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.
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.
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the 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 to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
”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.”
Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins, lock down cheap goalie tandem
Don’t you step on all of your best Elvis jokes at once, because the Columbus Blue Jackets are keeping Elvis Merzlikins around for a while.
Blue Jackets secure goalie tandem for two more seasons with Elvis Merzlikins extension
Not long after signing fellow goalie Joonas Korpisaloto a two-year extension, the Blue Jackets signed Merzlikins for two years as well. Interestingly, the Blue Jackets will reportedly pay Merzlikins more than Korpisalo. While Korpisalo’s AAV will be $2.8 million starting next season, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Merzlikins’ cap hit will be $4M. Each deal runs through the 2021-22 season.
Portzline shares the yearly breakdown:
Elvis Merzlikins’ deal with #CBJ will pay him $3 million in 2020-21 and $5 million 2021-22. AAV of $4M.
He’ll be an unrestricted free agent when this deal expires. Would have been a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.
Let’s get one of the gut reactions out of the way first: the Blue Jackets will devote less cap space to Merzlikins and Korpisalo ($6.8M) than the Panthers are paying a struggling, agingSergei Bobrovsky ($10M).
That inevitable comment aside, the Blue Jackets made an interesting bet this past week.
An interesting tandem
Korpisalo (25) and Merzlikins (26) stand at an interesting intersection between being in their primes, yet fairly unproven for their ages. After all, Elvis is in the middle of his rookie season, with just 33 NHL games played.
That said, Elvis has been a stunning smash hit for the Blue Jackets. While his 13-9-8 record is merely modest, Merzlikins sports a .923 save percentage, and his advanced stats are promising. By Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, Merzlikins ranked ninth in the NHL with a 12.10 mark this season.
Merzlikins is 13-9-8 this season with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage and five shutouts. That .923 is tied for the third-best season mark in #CBJ history at the moment, while the 2.35 GAA would place fifth in Jackets single-season annals.
John Tortorella’s system helped the goalies involved, but Merzlikins played an enormous role in helping Columbus stay in playoff contention. That’s no small feat considering the wave of injuries that besieged the Blue Jackets.
At first, it was a little surprising that Merzlikins ($4M) will carry a larger cap hit than Korpisalo ($2.8M). After all, the Blue Jackets worked hard during the expansion draft to make sure they could keep Korpi.
But Korpisalo hasn’t delivered quite as they hoped. The 2019-20 season represents one of his better efforts, yet even then Korpisalo was merely solid with a .911 save percentage. If you had to bet on one of these two goalies putting together elite work, you might swing for the fences with Merzlikins.
Of course, goalies remain a mystery to most of us, so who knows? If nothing else, the Blue Jackets kept a cheap tandem together that’s reasonably young. It sure beats, well (insert Bobrovsky joke that’s almost cruel at this point).
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid uncertainty about whether the 2019-20 season will continue, the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking ahead to next season.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced the signing Monday of Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko to a one-year contract for next season. A person with knowledge of the contract told The Associated Press it’s worth $1.2 million, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team does not release contract terms.
The deal was later rejected by the NHL, and the Blue Jackets tweeted that it was due to a ‘misunderstanding with regard to the filing window, and that the contract will be resubmitted July 1.
Last week the team locked up goalie Joonas Korpisalo for two more years with a contract worth a reported $5.6 million.
”I think it’s just business as usual for us,” Kekalainen insisted during a Monday conference call with reporters, while noting that the team is embroiled in discussions internally and with the NHL about if and how the current season will resume after the coronavirus threat wanes.
”We’ve talked to Grigorenko for two years, and now his contract’s up and he’s done playing for the year,” Kekalainen said. ”It’s business as usual, we’re just not meeting at the office. We’re doing it on FaceTime or Zoom on our computers, talking to each other by phone.”
The 25-year-old Grigorenko had 22 goals and 42 assists in 217 career NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres from 2012-17. He was the 12th overall pick by Buffalo in 2012 and can play all three forward positions.
The native of Khabarovsk, Russia, has spent the past three seasons with CSKA in the Kontinental Hockey League, with 46 goals and 70 assists in 147 games from 2017-20. Kekalainen said he’s noted improvement in the player since he was in the NHL.
The two-year contract for Korpisalo will give the 25-year-old a chance to establish himself as the team’s starter. Rookie backup Elvis Merzlikins also proved he is worthy of a starting job.
The team likely will try to re-sign Merzlikins, and conventional wisdom is that one of them will eventually be trade bait as Columbus seeks more offensive help for next year.
Korpisalo said he wants to be the guy.
”I’ve been working for many years, and I’ve got a good chance to make it,” he said Monday. ”I think I’ve said I played OK. I always knew I had it in myself, and now signing a two-year contract, I’m really honored and it’s really a place I want to be. Just happy to stay in Columbus and try to make the best of myself.”
Korpisalo, who is at home in Finland, said he reckons it will take ”a couple weeks” just to get players back together and start training again if the league comes up with a plan to finish the season.
Ideas floated include trying to finish the regular season at neutral sites with no fans or going right into an expanded playoff scenario. If the playoffs were to begin with 16 teams, the Blue Jackets would be edged out by percentage points, so naturally Kekalainen is advocating for an expanded playoff field.
”I don’t think there’s a fair way to cut it to 16 teams right away,” he said.
”We have some ideas,” he said. ”And obviously we want to be part of it. We were right there when play halted and paused.”