Multiple Paths to Success – and Failure – in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

There's no single answer of what Cup-hopeful NHL GMs should do at the trade deadline each year. And these four teams from the 2021 playoffs prove just that.
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Each spring, NHL GMs – at least those who manage competitive teams – must face the question of whether to make a big splash at the trade deadline or hold steady and dance with the ones who brought them.

Last year, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois chose the former, acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow prior to the 2019-20 deadline. He paid a steep price – two first-round picks and former first-rounder Nolan Foote – but Coleman and Goodrow ended up being vital contributors to Tampa’s Cup win.

But not every GM who makes a splash is so successful. And not every Cup winner needs to make a splash. There’s no one prescription for success in the NHL. If there were, everybody would be doing it.

So, here’s a look at each possible outcome from this year’s deadline: a team that made a splash that’s worked so far, a team that made a splash that failed, a team that stayed quiet but that’s succeeded so far, and a team that stayed quiet and flamed out.

Splash Success: Boston Bruins (In: Taylor Hall; Curtis Lazar; Mike Reilly | Out: Anders Bjork; 2021 second-round pick; 2022 third-round pick)

It was a clearance-rack price for Hall, a former first overall pick (2010) and the 2018 Hart winner. But the move carried risk. Hall’s offense peaked during his Hart campaign, in which he scored 39 goals and 93 points in 76 games. Between then and the time Boston grabbed him, Hall had: one season severely truncated by injury (2018-19); a middling 2019-20, where he scored at an 82-game pace of 20 goals and 66 points splitting time between New Jersey and Arizona; and a flame-out 37-game stint in Buffalo, where he scored two goals and 19 points.

Hall’s abysmal start to 2020-21 – and a no-movement clause he could use to veto any trade destination he disliked – kept costs low. Boston, who desperately needed secondary scoring, stepped up to bring in the star left winger and make itself a true contender.

It’s paid off. Hall immediately lengthened the Bruins' attack, taking pressure off the 'Perfection Line.’ Hall lit the lamp eight times and had 14 points in 16 regular-season games in Beantown. Boston’s .615 points percentage at the time of the trade was good for 13th in the league. After their deadline splash, the B’s had a .735 points percentage, sixth in the NHL in that timeframe.

Hall’s three goals and five points in nine playoff contests have also helped Boston skate to a 6-3 record thus far. And his contributions have been clutch. His first goal tied Game 2 against Washington – a game Boston would win to even that series – late in the third. His second marker tied Game 3 less than a minute after Alex Ovechkin had opened the scoring.

More should be on the way; Hall’s on-ice expected goals per-60 (3.16) ranks 16th among 335 players to play at 5-on-5 these playoffs.

Lazar and Mike Reilly have also been good complementary pieces; Reilly was one of the best under-the-radar adds of the deadline. He’s been a stalwart on the back end, playing over 21 minutes a night in the playoffs while ranking fifth in high-danger Corsi-against per-60 (5.64) among 94 playoff blueliners to play at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5. He had eight assists in 15 regular-season games with Boston and has three more through nine playoff games.

Lazar has been solid on the Bruins’ fourth line. He has an assist in nine playoff games.

Splash Dud: Toronto Maple Leafs (In: Nick Foligno; Riley Nash; Stefan Noesen; David Rittich; Ben Hutton; Antti Suomela | Out: Alexander Barabanov; 2021 first- and fourth-round picks; 2022 third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks)

This year, the Leafs were in as good a position to make a deep run as they have been in decades. They controlled the North Division and looked like the only Canadian team with a genuine Cup chance.

But even with their regular-season successes, Dubas wanted still more depth and brought in another veteran leader, former Columbus captain Nick Foligno. Foligno came via third-party San Jose, who retained some salary (as did Columbus). He was the Leafs' main acquisition, costing the team first- and fourth-round picks this year and a 2022 fourth.

The Leafs' secondary acquisition was David Rittich, brought in to address the team's woefully inconsistent crease situation.

Riley Nash, Stefan Noesen, Ben Hutton and Antti Suomela were also added for depth.

None of the trades paid off. Foligno, who was hurt when he was acquired, played the most in the playoffs, getting into four of seven games and scoring one point. Nash played twice and was pointless. None of the others saw playoff action.

And the Leafs flamed out of the first round. Again.

Rittich, brought in to address the Leafs’ biggest need, struggled in four regular-season games, posting a .888 save percentage. He didn’t provide the steady hand Toronto needed and was unlikely to have his number called even if Jack Campbell faltered.

Toronto now has just four picks in the first five rounds of the next two drafts combined. Dubas and Co. must be resourceful to replenish the cupboards.

Quiet Success: Colorado Avalanche (In: Carl Soderberg; Patrik Nemeth; Devan Dubnyk | Out: Greg Pateryn; Josh Dickinson; Ryder Rolston; 2021 fifth-round pick; 2022 fourth-round pick)

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic must’ve been the kid in school who handed in his semester project several weeks early, as Colorado did most of its work prior to the season. The big move was the October 12 acquisition of Devon Toews, who came over from the Islanders for second-round picks in 2021 and 2022. Sakic had also acquired Brandon Saad two days prior.

At the deadline, Sakic was quiet, bringing in depth pieces in exchange for spare parts. Colorado’s near-perfect squad didn’t need much of substance added.

Patrik Nemeth, who spent 2017-18 and 2018-19 in the Mile High City, was brought back into the fold and has proven to be their most influential deadline add. He’s played in all seven playoff contests thus far at the bargain-basement price of a 2022 fourth-rounder.

Dubnyk provides goaltending depth should Vezina Trophy-finalist Philipp Grubauer falter or get injured.

But Colorado was already a juggernaut before the deadline and didn’t succumb to pressure to burn assets tinkering. That’ll be important for the Avs, who’ll need cheap depth on entry-level deals in coming years with young stars like Cale Makar needing new pacts as soon as this summer. The cap crunch is imminent.

Carolina also had a quietly solid deadline. They’re now on the brink of elimination, but it’s not because of Jani Hakanpaa, who’s been great on the blueline, playing over 17 minutes a game in the playoffs. He’s a 2021 UFA who could be retained.

Quiet Dud: Edmonton Oilers (In: Dmitry Kulikov | Out: 2022 fourth-round pick)

Ken Holland’s decision to stand pat this year is understandable in the sense Edmonton had little cap space and few draft picks to work with. The former is a holdover from the Peter Chiarelli era, which saw Edmonton tie its hands with medium- or long-term commitments to Mikko Koskinen, Kris Russell and Milan Lucic (who Holland traded, with $750,000 retained, for James Neal). Chiarelli also inked Andrej Sekera to the six-year, $33-million pact Holland would later buy out.

So Holland working with a shoestring dollars-and-cents budget wasn’t his fault. But the lack of draft capital largely was his doing. Holland traded two second-round picks for Andreas Athanasiou at the 2019-20 deadline. He also moved a 2021 fifth (for Tyler Ennis) and last year’s fourth (for Mike Green). He can thank his predecessor for being forced to move a 2021 third to swap Lucic for Neal.

Those trades didn’t work, which was probably why he told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, at deadline time, he didn’t think it was possible to go big every year.

Holland’s only add this year was Dmitry Kulikov. The veteran Russian rearguard played well for Edmonton in the regular season with D-partner Adam Larsson but his high-danger numbers valleyed in the playoffs and he was scratched for Game 4 of Edmonton’s first-round sweep by Winnipeg.

And the move did nothing to address Edmonton’s most glaring weakness: a dearth of secondary scoring. The Oilers created few chances without Nos. 97 or 29 on the ice in 2020-21 – a trend that continued in the playoffs. While Holland had little to work with, Edmonton has two top-five players in the world in their primes. Draft picks – and even most current Oilers prospects – are unlikely to be serious contributors at the peak of the McDavid/Draisaitl window. And with North Division the way it was this year, Edmonton missed a wonderful opportunity.

Holland will have to earn his keep this off-season, when some Chiarelli-era deals come off the books.

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