Can the Minnesota Wild make the most of an unexpected Qualifying Round opportunity against the Vancouver Canucks? For all we know, that might boil down to the right goalie winning a competition to start for the Wild.
Not great for Dubnyk, but a few forces give him a chance to wrestle that job back.
To start, Dean Evason is still fairly freshly new as interim Wild head coach. But most obviously, the pandemic pause opens the door for competition. Stalock acknowledged as much to NHL.com’s Pete Jensen.
“I think whoever is looking the sharpest you got to go with the first night,” Stalock said last week. “You roll right into a [qualifying] series. It’s probably the first time for a lot of people to go through a training camp, and then all of a sudden you’re playing some of the most meaningful games of your lives.”
Evason reinforced the notion of the Wild having some goalie competition, too.
“We expect our goaltenders both to be ready and have that opportunity to make that choice as a staff — and hopefully a very difficult one because they’ll both be ready to go,” Evason told Sarah McLellan of the Star-Tribune in early June.
In that case, Evason was discussing a Wild goalie competition of Dubnyk vs. Stalock. For the purposes of this post, we’re also making an argument for Kaapo Kahkonen.
Breaking down the potential Wild goalie competition
Stalock currently leads Wild goalie competition
Heading into the All-Star break, Stalock (25 games played) and Dubnyk (24 GP) shared a pretty even workload overall. Afterward, Stalock played 13 games vs. just six for Dubnyk.
Such a transition cannot be solely pinned on Dubnyk’s struggles. Stalock caught fire after the break, managing an impressive .924 save percentage to go with a promising 9-3-1 record. The 32-year-old really only marginally outplayed Dubnyk earlier in the season, but that changed in a big way down the stretch.
Stalock had been a career backup before 2019-20. While he set a career-high with 38 games played before the pandemic pause, Stalock previously peaked with 28 GP in 2017-18.
His career .909 save percentage qualifies as “pretty strong for a backup, but maybe a little off the mark for a starter.”
Dubnyk has been there before, plenty of times.
Stalock is no stranger to NHL play with 151 career regular-season appearances. Even so, I must admit that I made a double-take at Dubnyk’s sheer experience. Dubnyk, 34, has already appeared in 520 regular-season games.
During unsteady times, the Wild may prefer to lean on Dubnyk’s experience. Maybe Dubnyk can rebound to somewhere close to his career work (.915 save percentage), or maybe most greedily, his larger Wild resume (.918 save percentage in 328 games over six seasons)?
You could argue that Dubnyk possesses the largest ceiling, at least for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then again, the Wild have seen so much of his floor in 2019-20. This Evolving Hockey chart captures Dubnyk’s struggles, even behind a strong Wild defense, quite well:
Kahkonen a wild card for the Wild
Perhaps you could argue that the Wild would choose the past if they went with Dubnyk, the present if they chose Stalock, and the future if they tabbed Kahkonen.
That’s probably an oversimplification, but the Wild should probably give Kahkonen more than a token shot in a goalie competition.
For one thing, Kahkonen looked sharp at multiple levels. While you can only take so much from five games at the NHL level (3-1-1, solid .913 save percentage), Kahkonen dominated in the AHL (25-6-3, .927 save percentage). Aside from a bumpy first AHL season in 2018-19, Kahkonen’s recent numbers look pretty promising across the board.
There’s also something to be said for mystery.
Sure, the Wild might not know everything about Kahkonen. That could make it tougher for defenders to, say, get a feel for his rebound control.
But the same could be said for the competition. The Canucks would have less “tape” on Kahkonen, while they’ve seen plenty of both Dubnyk and Stalock over the years.
Whether it’s by skill, that lack of tape, coincidence, or some combination, we’ve seen brand-new goalies dominate. Go back from the likes of Ken Dryden to Cam Ward all the way to Matt Murray and you’ll see some serious runs behind goalies who weren’t particularly well known to friends or foes.
Does that make Kahkonen the best option over Dubnyk or Stalock in a Wild goalie competition? Not necessarily, but the Wild would be foolish not to at least explore the option.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.
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 …
(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.
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.
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 Parise – Ryan 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?
(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.
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.)
Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.
“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”
Older players disagree.
Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”
It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.
“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”
From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.
“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”
The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.
“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”
The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.
“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”
New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.
“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”
Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”
PHT Morning Skate: Coaches keeping sharp; Dubnyk on rollercoaster season
• Former NWHL players detail life in the league, including: “Two players who were both with the [Boston] Pride during the 2018-19 season said that they had no access to bathrooms, locker rooms, or any sort of private place to change when they were practicing. Players had little choice but to undress in the area around the ice surface, with no privacy or space of their own to utilize. The lack of access to bathrooms meant that players had to urinate in a garbage can near the bench if they needed to relieve themselves.” [Victory Press]
• The parent company of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks has filed for bankruptcy. “Winterhawks owner William Gallacher allegedly failed to repay money his companies had borrowed in 2018. The lender, Bridging Financing, went to court in Toronto earlier this month and claims it took control of several Gallacher’s companies, including the hockey team.” [Oregon Live]
”I have a pretty good shooter here,” Andersen said.
No matter the setup, NHL puck-stoppers are, at least on the surface, at a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining most of their physical skills during the lull since the season was suspended March 12.
Unlike skaters, who might have a net in the driveway or the ability run through a stick-handling drill, goalies are having a hard time mimicking situations that even loosely resemble practice or game situations.
”We’re doing our best and working a lot on hand-eye,” Markstrom said. ”Don’t let your eyes fall asleep is a big thing.”
”No one’s been through this before. There’s really no book, no right way. I’m not able to strap on the pads. That’s the most important part about being dialed in as a goalie, getting a feel and really getting the workload. Going for a run isn’t going to keep me in goaltender shape.”
Many goalies are leaning on their private trainers.
While a team’s strength and conditioning coach has to formulate programs for more than 20 players, people like Adam Francilia, whose NHL clients include the San Jose Sharks, Hellebuyck, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk and Carolina’s James Reimer, develop plans specifically for netminders.
”In some cases they have really great home gyms at their disposal,” Francilia said. ”And then there’s some guys in a condo with nothing … but I have enough stuff in my repertoire that guys only need their body weight to train.”
John Stevenson, a performance psychologist and former NHL goalie coach, said he always instructs his netminders to work on blocking outside noise.
”The coronavirus is an uncontrollable,” he said. ”We don’t have control over the uncontrollables, but we definitely have control over how we choose to respond.”