Jul 13, 2020
- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The NHL is set to return from its monthslong pause because of the coronavirus pandemic. The postseason will be played out with a 24-team format, with 12 teams from the Eastern Conference skating in Toronto and their Western Conference counterparts heading to Edmonton, Alberta.
Some have said this format could be the greatest NHL playoffs yet, though there are many lingering questions as we consider what life in the NHL’s bubble will look like. For the teams that advance to the round of 16, it’s Stanley Cup or bust; for those that lose in the qualification round, they get a ticket in the lottery for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
As we count down the days to the start of the tournament, we preview the road to the Cup for each of the 24 qualified teams: players returning from injury, biggest roster questions, who they’re playing next and our predictions on how far they’ll go.
Note: Stanley Cup odds are provided by Caesars Sportsbook. Emily Kaplan previewed the Eastern teams, while Greg Wyshynski handled the West.
Record at the pause: 44-14-12 (.714 points percentage). The Bruins were buzzing when the NHL paused, winning 16 of their final 20 games, led by red-hot Tuukka Rask, and David Pastrnak, who tied with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals. Boston led the NHL in wins (44), regulation wins (38) and plus goal differential (plus-53).
Stanley Cup odds: +600
Who they’re playing next: Round-robin games against the Lightning (against whom they went 1-2-1 in the regular season), Flyers (1-0-2) and Capitals (1-1-1).
Biggest question: Is age a concern? The Bruins have a handful of key players on the other side of 30, including captain Zdeno Chara (43), Patrice Bergeron (34), David Krejci (34), Brad Marchand (32) and goalies Rask (33) and Jaroslav Halak (35). Boston typically views its veteran experience as an advantage, but after a long layoff, could it prevent this team from starting off strong? Marchand seemed to suggest that in April, when he said at a virtual town hall with season-ticket holders, “Older teams are really going to struggle.” Marchand said youthful teams — he cited Toronto and Tampa Bay — were at an advantage, and “really high-end skilled teams are just going to have the legs and be able to get it back quick.” We’ll be keeping an eye on Bergeron, who has dealt with a few ailments the past two seasons, including a nagging groin injury this season.
Players coming back from injury: Key defensemen Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo were monitoring minor injuries at the time of the pause, but both are expected to be a full go come Aug. 1. Veteran blueliner Kevan Miller has not played all season, and it doesn’t appear he will return.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 5. The Bruins were the first team in the league to hit 100 points and had eight more than any of the other “top seeds” they’ll have to face in round-robin play. So to have to fight for what they’ve already earned isn’t ideal — but it could be worse.
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. The Bruins were a force when the season was paused. We don’t know how they’ll handle the long layoff, but that’s really their only question mark.
Record at the pause: 43-21-6 (.657). Tampa was solid. The Lightning were playing catch-up with the Bruins for the top spot in the division and had a cushy 11-point lead over the third-place Leafs.
Stanley Cup odds: +550 (favorites)
Who they’re playing next: Round-robin games against the Bruins (3-1-0 in the regular season), Capitals (0-2-1) and Flyers (2-0-0).
Biggest question: How will the new guys mesh? First-year general manager Julien BriseBois went out and got his team reinforcements at the trade deadline, acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow for forward depth. They played nine games and eight games, respectively, with the Bolts before the NHL shut down, and combined for just three points. Both players were looking to solidify their roles on an already well-constructed team, something that usually takes a few weeks. Since the Lightning don’t have the luxury of time, can they expedite the process to make each trade worth it? (Luckily, or rather, strategically, neither player is a rental. They are each under contract through next season.)
Players coming back from injury: The big one here is captain Steven Stamkos, who most recently played on Feb. 25, then underwent surgery to repair a core-muscle injury. His projected timetable to return was six to eight weeks, and with extra time to rehab, the team expects him fully recovered. Defensemen Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta were managing minor injuries at the pause; coach Jon Cooper told Greg Wyshynski they all will be ready.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 5. The Lightning were one of two teams to vote against the format; player rep Alex Killorn said his team was worried that teams given a bye (like themselves) would be at a competitive disadvantage. As one of the top four, they will get one exhibition game and three round-robin games. It’s not exactly the same intensity as playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round but … are the Lightning sure they really want that?
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. Yeah, the Lightning have been in this position for the past few seasons and haven’t been able to get it done (notably floundering in last season’s first round). But this deep, battle-tested team has as good a shot as anyone.
Record at the pause: 41-20-8 (.652). The 2018 Stanley Cup champions were clinging to a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division — those Flyers were surging. Barring a major collapse, the Caps were solidly looking at their sixth consecutive playoff berth and 13th in the past 14 seasons.
Stanley Cup odds: +1100
Who they’re playing next: Round-robin games against Lightning (3-0-0 in the regular season), Flyers (1-3-0) and Bruins (2-1-0).
Biggest question: Can Ilya Kovalchuk be an X factor? GM Brian MacLellan made a shrewd move in acquiring the Russian sniper — and good friend of Alex Ovechkin‘s — on Feb. 23. For a team strapped against the salary cap, you couldn’t ask for a better low-risk, potentially high-reward transaction. MacLellan also shored up the blue line (an area of weakness for this team) by snagging Brenden Dillon. But it’s Kovalchuk, with 443 career goals (including 144 on the power play) who is most intriguing. Kovalchuk was a bust in Los Angeles but seemed to mesh well in his short stint with Montreal. He got only seven games in Washington before the NHL shut down. Can the 37-year-old, reinvigorated by one last great chance at the Cup, be a difference-maker in Washington? Or is this the last we see of him in an NHL sweater?
Players coming back from injury: The Capitals were fully healthy at the time of the pause.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 3. The Flyers were steamrollering the standings and breathing down the Caps’ neck on a collision course for the division title. The Penguins got reinforcements at the trade deadline and were only going to get healthier. The Caps should feel just fine with this situation.
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. We’re still not totally sold on the blue line, and this season featured some uninspiring stretches. But these are the Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals, and the roster is quite similar to their Cup-winning one in 2018. Braden Holtby didn’t have his best season (a career-worst .897 percentage, 3.11 goals-against average), but if he gets hot, other teams are in trouble.
Record at the pause: 41-21-7 (.645). The Flyers were one of the NHL’s hottest teams over the two months before the shutdown. Since Jan. 8, they are tied with the Bruins for the best record in the league. They were within one point of the Caps for the Metro lead, so yeah, they deserve to be here.
Stanley Cup odds: +1000
Who they’re playing next: Round-robin games against Bruins (2-1-0 in the regular season), Capitals (3-0-1) and Lightning (0-2-0).
Biggest question: Could Nolan Patrick return? The 21-year-old has missed the entire season managing a migraine disorder. He’s said he wanted to play, and according to GM Chuck Fletcher, he was trending in the right direction at the pause — skating in a handful of practices — though he had yet to be cleared for contact. By the time the NHL starts up, the No. 2 overall pick of 2017 will have not played in a game in 16 months. Will he be healthy enough to return, and even if he is, will he be able to make a big impact?
Players coming back from injury: Patrick is an unknown for now. In more positive news, the Flyers will welcome back 40-point scorer James van Riemsdyk (hand), depth center Nate Thompson (knee sprain) and defenseman Philippe Myers (fractured patella in right knee). Oskar Lindblom, who is undergoing treatment for Ewing sarcoma and missed much of the season, has begun skating with the team but will not play.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 4. The Flyers were on a collision course with first place when the NHL paused, and we’ll never know if they could have overtaken the Caps for the division crown. It stinks that their momentum was slowed by a nearly five-month pause, but as the fourth seed of these top four, they’ll have a chance to earn the top spot.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. We’re not ready to go all-in on the Flyers yet, but if they put up a good showing in round-robin play, we could be convinced. GM Chuck Fletcher did a nice job shoring up forward depth at the deadline, acquiring Derek Grant and Thompson. We’re also excited to watch 21-year-old Carter Hart in his first postseason action. The goalie was hot at the pause, going 7-1 over his last eight, with a .941 save percentage.
Record at the pause: 40-23-6 (.623). The Penguins had a six-game losing streak in late February that dropped them from atop the Metropolitan Division, though they were still firmly in playoff position. Pittsburgh had been in good shape this season despite brutal injury luck, which persuaded GM Jim Rutherford to be a buyer at the trade deadline.
Stanley Cup odds: +1500
Who they’re playing next: The Montreal Canadiens are next up for the Penguins, and Pittsburgh won the season series 2-1.
Biggest question: Who starts in net? Tristan Jarry was the better goalie for most of this season and made his All-Star debut in January. He floundered before the pause, though, going 0-4 over his last four starts, allowing 18 goals with a .845 save percentage. Then there’s Matt Murray, who has also had his fair share of struggles but has 47 playoff starts and is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. (Jarry has only 57 NHL starts, period, and zero in the playoffs.) It’s a tough decision for coach Mike Sullivan to make, though it seems he’s leaning toward Murray to start.
Players coming back from injury: The fact that Jake Guentzel can return is significant. After his first 40-goal season in 2018-19, Guentzel was off to a blazing-hot start before injuring his shoulder on Dec. 30 and undergoing surgery a day later. He was questionable to return had the season gone as planned but should be good to go for the qualifying round. Zach Aston-Reese, meanwhile, missed the final 12 games of the season with a lower-body injury, but was set to return just as the season went on pause. The 25-year-old is a valuable depth forward.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 9. The Penguins were the oft-cited example for why barely bubble teams such as the Canadiens or Blackhawks shouldn’t have made the postseason. There was a weekslong storyline wondering what would happen if the Penguins (a near playoff lock) ran into a hot Carey Price and they were quickly dispatched despite being so far ahead in the standings.
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. The Penguins’ offense, now mostly healthy and including Jason Zucker, has a chance to be scary dangerous. In a tournament featuring so much uncertainty, it feels safe to bet on Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co., veterans of long playoff runs.
Record at the pause: 38-25-5 (.596). The Hurricanes were clinging to a wild-card spot but had a few teams breathing down their necks. Carolina was a bit banged up, enduring a stretch without its top two goalies.
Stanley Cup odds: +4000
Who they’re playing next: It’s the New York Rangers for Carolina. The Rangers won the season series 4-0 this season, outscoring the Canes 17-9.
Biggest question: What will the defense look like? The Canes were dealt a huge blow when they lost Dougie Hamilton on Jan. 16. He was having a Norris Trophy-caliber campaign and was supposed to be out for the season. To help the blue line, Carolina traded for Sami Vatanen. Only one problem: Vatanen never got to suit up with the Canes. “We were told he was going to be able to play, but he wasn’t,” coach Rod Brind’Amour told the ESPN on Ice podcast in May. “So he would have been iffy at best had we started [at the regularly scheduled time]. And now that takes that out of the equation. So that’s an interesting one, just because we’ve never seen him play with us or practice even. That is a wild card, but that’s a pretty good wild card. I like having that one in the hole there.” With these two back — and the slim possibility of Brett Pesce (shoulder surgery) returning, too — Brind’Amour has a surplus of defensive combinations to deploy.
Players coming back from injury: The Hurricanes were banged up at the pause and are excited to welcome several players back — specifically Hamilton, who fractured his fibula and missed the final 21 games of the regular season. Forward Ryan Dzingel and goalie James Reimer were out at the pause but are now back. (Goalie Petr Mrazek was also injured, but got a start in on March 10.) Vatanen should finally debut, while Pesce, who underwent shoulder surgery in early March, is a long shot to return, though the Canes haven’t ruled it out. His initial prognosis was an absence of four to six months.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 7. The Canes weren’t exactly in the most secure playoff position, so they can’t really complain. They were, however, one of two teams to vote against the format; they felt they didn’t get rewarded for the 68 games they already played. It doesn’t help that they’re playing a team they don’t fare well against; the Rangers outscored Carolina 17-9 this season.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. A fully healthy blue line could be a game-changer for this team, which controls possession well and has a fun top line to watch. Goaltending could be a concern.
Record at the pause: 35-23-10 (.588). The Islanders were bleeding when the NHL paused, losing seven straight. They still clung to a wild-card spot — buoyed by a hot start — but it would have been a fight until the end.
Stanley Cup odds: +6000
Who they’re playing next: The Isles get the Florida Panthers, whom they swept 3-0 in the regular season.
Biggest question: Can they generate enough offense? We know Barry Trotz coaches a defensively responsible team, which is definitely not the worst thing in the postseason. But the Isles have a dingy power play (24th in the league) and a bottom-10 offense overall. When they were knocked out of last season’s playoffs by the Hurricanes, it was because they scored only five goals in four games. The addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau should help — he did score a goal in each of his first two games with New York. The team also has one of the most creative forwards in the game in Mathew Barzal. But the Isles could run into trouble if Sergei Bobrovsky gets hot, as he did in last season’s playoffs for Columbus.
Players coming back from injury: Defenseman Johnny Boychuk and forward Casey Cizikas both suffered nasty lacerations that kept them out of the lineup at the pause (for Boychuk, it was 90 stitches on the eyelids; Cizikas had a lacerated left leg). They’ll be back. But the most significant return is top-pairing defenseman Adam Pelech, who injured his Achilles tendon on Jan. 2 and should have been done for the season. Pelech and partner Ryan Pulock were having a breakout season.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 4. The Isles were floating just above the bubble, and they’ll face a team that was about to surface from underneath. Overall this feels fair — and the Islanders have to feel OK considering they swept the season series.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. Remember the franchise-record 17-game point streak? It’s OK if you forgot; it feels like four years ago, but that actually happened this season. If the Isles find their stride, they have the capability to run the table.
Record at the pause: 36-25-9 (.579). The Leafs had plenty of catching up to do to chase the Bruins (19 points ahead) and Lightning (11 points) above them in the Atlantic Division but seemed in good position to fend off any wild-card threats.
Stanley Cup odds: +2000
Who they’re playing next: The Columbus Blue Jackets and Leafs will square off in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup. The Leafs took the season series 1-0-1.
Biggest question: Can Nicholas Robertson crack the lineup? GM Kyle Dubas said the 18-year-old will have a shot; in fact, Dubas gushed in April that he’s “never come across a player at that age that has that level of focus and attention to detail.” The 2019 second-rounder had 55 goals and 31 assists in 46 games for the OHL Peterborough Petes this season, earning himself an invitation to training camp. He is the Leafs’ best prospect — and was named ESPN’s Prospect of the Year by Chris Peters — and his arrival will send Toronto fans into a tizzy. Not that this team doesn’t already have enough offensive talent.
Players coming back from injury: First, the good news. Rookie Ilya Mikheyev — a fan favorite on the ice, and for his soup advocacy — returns after having surgery to repair a severed right wrist. He suffered the injury just after Christmas. Defenseman Jake Muzzin, who broke his right hand on Feb. 25, also returns.
Now the not-as-good: Andreas Johnsson isn’t going to be ready for training camp. His Feb. 19 knee surgery had an expected recovery of six months, so he could be available later in the tournament.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 5. The Leafs were safely in playoff position but instead have to go through a play-in round — against a team with an identical points percentage. Not ideal, but not something to whine about, either.
How far we think they’ll go: Flawed contender. One of Toronto’s biggest challenges will be getting past the Blue Jackets and their swarming forecheck, which doomed the Lightning last season. If the Leafs do that, they’re in good shape to go on a run.
Record at the pause: 33-22-15 (.579). The injuries were piling up for the Blue Jackets, who in February lost both of their starting goaltenders and top defenseman Seth Jones. They were outside of playoff position at the pause but firmly in striking distance.
Stanley Cup odds: +6000
Who they’re playing next: The Toronto Maple Leafs are up next, and they bested the Blue Jackets 1-0-1 in the season series.
Biggest question: Who starts in net? The Blue Jackets said goodbye to two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky this past offseason and somehow didn’t suffer a drop-off in net. Bobrovsky’s backup, Joonas Korpisalo, and rookie sensation Elvis Merzlikins each stepped up as the No. 1 at times this season as Columbus ranked third in the league in allowing just 2.61 goals per game. Coach John Tortorella is comfortable with either but might be leaning toward Merzlikins, who has big-game experience as the Latvia starting goaltender in several world championships (with a .937 save percentage in the 2017 tourney and .940 in 2018). Korpisalo started four extra games in the regular season, but Merzlikins’ .926 even-strength save percentage ranked 10th among all NHL goalies.
Players coming back from injury: Oh, do the Blue Jackets get reinforcements. Headlining the group of returning players is top defenseman Jones, who is healthy after undergoing ankle surgery on Feb. 11. Columbus will also welcome back last season’s top goal scorer, Cam Atkinson (ankle), forward Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle surgery), defenseman Dean Kukan (knee), forward Nathan Gerbe (groin) and forward Alexandre Texier (back).
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 4. Since the Blue Jackets were one of the teams on the outside looking in, they’re grateful for an invite to keep playing, though they were confident in their ability to sneak back in the wild-card race. The Leafs are a tough matchup, but Columbus already has a blueprint for slowing down a high-powered offense in the postseason.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. Now that the Blue Jackets have Jones and both goalies healthy, their defense should be a concern to everyone. Only question we have: Can they score enough goals? (They averaged the fewest of any team in this tournament.)
10. Florida Panthers
Record at the pause: 35-26-8 (.565). The Panthers were on the outside looking in after picking up only four wins over their final 16. The final 13 games were going to be a grind, but the Cats had a chance.
Stanley Cup odds: +7500
Who they’re playing next: The Panthers play the New York Islanders, who won the season series 3-0.
Biggest question: Which “Bob” are we getting these playoffs? After splurging in free agency to the tune of seven years, $70 million, the Panthers didn’t exactly get what they expected out of 31-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky this season. Bobrovsky finished with a .900 save percentage — his worst since 2011-12, his second season in the league — and recorded just one shutout. (He had nine the previous season.) Bobrovsky had earned a reputation for playoff collapses with the Blue Jackets but bucked the trend with a sensational postseason in 2019. And the Russian does have extensive experience against the Islanders, as a longtime Metro Division rival. In 27 career games against the Isles, Bobrovsky is 16-10-0 with a .928 save percentage, 2.18 goals-against average and three shutouts.
Players coming back from injury: Bobrovsky missed the final four games before the pause with a lower-body injury; he should be fine come August. Forward Brian Boyle is also expected back for camp after missing a month with an upper-body injury. Depth players Dryden Hunt and Riley Stillman were monitoring injuries and will return.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 2. The Panthers should be grateful for a chance to keep playing. Their offense — which quietly ranked sixth in the NHL — will get tested against the stingy Isles.
How far we think they’ll go: Just happy to be here. The Panthers heavily invested last offseason (coach Joel Quenneville, Bobrovsky), their most expensive ever. But not all went according to plan, and Florida was in danger of missing the playoffs yet again. The Panthers are playing with house money here.
11. New York Rangers
Record at the pause: 37-28-5 (.564). The Rangers had a great February, winning 11 of 15 games to push them — improbably — within a win of the wild-card spot. They were trending up and clicking at exactly the right time.
Stanley Cup odds: +4000
Who they’re playing next: In one of the weird outcomes of the play-in format, the Rangers get the Carolina Hurricanes, against whom they won the season series 4-0.
Biggest question: Who starts in net? This is a lingering question for half of the 24 teams returning to play this summer. But the Rangers’ situation, as it has all season, provides the most intrigue. This could be Henrik Lundqvist‘s last hurrah, and there’s a case the 37-year-old earned the postseason start, despite not being the best goalie on the roster. (Lundqvist historically elevates his game in the playoffs, especially when facing elimination; in those 22 games, he is a ridiculous 15-7 with two shutouts and a .941 save percentage.) That said, 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin is younger, quicker and frankly just better than Lundqvist is now. According to Natural Stat Trick, no goalie at 5-on-5 faced more shots per 60 minutes than Shesterkin, and his .931 save percentage in that situation ranked ninth. What will coach David Quinn do?
Players coming back from injury: The Rangers made an assertive move by keeping Chris Kreider at the trade deadline (despite a boatload of outside interest) and signing him to an extension. He fractured his foot days later on Feb. 28, a huge bummer, but is expected to be healthy for camp. Forward Filip Chytil will also be good to go after missing the final game before the pause with a lower-body injury. The availability of center Micheal Haley (bilateral core-muscle injury) is unknown.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 1. Team on the outside gets in — and faces a team against which it historically plays very well. What’s not to like?
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. The Rangers have goaltending depth that rivals anyone else’s in this tournament — which helps compensate for some defensive deficiencies — and they’re the youngest team in the postseason as well. Don’t overlook the offense. Artemi Panarin is having an MVP-level season, but Mika Zibanejad has been equally exciting to watch.
Record at the pause: 31-31-9 (.500). Uh, nobody exactly thought the Canadiens would be here — even the Canadiens. Injuries piled up and scoring was hard to come by, leading the Habs to be sellers at the deadline. They had the 24th-best record in the NHL when it halted play.
Stanley Cup odds: +10000
Who they’re playing next: As would be expected for a No. 12 seed, the Habs get a juggernaut in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh won the season series 2-1.
Biggest question: Will Max Domi be cleared to play? According to the league’s protocols, “players who, after consultation with Club doctor who conducted PPME, and the Club’s infectious disease expert, are determined to be at substantial risk of developing a serious illness as a result of exposure to the novel coronavirus shall be deemed to be unfit to play and shall not be permitted to participate in either Phase 3 or Phase 4. A player may initiate a second opinion concerning his fitness to play status pursuant to Paragraph 5 of the Standard Player Contract.” Domi has Type 1 diabetes, which he manages, but it will be interesting to see how the doctors rule here. Domi is an important member of this team, and sources said he wants to play this summer; the decision might be made for him, though. General manager Marc Bergevin announced that the Canadiens agreed with Domi to wait seven to 10 days before determining if he would join the team for the rest of the season.
Players coming back from injury: Two important forwards were out at the time of the pause: Tomas Tatar (shoulder) and Jonathan Drouin (ankle). We expect to see both back. Defenseman Victor Mete fractured his foot blocking a shot on Feb. 18 and was supposed to be done for the season. The last we heard, Bergevin wasn’t sure if Mete would be ready for the qualifying round, though he has been skating with teammates in Phase 2, so that’s promising.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 1. The Canadiens have no right to complain. They don’t really belong here, so facing a healthy Penguins roster is appropriate poison.
How far we think they’ll go: Just happy to be here. Maybe Carey Price can steal a series — just maybe. But it’s hard to imagine the Habs having sustainable success this summer. This is still a roster in transition.
Record at the pause: 42-19-10 (.662). The Blues sat atop the Western Conference with 94 points, a full 16 points clear of the playoff bubble. They were a lock to make the postseason but were only two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, who had both the tiebreaker (with 37 regulation wins) and a game in hand.
Stanley Cup odds: +900
Who they’re playing next: In the round-robin against the Avalanche (2-2-0 in their season series), Golden Knights (1-0-2) and Stars (4-0-1).
Biggest question: What does the pause do for a team that played a lot of hockey in the past 22 months? The NHL has seen only three back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since the 1980s, and only five teams make back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals. The grind of the postseason can chisel last year’s juggernaut into dust. The Blues played all the way through to Game 7 of the last round in 2019. They looked stout during the regular season, through some injury adversity. With this kind of layoff, those playoff legs are going to be well rested for a chance at a second sip from the Cup.
Players coming back from injury: That the Blues finished atop the Western Conference having Vladimir Tarasenko limited to just 10 games is one of the season’s most remarkable feats. They finished with a higher goals-per-game average (3.14) than last season, too! Tarasenko was due to miss five months with a shoulder injury. He’s been skating and is on track to rejoin the team. The scoring star was second on the Blues with 11 goals during their Stanley Cup run last season.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 6. There was no guarantee the Blues were going to win the conference or their division, but the potential that a three-game losing stream could thrust them into the fourth seed is a tough look.
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. Lightning in a bottle won’t be captured twice, but it might not have to be. GM Doug Armstrong kept this team intact, and that chemistry and familiarity are huge factors in the Blues’ favor. Well, that and having a goalie in Jordan Binnington whose stoic comportment makes it feel like he was created in a lab for an empty-arena tournament.
Record at the pause: 42-20-8 (.657). The Avalanche were two points in back of the St. Louis Blues for tops in the Western Conference, with a game in hand.
Stanley Cup odds: +800
Who they’re playing next: In the round-robin against the Blues (2-2-0), Golden Knights (2-0-0) and Stars (0-2-2).
Biggest question: What do the Avalanche look like when powered up to full strength? Not to jump ahead to the next topic, but the Avs were one of the most injury-devastated teams in the NHL this season. They had only 11 skaters who appeared in at least 60 games and lost goalie Philipp Grubauer to injury during the Stadium Series game at the Air Force Academy in February. Thanks to great coaching from Jared Bednar, superb goaltending from Pavel Francouz and an MVP-level performance from Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche still thrived. But what can this team accomplish with everyone healthy?
Players coming back from injury: As we mentioned, the Avalanche lineup was Swiss cheese at the pause. Players who were out of the lineup as of March 11: forward Colin Wilson (lower body), out since Nov. 7; center Nazem Kadri (lower body), out since Feb. 11; Grubauer (lower body) and Matt Calvert (lower body), both out since Feb. 16; winger Mikko Rantanen (upper body), out since Feb. 17; and winger Andre Burakovsky (lower body), out since March 4. Even MacKinnon was banged up at that point, out up to two weeks with a lower-body injury. It’s expected everyone will be available for the Avs in the season restart.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 1. Had the NHL jumped right to a 16-team playoff, the Avalanche would have faced a Dallas team against which it went winless in four games this season. Instead, via the round-robin, they could end up with a much more favorable matchup and potentially the top seed in the conference.
How far we think they’ll go: Top Cup favorite. The pieces general manager Joe Sakic put in place last summer have all looked like they fit well, rounding out an already strong lineup with veteran depth. The Avalanche were fourth in offense (3.37 goals per game) and sixth in defense (2.71), thanks to a stellar goaltending battery. The only thing lacking here is deep playoff experience from their top stars, but look no further than last season’s Blues to see how a team can overcome that.
Record at the pause: 39-24-8 (.606). The Knights were leading the Pacific Division with 86 points and were eight points up on the final wild-card team. Money Puck gave them a 99.3% chance of making the playoffs.
Stanley Cup odds: +600
Who they’re playing next: Vegas is in the round-robin against the Blues (2-1-0), Avalanche (0-2-0) and Stars (1-1-0).
Biggest question: Which goaltender backstops the Golden Knights? Vegas pulled off one of the most stunning moves of the trade deadline, acquiring goalie Robin Lehner from the Blackhawks. It was tacit acknowledgment that Marc-Andre Fleury hadn’t been himself this season, with a .905 save percentage and a negative goals saved above average. Meanwhile, Lehner won his first three starts with the Knights. It’s hard to imagine Fleury, the young franchise’s biggest star, not getting in the crease to start the playoffs. But clearly Lehner is an insurance policy the Golden Knights won’t hesitate to cash in.
Players coming back from injury: Star winger Mark Stone suffered a lower-body injury on Feb. 28 and was due to miss the rest of the regular season. Winger Alex Tuch had been out of the lineup with a lower-body injury since Feb. 19 but was working his way back at the time of the pause.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 6. The experienced Knights would have had home-ice advantage against a young Vancouver team, but the round-robin also gives them a shot to win the conference’s top seed.
How far we think they’ll go: Flawed contender. There’s no question that the Knights are deep and talented and have a wealth of playoff experience. They also had found their groove under coach Peter DeBoer after he replaced Gerard Gallant 22 games ago. But Vegas is going into this tournament without one of its greatest advantages: Las Vegas itself, as the Golden Knights embark on an empty-arena journey instead of one in front of one of the most raucous atmospheres in sports.
4. Dallas Stars
Record at the pause: 37-24-8 (.594). The Stars had a 93.4% chance of qualifying for the playoffs per Money Puck and were four points clear of Nashville for third in the Central Division.
Stanley Cup odds: +1500
Who they’re playing next: Dallas is in the round-robin against the Blues (1-3-1). Avalanche (4-0-0) and Golden Knights (1-0-1).
Biggest question: Can they defend amid chaos, and can they score more than they did before the pause? The Stars were second in the NHL in defense (2.52 goals per game), with interim coach Rick Bowness continuing to play the systems that former coach Jim Montgomery had installed for the team. But a long layoff and a very short exhibition season before jumping into the round-robin might not bode well for teams that rely on structure. If the “fire wagons” are speeding through the qualification round, does Dallas have the offensive game to hang with them? The Stars were 26th in offense (2.58) this season; only the Blue Jackets (28th) were lower among the 24 postseason teams.
Players coming back from injury: The Stars were mostly healthy when the pause hit, at least when it came to players being out of the lineup. But this is a team with nine players over 30 expected to be in the lineup. How could this break in the season help them? Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Polak opted out of the return to play.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 4. On the one hand, the Stars in the first round would have faced the Avalanche, a team they dominated in four games during the regular season; then again, they also could have slipped to the wild card in the last dozen games of the campaign. But by qualifying for the round-robin, the Stars can earn the top seed in the conference with three wins, leaping more than a dozen points in the standings.
How far we think they’ll go: Flawed contender. There’s no question the Stars can defend well and have two very capable goaltenders in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. But were it not for brilliant rookie Denis Gurianov, they wouldn’t have had a 20-goal scorer this season. Plus, it’s anyone’s guess how this veteran lineup reacts to the layoff and the compressed postseason.
Record at the pause: 37-25-9 (.585). The Oilers were in second place in the Pacific Division at the pause, five points clear of the Vancouver Canucks, who had two games in hand. Money Puck gave them a 93.3% chance of making the playoffs.
Stanley Cup odds: +3000
Who they’re playing next: The Chicago Blackhawks in the qualification round’s No. 5 vs. No. 12 series. The Oilers were 1-2-0 against the Blackhawks this season, losing twice in Chicago.
Biggest question: How much further can Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl drag this team? Draisaitl is a Hart Trophy favorite with 43 goals and 67 assists for 110 points in 71 games. McDavid had 34 goals and 63 assists for 97 points in 64 games. The next-highest scorer? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with 61 points, who skated with Draisaitl. The two stars dominate at 5-on-5, playing the majority of their time apart. They’ve helped create the most effective power play (29.5% conversion rate) in the NHL since 1979. As they go, so go the Oilers. And they’ve just kept on going all season.
Players coming back from injury: Deadline pickup Mike Green went out on Feb. 28 with an MCL sprain after just two games with the Oilers, and announced on Saturday he was opting out of the season restart. Forward Joakim Nygard is expected to be ready for the postseason after suffering a broken hand in January.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 7. All that effort for a five-game play-in series? Granted, if the Oilers can’t take out the Blackhawks, they don’t deserve to advance, but in theory they shouldn’t even have to. But we’ll give this a 7 because by being in the qualification round, Edmonton will have a 1-in-8 chance at quite a rookie winger for McDavid next season and beyond.
How far we think they’ll go: Flawed contender. The Oilers’ flaws are perhaps a bit too numerous to label them as a contender, and you should always be wary about a team that feasted on the power play getting the same kinds of opportunities to do so in the postseason. But with McDavid and Draisaitl, all things are possible.
Record at the pause: 35-26-8 (.565). The Predators were far from a sure thing with 13 games remaining. Money Puck gave them a 53.8% chance of making the playoffs because of the jumble around the playoff bubble.
Stanley Cup odds: +4000
Who they’re playing next: The Predators will face the Arizona Coyotes in the qualification round, having gone 1-1-0 against them in the regular season.
Biggest question: Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros? This towers over every other concern and curiosity about the Predators this postseason. There’s no question Saros had the better season. His .914 save percentage was better than Rinne’s .895, as was his 2.70 goals-against average compared to Rinne’s 3.17. He was solidly on the plus side of goals saved above average; Rinne was very much on the minus side. But Saros is 24 years old with seven playoff appearances, none of them starts. Rinne is 37 with 89 playoff appearances, all of them starts, and also happens to be the franchise standard-bearer. Coach John Hynes said the better goalie in training camp will be the one who starts Game 1. What a fascinating moment for the Predators.
Players coming back from injury: Defenseman Dan Hamhuis missed the final four games of the season with a lower-body injury but will be available for the qualification round.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 3. After facing a 50-50 chance at making the playoffs before the pause, the Predators are in the postseason and draw a winnable series against the Coyotes instead of playing against the conference’s top seed in the first round. And of course, if they’re upset, they’re in the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. The Predators were decidedly average this season, ranking outside the top 10 in offense and defense. But it’s the kind of team that could catch fire with a little momentum out of the qualification round, provided its biggest offensive names outkick their regular-season performances, one of the goaltenders dominates the crease and Norris contender Roman Josi (65 points) and the tremendously underrated Ryan Ellis (38 points in 49 games) command the blue line.
Record at the pause: 36-27-6 (.565). The Canucks had a 51.7% chance of making the playoffs, per Money Puck. They were a point behind Calgary for third in the Pacific Division but had a higher points percentage than the Flames, having played one fewer game. But they were squarely on the bubble.
Stanley Cup odds: +4000
Who they’re playing next: The Canucks are the No. 7 seed in the qualification round and play a five-game series against No. 10-seeded Minnesota. They were 1-1-1 against the Wild this season. One of those losses was a shootout loss at home against the Wild after they named Dean Evason interim coach.
Biggest question: Are the Canucks ready for prime time? Bo Horvat qualifies as a playoff veteran among the young core members of this team, with six games under his belt back in 2014-15, which was the most recent time Vancouver made the dance. “I think they are going to be ready for it. They have the game to suit the playoffs,” he said of his younger teammates. But for Elias Pettersson (21), Brock Boeser (22), Jake Virtanen (23) and especially Calder Trophy contender Quinn Hughes (20), this is their first taste of the postseason. That inexperience extends to the crease, as neither Jacob Markstrom nor Thatcher Demko has started a playoff game. Will empty arenas play in their favor? And will GM Jim Benning’s veteran additions with playoff experience — such as J.T. Miller and Tyler Toffoli — give this room the leadership it needs in rough patches?
Players coming back from injury: At the pause, the Canucks were missing some key individuals. Markstrom had been out with a lower-body injury since Feb. 24. Chris Tanev was injured around their last game before the pause. Both are due back. They hoped injured forward Josh Leivo could return in the summer restart, but he’s still working back from an injury. The X factor could be spark-plug forward Micheal Ferland. After his monthslong comeback attempt following a concussion, the team is hopeful he can join the roster for the postseason. Forward Sven Baertschi, meanwhile, has opted out of the return to play.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 2. The Canucks weren’t guaranteed a playoff spot, and might have ended up on a more difficult playoff series than their draw against the Wild here. Plus, the NHL has determined that if the Canucks lose in the first round, they’re technically not even a playoff team; thus, the conditional pick (owned by the Devils) remains with them and they would enter the lottery for the first overall selection.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. The Canucks are very talented, very strong in net but awfully green. That said, a qualification-round victory could do wonders for that confidence going forward. Hence the dark horse status.
Record at the pause: 36-27-7 (.564). Money Puck gave the Flames a 78.5% chance of qualifying for the postseason.
Stanley Cup odds: +7500
Who they’re playing next: The Flames are the No. 8 seed in the qualification round and will face the No. 9 seed Winnipeg Jets, who defeated the Flames 2-1 in their only meeting of the season on Oct. 26. At that point, Calgary was still being coached by the since-resigned Bill Peters.
Biggest question: Can the offensive uptick continue? From a personnel standpoint, the Flames’ biggest question is whether to roll with David Rittich or Cam Talbot as their starting goaltender. But the big-picture question is about the Flames’ scoring. They were 20th with 2.91 goals per game, better than only four of the other 23 postseason teams. But in the last 15 games of the regular season, the Flames averaged 4.06 goals per game. Johnny Gaudreau had 18 points in 18 games. Matthew Tkachuk had 20 points in that span. The Flames finally showed they have the capacity to put goals on the board, and that has to continue against the Jets.
Players coming back from injury: First, it should be mentioned that defenseman Travis Hamonic opted out of returning for the restart. Defenseman Noah Hanifin was hurt near the pause but is ready to roll. Defenseman Juuso Valimaki is skating again; the 21-year-old has been out since August 2019 after ACL surgery.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 4. Had the Flames finished in the wild card, they would have drawn a division champion. Had they finished third in the Pacific, they would have likely drawn Edmonton. Here, they draw the Jets, who aren’t the Blues, Golden Knights or Connor McDavid & Co., but will be a tough out.
How far we think they’ll go: Flawed contender. The goaltending and defense are anyone’s guess — for all the attention on offense, the Flames were only 16th in defense (3.06) — but the Flames are always a pain to play against, both in the physical sense and in the Tkachukian sense.
Record at the pause: 37-28-6 (.563). The Jets had only a 43.6% chance of making the postseason per Money Puck, despite being squarely on the wild-card bubble.
Stanley Cup odds: +6000
Who they’re playing next: The Jets are the No. 9 seed in the qualification round, facing the No. 8-seeded Calgary Flames in a five-game series. The Jets won their only meeting with the Flames.
Biggest question: Is the much-maligned defense corps no longer worthy of maligning? Goalie Connor Hellebuyck is expected to win the Vezina Trophy in a walk this season, thriving behind a defense that lost four of six players from last season. Gradually, the defense in front of him this season has improved, both statistically and in personnel thanks to the acquisition of Dylan DeMelo from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. DeMelo will work with Josh Morrissey on the team’s top pairing, followed by Dmitry Kulikov and Neal Pionk, who had a strong season. Nathan Beaulieu and Tucker Poolman are in the mix for the third pairing, with Anthony Bitetto, Sami Niku and Luca Sbisa healthy for the restart. Maybe some back relief for Hellebuyck, who carried the Jets all season.
Players coming back from injury: Along with the returning defensemen, Mark Letestu should be back after missing 64 games with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. But the real question is about Bryan Little, the veteran forward who has been out since November after taking a puck to the side of the head. Expect an update as camp opens.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 3. The math wasn’t in the Jets’ favor in the Central Division, as the second-place Avalanche were out of reach and both the Stars and Predators had two games in hand on them. The return-to-play format drafts them into the postseason and into a series against an erratic Flames team.
How far we think they’ll go: Just happy to be here. The Jets have a chance in any series if Hellebuyck decides they do, but unless the defense has really turned the corner, this was a team that ranked 29th in expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (2.07), ahead of only the Sabres and Red Wings. Overall, the Jets were last in expected goals plus-minus.
10. Minnesota Wild
Record at the pause: 35-27-7 (.558). The Wild had a 68% chance at making the Stanley Cup playoffs after a late-season surge.
Stanley Cup odds: +6000
Who they’re playing next: The Wild will face the Vancouver Canucks. Minnesota was 2-1-0 against Vancouver this season.
Biggest question: How good are the Dean Evason Wild? The interim coach, elevated when Bruce Boudreau was fired after 57 games, went 8-4-0 before the pause. The Wild had been trending up offensively in Boudreau’s last days, and Evason kept that going while increasing Minnesota’s average shot totals with a more aggressive (read: less cautious) approach in the offensive zone. The Wild were the second-best defensive team in the NHL this season behind the Bruins. Can Minnesota put it all together as a playoff team? (And if it does, what does that mean for Evason next season?)
Players coming back from injury: Defenseman Carson Soucy had been out since Feb. 21 with an upper-body injury but is expected back for the restart.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 1. The Wild went from outside the playoff seeding to being in the postseason, and a first-round loss means a 1-in-8 chance they land Alexis Lafreniere.
How far we think they’ll go: Just happy to be here, especially after the NHL made the nonsensical decision that super prospect Kirill Kaprizov wasn’t eligible to join the Wild in the postseason.
11. Arizona Coyotes
Record at the pause: 33-29-8 (.529). The Coyotes had just a 15% chance of making the postseason when the season was paused, according to Money Puck.
Stanley Cup odds: +5000
Who they’re playing next: The Coyotes will face the Nashville Predators in a best-of-five series, against whom they had a 1-1-0 record this season.
Biggest question: With months of rest, will Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Phil Kessel bust out in the postseason? Two of the Coyotes’ key players said that their regular-season performances were limited because nagging injuries, but that the pause has them eager to return at full strength. Ekman-Larsson said “my knee is feeling 100 percent and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster” after posting his lowest points-per-game average (0.45) since 2017. Kessel, as Phil does, played in all 70 games for the Coyotes, but an early-season groin injury limited him to a goals-per-game average of 0.20, his lowest since his rookie season of 2006-07.
Players coming back from injury: Along with the players who healed up nagging injuries, the Coyotes will welcome back forward Conor Garland, who was went out on March 8 with a knee injury, and defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who went out on Feb. 19 with a lower-body injury.
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Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 1. The Coyotes were outside the postseason and very well might have missed the playoffs if the season had been completed. Now they’re not only a postseason team after the big Taylor Hall trade, but a qualification-round loss would give them a 1-in-8 chance at Alexis Lafreniere, because the first-rounder they traded to the Devils for Hall was top-three-protected.
How far we think they’ll go: Dangerous dark horse. The Coyotes are a decidedly average team, but have some upside if healthy and are built on two terrific goaltenders in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta. Not exactly a Cup contender, but a very tough out.
Record at the pause: 30-8-72 (.514). The Blackhawks were last in the Central Division at the pause and had a 3.4% chance of making the playoffs per Money Puck.
Stanley Cup odds: +4000
Who they’re playing next: The Blackhawks will face the Edmonton Oilers in a five-game series after going 2-1-0 against them this season.
Biggest question: Is there still some bark left in this old underdog? The Blackhawks were 23rd in the NHL in points percentage and hence were drafted into the 24-team postseason tournament. They were 18th in team offense (2.97) and 17th in team defense (3.06). They were 26th in expected goals differential (minus-0.28). They’re not a team that had earned a shot to play in the postseason. But in a five-game series against a team that was 11 points ahead of them, could veteran savvy lead to an upset? It’s still the team of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford, surrounded by some good young players. It wouldn’t be the most shocking outcome.
Players coming back from injury: Seabrook was back on the ice recently after three different surgeries since Dec. 27. Fellow blueliner Calvin de Haan, also out since December, is expected back. The biggest question mark is forward Andrew Shaw, who has been out since Dec. 2 after a concussion and is questionable to return.
Were they hurt by the return-to-play seeding (scale of 1 to 10)? 7. While the format took them from the outhouse to the playoff penthouse, a qualification-round win would give them temporary euphoria at the expense of a 1-in-8 shot at Alexis Lafreniere.
How far we think they’ll go: Just happy to be here, because they certainly didn’t approach to the trade deadline like a team expecting to be in the playoffs.
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