NHL Push for the Playoffs: Pondering paths for Panthers, Avalanche

NHL Push for the Playoffs: Pondering paths for Panthers, Avalanche
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

After a busy Tuesday in the NHL, it’s not yet clear if the Colorado Avalanche or Florida Panthers will end up winning the Presidents’ Trophy. There’s also room — not much, but some room — for the Golden Knights to wrestle the final remaining playoff spot from the Stars.

Yet we already know that the Avalanche clinched the West and the Panthers locked down the East. However the Presidents’ Trophy race goes, both the Panthers and Avalanche will hold home-ice advantages for at least three rounds of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The only way the Presidents’ Trophy really matters is if it’s Avalanche vs. Panthers in a series that would feel a whole lot different than the last time the franchises met in a Stanley Cup Final.

So, we know enough to plot out possible playoff paths for the Panthers and Avalanche. Let’s take a look for each team.

The playoff path ahead for the Panthers

By beating the Panthers on Wednesday, the Bruins distanced themselves from a first-round matchup vs. Florida. Right now, the Panthers will instead face whoever falls short of the third seed in the Metropolitan Division: the Penguins (currently third) or the Capitals (second Wild Card spot now, too far to pass the Bruins).

During the regular season, the Panthers followed similar patterns against both the Capitals and Penguins. Florida began with an OT win, lost a close game, then won by a single goal. The Panthers wouldn’t admit this either way, but maybe the preference would boil down to Tristan Jarry‘s availability? Or maybe Alex Ovechkin‘s murky injury situation would swing it?

One interesting nugget is home/road records. The Panthers have been a beast at home, now 34-7-0. Interestingly, the Capitals have been road warriors, going 25-8-6 away from home (where they’re just 19-16-6).

On one hand, it seems cruel to run away with your conference (and maybe win the Presidents’ Trophy) and then have to face Sidney Crosby and a solid Penguins team or Ovechkin (if healthy) and a solid Capitals team. But it could have been worse — possibly starting with the Bruins.

Things get spicier if the Panthers advance. There’s a “pick your poison” element to facing either the official second seed Maple Leafs and likely third seed Lightning. Again, this may come down to health in net. Few would put more faith in Jack Campbell and/or Petr Mrazek (even if they were healthy) instead of Andrei Vasilevskiy, mileage or not.

If the Panthers made it to the third round, then the Metro bracket could spit out all sorts of scary opponents. The Hurricanes rank as one of the few teams deep enough to counter Florida’s war chest on offense. The Rangers are already better than they previously looked, but even if the Panthers hog the puck, Igor Shesterkin could steal a series.

All things being equal, a second round matchup seems likely the steepest hurdle. But strange things happen in the playoffs.

Avalanche begin with a chance for revenge, also should expect trouble in second round

For those who still view the Avalanche as a fairly new juggernaut, this may seem strange. But they’re highly likely to get a chance to exact previous playoff revenge in the first round.

Most likely, the Avalanche will draw either the Stars (who stunned them in the Second Round in 2020) or the Golden Knights (who spurned them in last year’s Second Round showdown).

Not long ago, the Golden Knights loomed as a potential nightmare first-round opponent. They’ve been their own nightmare as much as anything else lately. While that collection of talent could put it together, goalie issues and general dysfunction likely make the Golden Knights look far-from-imposing to the Avalanche.

In the broadest ways, the Stars present a similar challenge to the Avalanche as they did during those odd bubble playoffs. Dallas plays stingy defense, and while the name recognition isn’t there with goalies, they’ve been getting solid-enough work. Most importantly, even the Avalanche might struggle to either stop or outscore the trio of Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, and Jason Robertson.

Overall, those strike as reasonably manageable matchups for the Avalanche, and the Predators qualify as such too. (They could be quite vulnerable if they slip to the second wild card and Juuse Saros isn’t healthy.)

If the Avalanche advanced, they’d feel some of the Panthers’ pain in drawing a tough second-round opponent either way. Both the Blues and Wild are ending the season on hot notes. Smart team-building has each team presenting more scoring options than before, and their goaltending duos look palatable-to-strong. The Avalanche can’t be thrilled to ponder that both the Wild and Blues have the sort of players who can frustrated Nathan MacKinnon, such as former Selke Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly.

In the Pacific, the Flames present the biggest threat (they even have a +88 goal differential, slightly ahead of the Avalanche’s +80). Calgary’s put together in a way that just screams “playoff form.”

It’s one thing to play defensive hockey and hold on for your life, as the Stars and Predators likely would hope to do against the Avalanche. It’s another thing to actually be able to hog the puck on your own. The Flames rank as one of the teams most likely to pull that off.

If the Avalanche were to get to the third round and not face the Flames, then an improving Oilers squad could also be an interesting threat.

From what we know right now, it seems like the path is slightly clearer for the Avalanche than it looks for the Panthers. Of course, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so it’s probably safest just to assume that everything we assume is actually wrong.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY (sorted by points percentage)

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Panthers vs. Capitals
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

METROPOLITAN DIVISION
Hurricanes vs. Bruins
Rangers vs. Penguins

CENTRAL DIVISION
Avalanche vs. Stars
Wild vs. Blues

PACIFIC DIVISION
Flames vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Kings

TODAY’S KEY GAMES

Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Coyotes vs. Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIO

• The Stars can clinch the final NHL playoff spot if they either 1) earn one point vs. Arizona or 2) if Chicago beats Vegas in any fashion.

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Panthers – clinched No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference
Maple Leafs – clinched
Lightning – clinched
Bruins – clinched
Red Wings – eliminated
Sabres – eliminated
Senators – eliminated
Canadiens – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Hurricanes – clinched Metropolitan Division title
Rangers – clinched
Penguins – clinched
Capitals – clinched
Islanders – eliminated
Blue Jackets – eliminated
Flyers – eliminated
Devils – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Avalanche – clinched No. 1 seed in Western Conference
Wild – clinched
Blues – clinched
Predators – clinched
Stars – 98.7%
Jets – eliminated
Blackhawks – eliminated
Coyotes – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Flames – clinched Pacific Division
Oilers – clinched
Kings – clinched
Golden Knights – 1.3%
Canucks – eliminated
Ducks – eliminated
Sharks – eliminated
Kraken – eliminated

draft lottery
Getty Images

DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE (via Tankathon)

18.5% – Canadiens
13.5% – Coyotes
11.5% – Kraken
9.5% – Flyers
8.5% – Devils
7.5% – Blackhawks (*conditional)
6.5% – Senators
6.0% – Red Wings
5.0% – Sabres
3.5% – Ducks
3.0% – Sharks
2.5% – Blue Jackets
2.0% – Islanders
1.5% – Jets
0.5% – Canucks
0.5% – Golden Knights (*conditional)

“Beginning this season there will be a limit on the total number of selections (10) a team participating in the lottery can move up in the event it wins one of the lottery draws, a change announced by the NHL on March 23, 2021. Only the top 11 seeds will be eligible to receive the No. 1 selection in the 2022 draft.”

The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery drawing will be held May 10

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE

Connor McDavid, Oilers – 122 points
Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers – 115
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 113
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 109
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 106
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 105

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 60 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 55
Chris Kreider, Rangers – 52
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 50
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 45
Kyle Connor, Jets – 45
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 44

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.

Scroll Down For:

    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
    3 Comments

    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.