Taylor Hall

NHL Power Rankings: Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.

But in your heart of hearts, can you truly dismiss how fun it could be to see “Carey Price vs. Sidney Crosby” in headlines? Especially when you can throw Evgeni Malkin in the mix? Then maybe Brendan Gallagher to add some humorous wrinkles on TikTok?

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.

2. Oilers vs. Blackhawks

When in doubt, go with star power. You could do a lot worse than Connor McDavid vs. Patrick Kane. Heck, you could do worse than Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews, too.

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.

Even with tempered expectations, the Jets and Flames bring a lot to the table. Matthew Tkachuk has all of that pent-up pest energy from the pandemic pause. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine can fill up highlight reels. Mark Giordano vs. Blake Wheeler would be fun.

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.

And, hey, some funny Bruce Boudreau facial expressions won’t hurt, either.

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.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Bruins
Lightning
Capitals
Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Blues
Avalanche
Golden Knights
Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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

Roundtable: Which non-playoff team has the brightest future?

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Which non-playoff team’s future do you feel most confident about?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Senators’ future could be real bright if they’re allowed the resources to develop their prospect pool and manage to keep them in Ottawa.

What the Senators have been able to do over the last few years is build up a prospect cupboard that could form an extremely talented core down the line. Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Colin White have established themselves as roster regulars under age 22. Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom, and Logan Brown were given decent looks this season, but there’s more coming.

Alex Formenton and Josh Norris were named to the AHL’s 2019-20 All-Rookie Team and were First (Norris) and Second (Formenton) Team All-Stars with Belleville. Vitaly Abramov also had a strong year with the Baby Sens, while Jacob Bernard-Docker could be an offensive weapon from the blue line in the future.

One of the Senators’ biggest areas of need will be in net. Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg look to be next after Craig Anderson‘s time comes to an end.

That’s a decent amount of names we could be seeing in Ottawa over the next few seasons. But wait — there could be more! GM Pierre Dorion has managed to stock pile up to nine picks in the opening three rounds of the 2020 draft. Not to mention four in the first two rounds in 2021. Some of those picks could be used in trades to bulk up the roster, of course, which shows the Senators are pointed in the right direction. They just have to follow the correct route.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: When in doubt, go with youth, so I lean toward the Devils.

First and foremost, they already have two really good young forwards in fellow first overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. The Devils recently extended Hischier to a reasonable deal, while they get to enjoy the luxury of Hughes having two more years on his rookie contract.

Such saving means that P.K. Subban‘s $9M price tag doesn’t hurt quite as much.

Beyond that, the Devils also have a lot of ammo to improve. They currently own three first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, and at least two of those figure to be pretty good choices. The Devils could either add to their crop of prospects, move those picks in creative deals to get better sooner, or do a bit of both. New Jersey has cap space to either seek free agents or trades, too.

Now, the Devils have a lot of work to do, including deciding if Tom Fitzgerald gets to take “interim” off of his GM title. Goaltending and defense remain massive problems, and they sure could use more scoring depth, as well.

But at least the Devils have some building blocks in place. Also, the Senators have similar opportunities, yet they also have Eugene Melnyk as their owner. I’ll take the Devils in that duel, even if I can’t help but wonder about their ownership situation, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The pause couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Kings, for two reasons. First, they had won seven games in a row – the league’s longest active winning streak. Second, the streak had pushed them down a couple spots in the lottery race. So they lost the chance to build even more momentum heading into the offseason, while also hurting their chances to win the No. 1 overall pick.

All that said, there should be serious optimism about the direction of the team. At the NHL level, there appear to be prime years left for Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and yes, perhaps even Jonathan Quick (from November on, he posted a 2.38 GAA and .916 SV%). Unheralded younger players like Alex Iafallo (17 goals, 43 points) and Matt Roy (team-leading +16) are becoming legitimate contributors. A big question was answered when oft-injured former first-rounder Gabe Vilardi finally made his NHL debut, and looked like he belonged scoring 7 points in 10 games. In small sample sizes each of the past two seasons, Cal Petersen has showed starter-level talent between the pipes.

With no key players on expiring contracts, GM Rob Blake has plenty of cap space (north of $23M) to work with this offseason. Could Los Angeles be a darkhorse destination for Taylor Hall?

But the biggest reason for confidence: the loaded prospect pool. The Kings have arguably the best non-NHL talent of any organization. They sent nine players to the 2020 World Juniors – most of any team – and from that group came the tournament’s leading goal and point scorer Samuel Fagemo, as well as Canada’s golden goal scorer Akil Thomas. Plus, with 6 picks in the first 3 rounds this year, things only stand to improve.

The big question for Kings fans: can enough of these prospects develop into quality NHL players while Kopitar and Doughty remain top-end talents? If so, LA may have what it takes to contend for a Cup once again.

PREVIOUS PHT ROUNDTABLES:
Which classic NHL jerseys should make a comeback?

The multi-part hockey docs we’d love to see made
Our favorite hockey call of all-time
What is your favorite hockey photo of all-time?

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Draft decision coming; Barrie on future

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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.

• Expect a decision on the 2020 NHL Draft “this week or next week,” according to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. [Ottawa Citizen]

• Don Koharski on how today’s NHL officials are staying ready when play resumes. [Scouting the Refs]

Nicklas Backstrom on the latest 24-team, conference-based playoff proposal: “Yes, as it now feels, it will probably be the only option.” [NoVa Caps]

• Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy would prefer a traditional 16-team playoff format. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Rick Tocchet is confident that Taylor Hall will have the Coyotes on his list of options when free agency opens. [ESPN]

• Add Brandon Tanev to the list of NHLers getting into rollerblading during the pause. [Tribune-Review]

Tyson Barrie on his future: “It’s a weird time to be heading into free agency, that’s for sure.” [TSN]

• The problem with the Blackhawks’ roster. [Last Word on Hockey]

• “I miss that life. I certainly miss the playing, I miss the camaraderie, I miss my teammates, I miss all of that. It’s been difficult.” What the pandemic has meant for local hockey players. [NBC Sports Washington]

• Why re-signing Dylan Strome should be a priority for Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks this off-season. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Looking at ways to improve a fan-less game day experience. [Oilers Nation]

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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.

Capitals’ Carlson, Wild’s Staal share thoughts on possible NHL return

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Chances are, if the NHL can return to action for 2019-20 in some form, it won’t leave everyone happy. Doing so sounds borderline impossible. With that in mind, it’s interesting to gain some perspective from different players in different situations, including Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson and Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal.

Both Carlson and Staal focus on family regarding possible NHL return

Carlson, 30, and Staal, 35, are both veteran players (each with a Stanley Cup ring) who are in different positions in their careers. Their teams are in different situations, too.

Yet, if there’s a unifying factor for Staal and Carlson regarding an NHL return, it’s the importance of family.

Carlson spoke with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” about what really worries him about COVID-19. To Carlson, it’s not as much of a worry about contracting the virus. Instead, Carlson’s more concerned about possibly spreading the infection to a family member less equipped to handle such an illness.

While Carlson seems worried about how interacting with family and friends might go, it sounds like Staal is more concerned about a lack of interaction.

The pandemic pause allowed Eric Staal to support close family while a member sadly lost a battle with cancer. Being isolated from loved ones in a “hub city” setup would be a challenge for Staal, who has a wife and three kids.

“To me, family is everything,” Staal told Dan Myers of the Wild website. “It was good for me to be there for my wife and my kids and my mother-in-law. Playing definitely is a little more challenging with travel and being there in moments, but with everything that’s gone on, we were able to do that and go through that grieving process.”

Both understand the challenges facing the league

Staal spoke of the NHL having “so many hoops, so many hurdles” to get through to make it all work.

“I think this is really hard to see how this is going to finish,” Staal said. “But I know they are still trying to game-plan it and figure it out. We’ll see. They’ll make decisions as time moves on.”

As PHT noted earlier on Thursday, the NHL and NHLPA are reportedly discussing a 24-team playoff format that would include both the Capitals and Wild (their teams in italics):

EASTERN CONFERENCE
1. Bruins
2. Lightning
3. Capitals
4. Flyers

PLAY-IN
Penguins (5) vs. Canadiens (12)
Hurricanes (6) vs. Rangers (11)
Islanders (7) vs. Panthers (10)
Maple Leafs (8) vs. Blue Jackets (9)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. Blues
2. Avalanche
3. Golden Knights
4. Stars

PLAY-IN
Oilers (5) vs. Blackhawks (12)
Predators (6) vs. Coyotes (11)
Canucks (7) vs. Wild (10)
Flames (8) vs. Jets (9)

In the event that such a format would be approved, the Capitals would play through preliminary games while awaiting the winner of Hurricanes vs. Rangers. The Wild would hope to beat the Canucks in a play-in series, then face the Avalanche.

Of course, a lot can change with that format, and other factors.

Regardless, Carlson shared his thoughts on that idea, admitting that 24 teams sounded like a lot. One would think that some of the higher-seeded teams would agree. Interestingly, while Taylor Hall would naturally love for his Coyotes to play meaningful games, Hall also told Tirico that he’d understand if the NHL instead went with a format such as 20 teams.

(You can learn more about Carlson’s feelings in the video above this post’s headline.)

Carlson, Staal, and others seem willing to work with the NHL, ultimately

While Carlson appeared hesitant about a 24-team format, he also didn’t seem rigid, acknowledging that “logistics” might trump his concerns about the ideal competitive situation.

Can the NHL find the right mix between balancing concerns from those like Carlson and Staal, while also avoiding critics calling it a “COVID Cup,” as Matt Duchene fears? It doesn’t sound like an easy task, but at least players seem willing to work toward solutions.

MORE:

• Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
• NHL hopes extended U.S.-Canada border closing won’t hurt return to play chances
• NHL may skip rest of regular season, jump to 24-team playoff format
• Crosby also worried about integrity of games, prefers 24-team format to “March Madness” style

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.

Taylor Hall on quarantine, Coyotes possibly making playoff cut

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Even among NHL players facing uncertainty, Taylor Hall faced an especially turbulent season, ultimately ending up with the Coyotes. Credit Hall for his calm demeanor, then — or at least deploying a convincing poker face — while being interviewed by Mike Tirico during “Lunch Talk Live.”

You can watch that interview in the video above.

Hall discusses return to play scenarios, other topics on “Lunch Talk Live”

Really, Hall is a lot like us — aside from being a Hart Trophy winner, and whatnot. Hall admits he’s not really sure what’s ahead if he can return to action with the Arizona Coyotes. (He did praise the NHL for how it’s handling a tough situation, though.)

Actually, speaking of the Coyotes, Hall naturally would be thrilled if the Coyotes squeezed into some sort of 24-team playoff format. That said, Hall said he understands if those plans fall through.

One thing Hall didn’t talk about was free agency. He’s still slated to become a UFA, and it will be fascinating to watch the situation play out. Would this uncertainty increase his chances of returning to the Coyotes, perhaps on a short-term deal? Is the market going to be soft for Hall if he explores free agency?

Such questions might not be on the forefront of Hall’s mind, or something he really wants to talk about. But it should be interesting.

A look at Hall’s abbreviated run with the Coyotes

My guess is that few minds were changed by seeing Hall with the Coyotes vs. his last stretch with the Devils. That isn’t meant as a criticism; the point is that he was largely the same player.

Through 30 games with the Devils in 2019-20, Hall scored 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). His scoring pace was a little slower with Arizona, but similar overall, as Hall generated 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points in 35 games.

While that wasn’t an awe-inspiring scoring run, Hall has been the highest-scoring Coyote since his first game with the team on Dec. 17. (Conor Garland and Nick Schmaltz tied for second during that span with 22 points.) Hall also produced similar possession stats with the defensive-minded Coyotes.

Unfortunately, Hall could only do so much to help the Coyotes avoid slippage.

Frankly, the Coyotes leaned heavily on goaltending in 2019-20, so when that dried up, so did the wins. Since Dec. 17, the Coyotes went just 14-7-4, which translated to a .457 points percentage. That ranked as the 27th-worst mark in the league during that span, while the Devils played pretty well (18-12-7 in 37 games, 14th-ranked .581 points percentage).

[Looking back at the Coyotes’ 2019-20 season.]

A return to hockey could set the stage for upsets, though

So, there were some disappointments here and there. Still, the Coyotes would make the cut under certain formats, and Hall is right in wondering how far they might be able to go. Hockey is a sport that’s already prone to surprises, so if you add in how much the pandemic pause might throw off rhythms, who knows?

Of course, “Who knows?” is also the response most give regarding whether the NHL can return to action at all for 2019-20. Hall is no different in lacking answers to such questions.

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