Coyotes vs. Predators: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview

The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups. In this case, it’s Coyotes vs. Predators.

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes: TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*, TBD

Coyotes – Predators preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Taylor Hall and the Chayka Elephant in the Room

Wow, the Coyotes sure had a weekend, huh?

At this point, the he-said, they-said arguments are mainly for boardrooms and executives. Even Gary Bettman may need to intervene.

As with a lot of things in sports, the strange John Chayka situation probably won’t affect much of what happens on the ice. After all, this isn’t the Coyotes’ offseason. A GM’s job during the NHL Return to Play mainly boils down to observing, at least after training camp rosters were already determined.

But Chayka’s strange, messy departure does hammer at maybe the biggest storyline of this series: what about Taylor Hall?

While Hall brings almost comical draft lottery luck to his teams, the player himself seems star-crossed in almost Shakespearean ways. With that in mind, it’s all too (painfully) fitting that Hall seems primed to hit the free agent market at the worst possible time.

This messy behind-the-scenes situation seemingly makes it that much less likely for Hall to return to the Coyotes.

But who knows? Maybe the Coyotes would throw their checkbook at Hall to try to save face? Interim GM Steve Sullivan could have pushed the hardest for Hall, for all we know.

Hall’s future with the Coyotes is already a story, yet the bigger one is if he can drive up his value — or not. We’ll just need to wait to find out if it will be a happy story for Hall, for once.

Rinne vs. Saros: who should be Predators’ starting goalie?

Rinne or Saros Predators starting goalie vs. Coyotes
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bad news for people who hate any trace of politics in their sports. When it comes to goaltending situations, it’s not always about “let the best goalie win.” Sometimes teams lean on an old hand out of a feeling of loyalty, or a fear for the unknown.

Frankly, that’s naive, because the same goalie can produce wildly different results from year to year.

Pekka Rinne‘s done some great things for the Predators, and he’s not that far removed from some of his best work. (See: Rinne’s 2017-18 Vezina win.) Even so, it’s tough to ignore a rough 2019-20 season where Rinne managed a putrid .895 save percentage.

If you go based on recency alone, Juuse Saros demands the No. 1 spot. Saros outplayed Rinne in full season stats (.914 save percentage), but the smaller, younger Finnish goalie was especially proficient down the stretch. In 17 games after the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, Saros managed a tremendous .936 save percentage.

Yet, even then, there’s room for debate. While it’s most likely a coincidence, Saros experienced slow starts to both of the past two seasons before righting the ship. If he’s a slow starter, then maybe Rinne would be the better choice, especially as the far more experienced goalie?

Overall, maybe it’s a plus that John Hynes is here instead of Peter Laviolette. If nothing else, Hynes might be more open-minded about going with the hot hand. After all, Hynes wouldn’t cherish memories of Rinne’s best runs like Laviolette maybe would.

For all we know, that goalie battle may simply drag on as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers go on. Either way, it would be refreshing if the No. 1 choice came down to perceived merit, rather than bowing down to puck politics.

Will the Coyotes continue to be the team with the dominant goalie tandem?

Despite the time, effort, and money sunk into improving the Coyotes on offense, this team continues to live and die by goaltending lately.

Luckily, that goaltending ranks among the best in the NHL basically since the calendar hit 2019.

Darcy Kuemper headlines that group, as he quietly put together tremendous work between the latter half of 2018-19 and early part of 2019-20. Things seemed to go sideways with expected starter Antti Raanta … until Raanta held down the fort while Kuemper got hurt.

Frankly, even with often-elite goaltending, the Coyotes had to scratch and claw to win games. What if the pandemic pause (understandably) threw Kuemper and/or Raanta off of their games? Mere marginal slippage might mar the Coyotes’ slim margin of error.

Will either coach make a big difference in Coyotes – Predators?

Months later, I’m still a little confounded by how emphatically the Predators chose John Hynes to succeed Laviolette.

Sure, it sounds like Hynes comes across as a nice guy. It’s also true that the Devils didn’t exactly provide Hynes with a fool-proof roster loaded with talent.

Still, it strikes as odd that the Predators reportedly didn’t interview other coaches. They confidently hired a coach who, frankly, didn’t enjoy much success as an NHL head coach. Maybe that makes sense for a rebuilding team, but for an aging, underachieving one like the Predators? One whose window to contend could close soon if certain things break the wrong way?

Yeah, it’s all confusing. But maybe Hynes will shine during the NHL Return to Play, both during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers and (the Predators hope) beyond? The early results have been mixed, and Rick Tocchet has his own credible doubters, so we’ll see.

(We haven’t really seen Tocchet be a Phil Kessel whisperer, for example.)

Who’s out, Who might return for Coyotes, Predators?

Predators: While Nashville dealt with issues during the season, they entered the pause already getting healthier. So far, it looks like they’ll be close to full-strength.

Coyotes: It looks like Conor Garland and Jakob Chychrun are both over their pre-pause problems. Both Raanta and Kuemper dealt with in-season issues, so while rust might be a challenge, at least they’re likely to be healthy.

More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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