What makes them so special? What do they have that we don't? And how do we get where they are?
These are burning questions that should be on the mind of 27 NHL general managers right now as they watch the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues battle for hockey supremacy.
After all, this is a copycat league, and you can bet those who don't make it to the big dance are exploring what they need to change going forward. That includes Winnipeg Jets architect Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose team made it to the final four last spring only to be eliminated in the opening round this year.
With that in mind, I've put together a list of things I've noticed about the teams still standing, and what we should take from it all. At the risk of sounding like some clickbait Buzzfeed article, let's call it my six simple steps toward Stanley Cup contention.
1) It's not how you start, but how you finish: As the calendar flipped to 2019, the Jets were sitting pretty. They had 52 points in the bank, good for third overall in the NHL standings. Winnipeg was looking down at most opponents, including San Jose (8th), Boston (10th), Carolina (23rd) and St. Louis (30th).
But here's the thing. They don't hand out the hardware at the midway point. And the four teams still playing hockey right now all collectively took off, while the Jets crashed and burned. St. Louis (1st), Carolina (3rd). Boston (4th) and San Jose (8th) had tremendous second-halves which clearly carried over to the playoffs. The Jets were just 16th in the league from Jan. 1 on, unable to rediscover their earlier form, and it showed in their swift elimination to the Blues.
Going forward, I expect teams will be paying extra attention to how they play down the stretch, with plenty of evidence to suggest you can't simply flip a switch when the going really gets tough. Finish strong, or there's a good chance you're going to be finished quickly
2) Fancy stats are also important stats: Perhaps we should have seen this coming. San Jose, Carolina, Boston and St. Louis were all among the best five-on-five puck-possession teams this year during the regular season, according to the folks over at Natural Stat Trick. Using Corsi, the Sharks (1), Hurricanes (2), Bruins (6) and Blues (10) all ranked high, while the Jets were just 19th. Using another measure, Fenwick, Carolina (1), San Jose (2), Boston (4) and St. Louis (8) were among the best, while Winnipeg was just 20th.
Teams are putting more emphasis than ever on advanced analytics, although not everybody is at the same level, but it's clear there are now ways to help measure and even predict success rates. Yes, the game is still played on ice and luck and other intangibles will always be a factor, but those on the outside looking in would be wise to invest even more resources in this side of the game.
3) Spread the wealth: Brent Burns is currently the highest-paid player still playing, at $8 million per season. And the San Jose defenceman is more than earning his keep as he logs huge minutes and continues to produce at an elite rate for the Sharks. Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O' Reilly ($7.5 million) are the top earners for St. Louis, David Krejci ($7.25 million) leads Boston and Jordan Staal ($6 million) is the biggest ticket for Carolina.
What does this all mean? Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but none of these clubs are carrying a massive, mega-contract right now, the kind that can make it tough to round out a roster. The people in charge have done a nice job of paying their stars, but not to the point of excess where it hurts their ability to add important complementary pieces.
That should give pause to other clubs, including Toronto, where John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are going to be earning north of $10 million going forward.
And, closer to home, the Jets, who may have a pair of players making more than $8 million starting this fall in Blake Wheeler ($8.25 million) and Patrik Laine, a restricted free agent who needs a new contract. Kyle Connor could also approach that number this summer.
Add it all up and it's clear one of the keys to success is not getting trapped in salary-cap purgatory. Buyer beware, indeed.
4) Experience matters, as long as the veterans are a help, not a hindrance: The Jets were one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season (3rd, according to Roster Resource), and it showed, at times, especially with a league-leading 11 blown third-period leads that ended in losses.
Looking at the final four, only Carolina (5) has what would be considered a young roster, and it appears they've suffered a major case of stage fright in the Eastern Conference final, now down 3-0 to the Bruins. St. Louis (14), Boston (26) and San Jose (27) are stacked with grizzled veterans, including many who are still playing key roles.
The good news for the Jets is much of that youth has now been seasoned by two playoff runs, so perhaps some lessons learned along the way will pay off in the future.
5) Goaltending is voodoo: Jordan Binnington began the year playing in the American Hockey league. Curtis McElhinney was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually put on waivers, while Petr Mrazek was a forgotten figure who wasn't even given a qualifying offer by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer. Martin Jones was the subject of much speculation about his future, and Tuukka Rask had his starts significantly reduced for a third straight season.
And yet these five goaltenders are now front and centre in the playoffs, with one thing in common: none of them were overworked during the regular season. Jones (62 games), Binnington (48 between AHL and NHL), Rask (46), Mrazek (40) and McElhinney (33) all had plenty of time to rest up.
Here in Winnipeg, Connor Hellebuyck played in 63 games and never quite looked himself in his six playoff games, including a couple of notable rough outings. The Jets talked a lot last off-season about reducing his workload, went and signed a very capable backup in Laurent Brossoit and still leaned on Hellebuyck a ton.
Give the man a break.
6) Offence is great, but defence does really win championships: The Jets, with the NHL's seventh-best offence, outscored all remaining teams in the regular-season except San Jose, but also gave up far too many goals to seriously contend. Boston (3), St. Louis (5) and Carolina (7) were among the stingiest teams in the regular-season, while Winnipeg was just 15th in goals-against. San Jose was 21st, but their second-best offence makes them a bit of an exception to the rule.
It's rare that you can outscore your problems, and the Jets would be wise to come to training camp this fall with a renewed commitment to keeping pucks out of their net. Studying the successful systems being used by some of the above teams would be a good start.
Easier said than done, right? But in a sport where the line between success and failure is often finite, every stat and trend should be explored. No stone should be left unturned.
As the old saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.