Alex Galchenyuk

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.

Revisiting biggest NHL trades from the 2019 offseason

Big trades of 2019 NHL offseason Subban Miller Kessel
via Getty Images

Upon reflecting about his first season with the Maple Leafs following a trade featuring Nazem Kadri and Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot admitted that he wasn’t as consistent as he would have liked. Indeed, people don’t look back favorably for the Maple Leafs’ side of one of the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason.

(There’s some interesting insight from Thursday’s Kerfoot conference call, which you can peruse via reporters including TSN’s Kristen Shilton.)

As interesting as it is to hear about the highs and lows of Kerfoot’s season, this also gives us a chance to revisit the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason as a whole. Some teams made enough momentous trades to earn their own categories, such as Kerfoot’s Maple Leafs.

Misadventures for Maple Leafs in 2019 offseason NHL trades

When judging a trade, it’s crucial to consider context. Even when you grade on a curve, the trades didn’t always pan out for Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.

Following another ugly postseason suspension, many believed the Maple Leafs needed to trade Nazem Kadri. They also were feeling the cap crunch, so getting a discounted Tyson Barrie provided a nice replacement for outgoing Jake Gardiner.

While the gap between Kadri and Kerfoot might be a bit exaggerated …

Big NHL 2019 offseason trades Kadri Kerfoot comparison Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

… the bottom line is that the trade didn’t meet expectations for the Maple Leafs.

The oddest part, really, revolved around how adamant Dubas was about Cody Ceci being better than people believed. Instead, Ceci was kind of a disaster.

If the Maple Leafs divest themselves of Ceci after 2019-20, then it was still worth it. Zaitsev’s contract was bad, and much longer. But it was a funky situation that rounded out an all-over-the-place offseason. Maybe there were shades of appeasing an eventually outgoing Mike Babcock?

To some extent, Toronto’s flexibility was limited. They didn’t fare as well as some of the other savvy teams, though.

Deals with the Devils not scorching teams as much

Is it “poetic” that you could say trades did Ray Shero in as Devils GM?

OK, that’s not totally fair. If we’re being sober, the wheels came off of the wagon thanks to some mix of atrocious goaltending and questionable coaching.

Even so, the Devils made aggressive moves to improve, and splashy trades set the stage for disappointments and dysfunction. The headliner that went horribly, horribly wrong was, of course, the P.K. Subban trade.

While it still feels like the Predators could have gotten more for Subban, they did clean up space to sign Matt Duchene, and in a more abstract sense keep Roman Josi. Even those with tempered expectations didn’t expect this season from Subban. Consider that Subban ranked dead last on the Devils according to Evolving Hockey’s GAR metric:

Big 2019 offseason NHL trades went poorly for Devils Subban
also via Evolving Hockey

Yikes. Yikes.

While there’s hope that Subban may rebound, the extended collapse of his game played a big role in the front office upheaval in New Jersey.

Nikita Gusev‘s situation wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and while Gusev performed reasonably well, he didn’t light the hockey world on fire. The Golden Knights probably aren’t losing much sleep over his departure … at least yet.

The Devils recouped some of their draft capital by trading the likes of Taylor Hall during the deadline, but coughing up four significant draft picks for Subban + Gusev didn’t work out so well.

Pondering other teams making one or more noteworthy trades

Vegas Golden Knights

No, the Golden Knights didn’t parallel the Maple Leafs in every way. They didn’t have the same enormous RFA headaches, and the uncertainty that surrounded those situations.

But they still needed to shed some salaries. While I can’t say I loved every move and thought process, things worked out reasonably well for Vegas in the grand scheme of things.

They managed to land something for Gusev’s rights in the form of a second and third-round pick. They also landed a second-rounder for Colin Miller, who couldn’t seem to stay out of the doghouse, and who didn’t have the greatest season in Buffalo. Nicolas Roy may just make them break even (or better?) in the Erik Haula trade.

Again, not sure about every decision — all of this straining, yet spending so much on Ryan Reaves? — but the Golden Knights got a lot right. Toronto might even feel a little jealous.

Fascinating Miller trade between Canucks, Lightning

Speaking of desperate situations, the Lightning didn’t have much of a choice but to trade J.T. Miller. So, to get a first-round pick (and third-rounder) for their troubles? More Lightning wizardry.

On paper, it looked like the Canucks might be overreaching in much the same way the Devils did. Miller cost more in assets, after all.

But … Miller ended up being a tremendous player; he was a legitimate first-line winger for Vancouver. Subban, well … yeah.

So this was a rare deal where you could make a strong argument for both sides. I think the Lightning were more shrewd, especially considering limited options (Dubas grumbles again), but the Canucks received big returns from their risky investment (now Shero’s grumbling).

Penguins, Oilers often busy making trades

You might not top the steal the Penguins pulled off in nabbing splendid rookie defenseman John Marino for just a sixth-round pick from the Oilers.

That ended up being the best move during a summer where they unloaded some problems. That included the staggering Phil Kessel trade, and also convincing someone to take on Erik Gudbranson‘s contract. With Kessel mainly offering “meh” in Arizona, and Alex Galchenyuk being part of the Jason Zucker trade, the Penguins have to feel pretty good about their latest series of dramatic decisions.

The Oilers likely received a decent confidence boost from seeing James Neal start so much hotter than Milan Lucic that it became a punchline. With Lucic being a better possession player, that gap narrowed when Neal cooled off.

Really, the true winner might not be crowned until we see if the Oilers can wiggle free from the Neal contract and/or the Flames get rid of Lucic’s deal. Really, that might be the key takeaway even after all these assessments: we may not yet know the final “winners” of the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason for some time.

Quick thoughts

  • My issue isn’t and wasn’t with the Blues trading for Justin Faulk. Instead, handing him a pricey extension looked risky, and he hasn’t really soothed those concerns with middling play. Hmm.
  • Would it be fair to lean toward “TBD” on the Andre Burakovsky trade, at least when realizing things were going sour between Burakovsky and the Caps? That’s the way I lean.
  • Speaking of TBD, the intriguing Henri JokiharjuAlex Nylander trade remains unsolved.
  • The Canadiens really got the best of the Blackhawks by nabbing a second and third-round pick for Andrew Shaw.
  • You’re forgiven if it slipped your mind that Carl Soderberg and Jimmy Vesey were traded.

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 40-23-6 (69 games), third in the Metropolitan Division, fifth in the Eastern Conference
Leading Scorer: Evgeni Malkin – 74 points (25 goals and 49 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves: 

• Acquired Andreas Martinsen and a 2021 seventh-round pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Erik Gudbranson.
• Traded Joseph Cramarosssa to the Chicago Blackhawks for Graham Knott.
• Acquired Kevin Roy from the Florida Panthers for Ryan Haggerty.
• Traded Oula Palve to the Dallas Stars for John Nyberg.
• Acquired Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild for a 2020 conditional first-round pick, Alex Galchenyuk and Calen Addison.
• Traded Joseph Blandisi and Jake Lucchini to the Montreal Canadiens for Riley Barber and Phil Varone.
• Acquired Patrick Marleau from the San Jose Sharks for a 2021 conditional third-round pick.
• Traded Dominik Kahun to the Buffalo Sabres for Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.

Season Overview:

As you can tell from the list of trades above, general manager Jim Rutherford was aggressive in his pursuit of another championship for the Penguins. He tweaked the roster early on in the season and made moves right through the trade deadline.

The Pens were in a battle for top spot in the Metropolitan Division for most of the year. They spent a good chunk of the year in second place behind Washington, but things were starting to fall apart.

After winning three games in a row Feb. 14 and 18, they dropped a 4-0 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They went on to lose six games in a row. To make matters worse, the Philadelphia Flyers starting heating up while the Pens were floundering. Pittsburgh managed to win three of the last five games before the pause, but they now find themselves three points behind the Flyers and four points behind the Capitals.

Did Rutherford make too many moves? Some of those trades involved minor leaguers, but he still made more NHL moves than most of his other colleagues.

To Pittsburgh’s credit, they managed to survive injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and others. Not many teams could hold on to a playoff spot with their stars on the shelf for that long. But head coach Mike Sullivan seems to be able to get the most out of his team.

Whether the season resumes or not, the Penguins have an interesting decision to make with their goaltenders. Matt Murray is a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, but he’s been wildly inconsistent since then. Murray had some positive moments in 2019-20 and at other times he was ice cold.

Tristan Jarry had some great moments, too. He went through a stretch where he won 12 of 14 games, but his play faded down the stretch and Murray took over in goal again. Interestingly enough, both goalies won 20 games this season and both are set to become restricted free agents at the end of the season. Will they keep both? What can they get in return for one of them on the trade market?

The Pens have the star power to continue being threats in the East. How many more titles will the Crosby and Malkin duo win?

Highlight of the Season:

On Nov. 27, the Penguins found themselves down 4-2 in the third period against the Vancouver Canucks. Crosby was out of the lineup with a core muscle injury and Malkin took over in the third frame (he finished with five points).

The Pens won the game, 8-6.

 

MORE Penguins:
Pittsburgh Penguins biggest surprises and disappointments so far
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Canadiens

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Montreal Canadiens.

Carey Price couldn’t sustain last season’s rebound

Few goalies dominate like Price did from 2013-14 through 2016-17. At least in the modern NHL, where steady and elite goaltending is hard to come by.

The downside to that dominance is that the Canadiens paid for the Price of that run, while they’ve instead received a fading talent.

Then again, after a disappointing 2017-18 season, Price showed plenty of flashes of his elite self in 2018-19, going 35-24-6 with a .918 save percentage. That .918 mark actually slightly exceeds Price’s career average of .917. Unfortunately, Price fell in the middle in 2019-20, producing a .909 save percentage with a middling 27-25-6 record.

Placing all the blame on Price is unfair. Yet, when you hand a goalie a contract that carries a $10.5 million AAV (and whopping $15M salary this season), people are going to expect outstanding netminding. Considering how much cap space that eats up on a team with quite a bit of quality but not much true star power, you kind of give yourself little choice but to demand star-level work from Price.

It’s probably a wise idea for the Canadiens to end this stretch of trying to get their money’s worth by sheer volume, though.

Price has already shown signs of wear and tear at age 32. Leaning on Price for 58 appearances in 71 games isn’t exactly ideal in an age of load management. Price tied Connor Hellebuyck for the NHL lead with 58 games played, and Hellebuyck is 26.

The Habs would be wise to dip into what looks like a strong goalie market to give Price some help — and competition.

Drouin ranks as one of the (other) biggest disappointments for Canadiens

GM Marc Bergevin’s reputation as a shrewd trader rises to the point that executives might not want to return his calls. Flipping Marco Scandella and others already seemed strong. Winning the Max Domi trade keeps looking better with every subsequent Alex Galchenyuk trade. Even the Shea WeberP.K. Subban swap looks a lot more reasonable with Subban’s sad slippage.

But they weren’t all homers, and things seem grim regarding Jonathan Drouin, who Bergevin landed for still-intriguing defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

Not all of Drouin’s struggles were his fault, as injuries limited Drouin to 27 games played in 2019-20.

It would be overly optimistic to chalk up Drouin being in trade rumors to injuries alone, though. As exciting as Drouin’s skills can be, he gives up as much — if not more — than he creates. Just look at this rather unsettling even-strength comparison between Drouin and Galchenyuk, via Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Keeping it even-strength is actually kinder to Drouin, too, as Galchenyuk’s generally been more effective on the PP.

(Speaking of the power play, Montreal’s unit was better than the 2018-19 version, but that’s damning with faint praise because that group was a disaster.)

Suzuki among rare positive surprises for Canadiens

PHT will break down some reasons for optimism regarding the Canadiens’ future. Of course, with any such endeavor, a lot of that talk hinges on projections. The more you dive into hypotheticals and subjective measures, the less you know.

So it’s often nice to see a young player deliver at the NHL level, right now.

The Canadiens continue to make lemonade from the lemons of trading Max Pacioretty. While Tomas Tatar led the team with 61 points, Nick Suzuki ranked fifth with 41. Tatar was an outlier for the Habs points-wise, as Suzuki really was far behind Phillip Danault (47 points), Max Domi (44), or Brendan Gallagher (43).

Suzuki climbing the ranks is especially soothing since Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a significant step back as a sophomore.

With Cole Caulfield highlighting a widely-praised farm system, the Canadiens could close their eyes and picture things all coming together. Seeing Suzuki actually deliver makes those dreams seem more feasible, too.

Maybe the Canadiens can pull off more positive surprises around the 2020 NHL Draft?

MORE ON THE CANADIENS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens.

2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

Record: 31-31-9 (71 points in 71 games), fifth in the Atlantic Division, 12th in East
Leading Scorer: Tomas Tatar – 61 points (22 goals and 39 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview

It’s tempting to summarize the Habs’ last two seasons by making a parallel with Max Domi‘s past two years.

Heading into 2018-19, people mocked Domi for his previous season’s goals total (nine) following the Alex Galchenyuk trade. They made fun of Marc Bergevin as his moves looked, at that moment, quite regrettable. Then Domi and the Canadiens played really well, and almost made the playoffs.

Of course, almost everything went right for Domi (easily career-highs in goals [28] and points [72]) and the Canadiens in 2018-19 … yet they didn’t make the playoffs.

Both Domi and the Habs performed reasonably well in 2019-20, but they also cooled off. Domi was fine, really (17 goals, 44 points falling in line with the strong start to his Coyotes career), yet people were likely let down after he set expectations higher.

Naturally, boiling things down to a Domi comparison simplifies things too much.

Really, if you’re going to gripe about any top Habs player, it might be Carey Price — or more accurately, the goaltending overall. Or maybe luck?

The Canadiens looked strong by just about every five-on-five measure, from sheer shot shares to controlling high-danger chances. They simply couldn’t finish (8.6 shooting percentage), get enough saves (.900 save percentage as a team), and continued to struggle on the power play (17.74 percent success rate).

This all leaves the Canadiens in a strange place. Bergevin isn’t quite as worthy of ridicule as before — even the Shea Weber/P.K. Subban trade looked better with time — but he also couldn’t capitalize on Price’s prime.

Now what? The Habs haven’t been tanking, making their long-term future look good (thanks to some smart picks and maneuvering) but maybe not great. In the short term, any path to postseasons seems bumpy as long as the Bruins, Lightning, and Maple Leafs already seem primed to hog the Atlantic’s top three spots most years.

(Honestly? As often as the Panthers shoot themselves in the foot, many would still take their foundation over Montreal’s thanks to Florida’s value-heavy, impressive forward group.)

Highlight of the Season for 2019-20 Canadiens

Is it too crass to argue that it was Bergevin turning a fourth-rounder into a second-rounder and conditional fourth-rounder via the Scandella trades?

Maybe zoom out and ponder the bucket of picks Montreal landed by moving out inessential parts in Cousins, Thompson, Reilly, and Kovalchuk? There was a lot of “something from nothing” in Bergevin’s work once it was clearer that Montreal’s 2019-20 ceiling was fairly low. Cap Friendly’s chart of Canadiens picks tells the story of a team that landed a lot of volume:

2019-20 Canadiens draft picks and beyond

Sure, you could argue that the Canadiens lack the “premium” picks of, say, their division rivals in Ottawa. But such a bulk of picks opens up options for Bergevin. He can try to trade up, or maybe shake loose some talent by moving his picks for roster players.

For all we know, not trading Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry could end up being a highlight, too.

If you want a more hockey-related highlight, try the Canadiens’ early-season run.

After starting 1-1-2, the Canadiens rumbled their way to an 11-5-3 record by mid-November. Unfortunately for the Habs, it was not a sign of a larger rise, as they entered the pause at 31-31-9.

MORE ON THE CANADIENS:

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.