Jakub Voracek

NHL Playoffs: How should top four East teams approach Round Robin?

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While the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams fight to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Round Robin is merely for seeding. Such a scenario presents the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding teams (four in each conference) with many conundrums, including the age-old rest vs. rust debate.

PHT will take a look at such dilemmas for all eight teams in the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding, starting with the East. We’re going East first because the Bruins a) won the Presidents’ Trophy and b) addressed such debates recently.

We might as well go in order as they would be ranked, too.

Debates for East top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

Boston Bruins

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruce Cassidy said he’s open to the idea of resting players during the three-game Round Robin for Seeding.

“Would we like to win all three games? Of course, in a perfect world, but I think with all teams there’s going to be some sort of a preseason mentality worked in with how the lineups are constructed every game,” Cassidy said, via Haggerty. “But if the [veteran players] want to play every game then I’m going to listen to them. It’s their bodies and they would know best. Then in the last game in the third period we’re going to shut our eyes and hope nobody gets hurt in those situations.”

The Bruins are in a heightened situation. While it stings that they may lose the top seeding they earned with 2019-20’s only 100-point season, this is also a roster brimming with veterans.

Most obviously, Cassidy must manage Zdeno Chara (43) and Patrice Bergeron (34). Really, the list goes deeper even than Tuukka Rask, who’s 33.

Brad Marchand is 32, and stands as an example to other contenders. As you may recall, Marchand aggravated a previous hand injury before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it was coincidental, but Marchand’s top line struggled during that seven-game slugfest with the Blues. If teams like the Bruins want to go deep, they should emphasize caution most of all.

So, beyond the obvious, there are players who’ve been banged up like Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy‘s also dealt with bumps and bruises despite ranking as one of the younger Bruins.

Overall, the Bruins rank among the East Round Robin teams with the most incentive to rest key players.

[MORE: How should the West’s top four teams handle rest vs. rust?]

Tampa Bay Lightning

How should the team with the most to lose deal with the Round Robin for Seeding?

Imagine how badly things could play out for the Lightning. We all know that their historic 2018-19 season ended in a stunning first-round sweep. Kenan Thompson mocked it. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked really steamed.

What if the Lightning fall short under these strange circumstances?

It could cost Jon Cooper his job. And there’s the increased risk of scapegoating a lack of “preparedness” if the Lightning take a preseason approach to the Round Robin for Seeding.

You could definitely make the argument that the Lightning took a while to get back into their elite form in 2019-20, too.

But … the Lightning are smarter than to cave to bad takes, right?

Let’s not forget that the Lightning didn’t really take their feet off the gas during that 2018-19 regular season — not really. Rather than resting stars more aggressively, Nikita Kucherov and others chased history.

Personally, it really looked like Victor Hedman was far from 100 percent, even missing some of that first-round sweep.

This Lightning team boasts a fairly old defense beyond Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Hedman is 29 already. Steven Stamkos is 30 (ponders own mortality for a second).

Cooper needs to find the right balance. If there’s any hint of failure in that regard, the vultures may start circling.

Washington Capitals

Zooming out, the most logical choice would be for the Capitals to promote rest.

Almost every major Capitals player is 30 or older, with the rare exception of breakthrough winger Jakub Vrana (24). There’s also some incentive to see if Ilya Samsonov (23) is still sharper than Braden Holtby (30).

But 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin doesn’t sit out a whole lot of games. Maybe the unique circumstances (and lack of a Maurice Richard Trophy to chase) might change Ovechkin’s approach, yet it’s not a slam-dunk to sit him. As Cassidy said, coaches will at times defer to players. It wouldn’t be shocking if such an approach occasionally backfires.

All things considered, the Capitals joust with the Bruins for the East Round Robin team with the most to gain from resting aging stars.

Philadelphia Flyers

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the Flyers want to shake off rust.

For one thing, the Flyers boast several core players in the younger range. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are both 23, while Carter Hart is 21. The Flyers also are “playing with house money” as a team that could climb to the top spot if they end up hot during the Round Robin for Seeding.

But the Flyers have plenty of reason to be careful, too.

To start, the drop-off between Hart and Brian Elliott (or another goalie) looks pretty severe. You don’t necessarily want to increase injury risks with Hart, then.

Also, there are veterans to manage. Philly should aim to keep Claude Giroux (32) and Jakub Voracek (30) fresh, not to mention someone like Matt Niskanen (33). While Sean Couturier is only 27, he’s the sort of player you’ll lean on a ton in playoff situations. So you might want to tread lightly there.

Rather than overtaxing go-to guys, this could be an opportunity for others. Could Nolan Patrick crack the lineup if his migraine issues are behind him? Perhaps a prospect from Philly’s impressive farm system will make a jump?

The Flyers have a lot to like about this situation. Even so, they also need to avoid getting too greedy.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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: Round Robin teams with most to lose

With Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan kicking in this week, the possibility of the 2020 Stanley Cup being raised remains alive. In recent power rankings posts, we’ve focused on Qualifying Round storylines and matchups. But what about the teams who aim to thrive rather than survive. Today we discuss the top four teams in each conference who will compete in Round Robin for Seeding.

To be more precise, we’re wondering which top four teams have the most on the line. In this case, we’re focused on the top four teams in each conference’s outlooks during entire NHL playoffs, rather than just the Round Robin for Seeding.

Let’s rank them first to last as far as desperation goes in each conference. At the end, we’ll debate who has the absolute most on the line, and who’s playing with house money.

The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, so it seems fairest to start with the top four for the East.

Top four East (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Imagine if the Lightning draw the Blue Jackets at some point during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(Are you cringing too?)

While the Lightning are lucky that they get to jet-ski around a market like Tampa Bay, the rumblings will grow to a fever pitch if they fall short again. (Like, we might need to physically separate Andrei Vasilevskiy from Kenan Thompson.)

Yes, this franchise owns a Stanley Cup. But that was from the Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis – Brad Richards era. For all Steven Stamkos has accomplished, he’s had his heart and face broken in many NHL playoffs. At some point, it’s going to get awkward if Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman “can’t win the big one.”

(Speaking of cringing, wait for those takes.)

2. Boston Bruins

The 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners keep hiding Father Time’s coat and shoes. It’s not just Zdeno Chara hogging the Fountain of Youth/Lazarus Pit at 43, either. Patrice Bergeron remains dominant at 34. You might make a double-take when you realize Brad Marchand is already 32. Oh yeah, Tuukka Rask is 33, too.

You … gotta think the Bruins are peaking right? Right? I mean, I honestly felt like this group would hit the aging curve hard by now, yet they comfortably topped the NHL standings this season.

It’s not just about wondering if the window will close. Even before the pandemic pause, it seemed like pending UFA Torey Krug would represent a tight squeeze. If they want to bring Krug back, you’d think they’d need to break up some of the band.

As much as this group has accomplished, you have to think that Chara & Co. want a second Stanley Cup (and first for star David Pastrnak).

3. Washington Capitals

*Rubs eyes*

Wait a minute, is this really happening? Are the Capitals relatively unfettered by “must-win” pressure?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional Jakub Vrana, this roster’s getting a little up there in age. If for some reason you want to ponder your own mortality during the escape of watching hockey, merely ponder Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin Round Robin NHL
It works for Ovechkin, but still. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Braden Holtby‘s pending UFA status lingering, there’s still room for Capitals drama. No doubt, though, slaying that Stanley Cup dragon relieves most of the angst.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

For some, the Flyers kinda slipped up the ranks under the radar. This has been a team that’s mainly been playoff bubble material, at least when the wheels don’t fall off. Now they’re a Round Robin for Seeding away from possibly swiping the East’s top seed.

Don’t blame at least some of the Flyers for feeling pretty loose, then.

Yet … it’s not as if they’re playing with zero pressure.

Obviously, Philly can be a tough market. If the Flyers flounder, people will grumble about squandering a golden opportunity.

Also, for all the considerable youth on this roster, could this be a “sweet spot” between rising talent and aging stars? Claude Giroux (32), Jakub Voracek (30), and James van Riemsdyk (31) all might be heading toward a decline.

Top four West (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. St. Louis Blues

Like the Capitals, the Blues recently ended their franchise’s decades-long Stanley Cup drought. I’d wager there are some Blues fans who view the rest as “all gravy.”

Still, when you’re defending champs, you have a target on your back.

Combine that thought with Alex Pietrangelo possibly being out the door, and the temperature rises. What if this is the Blues’ best chance at a second Stanley Cup for quite a while? That thought won’t inspire the “Jaws” theme, exactly, but there’s some heat on the Blues.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

It feels deeply weird to put a third-year team on this list. Shouldn’t the Golden Knights enjoy basically a decade-long “honeymoon phase?”

Well, the Golden Knights are a deeply unusual expansion team.

Rather than being full of young debris, this is a full-flavored contender. And that goes right down to having some expensive players who are getting a little older. Not “Bruins” old, but the core Golden Knights might suddenly enter declines in the not-so-distant future.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury probably already hit a wall at 35. The Golden Knights made the smart investment to acquire Robin Lehner, but that could set the stage for drama. After all, if we’re being honest … Lehner probably should be the No. 1 guy for now.

The Golden Knights gambled earlier than expected, so if they leave with empty wallets, it will be pretty painful. Not “Joe Pesci’s gruesome death in Casino” painful, but painful.

3. Dallas Stars

The Stars should rank lower. As much as any team, it’s bewildering to realize that they’re basically a hot week from owning the top seed in their conference.

But, honestly, any team that’s thrown Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus this often faces some bleeping horsebleep if they end with a whimper.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Honestly, it feels like we’re still in the “rising fast” portion of the Avalanche’s growth.

While they’ve made some nice moves, you get the impression something splashier lingers down the road. They haven’t gone all-in by any stretch yet, and most of their core is still so young. Nathan MacKinnon‘s 24, Mikko Rantanen‘s merely 23, and Cale Makar‘s a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, this feels like the “young kids hit a bump in the road” part of the narrative. Sports can be strange even in pre-pandemic times, though, so who knows?

Round Robin Team with most, least to lose

• Lightning have the most to lose

If they fall especially flat, it could conceivably cost Jon Cooper his job. That’s absurd by any measure, and particularly now, but … it’s also far from unimaginable.

•  Flyers have least to lose

The best might be yet to come for this group, aside from the aforementioned aging players. Probably.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:
League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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

Long-term outlook for Philadelphia Flyers

Long-term outlook for Flyers Provorov Couturier Konecny
Getty Images

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

When you look at the Flyers’ core, you should take a moment to appreciate the cleanup job Ron Hextall accomplished. The current regime took the baton and got off to a good run post-Ron, but give credit where it’s due. Hextall inherited a mess.

Now, sure, there are some risks.

One could see how the combination of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Kevin Hayes, and James van Riemsdyk could age poorly, and quickly. Concerns about the Flyers becoming the “next Kings/Sharks” are somewhat justified.

Yet … a lot of those risks are mitigated. Giroux’s contract ends after 2021-22, and there’s a strong chance he’ll still be worth the near-$8.3M. JVR and Voracek are both 30, but the terms could be worse. Same goes for Hayes; yes, it’s risky, but he won’t turn 28 until May 8. Chuck Fletcher (and Hextall) is guilty of some gambles, but not at the “slap the deed of your house on the poker stack” level.

Most importantly, nice to outright fantastic bargains give the Flyers leeway to roll the dice. After last season’s hiccup, Ivan Provorov looks like a gem, and a steal at $6.75M. Travis Konecny isn’t far behind at $5M, and both contracts run through 2024-25.

The Flyers really feasted on a deal with Sean Couturier, and the only bummer (for them, not Couturier’s accountant) is that a raise is coming from that $4.33M after 2021-22.

There’s a lot to like about the Flyers’ core, especially if the aging elements don’t rapidly go rotten.

Long-term needs for Flyers

Pondering the long-term needs of the Flyers, it’s clear the team needs some answers.

To start: how much is it going to cost to truly add Carter Hart to the core? The 21-year-old’s entry-level contract expires after 2020-21. Would it be better to lock him down as soon as possible, or see how he performs during a contract year? What kind of money and term would make sense for an extension?

While much of the Hart conundrums boil down to “good problems to have,” the Flyers need to find out about the future for players dealing with health issues. Beyond a frightening situation for Oskar Lindblom, Philly could use some insight on Nolan Patrick and Shayne Gostisbehere.

The latter found himself in trade rumors, yet “Ghost Bear” wasn’t exactly healthy. You don’t necessarily want to sell low on a player who can at least generate offense, and is still reasonably young (26) and generally cheap ($4.5M AAV through 2022-23).

Depth resonates as a need for the Flyers, at least if some of the above situations don’t work out.

Beyond depth, I also wonder: while the Flyers boast a strong core, can they really hang among the best of the best?

Long-term strengths for Flyers

Even as players graduate to regular or semi-regular NHL duty, the Flyers continue to hunt down strong draft prospects. Cam York, Morgan Frost, and Bobby Brink help the Flyers place eighth in Scott Wheeler’s prospect rankings (sub required), for example.

Could those players provide that extra “oomph” for this franchise?

It’s an enticing thought, especially as Travis Sanheim bolsters the bigger names, while Frost, Joel Farabee, and others attempt to make impressions.

The Flyers have a nice mix of veteran stars, budding younger stars like Provorov and Konecny, and those aforementioned intriguing prospects. Hart also made encouraging steps toward being that long lost goalie.

There are reasons to be optimistic about this team’s chances of being competitive for some time. What a difference a year makes, eh?

MORE ON THE FLYERS:
Breaking down their 2019-20 season
Biggest surprises and disappointments

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

Looking at the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Philadelphia Flyers

Record: 41-21-7 (69 games), second in the Metropolitan Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference
Leading Scorer: Travis Konecny – 61 points (24 goals and 37 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves: 

• Traded Jean-Francois Berube to the New York Rangers for future considerations
• Acquired Nathan Noel from the Chicago Blackhawks for T.J. Brennan
• Traded a 2020 fourth-round pick and Kyle Criscuolo to the Anaheim Ducks for Derek Grant
• Acquired Nate Thompson from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2021 fifth-round pick

Season Overview: 

The Flyers made some significant changes coming into the 2019-20 season. They brought in a new coaching staff with plenty of experience. Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo have found a way to get the most out of the team in the first season. They may have peaked a little early, but we don’t know for sure because the season was paused in mid-March.

They also added a key free agent in Kevin Hayes. The opinions on the signing varied at the time, but he’s worked out relatively well in his first year in Philadelphia.

The first month of the Flyers’ season was a rollercoaster. They opened the campaign with a win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Prague and followed that up with another victory over the New Jersey Devils. Then, they dropped their next four games before winning three in a row. They closed out October with back-to-back losses.

That feels like a lifetime ago though.

In the weeks leading up to the pause, they turned into one of the dominant teams in the league. In February, the Flyers started making up ground on the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who were sitting in first and second place in the Metro.

Just how good were they in Feb? Well, they rattled off 10 wins in 13 games. They also won nine games in a row between Feb. 18 and Mar. 7. They dropped their final game before the pause (a 2-0 loss to Boston), but they managed to jump three points ahead of the Pens and one point behind the Caps.

The usual suspects played a key roll in that turnaround. Claude Giroux had 18 points in the final 15 games. Jakub Voracek accumulated 10 points in the last six games, while Sean Couturier had 16 points in 18 contests. After failing to pick up a point in his last three games, Konecny had 17 points in 12 games. As you can see, the contributions were coming from all over the roster.

Let’s not forget about Carter Hart, who won seven of his last eight games. He allowed two goals or fewer in seven of those games. How would he have looked in the playoffs? We won’t know for sure until they happen, but he was well on his way to finishing the season in dominant fashion.

It seems plainly obvious that the Flyers are on the verge of becoming one of the dominant teams in the conference for years to come.

Highlight of the Season:

The top moment of the Flyers’ season happened in January, when they played the Boston Bruins. Philadelphia was down 5-2 in the second period, but they battled back to force overtime/a shootout.

Do you remember what happened in the shootout?

Konecny scored the go-ahead goal and Brad Marchand totally whiffed on his shootout attempt.

A classic.

MORE FLYERS:
Biggest surprises, disappointments

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.

Roundtable: Most entertaining NHL players for hockey H-O-R-S-E

There will be a H-O-R-S-E competition featuring current and former NBA and WNBA players this Sunday. If the NHL were to do something similar with a game of P-U-C-K, which four players do you think would provide an entertaining show?

SEAN: We’ll need a solid mix of skill and personality and if you’re trying to put on some unique content while everyone is stuck at home, let’s go heavy on the entertainment factor.

Brad Marchand and P.K. Subban: Between Marchand recently voted best and worst trash-talker by his peers and Subban’s ability to continuously yap on the ice (while also pulling in votes in the “worst trash-talker” category), these two would keep things very light and entertaining. The chirps would be good, and every mistake would be deserving of some trash talk.

Andrei Svechnikov: The new reigning king of “The Michigan,” would have plenty of ice to work with to do the move again and maybe try with a few alterations as well.

Jakub Voracek: He has no filter and isn’t afraid to chirp right back. Marchand and Subban will need someone to fire back when they unload their zings, and the long-time Flyer would happily give it right back.

JAMES: This idea rules so much. There are a lot of correct answers, but here’s the most fantastic four:

• Brad Marchand: Look, in an event like this, you want serious smack-talking. Marchand is such a pest he should start every game of “P-U-C-K” with a P. He’s also skilled enough to walk the walk.

Connor McDavidIs McDavid a perfect fit for an event that might lean a bit more toward shooting than passing? I don’t know, but wouldn’t you want to find out if the best player in the game can translate his skills to a game of hockey H-O-R-S-E? It could give McDavid a showcase for something other than his “making the turbo button in video games seem realistic” speed.

There’d be big pressure for McDavid to show that he’s not deliberately bland like certain players who held the best-in-the-world crown (motions not-so-subtly toward Sidney Crosby).

Alex OvechkinFew superstars ever loved to ham it up quite like Ovechkin, who also happens to be the greatest sniper the NHL’s ever seen. This should give him a chance to showcase his personality, as only the most mutated of mutants would complain about Jimi Hendrix-level goal celebrations here … right?

(Looks worriedly off in the distance with thoughts of those especially mutated mutants.)

Matthew TkachukFrankly, we need some insurance for trash talk. While Marchand can really entertain, he also clams up around the media at times, opening the door for fun-killing. But throw in the NHL’s other crown prince pest in the mix and maybe we bring out the saltiness in all involved. At least that’s the hope.

If nothing else, Tkachuk’s proficiency at between-the-legs goals shows that he can pull off some trick shots.

Getty Images

ADAMSince we are keeping this to modern NHL players I just want to take this opening part to say that Alex Kovalev and Pavel Datsyuk would be on my list of past players just because I would want to see what they could do and come up with. When it comes to current players…

Mathew BarzalI feel like he was one of the underrated and overlooked stars in the league and can be an absolute wizard with the puck. I think he could excel in a competition like this where he has the freedom and open ice to shine.

• Andrei Svechnikov: You need confidence and a willingness to be bold in a competition like this, and you know that would be Svechnikov. The lacrosse-goal may be something that most NHL players can do, but nobody ever did it until he did it. Twice. I like that moxie.

• Sidney Crosby: I kind of think we need the best player in the world in this thing, don’t we? There are times in games where he makes it looks effortless when he embarrasses opposing defenders and there is no limit to his creativity when it comes to making plays with the puck. Maybe he won’t use props or talk trash, but you know he is going to do something that leaves you speechless.

Elias Pettersson: Another young standout that can make magic happen when the puck is on his stick. He is one of the league’s best young players, one of the most talented players, and already an elite puckhandler.

JOEY: I’ve got to be honest, I’d totally watch something like this. I opted to go for skill and grease with my four choices. I also wanted to sprinkle in some celebrity splash.

Auston Matthews has to be one of the choices for this game. He’s one of the elite shooters in the game right now, so he’d be able to score from so many different angles. Also, he might be able to get Justin Bieber to endorse the event, which means more eyeballs on this game of P-U-C-K.

Zdeno Chara needs to be in this competition. Not only would he be able to riffle shots into the net at an alarming speed, he’s also one of the most imposing figures in the NHL. If other competitors start pulling away from Chara, they might end up getting cross-checked in the throat. That’s no fun!

Brendan Gallagher isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of this kind of event, but everybody knows somebody that plays his kind of game. He won’t score the prettiest goals during our game of P-U-C-K, but he’ll find a way to put enough pucks in from in-close throughout the game to keep himself in it. Bonus, he’ll be able to get under Chara’s skin throughout the game.

This kind of event would have Alex Ovechkin’s name written all over it. We all know about his ability to hammer pucks into the net from all over the ice, but think about the props he might use to put on a show. Remember the 2009 NHL All-Star Game? That’s when he put on a fishing hat with a Canadian flag, and a pair of sunglasses before a shootout attempt. He’d know how to make this a must-see TV event.

SCOTT: Love this idea, hopefully NBCSN will televise this alongside my mythical tournament.

Patrick Kane: His skill level is off the charts and the Blackhawks superstar can compete in any type of challenge. Whether it’s shooting, passing, stickhandling or .. Kane would most likely finish atop the leaderboard. His versatility from category to category makes him a must-have in this skills competition.

• Brad Marchand: James hit the nail on the head. In this type of competition, you need to get under the skin of the opponent. Marchand has the ability to not only annoy the opponent, but back up his words with an impressive skillset. His peers voted him as the game’s best (and worst) trash talker for the second straight year in the NHLPA Player Poll.

Kyle Connor: Did you see his between-the-legs goal against the Sharks in February? If he can pull off that maneuver at game speed, imagine what he could do in a trick shot challenge.

Johnny Gaudreau: An elite skillset is important, but creativity is paramount. If his on-ice ingenuity translates to this competition, Gaudreau will provide a ton of entertainment.

PREVIOUS PHT ROUNDTABLES:
Best NHL teams to not win Stanley Cup
Moments we’ll miss; hockey movies in quarantine
Playing out rest of NHL season; 2019-20 memories