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NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

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“The No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft belongs to a team yet to be determined, coming from the qualifying round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

As surprising as it sounded when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the 2020 draft lottery winner, it was kind of a fitting for a not-so-normal season.

Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.

According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.

But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.

[Mock Draft: Projecting top picks for the 2020 NHL Draft]

1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.

2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias PetterssonJ.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?

3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.

4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.

5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.

Getty Images

6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”

7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.

8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?

9. Maple Leafs: Toronto is going to be up against the cap ceiling, especially if it stays at $81.5M for the next few seasons. To stay as a contender that will require cheaper talent making an impact. Lafreniere would be dropped into the center — sorry, centre — of the hockey universe and not be dubbed as “the savior.” Between John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, there’s more than enough offensive weapons to allow the rookie ample time to find his role.

10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.

11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.

Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:

12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.

13. Flames: If a Johnny Gaudreau trade does actually happen, I know of a talented winger who could slot into his place…

14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.

15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround,  how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?

16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL Draft Lottery memories
Most exciting Qualifying Round series
Qualifying Round storylines
Off-season buyout candidates
Round Robin teams with most to lose

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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 clarifies how conditional picks will be handled for 2020 NHL Draft

Teams had plenty of questions after the NHL announced its return-to-play plan. Of the dangling threads, “How will conditional draft picks be handled?” represented one of the tougher conundrums. Certain details still need to be determined, yet the Athletic/TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that a memo cleaned up some of the biggest questions about conditional draft picks.

LeBrun’s full report at the Athletic (sub required) is well worth a read, as he drills deep on many questions on a case-by-case basis.

For this post, we’ll ponder broader strokes, and then ask some other questions.

How conditional draft picks from trades might be addressed for 2020 NHL Draft (and 2021)

Again, not every conditional draft pick situation was settled. After all, NHL teams got pretty creative, and thus things got pretty specific. But, thanks to LeBrun, we get to glance at the bigger picture.

One of the most common conditions revolves around whether a team reaches the playoffs or not. When NHL teams exchanged such conditional picks — during the trade deadline, or even before the season began — they of course didn’t realize there would be a 24-team format thanks to a global pandemic.

So how will it work? Via LeBrun, we can see how the league memo addressed this question:

“More specifically, for Trade condition purposes, a Club will not be deemed to have qualified for the Playoffs unless or until they have progressed into the Round of 16, and ‘Playoff Games/Rounds’ will only include the games/rounds played in the Round of 16 or later. We believe this interpretation will best reflect the intentions of the parties at the time of the Trade …”

Short version: making the cut for the 24-team format doesn’t meet the “make the playoffs” standard. Instead, you need to make it to “the Round of 16 or later.”

Seeing an actual example might help. Take, for instance, the Canucks’ 2020 first-round pick (and/or their 2021 first-rounder) that was conditionally tossed around in the J.T. Miller and Blake Coleman trades. Will the Devils make that 2020 first-round selection, or will it be the Canucks?

The parameters might make the most sense to you see if you see them via this screenshot from essential resource Cap Friendly:

Coleman Miller conditional draft pick Devils Canucks
via Cap Friendly

So who gets it? Well, that’s still to be determined:

  • If the Canucks win their Qualifying Round series against the Wild, then the Devils receive Vancouver’s 2020 first-rounder.
  • If the Canucks lose their Qualifying Round series vs. the Wild, then the Devils instead receiver Vancouver’s 2021 first-rounder.

That all seems pretty fair, really. At least considering the circumstances. But there are some other tricky situations, and maybe a few burning questions.

More complicated conditions and situations

On one hand, you have easier-to-resolve issues such as that conditional Canucks pick situation. LeBrun notes that there are still some details to hash out.

If you want to pinpoint a fairly zany situation, consider the performance-based elements regarding the Milan LucicJames Neal trade. Again, it might be easiest to get your head around things quickly by looking at the Cap Friendly screenshot first:

Lucic Neal conditional draft picks Flames Oilers
via Cap Friendly

That third-round pick is in flux, as Neal sits at 19 goals, 11 more than Lucic (eight). Lebrun guesses that you would “prorate” Neal’s goals over a full season, and give the Flames the third-rounder.

There’s room for argument, there, though. After all, it’s plausible that Neal could have been injured. It’s also worthwhile to note that Neal’s scoring was frontloaded. Neal started red-hot with 11 goals in 14 October games, and 19 goals through December 31. He failed to score a goal once the calendar turned to 2020, however, managing four assists over 13 games. What if that slump persisted?

So there are some tricky situations, at least if teams want to harumph about it. A more interesting discussion revolves around which situations teams might want to play out.

If you’re the Devils, do you prefer the Canucks’ 2020 or 2021 first-round pick? If you get the 2020, you get a prospect into your system, developing sooner. The 2021 pick would be more of a gamble. The Canucks could take another step to become a dominant team in the Pacific. On the other hand, they could slide back and present a situation like Ottawa earning a lucrative Sharks pick for 2020.

These are interesting questions to debate. They also might be useful ones, if you’re missing hockey and rooting for a team that won’t be able to return to play until whenever 2020-21 kicks off.

Of course, the NHL must also determine when the 2020 NHL Draft will actually take place, among other questions …

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.

Roundtable: Qualifying round excitement; draft lottery reaction

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Which Qualifying Round series are you most excited to see?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: There are two reasons why I’m eager to see the Canucks-Wild series. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

They’re the two cornerstones of the Canucks rebuild and they helped Vancouver take big strides this season. This will be their first postseason — if you want to describe it like that — experience and in such a short series they could cause plenty of problems for Dean Evason and his charges.

Pettersson and Hughes weren’t the only two key cogs for the Canucks. J.T. Miller and goaltender Jacob Markstrom could share the team’s MVP award this season. Miller was their leading scorer (72 points) after being acquired from Tampa last summer and Markstrom finished top five in even-strength save percentage (.925). That will be important going against a Wild team that averaged over three goals per game.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: As tempting as it is to go rogue from my own selections — and as difficult as it was to rank all eight qualifiers to begin with — I should stay consistent and choose Penguins vs. Canadiens.

And, really, there’s a lot to love. For one thing, whether the Penguins are really “scared” of Carey Price or not, it adds some sizzle to the steak. There should be plenty to chew on with this series, too, as Pittsburgh boasts those big stars, while the Canadiens have been a strong possession team with not-so-strong results for some time now. The Penguins might be the most “overqualified” team for this play-in format, so imagine if Montreal pushes Pittsburgh to the brink?
(After watching Jaroslav Halak upset the Penguins back in 2010, wouldn’t it be odd for Price to do the same a decade later?)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’ll have my eyes glued to the TV for the Toronto-Columbus series. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff round since 2004, and the pressure is mounting considering how firmly entrenched in “win now” mode they are. After three straight first-round exits, a coaching change, and a lot of cash paid to its superstars, Toronto is running out of time to capitalize on their plan.

From Columbus’ perspective, a couple things stand out. First, the question mark in net. Neither goalie has any playoff experience. Joonas Korpisalo was stellar in the first half of the season and was named an All-Star, but got hurt and didn’t play much in 2020. Elvis Merzlikins didn’t win a game until New Year’s Eve, but once Korpisalo went down, he took the starter’s load and at one point recorded 5 shutouts in less than a month. Who will step up?

Another other major factor is Columbus’ health. Their top players were battered and bruised all season, and rarely at full capacity. With such a long layoff, we may see the best version of these Blue Jackets.

Considering the Leafs were staring down a First Round matchup with the Lightning before the pause, they will seemingly have their hands less full with Columbus. Then again, those Blue Jackets were a buzzsaw last year and swept the Presidents’ Trophy winners, so you really do never know. Especially when John Tortorella is involved.

 

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Complicated as it is, do you like the draft lottery procedure for this unique season?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I had to read it a dozen times just to come close to comprehending exactly how it will all go down.

It should have just been simplified: Those seven teams who didn’t make the Return to Play plan? Congrats! You have an equal shot at landing Alexis Lafreniere and are part of the lottery. Then, at the conclusion of each round, the losing teams will be slotted into the appropriate spots by regular season winning percentage until we end the Round 1 order with the two Stanley Cup teams.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Not really.

For one thing, if the NHL was so eager to run an early-June draft (at least according to reports), weren’t they doing so to create buzz? Going to go out on a limb and say that when rules are so convoluted that even Gary Bettman is apologizing for them, you probably aren’t going to leave fans very excited about the draft lottery. Considering that many of the most hardcore hockey fans only know a smattering of prospects, shouldn’t the lottery to win the few known quantities be a little more straightforward?
We live in complex times. Why not make sports easier to follow?

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Putting the very intricate details of the draft lottery aside for a moment, I am thrilled that the decision was made to place the draft itself after the conclusion of the season. The concept of a June draft never felt right to me. Not only would the determination of a draft order have felt somewhat arbitrary without a completed season, but there are so many components of crucial league business predicated on the draft taking place in the offseason. By keeping the draft in its traditional place, the NHL has ensured the most fair outcome for its teams as they prepare for what is hopefully a somewhat normal 2020-21 season.

Now, regarding the draft lottery: I am not a proponent of the procedure as outlined. The complexity doesn’t bother me; if the goal was to come as close as possible to the traditional format, where 15 non-playoff teams all get a shot at the lottery, then this is the best way to do it because there is no incentive to lose in the Qualifying Round, and the odds for the teams at the bottom of the standings remain as high as they usually are.

Except there are not 15 non-playoff teams. Effectively, there are only seven. And those seven teams are at a disadvantage relative to the 16 teams who will play in the Qualifying Round.

A reason why the NHL ended up with a 24-team format was to accommodate the large number of teams who were on the playoff bubble. So, the cutoff line for those who will get a shot at the Stanley Cup was made more forgiving. Why then is there simultaneously a reward for those teams (getting the chance to win a Cup), as well as a safety net (chances at the top 3 picks). Normally, you either get one or the other. Now, you get both, all while the system remains unchanged for the teams at the bottom.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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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.

Revisiting biggest NHL trades from the 2019 offseason

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

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

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

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

Misadventures for Maple Leafs in 2019 offseason NHL trades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deals with the Devils not scorching teams as much

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. Yikes.

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

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

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

Pondering other teams making one or more noteworthy trades

Vegas Golden Knights

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

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

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

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

Fascinating Miller trade between Canucks, Lightning

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

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

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

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

Penguins, Oilers often busy making trades

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

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

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

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

Quick thoughts

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.