Tyler Myers

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

[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

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

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*

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

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*

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

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild vs. Canucks
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Wild vs. Canucks
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks vs. Wild
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*

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

Saturday, Aug. 1: Jets vs. Flames
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*

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.)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Fearing Carey Price; Aliu on hockey culture

2 Comments

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.

• “For it is largely due to the remarkable reputation of the Montreal goaltender among his peers that much talk about the format of what appears to be a summer 24-team tournament has fixated on how unfair it would be to face Price in a best-of-three, multiple sources report.” [NY Post]

• “NHL players in shields from forehead to chin? The death of autographs, selfies and handshakes?” How sports will never be the same. [NBC Sports]

• Akim Aliu on why hockey is not for everyone: “The purpose of this story is not to drag everyone in hockey, or the sport itself, into the mud. This is about the biggest problems facing the game I love — and how we can fix them. ” [The Players’ Tribune]

• Could a 24-team playoff be more than just a one time solution for the NHL? [Toronto Sun]

• An interesting look at how defensemen on the power play have evolved. [TSN]

• How Kevin Hayes became the missing piece for the Flyers this season. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• Reviewing Tyler Myers‘ first year with the Canucks. [Canucks Army]

• Where will AHL scoring leader and soon-to-be UFA Sam Anas sign? [The Hockey News]

• The next challenge for Digit Murphy? Get an NWHL expansion team up and running during a pandemic. [The Score]

Mikkel Boedker has agreed to sign a two-year year deal with HC Lugano of Switzerland. [Swiss Hockey News]

• Could the Oilers make a Jesse Puljujarvi for Henrik Borgstrom or Lias Andersson deal happen? [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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

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

Record: 37-28-6 (71 games), fourth in the Central Division, sixth in the Western Conference.
Leading Scorer: Tie between Kyle Connor (38 goals, 73 points) and Mark Scheifele (29 goals, 73 points)

In-Season Roster Moves
• Claimed Luca Sbisa off waivers from Ducks.
• Claimed Nick Shore off waivers from Maple Leafs.
• Acquired Dylan DeMelo from Senators for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Acquired Cody Eakin from Golden Knights for 2021 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Reached agreement to mutually terminate Dustin Byfuglien‘s contract.

Season Overview

Before the Jets even played a 2019-20 preseason game, they lost a big piece. Dustin Byfuglien’s decision to take a leave of absence to contemplate his future ended seven months later with a mutual agreement to terminate the defenseman’s contract. Having already traded away Jacob Trouba and letting Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers walk in free agency, the blue line took a hit before the puck even dropped.

There were also losses up front when Mark Letestu was ruled out for six months with heart muscle inflammation and Bryan Little suffered a perforated ear drum.

That set a tone for the season as the Jets streaked their way — good and bad — to the first Western Conference wild card spot  at the time of the NHL pause. How much of a roller coaster has it been? The Jets took 28 out of 36 points from November to early December, and then squandered that gained ground with a five-game losing streak and a 3-8-1 skid in January.

Their biggest weapons — Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers — have all led the way offensively. Neal Pionk, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Trouba trade, impressed on defense with positive possession numbers and 45 points. Then you have Connor Hellebuyck, a heavy Vezina Trophy frontrunner, who also deserves some Hart Trophy consideration. The netminder leads the league in shutouts (6), even strength save percentage (.927) and 5-on-5 shots against (1,530).

Entering the NHL break on a four-game winning streak gave the Jets hope that they were peaking at the right time. They’re two points behind the Stars (Dallas has two games in-hand) and were doing a good job of staving off teams like the Predators, Canucks, and Wild, who are right on their heels.

Highlight of the Season

A new extension and on the verge of 40 goals — it’s been a pretty good season for Kyle Connor:

MORE JETS:
Biggest 2019-20 surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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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.

Long-term outlook for Vancouver Canucks

Getty Images

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

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Canucks must lock down some key players (and make important decisions) soon.

Most importantly, both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes see their entry-level contracts expire after 2020-21. The Canucks’ long-term flexibility may hinge on how much each player costs. It will be interesting to monitor those situations. Could Vancouver convince either of them to sign extensions as early as the 2020 offseason? Either way, how much of the salary cap will each rising star take up?

While the Canucks have Brock Boeser signed to a team-friendly deal, that will also be up after 2021-22.

So, while there are core pieces in place, we haven’t fully understood the cost of many pieces.

There are some players locked down to medium term, however. Both Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are signed through 2022-23, and quite affordable at a combined AAV of $10.75M. Tyler Myers ($6M AAV through 2023-24) seems like less of a positive, but for better or worse, he’s slated to be a part of the core.

Myers presents a neat transition to the bad news: Vancouver has some flab on its salary structure. There’s dead money devoted to the Roberto Luongo salary recapture, Ryan Spooner buyout, and to some extent, Sven Baertschi.

Yet, the brighter side is that the Canucks can transition shaky money to rising stars. Brandon Sutter‘s $4.375M AAV can be put toward Pettersson and Hughes after 2020-21. A whopping $12M (Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel) comes off the books in time to re-up Brock Boeser … and so on.

So, it’s pretty easy to see a solid situation getting better.

[PHT Power Rankings: Where do Canucks rank among best and worst long-term outlooks?]

Long-term needs for Canucks

That said, it’s crucial for GM Jim Benning to have more success in free agency — even if it means simply abstaining from spending.

Will the Canucks feel the urge to break the bank to make Tyler Toffoli more than a rental? Will they give 30-year-old defenseman Christopher Tanev a risky contract?

In particular, key decisions await in net. Jacob Markstrom is a pending UFA, while intriguing 24-year-old goalie Thatcher Demko is only covered through 2020-21. Should the Canucks keep one or both around?

It will be crucial to surround Pettersson, Hughes, and Boeser with supporting talent. So far, it seems more likely that Benning will find some help in the draft and via trades than in free agent spending.

Whether things worked out (Miller) or didn’t (Myers), it seems like Benning was impatient when it came to pushing this team along its winning curve. The Canucks will be without either their 2020 or 2021 first-rounder, and also don’t have their second-rounder for 2020.

The Canucks need a lot of help on defense, and are also pretty top-heavy on offense. Addressing those needs will be key to take the right step. In that regard, Benning’s mixed leaps with stumbles.

Long-term strengths for Canucks

Trading away Tyler Madden in the Toffoli deal hurts the Canucks’ prospect depth, but there’s some definite intrigue, particularly in Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin.

If any of those prospects really blossom — Olli Juolevi, anytime now — then the Canucks could really be onto something.

That’s because they already boast an enviable assortment of young talent. Elias Pettersson keeps setting the bar higher, and he’s only 21. Quinn Hughes is tantalizing at 20. Boeser (23) and Bo Horvat (25) both stand in the meat of their prime years. Miller isn’t ancient by any means, either, at 27.

We’ve seen a Canucks offense that can be explosive at times, and Markstrom’s hovered around elite quite a bit.

If you want to be a downer, you might focus on the Oilers boasting an even better top end with young stars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Beyond that, though, the Canucks also seem likely to be a fixture in a Pacific Division that could feature some rough teams at the bottom.

There’s a lot to like with the Canucks. We’ll see if Benning can push the right buttons to bring them up yet another level.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:

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.

Biggest Vancouver Canucks surprises and disappointments

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 Vancouver Canucks.

“Even better than expected” surprises for the Canucks

With the Canucks, good players often turned out very good in 2019-20. Delightfully very good players sure looked truly great.

Take, for instance, J.T. Miller leading the Canucks in scoring with 72 points. Many of us believed that Miller was a very, very nice winger with the Rangers and Lightning, but he exceeded just about all expectations.

Quinn Hughes managed similar feats. If you want to start a weird fight on Twitter, argue about Hughes vs. Cale Makar for the Calder Trophy. Simply put, though, Hughes being this good this fast was a pleasant surprise. Yes, we were expecting big things, but Hughes escalated that conversation.

Pettersson deserves his own section

Most of all, Elias Pettersson isn’t just a star. It’s fair to call him a superstar. You might not get that right away from good-but-not-top-level scoring this season (66 points in 68 games), but he’s a huge catalyst for Canucks success.

Take, for instance, the gap between Pettersson and every other Canuck on this xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

But, this isn’t about damning with faint praise, because Pettersson ranks among the best in the NHL if you look at the league overall by that same metric:

Impressive stuff, especially since Pettersson ranks second overall if you look at GAR, instead of its expected counterpart. Translation: he’s fantastic, and worthy of at least some Hart Trophy rumblings.

Pettersson wasn’t the only Canucks player who played a huge role in keeping the team in playoff contention, even with a flawed roster, and Brock Boeser missing time with injuries. Jacob Markstrom‘s .918 save percentage only tells part of the story about his value as the Canucks’ last line of defense.

But from propelling teammates such as Miller and powering a potent power play, Pettersson’s further ascent ranked as the most pleasant surprise for the Canucks.

Canucks disappointments revolve around free agency

Over time, Jim Benning’s looked like a more capable GM than we first realized. Certainly more than funny facial expressions and early memes suggested.

Really, it makes you wonder where the Canucks would be if they hid the checkbook from Benning around July.

Scroll back up to that first chart, and you’ll see plenty of regrettable signings ranked toward the bottom. Signing Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel ranked as perplexing to many of us when the moves happened, and those decisions don’t seem much wiser today. It sure doesn’t look like Tyler Myers was worth the big money, either.

(And making more than a passing mention of Loui Eriksson just feels cruel.)

With Markstrom headed for a raise as a UFA, and that unfair $3M+ per year Roberto Luongo recapture penalty on the books through 2021-22, it’s fair to wonder how much year-to-year room the Canucks will enjoy to make a solid team something truly outstanding.

Pettersson and others are so good that they can create more Canucks surprises, but it would be better if they had more help.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:
2019-20 season summary
Long-term outlook

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.