Zack Kassian

Lightning coach Cooper on NHL playoff format, possible games without fans

Lightning coach Jon Cooper covered an array of NHL playoff-related topics during an interview with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.”

You can watch the full interview in the video above, complete with some fun razzing. (Even with some ribbing, Cooper’s route to the Lightning really is remarkable.)

Cooper explains qualms Killorn/Lightning had with playoff format

Early on in the interview, Cooper discussed why the Lightning joined the Hurricanes as the two dissenters in the 29-2 vote for the return-to-play proposal. Cooper repeatedly insisted that Alex Killorn and the Lightning want to return to hockey. They just disagreed with the format to do so.

To be more specific, Cooper explains that Killorn & Co. are worried that the qualifying round winners will end up more “battle-tested.” Can you really blame the Lightning for fearing being caught flat-footed? Such thoughts must give the Lightning flashbacks of that Blue Jackets sweep.

For more details, check out Killorn’s explanation in this post.

“ … I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs,” Killorn said.

Different times, but maybe exciting ones?

If you want insight on how the Lightning and others may handle the return to play, Cooper provided interesting thoughts:

  • For one thing, Cooper wonders if the experience might be a little like the world championships. Players from different teams likely would be staying in the same hotels, possibly eating in similar areas. If you’re like me, you’re picturing awkward breakfast buffet run-ins between Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian.
  • Another interesting remark is that this feels like a reset for Cooper and the Lightning. Take the rest of an offseason and then factor in how, after most summers, you have to adjust to new players. Instead, the Lightning and other teams have a chance to play at close to full-strength.
  • Finally, Cooper didn’t seem too worried about a lack of fans.

Looking back at typical circumstances, the Lightning would practice without fans. Even without thousands of roaring fans, Cooper explains that Lightning practices could get intense. Now just imagine the intensity against “foes.”

If the Lightning get their chance to make that playoff run, Cooper might just back up Tirico’s quip regarding smoothing out the “parade route” for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

Of course, the Bolts have a long way to go to make that happen — even if outside forces don’t shut this whole thing down altogether.

(Note: no, as far as we know, John Tortorella isn’t an outside force.)

More on Lightning, Cooper, and the NHL’s return to play

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.

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.

Long-term outlook for Edmonton Oilers: Free agents, prospects, and more

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 Edmonton Oilers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Is there an NHL team that boasts a better duo than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? What if you weigh the future, being that McDavid is 23 and Draisaitl is 24?

Of course, the Oilers pay for the luxury of a duo that carries them to competence.

Now, I’d argue that McDavid + Draisaitl is a combo worth $21M (honestly, McDavid’s probably worth nearly that much alone). Even so, the combo eats up about 25 percent of this season’s $81.5M cap ceiling. Thanks to the COVID-19 pause, it will be a chore to maintain that level, let alone bump it to $82M or higher.

When you begin paying your stars like actual stars, every mistake cuts that much deeper.

About $14.2M of the Oilers’ space will be eaten up by James Neal, retaining some of Milan Lucic‘s salary, Zack Kassian‘s extension, and the questionable Mikko Koskinen extension. Add in dead money like the Andrej Sekera buyout and the margin of error gets even smaller.

Could that force the Oilers to wave goodbye to, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after 2020-21? Rather than landing a big fish in free agency, will Edmonton be stuck searching the bargain bin year after year?

There’s at least an opening to put together a more efficient defense.

Oscar Klefbom‘s had some stumbles, but he’s worthwhile as either a key defenseman or a trade chip at a reasonable $4.167M through 2022-23. Darnell Nurse received a bridge contract to keep him in the fold. Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, and/or Philp Broberg could help out with cheap deals through at least 2021-22.

If the Oilers fail to trade them away before their contracts run out, the $8M+ of Kris Russell and Adam Larsson goes off the books after 2020-21.

So, as time goes on, the Oilers could have a decent mix of value and youthfulness on defense. Of course, that’s if Holland makes the right moves, rather than believing too much in the likes of Mike Green.

Holland must answer: who’s going to help McDavid and Draisaitl? Will Andreas Athanasiou be part of the core? Oh yeah, and what about Jesse Puljujarvi?

Long-term needs for Oilers

Even in the optimistic situation where Koskinen persists as a 1A/1B platoon option, the Oilers still need answers in net. Mike Smith hasn’t been effective, and the pending UFA is 38. Koskinen is no spring chicken at 31.

The Oilers could enjoy a less clunky defense in the near future, but if Broberg, Nurse, and Bouchard have limited ceilings, Edmonton would still need a blue-chipper. Maybe two.

And it’s abundantly clear that the Oilers struggle to find help beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

If there’s any area where Ken Holland can help the organization learn from sins of the past, it’s draft and development. Can they find talent beyond those high first-rounders, as the Oilers so rarely did before? Can they avoid botching development for the closest answers to the next Puljujarvi or Nail Yakupov?

Long-term strengths for Oilers

Because, the thing is, Edmonton still lucked into many key building blocks for a championship foundation.

If everything else is equal, McDavid + Draisaitl are topping most (if not all) other duos. RNH, Kailer Yamamoto, and other younger forwards can help out, just generally not enough.

And, again, help might be on its way on defense.

Through all this turmoil, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman still ranked the Oilers’ under-23 core group as the top one in the NHL back in September (sub required).

Chiarelli and even Holland dug quite a few holes for Edmonton with poor asset management, in trades and otherwise. Yet there’s still a lot to work with, and Holland could very well build a contender if he hits the right buttons.

Really, that’s what’s been frustrating about the McDavid era: you almost need to be creative to find ways to make it all not work. It’s frustrating that Taylor Hall hasn’t been there as McDavid and Draisaitl grew, but that mistake is in the past.

The Oilers can take that next step. They simply made the journey bumpier thanks to taking many wrong turns.

MORE ON THE OILERS

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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 Edmonton Oilers.

Edmonton Oilers

Record: 37-25-9 (71 games), second in the Pacific Division
Leading Scorer: Leon Draisaitl 110 points (43 goals and 67 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Angus Redmond and a 2022 conditional seventh-round pick from Anaheim for Joel Persson.
• Traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Tyler Ennis.
• Acquired Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a 2020 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Traded Sam Gagner, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner.

Season Overview: 

The Oilers are as top heavy as any team in the NHL. How top heavy? Well, the top two scorers in the league are on Edmonton’s roster. Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined to score over 200 points this season.

The Oilers have been rolling with these two guys for a while, but the new combination of general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett have helped take the team to another level.

There aren’t many teams that got off to a better start than Edmonton did this year. They won their first five games and seven of their first eight. Obviously, they couldn’t keep that pace up, but they managed to stay within striking distance of top spot in the division thanks to their offensive capabilities.

Not only do they have those two top threats, they’ve also received solid contributions from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Zack Kassian and James Neal. Also, calling Kailer Yamamoto up from the minors was a game-changer for them.

The 21-year-old had 26 games of NHL experience before this season (he had one goal and four assists during that stretch). He’s suited up in 27 games this year and he’s found a way to collect an impressive 26 points. This youngster has given the Oilers another dangerous weapon in their arsenal. Even though they’re ranked 18th in goals against in 2019-20, they can make up for their with the attack.

Did Edmonton have enough to go all the way? Probably not. But when you have multiple superstars like McDavid and Draisaitl on your roster and you find some interesting supporting pieces you just never know.

Highlight of the Season:

Ironically enough, the most memorable moment of the season for Edmonton probably wasn’t a spectacular goal or an incredible offensive outburst.

The highlight everyone will remember most was the battles between Kassian and Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Oilers and Flames would go head-to-head in the first round. A seven-game series between these provincial rivals would’ve been must-see TV.

Hopefully we get to see that. For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

MORE ON THE OILERS:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Looking at the 2019-20 Calgary Flames

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 Calgary Flames.

Calgary Flames

Record: 36-27-7 (70 games), third in Pacific Division
Leading Scorer: Matthew Tkachuk — 61 points (23 goals and 38 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves: 

• Traded away Michael Frolik to the Buffalo Sabres for a fourth-round pick in 2020.
• Sent Brandon Davidson to the San Jose Sharks for future considerations
• Acquired Erik Gustafsson from the Chicago Blackhawks for third-round pick in 2020.
• Traded away a conditional fourth-round pick in 2021 to the Los Angeles Kings for Derek Forbort.

Season Overview: 

It seems like a long time ago now, but the Flames had the best record in the Western Conference last year. Of course, the season didn’t end on a positive note though, as they were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Colorado Avalanche.

Heading into the NHL pause, they hadn’t really come close to locking up a postseason berth. Although they were sitting in the third spot in the Pacific Division, the Vancouver Canucks, who were on the outside of the playoff picture, were just one point behind the Flames.

Why the Flames have failed to improve on their regular-season success from a year ago isn’t exactly rocket science. Just look at the difference in production for some of their top players.

Johnny Gaudreau went from 36 goals and 99 points last year, to 18 goals and 58 points in 2019-20. Sean Monahan had 34 goals and 82 points during Calgary’s standout season a year ago only to see those numbers drop to 22 goals and 48 points this year. Elias Lindholm was still having a strong season so far in 2019-20, but his numbers went from 27 goals and 78 points to 29 goals and 54 points.

Captain Mark Giordano, who won the Norris last season, missed a 10-game stretch due to a hamstring injury. He put up an incredible 17 goals and 74 points in 78 games last year. This year, he had a very respectable five goals and 31 points in 60 games.

Let’s not forget the head coaching change/controversy that went on at the beginning of the season. Bill Peters lost his job because of the way he had been mistreating some of his players over the year. Geoff Ward has come in and picked up the pieces of what was left behind by Peters, but that couldn’t have been a comfortable situation for all involved.

If the season resumes, the final spot in the Pacific Division will be one of the best races in the NHL. Can the Flames hang on to it? What does the future look like for them? This is going to be an interesting situation to monitor going forward.

Highlight of the Season So Far: 

The biggest moment that stands out has to be the battles between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. When I think of the 2019-20 Flames season, that’s the first snippet that pops into my mind. If the playoffs started today, the Flames and Oilers would go head-to-head. Can you imagine what that would be like? A best-of-seven series between two teams that hate each other would be must-see TV.

MORE FLAMES BITS:
Biggest surprises and disappointments for Flames

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.