Mikko Koivu

NHL Power Rankings: Qualifying Round storylines

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There’s been an excitement in the air since the NHL announced its Return to Play plans last week. Of course, there’s a big if to be added at the beginning of it all. As long as planning and testing goes well, the puck should drop later this summer to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

There’s still lots of work to do.

But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.

1. Non-playoff teams given second life

Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause. 

“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”

But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.

Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.

“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”

2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?

As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.

With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?

The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.

Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?

At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

3. The goalie battles

We touched on this Friday with the Rangers. Will Henrik Lundqvist get one last ride in New York or will David Quinn go with the impressive rookie, Shesterkin? Will Mike Sullivan allow training camp to determine if he goes with Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Is Mikko Koskinen the definitive choice in Edmonton over Mike Smith? Can Antti Raanta challenge Darcy Kuemper for the Coyotes’ No. 1 job?

Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.

A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.

4. Stars getting healthy

Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.

Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
Getty Images

5. Deadline pickups having an effect

The trade deadline seems like it arrived years ago. Let’s now all remember that Tyler Toffoli is a Canuck, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck are Hurricanes, Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau are Penguins, J.G. Pageau is an Islander, Alex Galchenyuk is a Wild, and Andreas Athanasiou is an Oiler.

Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.

In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.

These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.

6. The swan songs

Justin Williams took a break after last season and rejoined the Hurricanes in January. Hanging up his skates for good after this season is something he spoke about in April. Who else could join him?

Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?

Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”

A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups

While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.

Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups]

(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks

Regular season recap

The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.

When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.

With a whopping 110 points, Draisaitl blazed by anyone else to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one else even crossed 100 points, as McDavid finished second in scoring with 97. Other Oilers didn’t provide much offense beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points), as Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom finished fourth on Edmonton with just 34.

The Blackhawks didn’t reach the same heights, but were similarly top-heavy. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to run the show. Beyond them, Alex DeBrincat took a step back, but Dominik Kubalik emerged.

On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.

Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.

Season series

Blackhawks leads season series 2-1. Last meeting: Chicago won 4-3 on March 5.

Injured players who could return

Blackhawks: When Calvin de Haan underwent shoulder surgery in late December, it seemed to be season-ending. Now it’s not so clear. Concussions could be especially tricky to deal with in this climate, so we’ll see how Adam Boqvist comes along. One would think that Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be available, but who knows?

Oilers: Edmonton indicated that Mike Green and Joakim Nygard should both be ready for a return to play.

Storylines to Watch

Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.

But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.

I ranked this as the most exciting series of the Western Conference side, but click here to see if it got the overall nod.

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Predators Coyotes
(Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes

Regular season recap

After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.

If you’re asking me, you need to squint to see major Predators improvements, unless you really have a thing for coaches benching star players.

That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.

Speaking of things staying mostly the same … hey, at least the Predators still have that defense.  Mattias Ekholm‘s useful, yet Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis stood out the most. Check out where Ellis and Josi rank on Evolving Hockey’s GAR chart for all skaters, not just defensemen:

Evolving Hockey GAR Ellis Panarin Pettersson Josivia Evolving Hockey

Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).

At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.

Season series

The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.

Injured players who could return

Coyotes: One would expect Conor Garland to be over his knee injury. Arizona should get young defenseman Jakob Chychrun back, too.

Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.

Storylines to Watch

When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.

Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?

The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.

Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Canucks Wild
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild

Regular season recap

As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).

The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.

By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)

Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.

They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.

Season series

Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.

Injured players who could return

Canucks: It seems like Markstrom and Chris Tanev should probably be good to go from what seemed like minor, late-season injuries. The break could be beneficial for Micheal Ferland, who was dealing with concussion issues. Josh Leivo should be back.

Wild: Not much to speak of for Minnesota, as Eric Staal missed time for personal reasons. Staal spoke about that recently.

Storylines to Watch

Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.

While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach PariseRyan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)

A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.

So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Jets Flames
(Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets

Regular season recap

When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.

That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.

In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.

Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.

That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

As leaky as the Jets were on defense, they still have the fuel for serious offensive firepower, as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine remained productive in 2019-20.

Season series

The Jets took the season’s only meeting 3-1 in overtime on Oct. 26.

Injured players who could return

Flames: The timetable seems right for Travis Hamonic to return. Noah Hanifin had also been dealing with some concussion issues.

Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Storylines to Watch

Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.

Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.

Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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

Rinne, other NHL veterans hope for final shot at Stanley Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Goaltender Pekka Rinne scratched scoring a goal off his NHL bucket list this season. Winning the Stanley Cup?

That remains on the list with the season suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns that next season will be affected, too. Rinne, a three-time All-Star and former Vezina Trophy winner, keeps dreaming about winning his first Cup.

”I always dream about winning Stanley Cup, and I don’t mind talking about it publicly,” Rinne said Monday. ”And, yeah it is my goal, it is our goal. I’m still hopeful. I’m still positive that we (are) going to get back and back to playing and we have a chance to compete again.”

With each passing day, the end of Rinne’s career draws closer. The 38-year-old Finn already has lost his starting job in Nashville to young understudy Juuse Saros.

At least Rinne is under contract for another season. Veterans like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all are in the final year of their contracts and all 37 or older with a chance at their first Stanley Cup slipping away.

Marleau had been hoping for his first championship after being traded to Pittsburgh by San Jose at the trade deadline in February. Marleau has enjoyed the short amount of time that he had with the Penguins before the NHL stopped play.

”Everything’s been great with the organization,” said Marleau, who turns 41 in September. ”They’ve helped out every step of the way and looking forward to getting out of the house I’m sure like everybody else is and get back to normal and get out there and start playing again.”

Thornton, Marleau’s former teammate in San Jose, still is hoping to play another season with the Sharks at the bottom of the West right now. Playoff hopes also were already dim for Anaheim and Ottawa with Miller and Anderson, respectively, both turning 40 in the next three months.

Spezza turns 37 in June and had been hoping to lift his first Cup to celebrate.

Minnesota is a point out of the West’s second wild card with Wild captain Koivu now 37. He didn’t have an answer about his future for reporters earlier this month. He did acknowledge thinking about all his options.

”I’m in a boat like any other player that is trying to wait for the league to make a decision if we’re going to restart the season and when that would be,” Koivu said. ”And if not then obviously trying to figure out what to do with the future and then go from there.”

Rinne used the first couple weeks after the NHL stopped play March 12 to look at himself. The goalie who led Nashville to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final in 2017, then won the Vezina on his fourth time as a finalist in 2018 is now a backup.

Rinne is 18-14-4 as a starter this season, and he became only the 12th NHL goalie to score a goal Jan. 9 with an empty netter in Chicago from behind his own goal line. But Saros was in net for Nashville’s last six victories with Rinne 1-3-1 in his final five starts allowing 17 goals.

”I realized the fact that I haven’t had the strongest season so far,” Rinne said. ”But at the same time, I tried to use this time to my advantage.”

Nashville holds the second wild-card spot in the West and would be in the playoffs if the NHL decided to resume play by jumping straight into the postseason. So Rinne works out daily and works on his hand-eye coordination using juggling and having his girlfriend throw tennis balls at him to be ready for this season or get a head start on next season.

”For sure, right now we’re missing out,” Rinne said. ”But again everybody in the league, they’re in the same situation. And we’re dealing this, everybody’s dealing with it differently. But we all in it together. And hopefully, you know, hopefully soon, again, you know, we have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

NHL Power Rankings: Looking at the top 2020 free agents

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are going look ahead to the 2020 free agent class and the top players that could be available.

This is a tough one at the moment because the remainder of the 2019-20 season — as well as the Stanley Cup Playoffs — is still uncertain on both if and when it will resume. That will obviously dictate the free agency timeline. Not only in terms of when it begins, but also what it will might like financially.

This year’s potential class of free agents is your typical group with a couple of big names at the top, some big-time risks, some bargains, and some wild cards.

We take a look at the top-15 names, as well as a few wild card options. Who makes the list?

To the rankings!

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St, Louis Blues. It is hard to imagine him playing anywhere other than St. Louis. He is the captain, he helped bring a Stanley Cup to the city, and he is still their top defenseman and one of their top overall players. In an ideal world he stays right where he is. But the salary cap complicates things and this is probably going to be Pietrangelo’s last chance to score another big contract from the highest bidder. Still a bonafide top-pairing defender.

2. Taylor Hall, Arizona Coyotes. The best forward that will be available on the open market. Hall can still be an impact player, should still have some big years ahead of him, and will no doubt be looking for a place where he can have a chance to win. He has played in just five playoff games in his entire NHL career. The Coyotes said from the beginning they would explore a new contract with him when the team is right — no numbers have been exchanged, but the two sides have talked — but that decision will ultimately come from Hall.

3. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. Krug does not get as much recognition around the league as he should. He is one of the most productive blue-liners in the league and helps drives possession for what has been one of the league’s best teams. He could command a significant price tag on the open market. Can — or will — the Bruins match that?

4. Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights. He has been one of the league’s most productive goalies for two years now and should be able to get a multi-year deal after settling for one-year contracts the past two summers.

5. Evgenii Dadonov, Florida Panthers. He has done nothing but produce like a top-line player since returning to the NHL three years ago. He is a little older, and that will definitely carry some risk when it comes to a free agent contract, but he is a 25-goal, 60-point forward and there is no reason to expect him to drop off the cliff in the next year or two. Beyond that, it could get a little risky.

6. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. Markstrom is not one of the league’s elite goalies, but he has become a rock in net for the Canucks since taking over the starting job. He may not steal you a lot of games, but he is not going to lose them for you, either. There is a lot to be said for that.

7. Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs. Expectations were sky-high for him in Toronto at the start and it almost seemed as if his play was never going to be enough. He has had a better season than he gets credit for having and can still be a very good top-four defenseman on a contender.

8. Mike Hoffman, Florida Panthers. Not the best all-around player, but he can score. A lot.

9. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Unless he takes a huge discount it is hard to see him remaining with the Capitals. Ilya Samsonov is not only the future, he also might be their best goalie in the present. At his peak Holtby was one of the league’s best goalies and a game-changing talent. His play has rapidly declined the past couple of years, and when combined with his age there is a fairly significant risk there.

10. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks. Probably the most underrated player of the Blackhawks’ dynasty. Crawford can still be an outstanding goalie when healthy. There are some injury concerns over the past couple of years and he turns 36 next season. Still the potential for a short-term impact.

11. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. Brodie’s spent most of his career playing alongside Mark Giordano (and in his shadow) but has carved out an outstanding career for himself. Decent offensive production, solid defensive play, and a good all-around player.

12. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. After what can probably best be described as a frustrating tenure with the New York Rangers, Shattenkirk signed what amounted to a one-year “prove it” contract in Tampa Bay. He has been outstanding. Maybe he is not a No. 1 defender, but he showed this season with the Lightning that he can make an impact on a contender.

13. Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks. Never a big-time scorer, Toffoli is an intriguing player because his underlying numbers have always been sensational and has never really played on a team where his offense could shine. He has 10 points (including six goals) in his first 10 games with the Canucks and could shine in the right situation long-term.

14. Ilya Kovalchuk, Washington Capitals. His return to the NHL after his KHL stint did not start as he wanted. Los Angeles was a terrible fit for him given where they are in their development and the talent around him, and once he got out of there he started to play like he was expected when he came back to the league. Put him in the right spot where he can excel offensively and he still has something left in the tank.

15. Brenden Dillon, Washington Capitals. Do not expect much offense from him, but Dillon is as solid as you will find defensively. A stay-at-home, defensive defenseman for the modern era.

The Wild Cards

These players are free agents but their long-term future is in doubt. Retirement is on the table, and their potential destinations seem limited. 

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks. Thornton was a little disappointed a trade did not work out at the deadline to give him a shot at the Stanley Cup. Technically he is a free agent and returning to San Jose seems like most logical, but there is always a chance he could make a move for one more great shot at the ring. Can still be a good third-or fourth-line center.

Patrick Marleau, Pittsburgh Penguins. Back to San Jose or retirement? Tough to say that given he has played in Toronto and Pittsburgh in recent years, but seems likely.

Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes. Williams can still play, and based on what we saw this past summer it seems like he is going to play in Carolina or nowhere.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins. The chances of him playing elsewhere seems remote at best. If he plays anywhere next season, it seems 99.9 percent positive it is in Boston.

Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild. The long-time Minnesota captain just turned 37 years old, and while he is not the offensive player he once was he can still play a strong two-way game. Is it Minnesota or bust?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Koivu unsure about retirement; Underestimating Vigneault

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Hockey world continues to help out with COVID-19, and figure out what’s next

• Count Helene Elliott as the latest person to argue that the NHL should cancel its regular season — and now. Beyond the logistical concerns Elliott brings up, there’s one point that should be most crucial. Doing so would provide refunds for ticket-holding fans. You’d assume … just about all of them have more important things to spend their money on than games that might take place. (Los Angeles Times)

• One factor that doesn’t come up a lot, but should also be considered: a return to action could involve a heightened risk of injuries. Diana C. Nearhos’ story broaches that subject, and there’s also a funny bit about how Braydon Coburn thought that the Peloton bike he bought his wife would eventually just gather dust. “Those words have come back to haunt me,” Coburn said. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Gary Bettman confirmed a lot of what’s been said about the NHL’s approach to resuming play in an interview on Fox Business Network. In particular, Bettman emphasized that the league will be “flexible and agile” when it comes to considering ways to make things as fair as possible for playoff contenders. (Write-up on Sportsnet)

• The Canucks For Kids 50/50 raffle raised almost $250K for COVID-19 relief. There’s a lot to love about the story, including this also being heartwarming for the 50/50 winners. The Canucks explained where the donations are going, and providing corresponding links for those who want to help even more. The team announced that $150K is going to Food Banks BC, KidSafe received $25K, $50K went to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and $20K went to Family Services of Greater Vancouver. Hopefully people donate even more to these worthy causes. (Canucks)

• Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway helped raise $15K for Hath’s Heroes, which helps feed first responders dealing with the pandemic. It’s one thing to salute those treating people affected, but kudos to people like Hathaway for actually helping them. (NHLPA)

General hockey links, including Koivu on topic of retirement

Mikko Koivu admits that he’s pondered “all options” regarding the question of retirement. Overall, Koivu made it sound like he hasn’t quite decided yet. PHT pondered players who might be mulling over retirement recently, Koivu included. (Pioneer Press)

• The Blues signed scrappy Sammy Blais to a two-year extension with a $1.5M AAV. (KSDK)

• John Matisz dives deep into what makes Auston Matthews such a unique sniper. There’s discussion of his outstanding release, as well as how much Matthews scores on a per-minute basis. Such stats partially explain why people were so confounded by Mike Babcock’s reluctance to load up Matthews’ ice time in past seasons. (The Score)

• Broad Street Hockey’s Brad Keffer admits to being wrong about the Flyers’ decision to hire Alain Vigneault. Like Keffer, I too weighed Vigneault’s tougher moments with the Rangers too heavily. It seems like AV possesses a pretty spry hockey mind. Not sure AV would be my Jack Adams pick, though … but he’s been a big upgrade nonetheless. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Puck Junk rates the 15th best hockey cards from 1989-90. Guy Lafleur wearing a Rangers sweater remains deeply strange. This post details some of the biggest “he played for them?” stunners, if you want more. (Puck Junk)

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.