PHT Power Rankings

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

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“The No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft belongs to a team yet to be determined, coming from the qualifying round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

As surprising as it sounded when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the 2020 draft lottery winner, it was kind of a fitting for a not-so-normal season.

Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.

According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.

But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.

[Mock Draft: Projecting top picks for the 2020 NHL Draft]

1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.

2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias PetterssonJ.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?

3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.

4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.

5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.

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6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”

7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.

8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?

9. Maple Leafs: Toronto is going to be up against the cap ceiling, especially if it stays at $81.5M for the next few seasons. To stay as a contender that will require cheaper talent making an impact. Lafreniere would be dropped into the center — sorry, centre — of the hockey universe and not be dubbed as “the savior.” Between John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, there’s more than enough offensive weapons to allow the rookie ample time to find his role.

10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.

11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.

Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:

12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.

13. Flames: If a Johnny Gaudreau trade does actually happen, I know of a talented winger who could slot into his place…

14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.

15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround,  how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?

16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL Draft Lottery memories
Most exciting Qualifying Round series
Qualifying Round storylines
Off-season buyout candidates
Round Robin teams with most to lose

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top Draft Lottery memories

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Hockey fans will get something to obsess about on Friday, June 26, as the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will air on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET. If one of the NHL’s bottom seven teams wins the first draw, we might know where Alexis Lafrenière is headed (assuming, reasonably safely, that he goes first). As promising as Lafrenière is, history shows that winning a draft lottery isn’t the only part of putting together a championship team — if you even get that far.

I mean … don’t get me wrong, as this list shows, it often helps. A lot.

The latest PHT Power Rankings list breaks down top memories that have come from draft lotteries. Sometimes we’ll see big winners, losers, or both. Sometimes there will be tragic comedy, or incredible luck (*cough* or both).

The experience of seeing your team’s luck swing on the bounces of lottery balls can be agonizing. It also makes just about every experience a personal one. So, if you have draft lottery memories that didn’t make the cut, absolutely share them.

Try not to ruin your day going over such memories, though.

[How the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will work. It could get complicated.]

1. Penguins land Crosby in strange 2005 NHL Draft Lottery

You know it’s an odd, memorable draft lottery when Sports Illustrated gives it the oral history treatment.

Sidney Crosby also ended up justifying the hype, making the 2005 NHL Draft lottery possibly the most pivotal since the format began.

On one hand, the Penguins received some of the best odds to win. They received three of the 48 lottery balls in the NHL’s strange setup, ranking among four teams with the most. Even so, they had a 6.3 percent chance to win the Crosby sweepstakes. (Somewhere, Brian Burke is still fuming about this.)

You can probably set off a brushfire of hockey debate by asking how much the Penguins’ success hinged on luck — not just landing Crosby, but Evgeni Malkin second in 2004, and a bucket of other high picks — and how much hinged on solid management. There’s no debate that the Penguins came out of the lockout with two enormous additions.

You can also entertain yourself with some Ducks alternate history. What if they did land Crosby? Imagine if Burke’s alleged aims to trade for Joe Thornton worked out? Would Burke still be challenging Kevin Lowe and others to barn brawls as Ducks GM to this day?

*Loosens tie over the whole thing*

Also:

  • The Canadiens only received one lottery ball, yet eventually drafted Carey Price fifth overall.
  • The Sabres had three lottery balls, but chose (*moves imaginary glasses from forehead to eyes*) … Marek Zagrapan? Oof.

That 2005 NHL Draft tops the list of lottery memories. There are plenty of other dramatic swings to mull over, however.

2. Blackhawks lose big in 2004, then win big in 2007

It’s easy to zero in on the top pick of a draft versus the second when you look back at draft lottery swings. But don’t sleep on the third pick, and on, because that’s where the deepest belly laughs and cringes often lurk.

Consider 2004. The Capitals rocketed back to relevance thanks to Alex Ovechkin. Malkin served as the first of the Penguins’ two superstars (but far from the only high picks, as the Penguins marinated in those during a run of profound ineptitude).

The Blackhawks? They chose Cam Barker third overall. Brutal.

Luckily, the Blackhawks ended up trading Barker for a future building block in Nick Leddy. Amusingly, fourth overall pick Andrew Ladd also helped Chicago down the line.

But most luckily, the Blackhawks landed the top pick in 2007 despite having the fifth-best chances (8.1 percent). Chicago selected Patrick Kane, pairing him with Jonathan Toews on their way to three Stanley Cups.

The Flyers suffered through a miserable season, yet instead of drafting Kane, they ended up with James van Riemsdyk. There’s a kinship, oddly, between JVR and Bobby Ryan: two New Jersey natives, who were second overall picks, and enjoyed bumpy-but-productive careers that probably didn’t soothe the wounds of those who were mad about draft lottery results.

Did we mention they were from New Jersey? (Crowd boos.)

[NHL Mock Draft: Lafreniere head of the 2020 prospect class]

3. The Oilers land McDavid, McDavid makes classic McDavid face

Compared to the Sabres’ 20-percent chance, the Oilers were underdogs to land Connor McDavid with the third-best odds (11.5). But the Oilers’ rain and reign of first overall picks continued.

As you may remember, McDavid looked thrilled.

There’s a sound argument for this rankings second, not third, among draft lottery memories. After all, McDavid ranks as the biggest star to emerge first overall since Crosby.

He also made that face.

But the other factor that looms large is the deep failure of the Oilers and the Sabres. Edmonton achieves borderline art in poor development (Nail Yakupov, first in 2012) and poor decisions (trading Taylor Hall, first in 2010) to squander so much good fortune. Only now are the Oilers flirting with the success they were practically gifted, and that hinges a ton on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The Sabres have been a mess for about a decade. They can’t pin that on getting Jack Eichel instead of McDavid, even if they clearly tanked for McDavid.

Hockey fans might want to attribute the success of teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks to premium picks alone. Yet, the Sabres and especially Oilers show us that you can squander such riches.

4. Taylor Hall, lottery ball specialist

Taylor Hall, one-time MVP and himself the top pick of 2010, became a good luck charm for his teams — at least when it came to draft lotteries. The biggest win came when the Oilers won the McDavid sweepstakes in 2015, while the Devils also landed Nico Hischier and most recently Jack Hughes in lotteries with Hall in the fold.

Hall hasn’t just shown a good sense of humor about it. He’s done so multiple times.

In 2015, McDavid:

After 2017, when the Devils eventually added Hischier:

Hall still provided some great barbs in 2019, though he wouldn’t spend much time with Jack Hughes:

So, a question: do we gauge Hall’s continued lottery ball dominance based on where the Coyotes draft, or if he signs with a different team in free agency? This is important, I think.

[PHT Roundtable: Draft Lottery format reactions]

5. Flyers make biggest jump ever

Heading into the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery, the Flyers held the 13th rank. Despite that standing, they jumped all the way to the second pick. Philly had a 2.4 percent chance to do that.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem like a Blackhawks Barker-to-Kane flip. Early in his career, Nolan Patrick has been some combination of inconsistent and injured (his career outlook is still foggy because of migraines).

Patrick’s health issues make it seem way too harsh to throw the word “bust” around. But that jump to No. 2 definitely didn’t deliver for the Flyers quite like they dreamed.

The next three picks turn the knife deeper for Flyers fans. The Stars drafted a defensive pillar in Miro Heiskanen. Then the Avalanche got a pillar of their own in Cale Makar. Finally, the Canucks might have drafted the “real” top pick in Elias Pettersson.

Ouch.

Honorable mention NHL Draft Lottery storylines and memories

To reiterate, good draft lottery luck doesn’t always translate to the standings. Sometimes it doesn’t even mean you’ll choose the right player.

  • The Thrashers (Patrik Stefan) and Islanders (Rick DiPietro) followed back-to-back blunders, and made blunders around those moves. Trading Roberto Luongo, giving DiPietro a ruinous contract, and so on showed that winning the lottery isn’t everything. Granted, Atlanta eventually struck gold with Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) — at least for a while.
  • Buffalo suffered some bad luck, but they need more than lottery wins. Rasmus Dahlin (2018) looks legit, yet he hasn’t been able to solve the Sabres’ problems. That takes multiple shrewd moves … and, yes, some luck.
  • You could rank the Canucks among the teams that have been burned by bad draws. Even so, some of their best recent picks came outside the true no-brainer range. They selected Elias Pettersson fifth in 2017, and he’d probably be the top pick in a re-draft. The Quinn Hughes pick (seventh in 2018) looked smart then, and brilliant now.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Off-season buyout candidates

Monday would have marked the latest day that the NHL’s buyout period would open. Per the CBA, the window begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded or “the later of June 15.”

Well, since this season is like no other, we won’t be seeing Commissioner Gary Bettman handing out the Cup until the fall — if that even happens at all.

The financial implications of the COVID-19 shutdown will have a major affect on the NHL’s salary cap going forward. Before the pause, it was believed that the 2020-21 cap ceiling would rise to between $84-$88.2 million. Now? It may remain at $81.5 million, squeezing some teams who have money committed and more extensions to give out.

That will cause plenty of teams to get creative in trying to get under the ceiling and be able to ice a competitive roster. Compliance buyouts have been discussed but owners are reportedly against them. While keeping the compliance buyouts costs off your books may not be an option once the NHL’s regular business resumes, traditional buyouts will still remain a tool for teams to ease the pressure on their salary cap picture.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at five players who would make for prime buyout candidates this off-season.

1. Karl Alzner, Canadiens: It has been not a fun ride for Alzner in Montreal since signing a five-year, $23.125M deal in 2017. Since cashing in during free agency, the 31-year-old defenseman has played 95 games over three seasons with the Canadiens. He’s played nearly as many (87) with their AHL affiliate in the last two seasons. Alzner has two years left on a contract that carries a $4.625M cap hit, which includes a $1.5M signing bonus due this off-season.

A buyout would put a heavy hit on the Canadiens’ cap for next season — $3,958,333M — but for 2021-22 that would go down to $1,958,333M and then $833,333 in the final two years. Montreal is already at $63M committed for next season and that doesn’t include extensions for restricted free agents Max Domi and Victor Mete.

2. David Backes, Ducks: The 36-year-old forward was part of that 2016 free agent class of forgettable contracts that featured the likes of Frans Nielsen, Milan Lucic, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, and Troy Brouwer. Backes’ production and ice time diminished over his four seasons in Boston as he battled through injury and an inability to find a consistent spot in the lineup. He moved on in February in a deal that sent Ondrej Kase to the Bruins.

Anaheim is attempting to trend towards youth, and while a Backes buyout won’t free up a large amount of cap room ($3M in 2020-21, $750K in 2021-22), the move would open up a roster spot and ice time for one of their younger players. It would also help a team that is currently tied to nearly $76M in cap space for next season.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers: The emergence of Igor Shesterkin has put Lundqvist’s future in New York in doubt. The 38-year-old netminder has one year remaining on his deal, which carries a pricey $8.5M cap hit. Considering the Rangers are in a transition phase and looking to get younger, getting out from Hank’s number would assist long-term in easing cap pain and helping continue to build for the future.

The Rangers spent big last summer, bringing in Jacob Trouba and Artemi Panarin. That’s put them with a little over $67M committed for next season. Due for extensions are RFAs Brendan Lemieux, Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Strome, and pending unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast. One more RFA who’s owed a new deal is goaltender and long-time piece of trade bait Alexandar Georgiev.

Buying out Lundqvist would mean $5.5M on the Rangers’ books next season, plus Shesterkin’s $925K and either a few million for Georgiev to be part of the picture or a cheap, veteran backup. New York’s cap picture in 2021-22 would see Lundqvist’s buyout hit drop to $1.5M.

Before any move happens with Lundqvist he has to agree to waive his no-move clause. GM Jeff Gorton could always seek a trade, but the goalie’s cap hit would make that difficult.

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4. Kyle Turris, Predators: Nashville has $72M committed for 2020-21 and it’s clear Turris’ place in their lineup has diminished. He’s been a healthy scratch at times and still has a $4M cap hit with him for the next four seasons. A buy out would put $2M on the Predators’ cap picture through 2027-28.

In a normal off-season there would always be the possibly of David Poile looking to dump Turris’ contract to a team looking to get above the cap floor. But that will likely not be an option for teams looking to unload money in a tight-cap world.

5. Loui Eriksson, Canucks: Part of that rich 2016 free agent class, Eriksson has not been able to recapture the scoring touch that saw him net over 25 goals four straight seasons in Dallas and hit 30 in his final year with the Bruins. In 245 games with the Canucks he’s scored only 38 times. If compliance buyouts were a thing, he’d be a no-brainer, but a regular buyout? That decision would be a tough one for GM Jim Benning.

Eriksson has two years left with a $6M cap hit per season. The Canucks would be stuck with $5,666,667M and $3,666,667M on their cap the first two seasons post-buyout before a more palatable $666,667 in the final two years. Right now they have almost $64M tied up for next season and have UFAs and RFAs to decide on like Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette, Chris Tanev, and Troy Stetcher.

As Benning navigates this off-season for his transitioning Canucks, he’ll more certainly be keeping an eye on the summer of 2022. That off-season is when Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes can become RFAs. Cap room will be needed to re-sign those two cornerstone pieces.

All salary cap data via the wonderful CapFriendly

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Round Robin teams with most to lose

With Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan kicking in this week, the possibility of the 2020 Stanley Cup being raised remains alive. In recent power rankings posts, we’ve focused on Qualifying Round storylines and matchups. But what about the teams who aim to thrive rather than survive. Today we discuss the top four teams in each conference who will compete in Round Robin for Seeding.

To be more precise, we’re wondering which top four teams have the most on the line. In this case, we’re focused on the top four teams in each conference’s outlooks during entire NHL playoffs, rather than just the Round Robin for Seeding.

Let’s rank them first to last as far as desperation goes in each conference. At the end, we’ll debate who has the absolute most on the line, and who’s playing with house money.

The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, so it seems fairest to start with the top four for the East.

Top four East (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Imagine if the Lightning draw the Blue Jackets at some point during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(Are you cringing too?)

While the Lightning are lucky that they get to jet-ski around a market like Tampa Bay, the rumblings will grow to a fever pitch if they fall short again. (Like, we might need to physically separate Andrei Vasilevskiy from Kenan Thompson.)

Yes, this franchise owns a Stanley Cup. But that was from the Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis – Brad Richards era. For all Steven Stamkos has accomplished, he’s had his heart and face broken in many NHL playoffs. At some point, it’s going to get awkward if Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman “can’t win the big one.”

(Speaking of cringing, wait for those takes.)

2. Boston Bruins

The 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners keep hiding Father Time’s coat and shoes. It’s not just Zdeno Chara hogging the Fountain of Youth/Lazarus Pit at 43, either. Patrice Bergeron remains dominant at 34. You might make a double-take when you realize Brad Marchand is already 32. Oh yeah, Tuukka Rask is 33, too.

You … gotta think the Bruins are peaking right? Right? I mean, I honestly felt like this group would hit the aging curve hard by now, yet they comfortably topped the NHL standings this season.

It’s not just about wondering if the window will close. Even before the pandemic pause, it seemed like pending UFA Torey Krug would represent a tight squeeze. If they want to bring Krug back, you’d think they’d need to break up some of the band.

As much as this group has accomplished, you have to think that Chara & Co. want a second Stanley Cup (and first for star David Pastrnak).

3. Washington Capitals

*Rubs eyes*

Wait a minute, is this really happening? Are the Capitals relatively unfettered by “must-win” pressure?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional Jakub Vrana, this roster’s getting a little up there in age. If for some reason you want to ponder your own mortality during the escape of watching hockey, merely ponder Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin Round Robin NHL
It works for Ovechkin, but still. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Braden Holtby‘s pending UFA status lingering, there’s still room for Capitals drama. No doubt, though, slaying that Stanley Cup dragon relieves most of the angst.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

For some, the Flyers kinda slipped up the ranks under the radar. This has been a team that’s mainly been playoff bubble material, at least when the wheels don’t fall off. Now they’re a Round Robin for Seeding away from possibly swiping the East’s top seed.

Don’t blame at least some of the Flyers for feeling pretty loose, then.

Yet … it’s not as if they’re playing with zero pressure.

Obviously, Philly can be a tough market. If the Flyers flounder, people will grumble about squandering a golden opportunity.

Also, for all the considerable youth on this roster, could this be a “sweet spot” between rising talent and aging stars? Claude Giroux (32), Jakub Voracek (30), and James van Riemsdyk (31) all might be heading toward a decline.

Top four West (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. St. Louis Blues

Like the Capitals, the Blues recently ended their franchise’s decades-long Stanley Cup drought. I’d wager there are some Blues fans who view the rest as “all gravy.”

Still, when you’re defending champs, you have a target on your back.

Combine that thought with Alex Pietrangelo possibly being out the door, and the temperature rises. What if this is the Blues’ best chance at a second Stanley Cup for quite a while? That thought won’t inspire the “Jaws” theme, exactly, but there’s some heat on the Blues.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

It feels deeply weird to put a third-year team on this list. Shouldn’t the Golden Knights enjoy basically a decade-long “honeymoon phase?”

Well, the Golden Knights are a deeply unusual expansion team.

Rather than being full of young debris, this is a full-flavored contender. And that goes right down to having some expensive players who are getting a little older. Not “Bruins” old, but the core Golden Knights might suddenly enter declines in the not-so-distant future.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury probably already hit a wall at 35. The Golden Knights made the smart investment to acquire Robin Lehner, but that could set the stage for drama. After all, if we’re being honest … Lehner probably should be the No. 1 guy for now.

The Golden Knights gambled earlier than expected, so if they leave with empty wallets, it will be pretty painful. Not “Joe Pesci’s gruesome death in Casino” painful, but painful.

3. Dallas Stars

The Stars should rank lower. As much as any team, it’s bewildering to realize that they’re basically a hot week from owning the top seed in their conference.

But, honestly, any team that’s thrown Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus this often faces some bleeping horsebleep if they end with a whimper.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Honestly, it feels like we’re still in the “rising fast” portion of the Avalanche’s growth.

While they’ve made some nice moves, you get the impression something splashier lingers down the road. They haven’t gone all-in by any stretch yet, and most of their core is still so young. Nathan MacKinnon‘s 24, Mikko Rantanen‘s merely 23, and Cale Makar‘s a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, this feels like the “young kids hit a bump in the road” part of the narrative. Sports can be strange even in pre-pandemic times, though, so who knows?

Round Robin Team with most, least to lose

• Lightning have the most to lose

If they fall especially flat, it could conceivably cost Jon Cooper his job. That’s absurd by any measure, and particularly now, but … it’s also far from unimaginable.

•  Flyers have least to lose

The best might be yet to come for this group, aside from the aforementioned aging players. Probably.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:
League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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 Power Rankings: Qualifying Round storylines

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There’s been an excitement in the air since the NHL announced its Return to Play plans last week. Of course, there’s a big if to be added at the beginning of it all. As long as planning and testing goes well, the puck should drop later this summer to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

There’s still lots of work to do.

But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.

1. Non-playoff teams given second life

Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause. 

“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”

But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.

Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.

“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”

2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?

As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.

With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?

The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.

Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?

At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

3. The goalie battles

We touched on this Friday with the Rangers. Will Henrik Lundqvist get one last ride in New York or will David Quinn go with the impressive rookie, Shesterkin? Will Mike Sullivan allow training camp to determine if he goes with Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Is Mikko Koskinen the definitive choice in Edmonton over Mike Smith? Can Antti Raanta challenge Darcy Kuemper for the Coyotes’ No. 1 job?

Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.

A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.

4. Stars getting healthy

Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.

Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
Getty Images

5. Deadline pickups having an effect

The trade deadline seems like it arrived years ago. Let’s now all remember that Tyler Toffoli is a Canuck, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck are Hurricanes, Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau are Penguins, J.G. Pageau is an Islander, Alex Galchenyuk is a Wild, and Andreas Athanasiou is an Oiler.

Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.

In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.

These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.

6. The swan songs

Justin Williams took a break after last season and rejoined the Hurricanes in January. Hanging up his skates for good after this season is something he spoke about in April. Who else could join him?

Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?

Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”

A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.