NHL Power Rankings: Qualifying Round storylines

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There’s been an excitement in the air since the NHL announced its Return to Play plans last week. Of course, there’s a big if to be added at the beginning of it all. As long as planning and testing goes well, the puck should drop later this summer to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

There’s still lots of work to do.

But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.

1. Non-playoff teams given second life

Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause. 

“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”

But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.

Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.

“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”

2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?

As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.

With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?

The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.

Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?

At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

3. The goalie battles

We touched on this Friday with the Rangers. Will Henrik Lundqvist get one last ride in New York or will David Quinn go with the impressive rookie, Shesterkin? Will Mike Sullivan allow training camp to determine if he goes with Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Is Mikko Koskinen the definitive choice in Edmonton over Mike Smith? Can Antti Raanta challenge Darcy Kuemper for the Coyotes’ No. 1 job?

Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.

A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.

4. Stars getting healthy

Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.

Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
Getty Images

5. Deadline pickups having an effect

The trade deadline seems like it arrived years ago. Let’s now all remember that Tyler Toffoli is a Canuck, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck are Hurricanes, Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau are Penguins, J.G. Pageau is an Islander, Alex Galchenyuk is a Wild, and Andreas Athanasiou is an Oiler.

Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.

In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.

These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.

6. The swan songs

Justin Williams took a break after last season and rejoined the Hurricanes in January. Hanging up his skates for good after this season is something he spoke about in April. Who else could join him?

Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?

Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”

A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.