Mathew Barzal

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.

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning Stamkos Cirelli
Getty Images

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 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning.

2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

Record: 43-21-6 (92 points in 70 games) second in Atlantic, East.
Leading Scorer: Nikita Kucherov – 85 points (33 goals and 52 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview:

Blame it on a hangover from that stunning sweep by the Blue Jackets, or maybe subtler factors, but the Lightning limped into 2019-20. Things looked shaky through November, as they ended that month with a mediocre 12-9-3 record. There was even a point where Kucherov got benched.

At some point, though, a flipped switched and the Lightning returned to their dominant form.

While Kucherov hasn’t been able to match his historic 2018-19 output, he once again ranks among the most lethal scorers in the NHL. The Lightning enjoyed strong work from the usual suspects — Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman — and a second consecutive strong season from Andrei Vasilevskiy.

To the Lightning’s delight, they clearly continue to spot talent beyond the obvious, too. Anthony Cirelli already looked like a gem, but in 2019-20, he rose to the level of being a dark horse candidate for the Selke Trophy.

You could rank the Lightning among the teams that should be most upset about the pandemic pause.

Most obviously, the Lightning might not get a chance to avenge that Blue Jackets sweep if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t happen. Even if they do, who knows how such a pause might affect how sharp players end up being?

There are other troubling thoughts. This Lightning team must always wrestle with the salary cap, so who knows how many shots they have left before they become less of a “complete” team? Considering Steven Stamkos’ latest injury, who knows how the aging curve will hit the Bolts?

The Lightning also made aggressive moves to win now with rentals. Sure, Goodrow and Coleman are under contract for 2020-21, but Tampa Bay paid big prices for them for two playoff runs, not one.

At least the Lightning enjoy as good a chance as any contender if play does resume, though.

Highlight of the season

You mean, beyond that Cirelli backcheck against Mathew Barzal?

From late December to mid-February, the Lightning put together an absurd 23-2-1 run. That’s the kind of streak that makes you want to remove and clean your glasses, even if you don’t own glasses. You know you’re up to something special when you set a record you didn’t manage in a historic 2018-19 season, as the Bolts won 11 straight.

Naturally, the Lightning hope that the biggest highlights of their 2019-20 season are yet to come, but that hot run was impressive nonetheless.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far
• Lightning’s 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.

What is the Islanders’ long-term outlook?

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 New York Islanders.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Islanders will need to lock up a couple of critical restricted free agents this upcoming offseason but have a lot of components signed to long-term extensions.

The acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the NHL Trade Deadline solidified their depth down the middle for years to come. Mathew Barzal has the potential to blossom into an elite centerman while Brock Nelson and Pageau can flip flop between the second and third line. Heart and soul player Casey Cizikas will continue to anchor the fourth line.

New York also has several of its top-nine wingers in place, including Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle and captain Anders Lee.

The newest addition to the core will be goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who is expected to come to the NHL at the start of next season. The Islanders drafted Sorokin in the third round of the 2014 draft and the Russian netminder has spent the past six seasons in the KHL. He has long been considered one of the best goalies not playing in the NHL. Throughout his career with CSKA, he never finished with a save percentage below .929 and is expected to produce at a similar level in North America.

Islanders goalie coach Mitch Korn has helped develop some of the League’s best goaltenders and Sorokin could be next in line.

Long-Term Needs

While the Islanders have a lot of their core signed to long-term contracts, the organization still needs a high-scoring winger to manufacture offense.

The Carolina Hurricanes swept the Islanders in a second-round series during last year’s postseason as they won four straight and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. New York only managed to score five goals in those four games and were unable to solve its offensive deficiencies.

The Islanders play a fundamentally sound defensive system but need someone who can create offense on their own to change the momentum within a game. Barzal has a chance to be that type of game-breaker in today’s NHL but you need more than one player with that skillset.

In addition to their lack of offensive punch, the Islanders lost their defensive structure when Adam Pelech was lost for the season in early January. General manager Lou Lamoriello thought he solved the problem with the addition of Andy Greene from the New Jersey Devils but the Islanders went 2-5-4 in the 11 games he played and finished in a seven-game skid.

Coach Barry Trotz and his staff need to examine why the absence of one player impacted their system as much as it did.

Long-Term Strengths

The impact a coach has on any given team has long been disputed, but the effect Trotz has had on the Islanders is undeniable.

Ever since Trotz inked a five-year contract with the orange and blue, he brought a credibility to the team on the ice. The Islanders became one of the most defensively sound teams in the league and instantly became a playoff contender. With Trotz behind the bench, the Islanders will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a consistent basis.

Besides strong leadership behind the bench, the Islanders have developed a strong culture inside the locker room. Players play for one another and there is a system of accountability that was lacking before Trotz arrived.

Overall, the Islanders should be in the playoff discussion for years to come with a disciplined structure, strong goaltending and a true difference-maker behind the bench. However, in order to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and not just a team that qualifies for the postseason consistently, they need to add a dynamic forward.

MORE ON THE ISLANDERS:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Islanders

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 New York Islanders.

Islanders carry over surprises from 2018-19 for a hot start

To be honest, I expected the Islanders to be scrappy this season, but to narrowly miss the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through late November, that prediction looked as inaccurate as those who expected the Islanders to dwell in the cellar after John Tavares left during the summer of 2018.

Even factoring in Barry Trotz’s outstanding defensive acumen, it’s simply asking a lot for goalies to match what Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner pulled off in 2018-19. Yet, the Islanders combined more great goaltending (this time from Greiss and Semyon Varlamov) and timely scoring to start 2019-20 as one of the NHL’s hottest surprises.

It’s telling that the Islanders briefly topped PHT’s Power Rankings with their 16-3-1 record as of Nov. 21.

By compiling a franchise-record 16-game point streak, one wondered how high the Islanders might soar.

Betting on Varlamov (.920 save percentage through Dec. 31) over Lehner looked better than some figured. Meanwhile, Greiss continued his Trotz-era Renaissance (.919 save percentage during the same frame). The Islanders seemed poised to show that their way worked, and to an elite degree.

Islanders stumble as time goes on

However, you could argue that the Islanders couldn’t always walk what often felt like an all-defense tightrope. That high-wire act began to unravel, particularly from mid-January and on.

You can see that slippage in the big, shining neon light that was a seven-game losing streak entering the pause. But, really, the Islanders’ slide extended back a couple of months. If you want to hammer home disappointments for Islanders fans, you can’t get much more dramatic than “opening the door for the Rangers.”

That’s all disappointing, especially since the Islanders made some fairly aggressive trades (for Andy Greene and J.G. Pageau) to improve and patch up injuries. Your level of surprise likely revolves around how sustainable you thought the Islanders’ successes really were.

Looking at certain stats, it’s clear the luck swung violently the other way.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Islanders tied with those hated Rangers for the fourth-highest PDO (save percentage + shooting percentage, a decent proxy for luck) of 102 through Dec. 31. Looking at 2020 alone, the Islanders ranked sixth-lowest with a 98.5 mark.

A higher-scoring team might have been able to weather slippage from Varlamov (.908 save percentage since Jan. 1) and Greiss (.901 during that span), but the Islanders struggled.

Surprises and disappointments for Islanders on offense

Modest offense from the Islanders shouldn’t rank among surprises, but the team not finding ways to inject more offense could be seen as one of their disappointments.

Considering how stringent the Islanders’ system is, Mathew Barzal leading the team with 60 points is understandable. It feels a bit wrong for a player that talented, but a lot is being asked of Barzal and a few others.

That said, the Islanders made things work — enough — thanks to nice scoring by committee.

Beyond some continued strong play from Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, the Islanders also made a smart, low-risk gamble on Derick Brassard. The oft-traded forward ranked eighth in team scoring with 32 points. That’s pretty nifty stuff from a $1.2 million investment.

The Islanders have to hope that they see solid growth in Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom like they did in Anthony Beauvillier this season.

Overall, I’d say that the pleasant surprises outweighed the disappointments for the Islanders in 2019-20. Of course, we’ll have to see if play resumes to learn what other twists and turns were coming.

MORE ON THE ISLANDERS:

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 New York Islanders

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 2019-20 New York Islanders.

2019-20 New York Islanders

Record: 35-23-10 (80 points in 68 games), positioned sixth in the Metro and ninth in the East. Islanders would rank ahead of Blue Jackets by points percentage (and thus be in the postseason by that metric).
Leading Scorer: Mathew Barzal – 60 points (19 goals and 41 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview

The Islanders may very well have been the coldest (relevant) team in the NHL before the pause.

Most obviously, the Islanders found themselves mired in a seven-game losing streak, the worst “active” slump in the league. While the Isles managed to squeeze four points from that skid (0-3-4), that’s still troubling.

When you zoom out, their struggles stretch back further. The Islanders managed only two wins since Feb. 13 (2-7-4), and just six victories since Jan. 11 (6-11-7). Such struggles opened the door for the Rangers and other usurpers to push the Islanders out of the playoffs entirely.

It was quite the fall for an Islanders team that was flirting with at least a round of home-ice advantage during hotter stretches of 2019-20.

But one also cannot deny that the Islanders deserve credit for that hotter stretch. Barry Trotz’s system combines with strong goaltending from Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov to form a team that’s tough to score against.

While the Islanders were slipping quite a bit, and facing a road-heavy stretch that would have seen them play eight of their would-be next 11 games on the road, they also were in position to return to the postseason. Technically, the Blue Jackets (81 points in 70 games) rank ahead of the Islanders, but only by a point, while the Isles hold two games in hand.

Will the Islanders get to prove they can right the ship? Can they justify spending around the trade deadline on J.G. Pageau and Andy Greene?

We may never find out those answers, yet Trotz cemented once again that his defensive schemes can keep his teams competitive. After all, few teams would be too troubled if you told them they’d have a 35-23-10 record through 68 games.

Highlight of the Season for 2019-20 Islanders

Islanders fans savor opportunities to roast people who’ve predicted that their team would flop. With that in mind, the earlier parts of 2019-20 served up a decadent buffet.

After a brief stumble out of the gate, the Islanders rattled off a 10-game winning streak from Oct. 12 – Nov. 5.

The Islanders avenged the Penguins ending their 10-game winning streak by beating Pittsburgh twice to extend their point streak to a franchise-record 16 games. The Islanders rumbled to an impressive 16-3-1 record, ascending to the top spot in PHT’s Power Rankings for late November.

If you want an individual highlight, credit Pageau with scoring a goal and getting in a fight to celebrate his Islanders debut. Watch the scrap below:

MORE ON THE ISLANDERS:

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.