Brent Seabrook

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups

While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.

Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups]

(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks

Regular season recap

The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.

When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.

With a whopping 110 points, Draisaitl blazed by anyone else to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one else even crossed 100 points, as McDavid finished second in scoring with 97. Other Oilers didn’t provide much offense beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points), as Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom finished fourth on Edmonton with just 34.

The Blackhawks didn’t reach the same heights, but were similarly top-heavy. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to run the show. Beyond them, Alex DeBrincat took a step back, but Dominik Kubalik emerged.

On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.

Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.

Season series

Blackhawks leads season series 2-1. Last meeting: Chicago won 4-3 on March 5.

Injured players who could return

Blackhawks: When Calvin de Haan underwent shoulder surgery in late December, it seemed to be season-ending. Now it’s not so clear. Concussions could be especially tricky to deal with in this climate, so we’ll see how Adam Boqvist comes along. One would think that Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be available, but who knows?

Oilers: Edmonton indicated that Mike Green and Joakim Nygard should both be ready for a return to play.

Storylines to Watch

Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.

But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.

I ranked this as the most exciting series of the Western Conference side, but click here to see if it got the overall nod.

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Predators Coyotes
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(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes

Regular season recap

After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.

If you’re asking me, you need to squint to see major Predators improvements, unless you really have a thing for coaches benching star players.

That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.

Speaking of things staying mostly the same … hey, at least the Predators still have that defense.  Mattias Ekholm‘s useful, yet Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis stood out the most. Check out where Ellis and Josi rank on Evolving Hockey’s GAR chart for all skaters, not just defensemen:

Evolving Hockey GAR Ellis Panarin Pettersson Josivia Evolving Hockey

Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).

At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.

Season series

The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.

Injured players who could return

Coyotes: One would expect Conor Garland to be over his knee injury. Arizona should get young defenseman Jakob Chychrun back, too.

Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.

Storylines to Watch

When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.

Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?

The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.

Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Canucks Wild
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild

Regular season recap

As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).

The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.

By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)

Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.

They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.

Season series

Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.

Injured players who could return

Canucks: It seems like Markstrom and Chris Tanev should probably be good to go from what seemed like minor, late-season injuries. The break could be beneficial for Micheal Ferland, who was dealing with concussion issues. Josh Leivo should be back.

Wild: Not much to speak of for Minnesota, as Eric Staal missed time for personal reasons. Staal spoke about that recently.

Storylines to Watch

Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.

While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach PariseRyan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)

A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.

So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Jets Flames
(Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets

Regular season recap

When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.

That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.

In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.

Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.

That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

As leaky as the Jets were on defense, they still have the fuel for serious offensive firepower, as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine remained productive in 2019-20.

Season series

The Jets took the season’s only meeting 3-1 in overtime on Oct. 26.

Injured players who could return

Flames: The timetable seems right for Travis Hamonic to return. Noah Hanifin had also been dealing with some concussion issues.

Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Storylines to Watch

Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.

Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.

Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)

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

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.

NHL agent poll hits many topics, shows optimism about avoiding 2022 lockout

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For a long time, agents in the NHL and other sports were demonized, often to the advantage of ownership. As many fans have started to realize a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes, such viewpoints have become more nuanced. It doesn’t hurt that agents can express their message — and their clients’ perspectives — more freely over social media.

Then again, for every outspoken agent like Allan Walsh, there are plenty we don’t hear a whole lot from. That’s part of what makes Puck Pedia’s NHL agent poll so fascinating.

While the full post is worth your time, here are some of the highlights from Puck Pedia’s NHL agent poll.

NHL agent poll provides optimism about avoiding 2022 lockout

Puck Pedia polled 25 top NHL agents in late January to early February, so COVID-19 issues aren’t really touched upon. As they mentioned, it’s possible that the pandemic might push certain opinions a bit, but for the most part, I’d agree that these results are still worth mulling over.

Maybe the most important one is that 80 percent of NHL agents polled believe that there won’t be a 2022 lockout.

Reports indicate that the NHL and NHLPA underwent some CBA extension/new CBA talks amid the pause. So, to some extent, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Still, I think I speak for most hockey fans when I say that any positive lockout-avoidance talk remains good news. It probably always will be after 2004-05 was scuttled, and 2012-13 was shortened.

Other issues the poll covers

  • When it came to viewpoints on specific GMs, one former and one current Toronto Maple Leafs GM represented polar opposites.

Thirty three percent of NHL agents in the poll chose Lou Lamoriello as the most difficult GM to work with. Meanwhile, when asked about a GM you’d want to work with to get a great deal for a client, Kyle Dubas received 29 percent of votes. The closest GM behind Lamoriello was Bob Murray at 14 percent, while Dubas topped the other list by an even more dramatic margin (no other GM exceeded six percent).

As Puck Pedia notes, recency bias likely inflates Dubas. Recency bias surfaces in plenty of polls like these, including for players. (Though you won’t see players changing their minds about, say, Carey Price or Drew Doughty too quickly, either.)

But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Maple Leafs fans will grit their teeth at this. After all, you can spin that in a pretty negative way.

  • Some of the best contract votes (Nathan MacKinnon as team-friendly) and worst (Milan Lucic, Brent Seabrook) ended up being far from surprising. Others were a little bit unexpected, though.
  • On the negative side, it was surprising to see Erik Karlsson garner more votes than, say, Sergei Bobrovsky. From a recency bias perspective, maybe absence made hearts grow fonder about David Clarkson? (I’m guessing absence made at least an NHL agent or 20 straight-up forget about Clarkson.)
  • The positives inspired some interesting choices, too. I’m not sure many people would rank Calle Jarnkrok alongside David Pastrnak, but they were tied at 14 percent. Jarnkrok’s deal being more team-friendly than Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Brad Marchand? You do you, 14 percent of those NHL agents.

NHL agent poll ends up reasonable — for the most part

For the most part, this NHL agent poll seemed to produce some understandable results. They certainly seem to have more grounded expectations than the sometimes-audacious things NHL executives want to change about the CBA, at least.

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.

Long-term outlook for Blackhawks: salary cap, prospects, and more

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 long-term outlook for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.

While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.

Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.

Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin de Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.

To Bowman’s credit, he’s experienced significant successes finding forward talent, sometimes off the beaten path. While the Blackhawks galaxy-brained themselves out of Artemi Panarin, they locked up Alex DeBrincat to a team-friendly extension.

One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?

Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.

Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.

Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.

It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.

Yet, how many times should Chicago really go to that nostalgia well? (To say nothing of how tough it might be to fit Crawford under the cap, as Mark Lazerus discussed here [sub required].)

This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?

Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.

Pull off the Band-Aid already.

Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks

As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.

Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.

Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.

Boqvist ranks as vital on defense, too, but he’s not alone. In ranking Chicago’s prospect pool 12th overall (sub required), The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler frequently listed defensemen. Wheeler highlighted Ian Mitchell almost as much as Boqvist, so help could be coming there. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Chicago’s under-23 core at a respectable 13th, so it’s not as if there’s nothing beyond Kane and Toews.

Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary
Surprises and disappointments

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.

NHL On NBCSN: What does future hold for Stan Bowman, Blackhawks?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.  Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

By trading starting goalie Robin Lehner and defenseman Erik Gustafsson on Monday the Chicago Blackhawks officially raised the white flag on the 2019-20 NHL season.

They enter Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 12th place in the Western Conference and eight points out of a wild card spot with still four teams ahead of them.

Right now the cut-off point for a wild card spot in the West is around 88 points. The Blackhawks at the moment are only on pace for 82 points and would need to collect 27 points in their final 20 games (think 13-6-1 record) to gain enough ground to give themselves a chance. Given the way the season has played out, and the players they are now without, that seems unlikely.

It also means that the Blackhawks are almost certainly headed for their third straight non-playoff season and their fifth straight season without a playoff series win. Their decline from dynasty to mediocrity has been stunning and swift.

What makes it all even more shocking is they still have two superstar forwards (Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews) playing at a high level, while the threshold to make the playoffs in the Western Conference the past two seasons has been as low as we have ever seen it in the era of the three-point game. It only took 90 points to get in a year ago. It may not take that many this season. And the Blackhawks still seem unable to reach even that.

Adding to the frustration is that on Monday the returns for Lehner and Gustafsson just seemed, for lack of a better word, underwhelming. Trading them was the absolute right call. It had to be done. But there is nothing coming back in return that moves the needle in a meaningful way.

So what happens if (or when) this season reaches the conclusion it seems destined for? Is there any short-term hope that next season won’t produce the same result? And how much longer will Bowman get to try and get this team back on track?

As long as Kane and Toews are in the lineup there is at least a foundation in place. Dominik Kubalik has been one of the few home run moves hit by the front office in recent years, while recent first-rounders Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist both look to be loaded with potential.

But that’s not enough, especially as the two superstars get deeper into their 30s. There has to be more, and Bowman has made his share of significant missteps the past few years. Brent Seabrook‘s contract to further complicate their salary cap structure. Trading Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen in an effort to fix their salary cap problems (there had to be better, more productive ways). Dealing young players like Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju this summer for a pair of players (Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander) that simply have not added much.

Bowman’s roster moves this past summer were him betting on the current roster still being able to compete with a couple of tweaks.

That gamble has not worked, and it remains a roster that still seems to have more questions and problems than actual solutions.

When you add all of that up it’s put the Blackhawks in the worst possible position a team can be in — the middle ground. A team that is not good enough to compete, but still has enough reasons to think it should.

Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Scott Hartnell and Mike Johnson.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks’ Seabrook to return in 5-6 months after latest surgery

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The Chicago Blackhawks announced that veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook underwent successful hip surgery on Thursday and that he will be ready to return in five-to-six months. That would put him on a timeline to be ready for the start of training camp for the 2020-21 season.

His most recent surgery was his third — both hips, shoulder — over the past six weeks.

He has not played since Dec. 15, while the team announced a couple of weeks later that both he and Calvin de Haan (shoulder injury) would both be out for the season. He appeared in 32 games this season, scoring three goals with one assist.

Blackhawks’ long-term outlook on defense

What Seabrook’s role will look like next season remains to be seen. His play has not only rapidly declined the past few years, but he will be coming off of three major surgeries and be 35 years old when the season begins.

Seabrook still has four more years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season.

The Blackhawks have managed to hang around in the playoff race and play their way back into contention but still have some major flaws and question marks defensively and remain one of the league’s worst teams at preventing shots and scoring chances. The goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford has helped mask that, but both are free agents after this season and remains to be seen if either one of them will be back next season.

The Blackhawks tried to revamp their defense this offseason with the additions of de Haan and Olli Maatta, but it has not really worked. Almost everyone currently on the defense is signed long-term.

Seabrook, Maatta, de Haan, Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith are all signed for at least the next two full seasons (Seabrook and Keith beyond), while rookie Adam Boqvist remains on his entry-level deal.

Erik Gustafsson, their most productive defenseman offensively over the past two seasons, is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.