Darcy Kuemper

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.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.

A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.

So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.

1. Penguins vs. Canadiens

Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.

But in your heart of hearts, can you truly dismiss how fun it could be to see “Carey Price vs. Sidney Crosby” in headlines? Especially when you can throw Evgeni Malkin in the mix? Then maybe Brendan Gallagher to add some humorous wrinkles on TikTok?

The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.

Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?

Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.

2. Oilers vs. Blackhawks

When in doubt, go with star power. You could do a lot worse than Connor McDavid vs. Patrick Kane. Heck, you could do worse than Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews, too.

In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.

Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.

If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.

3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.

On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.

On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.

The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.

Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.

4. Flames vs. Jets

If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.

Even with tempered expectations, the Jets and Flames bring a lot to the table. Matthew Tkachuk has all of that pent-up pest energy from the pandemic pause. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine can fill up highlight reels. Mark Giordano vs. Blake Wheeler would be fun.

From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.

5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers

You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.

Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.

All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.

(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)

6. Canucks vs. Wild

I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.

7. Predators vs. Coyotes

There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.

These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)

Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?

8. Islanders vs. Panthers

As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.

*cough* And yet I must …

 

There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.

Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.

However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.

Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series

As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Bruins
Lightning
Capitals
Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Blues
Avalanche
Golden Knights
Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Where will Byfuglien land?; Tarasenko’s return

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.

• Here’s three potential landing spots for Dustin Byfuglien. (Sportsnet)

• Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko should dominate when he gets back into the lineup. (Bleedin Blue)

• Check out T.J. Oshie‘s draft story from 2005. You’ll get a kick out of it. (The Hockey News)

James Reimer wants to see NHL teams play exhibition games if play resumes. (TSN)

Brad Marchand believes the older teams are going to struggle if the season resumes. (NBC Sports Boston)

Darcy Kuemper explains what it’s like for him to be stuck at home during the pandemic. (AZ Family)

• On the Forecheck did an interview did an interview with SC Bern GM Florence Schelling. (On the Forecheck)

• The covid-19 pandemic is hitting women’s hockey at a pivotal time. (Lethbridge News Now)

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.