The Stanley Cup Playoffs are up to the conference final phase and only four teams remain. The Dallas Stars face the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference while the Florida Panthers face the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference. There’s a strong argument for all four teams to win the Cup and with all the teams remaining, either a 25-year drought will be snapped or there will be a first-time champion.

Related: 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Finals Hub

This season these four teams, for the most part, have been the four best in the NHL and the standard for the rest of the league to follow. The playoffs, unlike previous seasons, have featured little to no upsets or surprises. The only lower seed to advance so far were the Colorado Avalanche in the first round and the Oilers in the second round, as the second seed knocked off the top seed in the Pacific Division, the Vancouver Canucks.

These teams are the top four in the NHL and provide a lot of insights into how to build a Cup contender. For the rest of the league, it’s important to take note of the ways they built themselves into the best in the NHL. The first lesson comes from behind the bench and this season, it’s a unique one regarding the head coaches who remain.

Great Coaches Come From Anywhere

Three of the four head coaches remaining are considered “retread” coaches or ones who have been in the league for a while and have failed elsewhere only to be recycled and hired again. There’s a lot of negativity surrounding these types of hires and understandably so.

Their past failures are no predictor for future success and often are the reasons why they end up getting fired the second or third time as well. These coaches have a strong voice or a specific style but after a few seasons, it doesn’t resonate with the players. More importantly, recent history suggests that the best hire is not a recycled coach. Three of the four longest-tenured head coaches are in their first stints at the NHL level and the three (Jon Cooper, Jared Bednar, and Rob Brind’Amour) have been the standard behind the bench.

This season, the value of a coach that has been around the block is on display. Paul Maurice has transformed the Panthers into a juggernaut in his second season with the team while Pete DeBoer and Peter Laviolette have turned the Stars and Rangers into contenders with both being hired within the past two seasons. Rick Tocchet is also relevant for this discussion as he helped lead the Canucks to the best record in the Pacific Division despite entering the season without an impressive coaching track record. Experience and previous failures played a big role in their success this season as they knew what would work and what wouldn’t in the 82-game grind of a season and a long, taxing playoff run.

Peter Laviolette New York Rangers
Peter Laviolette, head coach of the New York Rangers (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Then there’s Kris Knoblauch who was hired by the Oilers early on this season and balanced them out, adding stability to the defensive end of the ice. He provides a different theme for head coaching hires. This is his first stint at the NHL level as he previously coached at the American Hockey League (AHL) level, leading the Rangers affiliate the Hartford Wolf Pack. His ability to understand players and maintain a balanced, structured roster on the ice translated to the Oilers and he looks like one of the next great coaches in the NHL.

Knoblauch is just one of the many great coaches in the AHL with a high upside who can turn around a struggling or middling franchise. There are a few teams still looking to make a coaching hire and they should consider looking in the AHL before looking at the “retread” coaches. Todd Nelson is the one who comes to mind, a coach who has led the Hershey Bears, who have become the class of the AHL in recent seasons, while Steve Smith, who interestingly, is Knoblauch’s successor with the Wolf Pack would also make a great coach.

This was the season of hirings and firings. Since the 2023-24 season began, seven coaches were replaced midseason and the offseason began with three more firings. Teams are looking for the right formula to hire the next great coach but the final four teams prove that there is no template for success.

Goaltending Matters, But Defense Is More Important

It’s hard to ignore recent history. The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2022 with Darcy Kuemper as their starting goaltender. Kuemper for his part stepped up all season and shut down great offenses in the playoffs but he’s far from an elite goaltender. The Vegas Golden Knights won the Cup last season with Adin Hill carrying them in the playoffs. Hill started only 25 games that season and wasn’t even in the net to start the playoffs but he filled in in the second round and never looked back.

The past two seasons can be viewed as outliers except the second round matchup between the Canucks and Oilers saw two teams without elite goaltenders yet the second half of the series featured mostly low-scoring games. Artur Silovs was the starter for the Canucks and looked poised to be this playoffs’ Hill but he came up short against Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard, both of whom struggled in the net.

The underlying theme with these teams is that they have a goaltender catch fire in the playoffs but more importantly, they have a great defense making the biggest impact in the games. The Oilers for their part allowed only 21.2 shots on net per game against the Canucks. In recent seasons, the Avalanche and Golden Knights also had great defensive units step up and limit shots on the net to help out their goaltender.

Igor Shesterkin is an elite goaltender and the same applies to Jake Oettinger yet Sergei Bobrovsky has a save percentage in the playoffs of just over .900 while the Oilers don’t have a clear-cut starter. It doesn’t matter when the defense is blanking the opposing offense. The four teams remaining are great on the defensive end of the ice and it helps them cover up the weaknesses of their goaltenders.

Special Teams Go a Long Way

The Rangers proved the value of a great special teams unit, particularly with their penalty kill winning battle after battle against the Carolina Hurricanes. They killed 19 of the 21 penalties in the series and it was one of the many reasons they advanced in a series where four of the six games were decided by one goal.

Conversely, the Panthers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final on the backs of their power play. Nine of their 39 goals in the playoffs have come on the power play with Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov playing key roles as facilitators on the man advantage with seven assists. Their power play success combined with the Rangers’ penalty kill will make for a great series, needless to say.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s not just the playoffs where these teams have flipped a switch. The final four teams were all ranked in the top 10 in power play percentage this season and the Oilers were the only team without a top 10 penalty kill. Special teams are just as important if not more than the other facets of play and for what it’s worth, it’s reflective of a well-coached team, something all of the final teams are.

Since the referees have a long-standing history dating back to the founding of the NHL in 1917 of making bad calls in the playoffs (at least that’s what social media makes you think), it’s pivotal to have great special teams units. Oftentimes, the best five-on-five team doesn’t win the series, something the Hurricanes learned firsthand.

Free Agency Is a Wise Place to Build a Contender

The Rangers are a prime example of how a team can take a big leap with offseason additions. Generally, free agency is a bad way to try to build a contender, something the Columbus Blue Jackets learned firsthand when they went out and signed Johnny Gaudreau to a seven-year deal thinking he’d put them over the top (he didn’t). The Rangers were aggressive in the offseason but they made smart moves that paid off. The big one was Vincent Trocheck who they added in the 2022 offseason and he’s since become a pivotal part of the top-six both in the regular season and the playoffs.

The Rangers were pressed against the salary cap this offseason. They managed to sign Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson, and Jonathan Quick, three veterans all costing the team only $2.6 million. Wheeler has been a non-factor but Quick was a reliable backup goaltender all season while Gustafsson not only stepped up this season but has rounded out the defense in the playoffs as well.

Along with the Rangers, the other three teams remaining have made savvy signings in previous offseasons to help them put together great seasons. The Oilers signed Zach Hyman in the 2021 offseason for seven seasons with a $5.5 million average annual value (AAV). Hyman’s emerged as their top scorer with 54 goals this season and has taken the offense to another level. The Stars signed veteran Matt Duchene in one of the best moves of the offseason as he scored 25 goals and 40 assists this season. The Panthers strengthen their defense with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov while also adding a reliable backup goaltender in Anthony Stolarz.

The bottom line is that free agency pays off for teams that make the right moves. Sure, it’s more likely a move will backfire, especially if it’s done with a sense of urgency. However, it doesn’t pay to sit back and do nothing either. Making a move or two in the offseason is the front office’s way of saying “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” to quote The Great One.

Other Lessons From the Final 4 Teams

Adding a second elite defenseman isn’t a bad idea. Moreover, finding a great defenseman who covers up the weaknesses of the top defenseman on a team and rounds out a unit is what the final four teams did. The Oilers have seen Evan Bouchard emerge as the elite two-way player at the point but they also have Mattias Ekholm and Cody Ceci playing the safer, stay-at-home role. The Stars acquired Chris Tanev at the trade deadline and the veteran turned the unit into one of the best in the league as a sound skater on the defensive end of the ice who could force turnovers.

It’s also pivotal for a great team to continue adding players to the NHL roster through the pipeline. There’s this belief in the NHL that veterans are more valuable in the playoffs than young and inexperienced players. Tell that to Wyatt Johnston and Bouchard who helped their teams reach the Western Conference Final and will be the reasons they end up winning the Cup.

What lessons can the rest of the league learn from the Oilers, Panthers, Rangers, and Stars? Let us know in the comments section below!


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