Connor Hellebuyck

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
(Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(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.

PHT Morning Skate: Blackhawks’ president search; MVP Hellebuyck

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

• Mike Gillis, Ron Hextall and other candidates for the Blackhawks’ vacant president job. [Second City Hockey]

• “The longer the NHL refuses to cancel the games, they harder they’re making it on ticket holders.” [Mile High Hockey]

• Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov is using the NHL pause to stay with his junior hockey billet family. He’s able to work out at a home gym and get on the ice with a private rink nearby. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Carter Hart has a routine and isn’t one to stray from it. [TSN]

• “Hundreds of motorists circled the Henderson Pavilion five times — once for each member of the Henderson City Council — and some honked their car horns Saturday during a “car parade protest.” [Review Journal]

Connor Hellebuyck might be this season’s Vezina Trophy winner, and he should also be in the MVP conversation. [Jets Nation]

• Why the Jaroslav Halak extension is a win for both the goalie and the Bruins. [Bruins Daily]

• The Senators have inked 24-year-old Russian blue liner Artem Zub to a one-year deal. [Senators]

• Willie Mitchell is spending his post-NHL player days as a resort owner/operator. [Forbes]

• Chinese-heritage players aiming for 2022 Olympics. [NHL.com]

• Should the Islanders bring Andy Greene back next season? [Islanders Insight]

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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.

Long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets

Long-term outlook Winnipeg Jets Laine Connor Hellebuyck
Getty Images

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 Winnipeg Jets.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With the exception of Patrik Laine — who they could theoretically extend during the offseason – the Jets locked down most of their core over the years.

Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck possess two of the “shorter” long-term contracts among that core group, and their affordable contracts run through 2023-24. (Blake Wheeler‘s does, as well, but that’s a little more troubling being that the often-underrated winger is now 33.)

Beyond that Wheeler worry, there’s a lot to like, especially since Wheeler is comfortably the highest paid at $8.25M AAV.

(Actually, Bryan Little‘s contract was troubling from day one, but sadly, he might go on LTIR quite credibly.)

If Kevin Cheveldayoff can extend Laine at a reasonable price, this group could be cost-conscious enough for Winnipeg to even take advantage of other teams possibly facing cap squeezes. It makes me wonder: could the Jets go after another core piece in free agency? Signing, say, Alex Pietrangelo would make them stronger and weaken Central Division rival St. Louis.

Even as a “budget” team, the possibilities are intriguing for the Jets to improve upon their long-term core. That said, improvements might be needed for the Jets to truly soar.

Long-term needs for Jets

It’s remarkable that Hellebuyck (and some star scorers) dragged Winnipeg to playoff contention, because that group was rough this season.

Neal Pionk turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise, to the point that he might be able to join the core to an extent. And, for sure, Josh Morrissey is a steady presence. But things dry up quite a bit beyond that, and an ideal contender probably would ask less of both of them, particularly Morrissey.

So, can Ville Heinola eventually be a key defender? How will Sami Niku’s development go?

Getting steps in development, overall, is a long-term key for the Jets. Jack Roslovic strikes me as someone who can do more, but he needs opportunities. What, exactly, is Laine’s ceiling? Will the Jets actually boost him up to reach it?

The Jets have to hope that they can mitigate the eventual drop-off for Wheeler, who’s already sinking a bit at 33. (By his standards.)

They could also use some more depth. It’s probably not a coincidence that, year after year (Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to even Cody Eakin), they seem to need to burn assets to add 2C and/or 3C help. Laurent Brossoit had a tough season, casting some doubt on the backup position.

I’ll also endlessly wonder if Paul Maurice is all that far above your average coach. But, hey, give the dude credit for being a long-term bench presence even with … meh results more often than not.

Long-term strengths for Jets

The sheer youth of this team is something to get excited about. Laine just turned 22. Kyle Connor seems to be jumping another level at 23, while Nikolaj Ehlers is a transition menace at 24. Hellebuyck is 26, Mark Scheifele is only 27, and Morrissey is 25.

I mentioned possibly pitching a deal at Pietrangelo because the Jets see a lot of space opening up.

Losing Dustin Byfuglien hurts, but his age was making his contract risky anyway. The Jets signing Kulikov furrowed my brow, yet now they can use that money toward … uh, someone good? (Sorry, Kulikov.)

It’s not always easy to lure free agents to Winnipeg, but a) they’ve become a consistent winner and b) might be one of the only winners with cash to burn during the uncertain, upcoming offseason.

That mixture of prime-age talent, solid maneuverability, and a steady-and-solid front office should put the Jets in a solid position to compete for some time. They do need Cheveldayoff to make the right moves to get back at a high level again, as Hellebuyck camouflaged a steep decline — one that quietly brewed even toward the end of 2018-19.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

Byfuglien-sized surprises, disappointments for Winnipeg Jets

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 Winnipeg Jets.

Hellebuyck surprises with heck of a season for Jets

Depending on your interpretation of “most valuable player,” you can make a strong argument that Connor Hellebuyck deserves the Hart Trophy, not just the Vezina.

With injuries and the absence of Dustin Byfuglien dealing huge blows to the Jets’ defense, it’s truly remarkable that Winnipeg entered the pause in playoff position. To that, I offer a simple remark: it’s mainly because of Hellebuyck.

Hellebuyck managed a 31-21-5 record, but of course, it was about more than that. For one thing, you can break down Hellebuyck’s .922 save percentage compared to backup Laurent Brossoit‘s .895.

When you factor in the leaky Jets defense in front of him, Hellebuyck really shines.

Looking at Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average stat, Hellebuyck (22.40) only trails Tuukka Rask (22.51). Anton Khudobin sits in distant third at 17.75, while Darcy Kuemper (16.65) is the only other goalie who reached 14+.

Hellebuyck saved a lot of goals. He saved the Jets’ bacon.

If you choose MVPs based on the most indispensible player of a season, you’d probably pick Hellebuyck.

It’s not shocking that Hellebuyck ended up playing well, but carrying the Jets on his shoulders ranks as one of the bigger surprises of the season.

Neal Pionk > Jacob Trouba?

People understood that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to trade Trouba’s rights. While one can only wonder if there was a better way to settle the situation, that moment passed.

Even so, plenty of people scoffed at Pionk being part of the return. Yes, Pionk scored a mind-blowing goal for the Rangers, and showed some scoring skill. But just about every other metric pointed to Pionk being … pretty bad.

Well, the Jets certainly can puff their chests out, because Pionk’s been crucial to their defense.

Now, it’s probably still true that you don’t necessarily want Pionk to be featured this much. An ideal blueline probably won’t lean on Pionk for a team-leading 23:23 per night. Sometimes things aren’t ideal, though. In reality, Pionk delivered incredible value for Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, Trouba looks like an $8M mistake for the Rangers. Pionk’s younger and cheaper than Trouba, and the Jets also nabbed a first-rounder in the deal. It’s remarkable just how similar Pionk and Trouba come across in this even-strength RAPM comparison chart via Evolving Hockey:

Wow. Pionk being arguably better than Trouba is quite the surprise for the Jets, and a massive disappointment for the Rangers.

Disappointments abound for Byfuglien, Jets

So, Pionk ended up being important to the Jets. And Hellebuyck cleaned up the many messes made by Pionk and that shorthanded blueline crew.

But none of it really washes down the disappointments involving Dustin Byfuglien and his now-former team, the Jets.

The COVID-19 pause creates extra uncertainty, but Byfuglien’s future seems like it would be cloudy either way. It’s also fuzzy figuring out what, exactly, happened. The situation ended up disappointing for Byfuglien’s accountant, at minimum, being that he walked away from a lot of money.

Hopefully we’ll get the pleasant surprise of an awkward-but-entertaining game whenever Byfuglien suits up for a different team against the Jets. The point being: it would be deeply, deeply disappointing if we never see the towering, one-of-a-kind defenseman ever play again. Especially since there would be no warning that we’d already seen his last game.

Either way, it was a highly disappointing end to Byfuglien’s lengthy, important stay with the Jets. The connections between the Thrashers days just keep fading away.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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 Winnipeg Jets

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 Winnipeg Jets.

Record: 37-28-6 (71 games), fourth in the Central Division, sixth in the Western Conference.
Leading Scorer: Tie between Kyle Connor (38 goals, 73 points) and Mark Scheifele (29 goals, 73 points)

In-Season Roster Moves
• Claimed Luca Sbisa off waivers from Ducks.
• Claimed Nick Shore off waivers from Maple Leafs.
• Acquired Dylan DeMelo from Senators for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Acquired Cody Eakin from Golden Knights for 2021 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Reached agreement to mutually terminate Dustin Byfuglien‘s contract.

Season Overview

Before the Jets even played a 2019-20 preseason game, they lost a big piece. Dustin Byfuglien’s decision to take a leave of absence to contemplate his future ended seven months later with a mutual agreement to terminate the defenseman’s contract. Having already traded away Jacob Trouba and letting Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers walk in free agency, the blue line took a hit before the puck even dropped.

There were also losses up front when Mark Letestu was ruled out for six months with heart muscle inflammation and Bryan Little suffered a perforated ear drum.

That set a tone for the season as the Jets streaked their way — good and bad — to the first Western Conference wild card spot  at the time of the NHL pause. How much of a roller coaster has it been? The Jets took 28 out of 36 points from November to early December, and then squandered that gained ground with a five-game losing streak and a 3-8-1 skid in January.

Their biggest weapons — Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers — have all led the way offensively. Neal Pionk, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Trouba trade, impressed on defense with positive possession numbers and 45 points. Then you have Connor Hellebuyck, a heavy Vezina Trophy frontrunner, who also deserves some Hart Trophy consideration. The netminder leads the league in shutouts (6), even strength save percentage (.927) and 5-on-5 shots against (1,530).

Entering the NHL break on a four-game winning streak gave the Jets hope that they were peaking at the right time. They’re two points behind the Stars (Dallas has two games in-hand) and were doing a good job of staving off teams like the Predators, Canucks, and Wild, who are right on their heels.

Highlight of the Season

A new extension and on the verge of 40 goals — it’s been a pretty good season for Kyle Connor:

MORE JETS:
Biggest 2019-20 surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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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.