Now that the Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions, the rest of the league will no doubt spend some time doing what they always do when a new champion is crowned: Look at what made them successful, and see if there is a way they can model their team after it.
When it comes to the Penguins and their turnaround this season a lot of it is fairly simple and not exactly easy for somebody else to duplicate. Let's face it, most teams are not going to get two superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top of the draft, and that is a big part of it.
There is also the the fact they received some significant contributions from young players on cheap contracts from their farm system, including Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and goaltender Matt Murray.
Again, not exactly a ground-breaking development that you need a pipeline of talent from your farm system to succeed, especially in a salary cap league where cheap talent is a huge advantage.
Having said that, there are a few lessons that maybe other teams can take away from their success and perhaps put in place.
1. It is important to play fast. Around the middle of January speed became the calling card for the Penguins thanks to some in-season trades (Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley) and call-ups from the AHL that helped make them one of the fastest teams in the NHL.
But it wasn't just about acquiring players that are fast. It was also about the way they played, aggressively attacking in all three zones, swarming to puck-carriers, and using their speed advantage to win races to loose pucks.
It was a significant advantage, and every team that went up against them had a difficult time containing it.
Of course, it takes more than just speed to be effective, and you can't just have a bunch of players blindly flying around the ice trying to cause havoc as former NHL player Patrick O'Sullivan pointed out on Monday.
I see lots saying PIT won because of speed. Speed is useless if your brain doesn't work. PIT had three lines that could skate and THINK.— Patrick O'Sullivan (@realPOSULLIVAN) June 13, 2016
East coast league is full of guys who can skate as well or better than any guy in the NHL. They are in the coast for a reason.— Patrick O'Sullivan (@realPOSULLIVAN) June 13, 2016
It is a very fair -- and very important -- point.
But what this should do is perhaps change our idea of what "tough to play against" really is, and maybe change what teams are looking for when it comes to building a roster. It's not really about having big, physical players that try to grind opponents down along the boards, or players that are going to get in a player's face and try to play a little dirty.
That is the style of play we are always told has to be played in the playoffs and the style of play that wins.
The Penguins did not play that game (and neither did the Chicago Blackhawks or Tampa Bay Lightning a year ago when they played in the Stanley Cup Final). They weren't a big, physical, team and were outhit most nights.
They just simply tried to play faster than everybody else and use their speed and skill to beat teams.
Following Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final Sharks forward Joe Pavelski commented on how quickly the Penguins style of play can take away what appears to be an open play.
"You take the pass, make the read, try to make the play, and then it's not there when you're trying to pull the trigger," Pavelski said, via Yahoo's Greg Wyshynski.
That is pretty much what the Penguins did all postseason to every team they played. It forced turnovers, it took away options, and it constantly kept teams on their heels when trying to defend them. That has to be frustrating and difficult to play against. Almost certainly more frustrating and tough than being able to make the play and then getting checked into the boards by somebody that was a split second too slow to actually disrupt the play.
And that brings us to point No. 2...
2. Build a defense based on skating and puck skills, not hitting. Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford assembled a defense that was made up mainly of players that could all skate, get to the puck first, get it out of the defensive zone, and join the rush at the other end of the ice. They have one superstar on defense (Kris Letang), and a bunch of players that never really earned much praise until they started to win a lot in the playoffs.
All season the Penguins defense was a pretty big question mark, and no matter what they did on the ice there were always concerns about whether or not they were big enough, strong enough, or physical enough on the blue line, or if they had enough players that could play in the dirty areas in front of the net. Looking at their roster, the answer to those questions is probably going to be no. Every time they went up against a bigger, and more physical team there was a belief that the physical play would eventually wear them down.
It never did. Instead, this was the result: Only 28 shots against per game in the playoffs and only 2.29 goals against per game.
On the other side, in three of the four rounds the Penguins went up against teams that had players that fell on the complete opposite side of the defensive spectrum. Bigger, slower, more physical players, whether it was Dan Girardi in New York, Brooks Orpik in Washington, or Roman Polak in San Jose. In every series the Penguins exploited their lack of mobility. When those three defenders were on the ice the Penguins outscored their teams by a combined margin of 11-4 and controlled more than 55 percent of the shot attempts. They didn't just beat them, they targeted them.
When you look around and the NHL and identify the top defensemen in the league, the top defensemen on every team, and the type of defensemen winning teams have playing the biggest roles, and you see a lot of common traits. They are usually puck-movers and players that can join the rush.
They are not the stay-at-home, crease-clearing defenders we used to see in the NHL. Instead, the "shutdown" players are starting to become more like Brian Dumoulin. A rock-solid defensive player that also has enough skill to make a play with the puck.
3. Trust the numbers. It is not always about where a team finishes in the standings. This, here, is pretty telling.
Past five Cup champions' rankings in score-adjusted Corsi: 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd. Tough for even greatest skeptics not to see correlation.— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) June 13, 2016
In recent years I've written about how, along with being great possession teams, Stanley Cup champions almost always finish near the top of the league in both penalty kill and goals against, and that the teams that tend to finish closest to the top of the league in all three categories tend to go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Along with being a top-possession team, the Penguins were fifth on the penalty kill and sixth in goals against.
4. Reputations aren't always what they seem. Finally, one of the interesting things about the construction of the Penguins roster is the number of players that seemed to be castoffs from other teams for one reason or another.
Finally getting an opportunity to play alongside more talented players helped Phil Kessel silence all of the critics that followed him around for most of his career in Toronto because he couldn't single handedly elevate a bad team and didn't like speaking to the media.
Trevor Daley was traded twice in six months and never seemed to fully win the trust of the Blackhawks but ended up being one of the most important players on the Penguins' defense.
Justin Schultz was once called the worst player in the NHL, and even though he didn't play a huge role in the playoffs, still had moments where he was able to play well.
Conor Sheary slipped through the cracks as an undrafted free agent, almost certainly due to his size, and ended up playing on the top line next to Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist.
All of those guys might have flaws, but the Penguins ignored the noise that surrounded them, focussed on what they did well, and put them in positions where they could maximize that ability. And suddenly, a bunch of guys (specifically Kessel and Schultz) that always looked at as players you could never win a championship with, ended up doing exactly that.