It’s time to break down how the top four teams in the West should approach the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding. Earlier on Wednesday, PHT examined similar “rest vs. rust” debates for the East’s top four teams in this format.
Debates for West top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding
St. Louis Blues
Compared to some of the East’s aging teams, the Blues are reasonably spry. Yes, Alex Pietrangelo is 30, and David Perron is 32. There are some veterans to watch, but the larger picture is a team heavy on mid-prime players.
That said, the Blues should monitor a few situations.
Most obviously, they need to keep an eye on Vladimir Tarasenko. All signs point to Tarasenko being good to go, but it’s unclear if he’ll need to be managed after shoulder surgery.
If the Blues are being proactive, they also might want to keep an open mind with their goalies. Sure, it seems like the top job is Jordan Binnington‘s to lose. But it should be noted that Jake Allen enjoyed a shockingly redemptive season, besting Binnington in save percentage (.927 to Binnington’s .912) and more advanced stats (Allen GSAA: 11.23; Binnington: 3.31).
As defending champions, the Blues enjoy a certain “honeymoon phase,” especially since they broke the franchise’s Stanley Cup curse. Combine that with the wear-and-tear on players like Pietrangelo and 29-year-old Ryan O'Reilly, and there should be a push to rest the top-ranked West team in the Round Robin for Seeding.
On one hand, the Avalanche rank as one of the youngest contenders in recent memory. Scarily so, if you’re a team preparing to jostle with them in the West over the next few years.
That said, the Avs suffered from a notable number of injuries, including late in the eventually paused season.
Colorado persevered through some pretty significant injuries late in 2018-19, as well, so the Avalanche must be thrilled by the possibility of entering the West Round Robin for Seeding healthier than usual.
Ideally, at least. Managing this might come down to a mix of luck (those players healing up on time) and caution (not getting too greedy in this three-game format).
Vegas Golden Knights
Normally, the concern would revolve around insulating 35-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Instead, the Golden Knights should think long and hard about nudging the starting job toward Robin Lehner. NHL teams rarely are so bold, though, so we’ll assume “MAF” is the guy. Maybe Lehner allows Vegas to be more fast-and-loose with “The Flower.”
If you want another way to summarize the strangeness of this season, consider that the Golden Knights could grab the top seed in the West despite firing their coach. On that note, is Peter DeBoer truly comfortable with the team he has in front of him? It will be necessary to supplement the West Round Robin for Seeding with makeshift training camp, but sometimes you get the most “intel” with something on the line.
And, despite only being in their third season, the Golden Knights face stakes.
After shocking the hockey world, the Golden Knights have stocked up with the likes of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. With that in mind, the Golden Knights are closer to the Blues than the Avalanche when you’re considering the age of go-to players.
Many of those players probably benefited from this break. Pacioretty and Stone ranked among those nursing injuries. It’s not certain, yet this seems like a situation where Vegas might get Alex Tuch back, too.
Vegas basically falls in the middle of the pack as far as the “rest vs. rust” debates go in the Round Robin for Seeding, in the West and overall.
Aside from a youthful defense, the Stars stand out as one of the teams that should really be careful with veteran players.
Size is one of the factors that helps Ben Bishop (33) dominate, yet that also likely heightens his injury risk. On the bright side, Anton Khudobin (34) stands right there with him as two goalies who deliver. They’re also both on the old side, though.
(At least there’s 23-year-old Roope Hintz and a few others to add some youth to that mix.)
It’s important for Rick Bowness to read the room here.
While there’s an argument that this interrupted format might benefit high-scoring teams, it’s also possible that a stingy group could make a run. Maybe that lack of crowd noise will suffocate offenses that much more?
The Stars aren’t favorites, so it wouldn’t be bleeping horsebleep if this didn’t work out. It would be if the Stars fall short because of self-inflicted wounds, though.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.
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 …
(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.
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.
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 Parise – Ryan 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?
(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.
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.)
It’s too early to know if the Coyotes squandering a 2-0 lead to lose to the Jets — in regulation — will count as a “defining” moment of Arizona’s crucial 2019-20 season. As of Monday, March 9, it certainly seems like a big game, though.
Nick Schmaltz scored both of the game’s opening goals late in the first period, sending the Coyotes into the intermission on a high note.
Nikolaj Ehlers served as the biggest catalyst in turning that game around from there. To start, he scored Winnipeg’s first goal, then assisted on the tying 2-2 tally late in the second.
Ehlers then supplied the primary assist for the game-winner, which was Cody Eakin’s first goal as a Jet. An empty-netter iced a significant 4-2 win for the Jets in front of an appreciative crowd in Winnipeg.
Standings impact of Jets beating Coyotes in regulation
With that result, the Jets soared to the West’s top wild-card spot, while the Coyotes allowed a vital opportunity to slip through their fingers/paws.
Take a look at the standings, including the Stars as the not-so-far removed third seed of the Central Division:
OK, it’s important to note that the Stars probably are pretty safe, considering games in hand. (Also, the Oilers are in action against the Golden Knights on Monday, so that portion of the standings will change.)
This remains an agonizing defeat for the Coyotes. They now trail the Jets by four points with both having 12 games left on their schedules, while the teams in front of Arizona hold a game or two in hand and have 2-3 more standings points.
Imagining what could have been if the Coyotes might have secured that lead — or at least salvaged a “charity point” — must be a bitter feeling for Arizona fans.
I’ll have something for y’all in the morning. Go have a drink. Go hug your kids or your dog. Keep repeating “namaste” (unless you live in Alabama). The world didn’t end tonight, even if it feels like the Coyotes’ season did, for all intents and purposes.
Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.
31-42-9, 71 points (8th in Pacific Division, 15th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify
As far as seasons go, they don’t get much worse than the one the Los Angeles Kings just endured.
They couldn’t score (30th in goals-for), not even on the power play (27th at 15.8 percent) and they couldn’t stop much from going in (22nd in goals-against), and certainly not on the penalty kill (29th at 76.5 percent).
Ilya Kovalchuk‘s NHL return couldn’t save them — he was simply a massive bust.
Their highest goal-scorer had 22 goals, only two players had more than two goals and just one had more than 60 points. And Anze Kopitar‘s season paled in comparison to his 90-plus point campaign from the year previous.
Jonathan Quick forgot how to stop the puck, posting a tremendously ugly .888 save percentage, by far the worst numbers of his career.
The pain extended all the way to the draft lottery in June where the Kings could have selected, at worst, Kaapo Kakko, if the odds would play out to their 30th-place finish. Instead, they fell three places to the fifth-overall pick… one final kick in the pants.
Here are the moves that have been made since the beginning of the year, per Adam’s story:
Traded Carl Hagelin, who had played only 22 games with the team after being acquired for Tanner Pearson, to the Washington Capitals for two mid-round draft picks
Traded Nate Thompson, who had played only 79 games with the team, to the Montreal Canadiens for a fourth-round draft pick
Traded Oscar Fantenberg, who had played only 74 games with the team, to the Calgary Flames for a conditional pick in 2020.
Bought out the final two years of Dion Phaneuf’s contract
Signed Joakim Ryan to a one-year deal in free agency
The pessimist fan will tell you it’s all doom and gloom right now and they’d be right. The Kings are used to being juggernauts in the Western Conference. Those days are long gone. Next season isn’t going to be pretty.
The optimist, meanwhile, will say the upcoming season — while nearly lost before it even has a chance to begin — is about the kids coming up and a lot of assets coming the team’s way around the trade deadline.
Pending free agents Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and Derek Forbort could all be on different teams before the season is through. If a team gets really desperate for, say, a goaltender, shipping out Jonathan Quick may become a possibility, too.
That would all add up to cap space to be used up next summer, even with Phaneuf’s buyout hitting it for just over $4 million.
That should offer a glimmer of hope, at least, because there’s not much to suggest this coming season will be any better.
Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.
38-30-14, 90 pts. (5th in the Central Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in Round 2
It all started off so swimmingly for the Avs to begin the season.
They trotted out to a 15-6-5 record through the first two months, including a stretch of eight wins in nine games in November. They had nestled themselves into a good spot come Dec. 1 and past that magical date of U.S. Thanksgiving where teams above the playoff line generally stay there and teams below it do not.
The Avs put themselves into second place, just behind the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference. Their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog was the best line in hockey, scoring at will. And despite the lack of scoring depth, it didn’t matter one iota. MacKinnon and Co. were carrying the team to great heights.
By New Year’s Day, however, they had suddenly dropped to sixth place in the conference. By Feb. 1, they were down to eighth, and with a month and a week to go in the season they were on the outside looking in.
December and January were particularly awful stretches for the Avs, who won just seven of 24 games across the two-month span.
You can only run as a one-trick pony for so long and when the top line’s offense dried up a bit, so did the team’s rich vein of form.
Grubauer was the prize for the Avs buying out Brooks Orpik’s contract from the Washington Capitals during the 2018 offseason. He didn’t set the world on first earlier in the year, but when Colorado needed him most, he pulled through.
The German posted a 9-2-2 record in 14 appearances in the run-in to the playoffs. His .956 save percentage and three shutouts secured a playoff spot on April 4, the final in the Western Conference.
And his play was rewarded when head coach Jared Bednar gave him the crease for their opening-round matchup against the top-ranked Calgary Flames. And there he flourished, too, helping backstop the Avs to a five-game series win over the first-place Flames.
He’d lead the Avs to the brink of the Western Conference Final, only to lose out to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7.
He showed well enough. And Grubauer will be the team’s top man in net this season as he becomes a bona fide starter for the first time.
General manager Joe Sakic has gone out and looked for secondary scoring to complement that dangerous top line. The addition of Nazem Kadri via trade, Joonas Donskoi in free agency, and Andre Burakovsky, whose rights were acquired in a trade and later signed, will go a long way to helping that cause.
The Central Division is in the midst of an arms race and the Avs have certainly kept up appearances. They shouldn’t be struggling to get in into the postseason in early April this time around because of that.