It’s July 1, which means we’re used to waking up and expecting a ton of players changing teams with the opening of free agency. Instead, we’re wondering if training camps will open up next week and if we’ll see a completion to the 2019-20 NHL season later this summer.
While the league and the NHLPA have agreed to an extension on all expiring player contracts, those players currently signed who are due July 1 signing bonuses will get their money. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, over $300 million is expected be paid out to players on Wednesday following an agreement between the league and union. Though, with holidays in Canada and the U.S. this week it may take a few days to actually hit their bank accounts.
When teams would pay out signing bonuses was one of many details the NHL and NHLPA have been working on since the return-to-play plan was announced. With the goal to open full training camps by mid-July, both sides are hoping to announce an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Once an agreement is in place, the next step will be a full vote by the union and among the league’s Board of Governors before moving forward.
While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.
Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.
The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.
When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.
On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.
Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.
Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.
But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.
After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.
That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.
Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).
At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.
The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.
Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.
Storylines to Watch
When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.
Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?
The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.
Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …
(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild
Regular season recap
As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).
The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.
By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)
Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.
They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.
Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.
Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.
While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach Parise – Ryan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)
A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.
So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?
(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets
Regular season recap
When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.
That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.
In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.
Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.
That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.
Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.
Storylines to Watch
Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.
Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.
Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)
With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.
A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.
So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.
1. Penguins vs. Canadiens
Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.
The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.
Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?
Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.
In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.
Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.
If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.
3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.
On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.
On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.
The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.
Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.
4. Flames vs. Jets
If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.
From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.
5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers
You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.
Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.
All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.
(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)
6. Canucks vs. Wild
I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.
7. Predators vs. Coyotes
There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.
These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)
Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?
8. Islanders vs. Panthers
As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.
*cough* And yet I must …
There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.
Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.
However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.
Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series
As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.
ROUND 1 BYES
vs. — Winner plays No. 4 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 3 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(8) Maple Leafs
vs. — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets
ROUND 1 BYES
vs. — Winner plays No. 4 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 3 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 2 seed
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.
Moving back to Kerfoot, context matters a bit here, too.
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 …
… 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.
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:
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 ofTaylor 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.
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).
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.
My issue isn’t and wasn’t with the Blues trading forJustin 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.
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 surprises and disappointments for the Washington Capitals.
Carlson surprises as Capitals, NHL defensemen scoring leader
John Carlson began 2019-20 on a downright dizzying scoring pace, and really only slightly cooled off down the stretch.
It’s telling that, for all the strong offensive seasons the Capitals enjoyed, Carlson topped the team with 75 points.
Should he win the Norris Trophy? That’s a debate for another day.
To some extent, it almost feels beside the point. Carlson keeps raising the ceiling for what he can accomplish, and it’s really become a sight to behold.
Heading into the season, Carlson leading defensemen in scoring wouldn’t have been that huge of a surprise. The magnitude of his scoring dominance ranks as one of the biggest surprises for the Capitals, though. Carlson topped all blueliners by 10 points (75 to Roman Josi‘s 65), and Josi was 10 points ahead of third-ranking Victor Hedman (55).
Realizing that Carlson had about a month to tack on more points makes his accomplishments that much more astounding.
Ovechkin passes 700, in range of another Maurice Richard Trophy
Yes, yes, death, taxes, and Alex Ovechkin scoring lots of goals. I get that.
The “death” part of that is a reminder that Father Time eventually wins. With that in mind, Ovechkin tying David Pastrnak for the NHL lead with 48 goals at age 34 isn’t routine. It’s mind-blowing. Ovechkin’s .71 goals-per-game average this season represents his best rate since his matching .71 from 2008-09. When he was 23. Yeah.
Now, you can transition Ovechkin-related Capitals surprises to disappointments if you look away from the goals, all 700+ (706) of them.
A drop in playmaking explains how Ovechkin can score 48 goals and not lead the Capitals in scoring. He managed 19 assists for 67 points in 2019-20. That assist rate of .28 ranks as the second-worst of his illustrious career.
But if there’s one issue that towers as a disappointment — one that could at times derail strengths for Capitals — it was a rough, rough season for Braden Holtby.
Holtby managed a 25-14-6 record in large part because of his team’s scoring ways. Holtby produced an ugly .897 save percentage, and Hockey Reference’s version of GSAA puts him at an ugly -16.76. For context, only Jimmy Howard (-22.12) ranked lower by that metric.
Zooming out on his entire career, I’d argue that Holtby’s probably been underrated at times. Yet, those past accomplishments might cloud future judgments for the pending UFA. He’s struggled quite a bit during the regular season for the past three years, really.
Could the Capitals produce surprises in going with younger goalie Ilya Samsonov, who was solid in 2019-20? Would Holtby leaving be a bigger disappointment, or would the Capitals be the ones suffering if they handed him an ill-advised contract? After extending Nicklas Backstrom, it was that much clearer that someone has to go eventually.
Might Holtby once again rebound in the playoffs, as he did so masterfully during that curse-breaking, Cup-winning run in 2017-18? Also … why does that run feel like it happened a decade ago?
We could see more twists and turns — so, yes, surprises and disappointments — involving Holtby and the Capitals before this is all over.