Roundtable: Qualifying round excitement; draft lottery reaction

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Which Qualifying Round series are you most excited to see?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: There are two reasons why I’m eager to see the Canucks-Wild series. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

They’re the two cornerstones of the Canucks rebuild and they helped Vancouver take big strides this season. This will be their first postseason — if you want to describe it like that — experience and in such a short series they could cause plenty of problems for Dean Evason and his charges.

Pettersson and Hughes weren’t the only two key cogs for the Canucks. J.T. Miller and goaltender Jacob Markstrom could share the team’s MVP award this season. Miller was their leading scorer (72 points) after being acquired from Tampa last summer and Markstrom finished top five in even-strength save percentage (.925). That will be important going against a Wild team that averaged over three goals per game.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: As tempting as it is to go rogue from my own selections — and as difficult as it was to rank all eight qualifiers to begin with — I should stay consistent and choose Penguins vs. Canadiens.

And, really, there’s a lot to love. For one thing, whether the Penguins are really “scared” of Carey Price or not, it adds some sizzle to the steak. There should be plenty to chew on with this series, too, as Pittsburgh boasts those big stars, while the Canadiens have been a strong possession team with not-so-strong results for some time now. The Penguins might be the most “overqualified” team for this play-in format, so imagine if Montreal pushes Pittsburgh to the brink?
(After watching Jaroslav Halak upset the Penguins back in 2010, wouldn’t it be odd for Price to do the same a decade later?)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’ll have my eyes glued to the TV for the Toronto-Columbus series. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff round since 2004, and the pressure is mounting considering how firmly entrenched in “win now” mode they are. After three straight first-round exits, a coaching change, and a lot of cash paid to its superstars, Toronto is running out of time to capitalize on their plan.

From Columbus’ perspective, a couple things stand out. First, the question mark in net. Neither goalie has any playoff experience. Joonas Korpisalo was stellar in the first half of the season and was named an All-Star, but got hurt and didn’t play much in 2020. Elvis Merzlikins didn’t win a game until New Year’s Eve, but once Korpisalo went down, he took the starter’s load and at one point recorded 5 shutouts in less than a month. Who will step up?

Another other major factor is Columbus’ health. Their top players were battered and bruised all season, and rarely at full capacity. With such a long layoff, we may see the best version of these Blue Jackets.

Considering the Leafs were staring down a First Round matchup with the Lightning before the pause, they will seemingly have their hands less full with Columbus. Then again, those Blue Jackets were a buzzsaw last year and swept the Presidents’ Trophy winners, so you really do never know. Especially when John Tortorella is involved.

 

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Complicated as it is, do you like the draft lottery procedure for this unique season?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I had to read it a dozen times just to come close to comprehending exactly how it will all go down.

It should have just been simplified: Those seven teams who didn’t make the Return to Play plan? Congrats! You have an equal shot at landing Alexis Lafreniere and are part of the lottery. Then, at the conclusion of each round, the losing teams will be slotted into the appropriate spots by regular season winning percentage until we end the Round 1 order with the two Stanley Cup teams.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Not really.

For one thing, if the NHL was so eager to run an early-June draft (at least according to reports), weren’t they doing so to create buzz? Going to go out on a limb and say that when rules are so convoluted that even Gary Bettman is apologizing for them, you probably aren’t going to leave fans very excited about the draft lottery. Considering that many of the most hardcore hockey fans only know a smattering of prospects, shouldn’t the lottery to win the few known quantities be a little more straightforward?
We live in complex times. Why not make sports easier to follow?

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Putting the very intricate details of the draft lottery aside for a moment, I am thrilled that the decision was made to place the draft itself after the conclusion of the season. The concept of a June draft never felt right to me. Not only would the determination of a draft order have felt somewhat arbitrary without a completed season, but there are so many components of crucial league business predicated on the draft taking place in the offseason. By keeping the draft in its traditional place, the NHL has ensured the most fair outcome for its teams as they prepare for what is hopefully a somewhat normal 2020-21 season.

Now, regarding the draft lottery: I am not a proponent of the procedure as outlined. The complexity doesn’t bother me; if the goal was to come as close as possible to the traditional format, where 15 non-playoff teams all get a shot at the lottery, then this is the best way to do it because there is no incentive to lose in the Qualifying Round, and the odds for the teams at the bottom of the standings remain as high as they usually are.

Except there are not 15 non-playoff teams. Effectively, there are only seven. And those seven teams are at a disadvantage relative to the 16 teams who will play in the Qualifying Round.

A reason why the NHL ended up with a 24-team format was to accommodate the large number of teams who were on the playoff bubble. So, the cutoff line for those who will get a shot at the Stanley Cup was made more forgiving. Why then is there simultaneously a reward for those teams (getting the chance to win a Cup), as well as a safety net (chances at the top 3 picks). Normally, you either get one or the other. Now, you get both, all while the system remains unchanged for the teams at the bottom.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.