goalie and plenty of overtime magic.

But it isn’t just the Canadiens surprising this postseason. Montreal and the Vegas Golden Knights are demonstrating the usefulness of having teams that are “built for the playoffs,” as opposed to just the regular season. 

Only some late Game 2 bad luck in its second-round series against Colorado has prevented Vegas from punching its semifinal ticket. Since dropping a lopsided opener, the Golden Knights have owned the Avalanche — a team boasting arguably the league’s most talented roster — and lead the series 3-2.

Vegas and Montreal have stymied more skills-reliant opponents by simplifying the game into a series of short passes, zone clearances and lethal counterattacks. Sure, Vegas was also a regular-season powerhouse, but the Golden Knights are winning with a disciplined, more defensive-minded playoff approach that has negated Colorado’s highlight-reel breakout passes and freewheeling style.

Doing what Vegas and Montreal have done is exhausting and more sustainable over shorter bursts than an entire season, which is why “playoff built” teams can appear to outperform expectations come May and June when they’re really just meeting them. It requires four solid lines that never stop skating, impeccable positioning to intercept passes and block shots, plus an inherent size advantage.

It also requires forwards that do more than score goals. One of the most underrated NHL awards is the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward, and it’s no coincidence Vegas captain Mark Stone is among this year’s three finalists.

Stone amassed a league-high 58 take-aways in the 56-game schedule, blocked a second-best 30 shots and was key to the NHL’s top penalty-killing unit. In a Game 5 victory by Vegas on Tuesday, Stone blocked a shot in overtime and scored the winner on the ensuing counterattack.

Players such as Stone help neutralize top scorers from opposing clubs. The Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen has just two goals and three assists since Game 1.

And Colorado’s puck-moving defenders — Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard — have been besieged by forecheckers and unable to make typical breakout passes.

The solution isn’t to move Colorado’s top line away from Stone’s, because the second Vegas line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith is doing an equally formidable shutdown job and performing even better offensively with eight goals and eight assists.

What makes Stone an aberration is he’s a winger. The Selke almost always goes to a center. Paired alongside centerman Chandler Stephenson, whose neutral-zone speed has eliminated much of Colorado’s space to be creative, the Golden Knights have the Avalanche scrambling to reinvent themselves.

Like Vegas’s second line, Montreal’s veteran fourth line of Corey Perry, Joel Armia and Eric Staal provided depth by combining for five goals and five assists during a four-game second-round sweep of Winnipeg. Montreal doesn’t have a Selke finalist, but centerman Phillip Danault is highly regarded for his two-way play and faceoff ability, and he drew raves for holding Toronto star Auston Matthews to a lone goal in seven opening-round games. Danault’s suffocating play also helped limit the Jets to six series goals, with top threats Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor managing a goal and three assists combined.

If Montreal somehow fails to re-sign him, undervalued Danault would make for a solid Kraken free-agent target this summer.

Likewise, if defenseman Owen Power goes No. 1 overall to Buffalo in the expansion draft, the Kraken might use its No. 2 pick on University of Michigan centerman Mathew Berniers. He also plays a two-way, 200-foot game just like a certain general manager named Ron Francis used to, so yeah, the Kraken’s front office is well aware that this stuff matters.

The Kraken won’t exactly have an All-Star roster, so players outworking opponents will be paramount. It’s why Gerard Gallant reminded everybody of his coaching value last weekend when he led Team Canada to gold at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

Canada had lost its first three games, and players later praised Gallant for holding them together by preaching the value of outworking their favored opponents. 

The Kraken spoke to Gallant last year about its coaching vacancy. It also is awaiting whether Rod Brind’Amour stays with the just-eliminated Carolina Hurricanes — who also preach relentless forechecking — or becomes a free agent. 

If Brind’Amour re-signs with Carolina, Francis will turn to coaches similarly espousing hard work. Last Thursday, Francis flew to Las Vegas to conduct a second interview with Rick Tocchet, a coach praised for squeezing the most he could out of a limited Arizona Coyotes roster. 

So stay tuned.

It could take years for the Kraken to match the Avalanche, or Maple Leafs in pure talent. But not necessarily as long to achieve the team’s ultimate Cup goals.