Maybe this year more than ever, the Stanley Cup playoffs will be wide open.
The NHL is bringing 24 teams back as part of its return to play plan, and after a best-of-five qualifying round, a full *normal* postseason will ensue.
Here’s a thought or opinion on each one of those 24 teams.
Arizona Coyotes — They might be the 11 seed, but for my money I’d pick the Coyotes over the Nashville Predators in the qualifying round. They’ll have both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta healthy, and getting Oliver Ekman-Larsson back is huge. I don’t think Arizona is ready to make a long postseason push, but they were a lot of fun to watch this season and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if they rout Nashville.
Boston Bruins — Believe it or not, since we are a Boston sports network we have shared 24 thoughts on the Bruins already. Click here to read those.
Calgary Flames — The Flames are interesting because a lot of their important players (Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau) had underwhelming years, and it seemed like Calgary was one more bad losing streak ahead of the trade deadline away from just blowing things up and starting over. But that said, having guys underperform means there’s plenty of room for improvement, and the Flames were a team last season that proved a tough opponent.
This is just a roundabout way of saying that while a swift exit wouldn’t be a stunner, they have the talent to surprise some people, but a good chunk of that will be predicated on one of Cam Talbot or David Rittich finding a peak form. How’s that for couching a take?
Carolina Hurricanes — It feels like the uncertainty in net will just kill them, but I’m looking forward to getting a longer look at Vincent Trocheck with Carolina.
I wasn’t high on the Hurricanes last season and I’m even less so this year. I might be the minority, but I’m reticent to pick them even getting out of the qualifier.
Chicago Blackhawks — So, the Blackhawks definitely don’t belong in this tournament, I’d argue even less so than the Canadiens. However, I’m skeptical of completely dismissing a team that still has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Plus, I’m excited to watch Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik make their *playoff* debuts.
Still though, Chicago probably will get rolled by Edmonton in the qualifying round.
Colorado Avalanche — The Avs are a legitimate contender this season, and an X-factor for them is Nazem Kadri. The last two postseasons have been cut short for the veteran center because he, then of the Toronto Maple Leafs, couldn’t keep himself grounded against the Bruins and got himself suspended. Though teams certainly will try and goad him into being reckless given his history, maybe Kadri being out of the East and keeping a cool head for a change could be what pushes Colorado through the West bracket.
Columbus Blue Jackets — If Elvis Merzlikins plays the way we’ve seen he’s capable of, then the Blue Jackets could make another intriguing run. Not sure how much I buy the theory that younger teams have an advantage in this format, but when I see Columbus I can’t help but think that just might be true.
The Blue Jackets are very much capable of winning their qualifier against Toronto. And if they get to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs again, it probably should be considered some of John Tortorella’s finest work.
Dallas Stars — I think Dallas had the best defense in the NHL this season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them carry the Stars to the Cup Final. However, I’m curious to see how the absence of Roman Polak impacts this group. His loss isn’t as huge as if, say, they lost John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen or Esa Lindell, but Polak still averaged 16:40 ice time this season and him not even being an option will test the Stars’ defensive depth.
Edmonton Oilers — Edmonton going deep this postseason would be fantastic for the sport. More eyes than ever likely will be on the NHL, and the more exposure people can get to Connor McDavid, the better.
Another note, really looking forward to watching Andreas Athanasiou play not only more postseason games in general, but also more games with the Oilers. He was in a bad situation with the Red Wings, and I’ve long felt he could thrive in the right spot. Having him riding on a line with McDavid is the epitome of a good situation.
Florida Panthers — The Panthers made clear with their moves this past offseason that missing the playoffs was not an option. They, in a way, got bailed out, but they’re not in the clear just yet. The blue line still is a worry, but last season’s Blue Jackets defense was a bit of a wild ride in the postseason, and Sergei Bobrovsky bailed them out.
If Florida gets that version of Bobrovsky, which is no guarantee, it could be a real threat. The offense is there, but any level of success will be determined by what defensemen not named Aaron Ekblad are able to contribute.
Minnesota Wild — They’ve been a weird team all year, which means they’re probably perfect for this situation.
What finally got Minnesota to turn things around was their younger guys playing well (Jordan Greenway and Ryan Donato come to mind), and trusting them to have their act together seems risky. The Wild are a fine-enough team but they haven’t shown enough to be taken all too seriously.
Now that I’ve said that, Kevin Fiala and Mats Zuccarello probably are going to combine for a million points, as Minnesota dusts Vancouver in the qualifying round.
Montreal Canadiens — Opposing players seems genuinely afraid of facing Carey Price, though his .909 save percentage this season isn’t exactly head-turning. Then again, all previous numbers should be thrown out the window heading into this postseason.
Regardless, the Habs are playing with house money here and there’s no way they “lose” in this situation. Either Price gets hot and they find themselves in the playoffs after being well out of the picture in March, or they lose and have the chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere. Not bad options either way.
Nashville Predators — This just doesn’t feel like a good year for Nashville. The Preds have been all over the place, and although Juuse Saros was solid in the regular season, Pekka Rinne appearing to be on the downturn doesn’t inspire much confidence should Saros flop. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of experience on their side, but it feels like Arizona getting past the Predators would be an appropriate end to an unusual campaign.
New York Islanders — It actually feels like there are plenty of parallels between the Islanders and Predators in that they are teams that have plenty of seasoned players, they finished first last season, lost in the opening round of the playoffs and then regressed this season. Maybe Semyon Varlamov (or Thomas Greiss) can steal a couple of games, but Florida doesn’t seem like a favorable matchup for them, especially if Bobrovsky is near the level he’s capable of playing.
New York Rangers — This is Artemi Panarin’s moment. He’s a Hart finalist after almost single-handedly accelerating New York’s rebuild. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t get sandbagged with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast and David Quinn reunites him with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
New York, like Florida, could be a disruptive team, and its goaltending situation is a huge factor. I’d like to see Henrik Lundqvist get an opportunity in the qualifying round, but his leash should be short, and Igor Shesterkin — healthy again after the car accident he and Buchnevich were involved in — should be ready to go.
Philadelphia Flyers — I’m looking forward to seeing how Ivan Provorov and Carter Hart fare in postseason action, even though we do have a six-game sample size for the defenseman. Philly has put together a lot of good pieces, and while it’s clear what kind of veteran skill they have, especially in the top-six forward group, Hart settling right into postseason play and Provorov becoming a real difference-maker in playoff action figure to be the key to a potentially deep run.
Pittsburgh Penguins — It’ll be fun to watch the Pens play this postseason because it’ll probably be the healthiest we’ve seen them all season, but because of that it’s tough to discern what to expect from them. On the one hand, it shows they’re a group with plenty of resolve, and theoretically they should be better now that most everyone is good to go. But on the flip side, will a few weeks of training camp be enough time for Mike Sullivan to figure out how to best put together all the puzzle pieces? Probably, but they don’t have a particularly large margin for error, especially if they face the best version of Price in the qualifier.
St. Louis Blues — Call me a victim of the moment, but if the Blues win this Stanley Cup, I think it’ll be better than how they got to the top last season. For one, it’s been well-documented how challenging it is to win the Cup in back-to-back years, but to do so while playing through this bizarre circumstance would be something else. They certainly have the roster to do it.
Tampa Bay Lightning — Do I think the Bolts will replicate what happened last postseason? No. But, it bears mentioning that the current Tampa team really hasn’t spent that much time together. Jon Cooper had the blender turned on with the lineup periodically as they started to find the level they needed to play at, but it remains to be seen where exactly Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian fit.
Make no mistake, the talent is there for the Lightning. But, of the round-robin teams, they’re fourth out of four for me.
Toronto Maple Leafs — Don’t know whether to think that the complete chaos that was the 2019-20 Leafs seasons leading up to the pause means they’re destined to get run out of their own building by the Blue Jackets, or maybe they’ll actually put it together in time for the postseason, though that feels like a big ask.
I will say this though: Columbus might be the best possible matchup for the Leafs. Toronto’s defense is a garbage fire (surprising since they, you know, committed over a third of their cap space to three forwards), but the Blue Jackets were 28th in the league in goals per game at the time of the pause and aren’t loaded with major scoring threats. Maybe that’ll be enough for Toronto to get through the qualifier so they can face the Bruins in the first round and lose in seven games.
Vancouver Canucks — This is a huge showcase for Jacob Markstrom. He’s been tremendous this season and was positioned to get a huge payday, but the cap staying flat might limit his options, and him laying an egg in the qualifying round could impact his market a bit.
Speaking of markets, the Canucks definitely are hoping Brock Boeser goes off so they can trade him this offseason for a haul of picks and prospects while creating necessary cap space to sign Markstrom to a regrettable contract, right?
Vegas Golden Knights — Weird stuff has followed Vegas since the franchise’s inception, so Pete DeBoer leading the Golden Knights to a title in Edmonton after a four-month pause of the season feels like an on-brand way for Vegas to win its first title.
In all seriousness though, they have the group to win it all this year and they have no shortage of reliable goaltending.
Washington Capitals — It’s hard to believe Ilya Kovalchuk has been to the playoffs just three times, but it’ll be fascinating to see what he’s able to give the Capitals. Not that their success necessarily is hinging on Kovalchuk delivering vintage performances one night after another, but him becoming a key contributor could be the type of thing that gives the Caps an edge over some of the other Eastern Conference powerhouses. He should have a big personal interest in this postseason as well, because it could line him up for a semi-lucrative deal as a free agent as his career heads into its twilight.
Winnipeg Jets — The Jets seem like the type of team built for the uncertainty that this return presents. It’s an interesting group of guys in that they’ve been in a weird spot all season where they weren’t sure if Dustin Byfuglien was coming back, it seems clear Patrik Laine doesn’t want to be there long-term, Nikolaj Ehlers was linked to a new team every day and they had a mass exodus of free agents last offseason. Still, Paul Maurice got them to rally together and stay competitive. If nothing else, this group seems like it has the mental makeup to thrive in unusual circumstances — and it doesn’t hurt that they also have Connor Hellebuyck in net.