LAS VEGAS -- The NHL being a "copycat league" is as much of an ingrained offseason cliché as "there's a gentlemen's agreement not to tender offer sheets." The assumption goes like this: Teams that thrive in the Stanley Cup playoffs reset the template for how to win in the NHL. Follow that plan. Find similar success.
Which, of course, is nonsense.
"I don't think you'll have success in this league trying to copy the team that won the previous year," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
But that doesn't mean teams won't try -- in particular, that they won't try to find their own variation of the recipe used by the Blues, Boston Bruins and last year's champion Washington Capitals. A recipe that includes heaping dollops of "heavy hockey."
It was unavoidable during the Stanley Cup Final, and in subsequent conversations in the offseason: That the wrecking ball nature of the Blues' forecheck, and their workmanlike offensive system, was the way one succeeds in the playoffs. Especially when teams that depended on more offensive flourish were dumped from the bracket so early -- we're looking at you, Tampa Bay Lightning.
"That was our style of play. We built our team with big defensemen. That's why we acquired a player like [Brayden] Schenn, because he plays that style of hockey. Patrick Maroon was a really good player down below the circles. We played to our identity," said Armstrong. "I don't know if other teams will follow."
Justin Williams thinks there are lessons to be learned.
"Look, the playoffs are always heavy," said the Carolina Hurricanes captain. "But the Blues finished everything. I didn't watch much, but I watched Game 7. Everything was finished. You pass the puck? You're getting finished. You dump the puck? You're getting finished. And that's what you have to have. And those guys did it all the way through to the end."
But Ryan O'Reilly sees other reasons for teams to be inspired by the Blues.
"If there's a lesson to be learned, it was how well we played away from the puck," he said. "We were a heavy team. We played hard. Look at our back end, the size of it. That was a tough D core to play against. Big move 'D' that shut down the best players in the league."
So there are some things the Blues did so well that other teams could borrow from them. But here's the deal. Even if you play heavy, even if you hit everything in sight, even if you master the game away from the puck, you're still not going to be the Blues unless you can somehow replicate the true virtue of their victory: their uncanny ability to move on from adversity.
"You need all elements. You need a balance. If you just have speed and skill, you're not going to win. There is still a degree of heavy hockey that's essential. But it's also the degree of will, the degree of depth, the degree of luck. ... There's always an unseen hand that's at play," said Barry Trotz of the Islanders, who won the Jack Adams this week in Vegas. "It's the team that can let it go that does well. And St. Louis was so good at that."
Trotz can pinpoint the moment he knew the Blues would win the Stanley Cup. It was after that hand-pass debacle in overtime against the San Jose Sharks, when coach Craig Berube made the "move of the year" in Trotz's estimation.
"They lost the hand-pass game. Their players were smacking their sticks against the boards. They were losing control. He didn't blame anybody. He got them refocused. He said 'things happen' and to let it go. He just washed it out of the way. They came out calm. There was no blame game. They kept the focus. The way he presented it and handled the media," said Trotz. "Boston was the team I would have picked having played them all year, but after they came through that game like that, I knew this team was going to win."
How Berube and the Blues reacted when there were calamitous events in their Stanley Cup journey is not a recipe that can be replicated. Trotz knows that because he's tried.
"I don't know if I would have been able to pull it in," he said. "It's easier said than done. And [Berube] did it. He didn't let a situation dictate his mood and demeanor."
Play heavy. Play hard. But know that the Blues ultimately won because of their heads.
Bishop of the Rulebook
There are few players in the NHL I enjoy shooting the breeze with more about potential rules changes than Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop. And after he read the competition committee's rule proposals to the NHL's general managers, he was disappointed not to see one of his pet peeves addressed.
"There's one rule we gotta get changed. When a goalie's glove or the blocker comes off, they gotta blow the whistle," he said, referencing a play in the Stanley Cup playoffs where Jordan Binnington lost a piece of equipment from his hand but didn't get a whistle.
"It's only going to take one guy to shatter his hand to be like 'Maybe we should have blown the whistle.' It only happens, like, less than five times in all the games, where a goalie loses his glove or blocker. They're not supposed to blow the whistle. They're just supposed to let them play."
Bishop knows all too well about the "let them play" mentality. He's still perturbed by what happened in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal against St. Louis when a Colton Parayko shot hurt him but play continued.
"I would say 95 percent of the time they blow the whistle. Technically, the rule is that they don't have to blow it, but I don't understand why they wouldn't. When you get hit by a guy who has the second-hardest shot in the league ... I didn't break my shoulder, but it takes a second to gather yourself when you think it's broken," he said.
"I would love to throw the refs in there and ask them to see how it feels."
Old Man Giordano
One of the hidden joys of the NHL Awards is seeing the players in their natural habitat, away from the rink. Now, I don't mean on the town in Las Vegas, because these guys are going to rooms that are located through another room inside of a long hallway that you will never see as long as you live. But I'm talking about inside the hotel that houses them and their families, where the daylight hours find them just, you know, being regular dudes.
Elias Pettersson, with his friends, leaving brunch.
Victor Hedman, sitting at a blackjack table.
And Mark Giordano, doing as Mark Giordano does, which is pushing a stroller through a casino.
Giordano is 35 years old and finally snagged his first Norris Trophy nomination after 13 years in the NHL. There were other times when he seemed on track for one, but his seasons were undercut by injuries. But after a career-best 74 points in 78 games, his candidacy was undeniable, if a long time coming.
"To be here and be acknowledged for an individual award is great. Especially when there's so much history to it. Guys like [Nicklas] Lidstrom. Bobby Orr. To have your name associated with those guys is really strong," he said.
Giordano is one of those guys for whom the awards mean something, and not just because it was his first time getting a nod. It's because when you're a defenseman and your name is on the same hardware as your idol's, that is an incredible honor.
"He was my favorite player growing up, for sure. To be mentioned with him is pretty special to me. When I had a chance to pick any number in the NHL, I picked five because of Lidstrom," he said.
But there's another commonality with Lidstrom: He was considered a late bloomer. Granted, maybe not as late as Giordano, who broke 50 points for the first time at 32 years old.
"I like to think of myself as a late bloomer. So I hope this isn't my last nomination. I hope that I can keep pushing this envelope and be in this conversation again," he said. "I thought about that a lot. I didn't play a lot of hockey when I was 18. I didn't play in a lot of international events. Maybe it took me a little bit more time to get used to the NHL style of game. But I feel good, and I feel fresh, and I feel like I can play for a long time."
Even as the position he plays has changed dramatically.
"Oh yeah, for sure. It's a speed game now. It's changed big time. My first couple of years, I played with guys like Robyn Regehr. Big, bruising defensemen that moved guys around really well. Now it's all about puck movement and getting up in the play," he said.
At 35, Giordano says he can keep up now and for the next several seasons.
Grading the NHL Awards show
The readers have spoken, and the NHL Awards show was pretty darn good this year, with the majority of voters giving it an A or a B.
Your grade for the 2019 #NHLAwards, hosted by Kenan Thompson
- Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 20, 2019
Kenan Thompson deserves a lot of credit here for treating every segment like its own sketch and unleashing a number of his "SNL" characters on the awards audience. And while Thomas Middleditch's "Tony Babcock" character wasn't always a home run, his segment with Sidney Crosby was hilarious.
Funny show, poignant show and one that just worked nicely. Kudos to Steve Mayer and the NHL. Bring back Kenan!
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Keep an eye out for the latest ESPN On Ice, which covers the NHL Awards and features interviews with Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Find all the podcasts here.
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