Canucks vs. Wild: 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 Canucks vs. Wild.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild: TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET – USA Network
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks vs. Wild, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

Canucks – Wild preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Can Canucks’ young guns take over this series?

The Canucks and Wild entered the pandemic pause separated by a mere standings point. Yet, as close as these teams were results-wise, the Canucks boast a lopsided advantage in young star power.

None of this is to say that the Wild lack any talent. Even so, if you were to draft players off of both of these teams for the near future, the top picks would be dominated by the likes of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

(Especially since Kirill Kaprizov isn’t allowed to participate in the NHL Return to Play.)

Those stars haven’t dealt with playoff pressure, and criticisms could ratchet up quickly for Pettersson, Hughes, Brock Boeser, and others. It likely wouldn’t help their cause if the Wild maintain their stingy defense from the past couple of seasons, either.

How big a factor will special teams be for Canucks, Wild?

Branching off on that point, the Canucks did a ton of damage on the power play this season. By scoring 57 power-play goals, the Canucks tied the deadly Bruins for second-most in the NHL, and reached that mark in one fewer game played.

As strong as the Wild often have been as an even-strength unit, they struggled on the PK this season, too. That penalty killing unit ranked in the bottom-10 in power-play goals allowed (47) and efficiency (77.2 percent) in 2019-20.

On paper, special teams could be a massive advantage for Vancouver, even if the Wild were respectable on the PP.

Perhaps a couple other factors might mitigate the Canucks’ dominance, and the Wild’s struggles, though? (Even beyond the rust that comes from this long layoff, not to mention the very unusual circumstances.)

Will the Wild be able to get competent goaltending — from Stalock, or someone else?

It’s not fair to say that Devan Dubnyk got Bruce Boudreau fired. Unfortunately, it’s probably fair to claim that Dubnyk ranked as the single biggest force in pushing Boudreau out the door, though.

Dubnyk fell from middle of the pack to downright dismal (.890 save percentage) in 2019-20, forcing the Wild to rely on Alex Stalock to keep their season alive. To the longtime backup’s credit, Stalock did a pretty good job.

That said, the Wild may feel that tug of nostalgia to at least keep Dubnyk in the discussion. After all, all sorts of strange things can happen during a best-of-five series. (With that in mind, don’t totally count out the possibility of seeing Kaapo Kahkonen get some looks — or at least hear people calling for him if things really slide.)

At times, Jacob Markstrom was downright brilliant for the Canucks. He’ll have that strong work — not to mention motivation to earn a new contract as a pending UFA — driving him. But, again, things can escalate quickly in a short series. If the Wild received comparable goaltending, that would be huge.

Still-new elements for the Wild, including Evason as head coach

During the last few seasons, the Wild cycled through a couple GMs, their head coach, and made some significant trades. (Let’s allow a moment for Wild fans to grumble about Nino Niederreiter.)

The NHL Return to Play provides a moment to reflect upon those changes. While it feels like Mats Zuccarello signed ages ago, the Norwegian winger is still trying to find his footing during his first season with the Wild. Players like Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan Donato, Ryan Hartman, and even to an extent Kevin Fiala are still fairly new to the team.

And, while Dean Evason is reasonably familiar with the Wild, he only came on as an assistant in 2018, and just recently saw the “interim” tag removed from his title as head coach.

Who’s out, Who might return for Canucks, Wild?

Canucks: The Canucks look to have a clean bill of health, as the time off seemingly allowed Markstrom and others to get back on track.

Wild: Minnesota also seems as close to full-strength as you can ask for.

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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    PHT Morning Skate: Oskar Lindblom reflects on battling cancer

    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    Lindblom’s battle, key Wild decisions, and more

    • Alex Prewitt shares a detailed, touching account of Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer. [SI]

    • USA Hockey announced the cancellation of the 2020 World Junior Summer showcase. The event was originally scheduled for July 24-31, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution. [USA Hockey]

    • Ken Campbell believes the Wild took care of the present by dropping the interim tag from head coach Dean Evason, and secured the future by signing Kirill Kaprizov. I’d say the jury is still out on Evason, but getting Kaprizov signed is huge — even if COVID-19 presents more bumps in the road. [The Hockey News]

    • How about some more detail on Evason, then? Tony Abbott breaks down why Wild GM Bill Guerin might have been impressed with Evason. In particular, it’s interesting to see that the Wild picked up the pace with Evason after firing Bruce Boudreau. [Zone Coverage]

    • A fun one from John Matisz on various skills that hockey players find difficult to master. Some covet Nicklas Lidstrom’s ability to walk the line. Kevin Shattenkirk marvels at the deceptive “hitch” Nikita Kucherov can put on his shot. [The Score]

    • Ranking the Detroit Red Wings’ jerseys, from worst to first. That 1928-29 Cougars logo is choice. [Hockey by Design]

    NHL training camps, insight on playoff matchups, and free agency

    • The Maple Leafs don’t view training camp as merely an opportunity to tune up. Instead, such activities are being framed as competition for playoff roster spots. I imagine players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly don’t have to worry too much, though. [Sportsnet]

    • Sin Bin Vegas transcribed key Robin Lehner quotes about his free agent future. Over and over again, it seems clear that Lehner craves term in contract offers, making me wonder if a savvy team might be able to bring his AAV down by giving him some stability. Goalies are unpredictable, but you could make worse bets than Lehner, who’s been outstanding since at least 2018-19. [Sin Bin Vegas/TSN 1200 interview]

    Really, the biggest story for today’s PHT Morning Skate might be Lehner’s silly leg pads:

     

    • Count Brenden Dillon among the pending UFAs who would prefer to stick with their teams. In Dillon’s case, it’s the Capitals, whom he’s still becoming acquainted with. Looking at the Capitals’ cap situation, Dillon returning isn’t out of the question, although that might boil down to what kind of deal the rugged defenseman expects. Also, it may hinge on other decisions, such as what to do with Braden Holtby. [Nova Caps Fans]

    • As the Canadiens await, which players are the biggest X-factors for the Penguins? [Pensburgh]

    • Being that the Flames and Jets only met in an outdoor game, Paul Maurice doesn’t believe there’s much video to use in preparing for Calgary. He also explains how NHL systems are like battleships. Hopefully the return to play doesn’t flop like that movie. [Winnipeg Free Press]

    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.

    Dean Evason named full-time head coach of Wild

    As the Wild enters training camp, the players will know Dean Evason isn’t an interim head coach anymore.

    The team announced on Monday that they are dropping the interim tag and making the 55-year-old their full-time coach. Evason also gets an extension out of the deal, with his contract running through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season.

    “Dean has done a fantastic job as our interim head coach and deserves this opportunity,” said Wild general manager Bill Guerin in a statement. “I look forward to watching our team under his leadership going forward.”

    [Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

    Evason took over coaching duties on Feb. 14 following Bruce Boudreau’s dismissal. In 12 games he led the Wild to an 8-4-0 record. He was part of Boudreau’s staff after joining the team for the start of the 2018-19 season following six years in charge of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

    The Wild are set to face the Canucks in their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series beginning on Aug. 2.

    MORE:
    Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
    Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

    ————

    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.

    Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach

    Good, bad, neutral of Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach
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    The wayward New Jersey Devils took major steps to chart a clearer course on Thursday — for better or worse. Tom Fitzgerald saw the “interim” tag lifted, making Fitzgerald their established GM. In tandem with that decision, the Devils hired veteran bench boss Lindy Ruff as their head coach.

    Ultimately, we only know so much about Fitzgerald’s vision. He’s certainly put in his reps, especially as an assistant GM (first with the Penguins starting in 2009, then the Devils in 2015). Beyond that, we can only speculate regarding how Fitzgerald wants to rebuild New Jersey. Aside from what we can occasionally parse through buzzwordy quotes.

    But is Lindy Ruff really the best fit for Devils head coach? Considering Ruff’s decades of experience at head coach and assistant coach levels, we have a lot of evidence to sort through.

    Let’s tackle the Ruff – Devils fit question by looking at it three ways: the good (experience), the bad (recent results), and the neutral (some underlying stats and arguments).

    The Good: If nothing else, the Devils gain experience with Lindy Ruff as head coach

    Ruff served as an NHL head coach for 19 seasons, with his 1,493 games coached ranking seventh all-time. Ruff’s 736 wins place him sixth in league history, which will be a sexier talking point than a middling .561 career points percentage.

    You can debate how well Ruff changed with the times, but he’s absolutely been employed as the style and pace of the NHL game twisted and turned over decades.

    It’s worth noting that Ruff coached some very different teams. His early Sabres tenure revolved around forming a defensive shell around Dominik Hasek, without a lot of offensive support around him (sorry, Miroslav Satan, etc.). Yet, in that same market, Ruff presided over the “Buffaslug” era of the Sabres, when a run-and-gun team starring the likes of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury contended and even topped the NHL in scoring with 308 goals in 2006-07.

    That wasn’t the only Ruff team that led the NHL in scoring. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn helped his Dallas Stars accomplish that feat with 267 goals in 2015-16.

    So, for myself and others, the most reasonable best-case scenario with Ruff is for the Devils to emulate some of those high-flying teams. It’s not totally outrageous to imagine Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and others getting rejuvenated by throwing caution to the wind.

    The Neutral: How much did any of it hinge on Ruff?

    Sure, when you zoom out, it’s easy to see how experienced Ruff is. That might make the Devils feel like hiring Ruff is the “safe” decision.

    But it gets harder to hammer the upside when you look at recent results, or even his larger resume. Ruff comes out looking a lot like an older Paul Maurice: a lot of volume, yet about as many lows and “mehs” as highs.

    (And the highs were limited. That one 1999 Stanley Cup Final appearance, a handful of deeper runs, and three division titles over 19 seasons. Ruff doesn’t look awful, yet it’s hard to understand why the Devils wouldn’t be more excited about, say, Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, or Bruce Boudreau. Maybe Ruff’s a lot cheaper?)

    Averaging out between the brightest and bleakest scenarios, what if Ruff ends up being merely neutral — not good or bad, mainly replacement level? Is that really what the Devils need right now?

    Ruff gives off the impression of being pliable, maybe versatile, if nothing else. There could be value in a pragmatic coach who will zig and zag depending upon the makeup of upcoming Devils teams. Considering how much turnover could happen with the Devils, that could be a useful attribute.

    The Bad: Ugly recent results for Ruff with Rangers don’t scare off Devils

    Don’t expect Ruff to wave a magic wand and make the Devils a top-10 defense, though. Not based on recent results.

    The Rangers brought Ruff in ostensibly to help run the defense and their penalty kill units. Ruff … didn’t exactly solve their problems.

    Yikes!

    That’s not to say those issues were all Ruff’s fault. For one thing, Ruff merely served as an assistant. He didn’t necessarily get a full say in certain strategic decisions.

    Even considering those caveats, the underlying numbers generally look somewhere between neutral to flat-out bad for Ruff. Devils management doesn’t have much of an argument for Ruff beyond bleating out “experience!”

    Really, this duo of Devils decisions makes me feel dubious about the direction of the franchise.

    For years, the Devils made progress on the analytics front. Hiring bright minds like Matt Cane seemed quite promising.

    With these recent decisions in mind, I can’t help but wonder what Cane and his cohorts think. It’s possible they’re on board with this decision, but it doesn’t really seem as innovative as they’d likely prefer.

    When the Rangers hired Ruff as an assistant in 2017, Adam Herman wrote about hockey’s “cronyism” problem. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Devils are merely leaning on “200 hockey men” and other antiquated ideas. A rebuilding situation gives teams opportunities to innovate, and set the foundation for future glories.

    Maybe Ruff and the Devils will prove such feelings wrong, but as of now, it sure looks like these decisions are rooted in the past.

    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.

    An NHL team should give Bruce Boudreau another shot as head coach

    Bruce Boudreau another NHL coaching job COVID-19
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    Many of us believe that Bruce Boudreau should get another NHL head coaching job simply because he’s very good at his job. But there’s also another factor: Boudreau is a delight.

    If you needed a reminder of Boudreau’s wonderful personality — and his enduring love for hockey — then read this story by The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required). Honestly? It’s a fabulous read if you merely want to smile. (It made me smile and laugh … a lot.)

    Boudreau wants to coach in the NHL again, clearly still loves hockey (and his wife Crystal)

    Boudreau told Russo that he hopes to coach in the NHL again, even with uncertainty in the air. In the meantime, Boudreau might also do some TV studio work during a return to play. Either way, it sounds like the last few months haven’t sapped his passion for the sport.

    “I’m going to be watching either way, whether it’s from my couch or a TV studio, but behind the bench is where I’d want to be in the end,” Boudreau said. “I’ve been really fortunate in my life to never go two weeks without having another job. So this running on three, four months and it’s driving my wife a little crazier than me. But, I mean, you just want to know where it’s going. When you’ve done something your whole life and still believe you’re fully capable of doing the job, you never want to stop doing it. And when you love it as much as I do, you just want to continue to do it.

    That quote summarizes Russo’s great piece in a nutshell. Even so, the best part really didn’t have much to do with hockey. Russo’s right in comparing the banter between Bruce and his wife Crystal as an “Abbott and Costello routine.” One can almost imagine a sitcom episode regarding the couple engaging in an air conditioning cold water. I can practically hear the laugh track:

    “I secretly get up in the middle of the night and turn off the air conditioner,” Boudreau said. “But then she’ll wake up and punch me in the head when she realizes I turned the thing off and I go somewhere else.”

    Observations on potential NHL playoff matchups, coaching under unique circumstances

    It’s a delight to read Boudreau break down different teams and matchups. Russo even convinced Boudreau to discuss his former team, the Minnesota Wild. (Like us at PHT, Boudreau is fascinated to see how the Wild handle their goaltending situation.)

    Some of the best insight revolves around how Boudreau imagines an empty arena setting working out.

    He points out that microphones are more likely to catch coaches screaming at players, or using colorful language toward refs. (Naturally, Boudreau has some funny quips, including blaming assistants for profanities if coaches wear masks.) Even amid the humor, you get an idea of how Boudreau tries to manage “tough love” with not trying to insult or embarrass players.

    Which opens the door to briefly discuss a logical landing spot or two for Boudreau …

    Which NHL teams should give Boudreau a shot?

    Again, we’re going briefly here. But consider a few spur-of-the-moment observations and suggestions:

    • A “rebuilding” team probably wouldn’t make sense.

    Boudreau is 65. While Boudreau seems like a “hockey lifer,” and might have the right demeanor to work with younger players, his age shouldn’t be ignored. You probably want your team to at least be … partially built if you’re hiring Boudreau.

    • On the other hand, the San Jose Sharks make serious sense.

    From a narrative standpoint, this almost feels like a “soul mate” situation. Both the Sharks and Boudreau have been mocked for falling short in the postseason, especially when expectations were highest. (Not always fairly, mind you.)

    The team and coach also share an impatience. Boudreau’s found ways to succeed with a variety of franchises and rosters. If Erik Karlsson is correct that 2019-20 was a hiccup rather than the beginning of the end, then Boudreau could be the perfect person to get the Sharks swimming again.

    • Could Boudreau put a halo on the New Jersey Devils?

    OK, the Devils qualify as a “rebuilding” team from a results perspective. That said, they might be getting a little impatient. (Perhaps they fired Ray Shero as GM in part because of this antsy feeling? Maybe?)

    Reports indicate that the Devils are considering Lindy Ruff. Yet, if they value experience, why not go with a coach who’s had more recent success? Even after trading Taylor Hall, the Devils have some talent on their roster. Especially if they’re underachieving after suffering through some (possible) bad coaching.

    It’s not the perfect situation for Boudreau, but sometimes coaches have to make the best of things. Boudreau is no stranger to that.

    • Dare I wonder: a team like the Predators?

    OK, this would mean an about-face with John Hynes. Here’s the thing, though. The Predators might believe that their window to compete is closing. If so, and you realize Hynes was the wrong hire — not a guarantee, but possible — why not pull off the Band-Aid sooner rather than later?

    Such a scenario seems unlikely, but I couldn’t help but mention it. Consider it a sweeping statement for other teams sort of in limbo. Is Rick Tocchet really the best choice for a Coyotes team more aggressively pursuing contention? Would the Flames and/or Stars view Boudreau a better option that their interim choices?

    It’s unclear if Boudreau will receive another coaching offer anytime soon — or ever again. I’d argue quite a few NHL teams would be wise to do so, at least once it’s safe for, you know, a 65-year-old coach to get back behind the bench.

    (Now go read that Russo story, it’s a lot of fun.)

    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.