First Round Preview: West Division

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With the playoffs set to begin this weekend, we'll be analyzing each of the upcoming first round series. Feel free to check out the East Division and Central Division if you haven't already done so.

(1) COLORADO AVALANCHE VERSUS (4) ST. LOUIS BLUES

The Avalanche have been a fast-rising team in recent years, but they have fallen just short in the playoffs. In 2019, the Avalanche were a promising young team that ultimately lost in Game 7 of the second round to the San Jose Sharks. Despite some injury troubles, they took huge strides forward in 2019-20 with a 42-20-8 record, but ultimately lost in Game 7 of the second round again, this time to Game 7.

This year they won the Presidents’ Trophy with one of the best offenses in the league and a Vezina Trophy frontrunner in Philipp Grubauer, but will they get that extra little push in the playoffs? Well first they have to top the St. Louis Blues.

St. Louis won the Stanley Cup in 2019 and while they had a mediocre 27-20-9 record in 2020-21, their roster is still very close to that championship winning team. David Perron, Ryan O'Reilly, and Brayden Schenn were all important parts of that 2019 run and they are still in their prime. Vladimir Tarasenko is a big X-Factor given all the injury troubles he’s had over the past couple years, but if he can step up for the postseason, he’d make a huge difference. Plus the Blues have Mike Hoffman now, giving the squad another offensive weapon that they didn’t have back then.

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Even still, it’s hard to match the Blues’ forwards up against the Avalanche and give the edge to St. Louis. Colorado just has too much talent up front. Nathan MacKinnon is arguably the best forward in the series and if he’s not, then that title would go to teammate Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is roughly at that level too. There aren’t many teams out there even in the same conversation as Colorado when it comes to their top-three forwards. Then on top of that there’s Andre Burakovsky, who has quietly developing into a star in his own right.

The Avalanche aren’t just all star power though. Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Brandon Saad give Colorado plenty of scoring depth too. Opposing defenses can’t just cost against their third line, let alone their second. One of the Blues’ strengths is their depth, but even in that regard, Colorado has them beat.

Then you look at goaltending and its not even close. The Avalanche’s goaltending situation is a question mark beyond Grubauer, but as long as he stays healthy this time around, that’s not a problem. Grubauer had a 1.95 GAA and .922 save percentage in 40 games this season. He also showed that he could step up in the playoffs, posting a 1.87 GAA and .922 save percentage in seven starts in the Avalanche’s 2020 run, though as alluded to, he was hurt in Game 1 of last year’s second round series and missed the remainder of Colorado’s playoff run as a result. If that didn’t happen, who knows how far Colorado might have gone last year.

St. Louis will counter with goaltender Jordan Binnington. Back in 2018-19, Binnington was a huge part of their success. He joined the Blues when they were struggling and propelled them into the playoffs with a 24-5-1 record, 1.89 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 32 games. He then helped them secure their championship with a 2.46 GAA and .914 save percentage in 26 playoff starts. However, since then Binnington has been good, but not magical. He had a 2.65 GAA and .910 save percentage in 42 games this season, which is a clear step below Grubauer. Sure, if Binnington gets hot, he could carry the Blues, but you could say that about basically any goaltender. A hot goaltender could absolutely be the difference in almost any playoff series. That doesn’t mean that the Blues can count on it.

Perhaps the biggest change that the Blues have undergone since their Cup run is the departure of team captain Alex Pietrangelo. In 2018-19, Pietrangelo excelled with 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games while averaging 24:05 minutes. During the playoff run he stepped up with three goals and 19 points in 26 contests while averaging 25:45 minutes. The Blues weren’t able to re-sign him over the offseason, opting instead to go with the cheaper Torey Krug. Krug is a good offensive defenseman in his own right, but he is a step down from Pietrangelo was back in 2019. Either way the Blues’ defensive core can be called a strength, though even there the Avalanche might have them beat. A big part of that is the rise of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard who, combined with the acquisition of Devon Toews, have provided the Avalanche with a great defensive core.

In almost every way, the Avalanche seem to have the edge on paper. St. Louis still can’t be dismissed. They’re a good team with players who know how to win. If they come out strong at the start of the series and take a game or two, things could really start to snowball in the Blues’ favor. Colorado is the clear favorite here though.

Players To Watch

Vladimir Tarasenko – When Tarasenko is 100%, he’s the Blues’ best forward, but unfortunately it’s been a while since he’s been 100%. Over the last three years, Tarasenko has had to undergo surgery on both of his shoulders. He didn’t make his season debut until March 6 due to his shoulder problems and he hasn’t been at his best since returning with just four goals and 14 points in 24 games. On top of that, he has a lower-body injury and is consequently questionable for Game 1. The Blues’ task is difficult enough with all hands-on deck and it’d be far tougher without him.

Mike Hoffman – Most of the Blues players were part of that 2019 Cup-winning team, but one notable exception who’s still looking for a championship is Hoffman. He joined the team on a one-year, $4 million contract and has been a solid top-six forward for them with 17 goals and 36 points in 52 contests. That said, he’s been streaky this season and was on a cold stretch from April 29-May 12, scoring just a goal and no assists in eight contests. He registered three assists in his final regular season game though, so perhaps he’s heating up just in time for the playoffs.

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Nazem Kadri – Kadri was amazing during the Avalanche’s 2020 postseason run with nine goals and 18 points in 15 contests, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does for an encore. He’s far from being one of the Avalanche’s biggest stars, but he’s still a great forward in his own right. This season he had 11 goals and 32 points in 56 contests, which put him in a tie for sixth place in the Avalanche’s scoring race.

Brandon Saad – It’s not clear when Saad will be able to return from his lower-body injury, but he should be a strong presence on the third line when he’s back. He’s a solid two-way forward who was an important piece to the puzzle for Chicago in their 2013 and 2015 championship runs. Like those Blackhawks teams, the 2021 Avalanche are loaded with talent, but players like Saad can be the X-Factor that turn an already special team into a Cup-winning squad.

Additional Series Notes

The Blues and Avalanche were two of the best power-play teams this season with 23.2% and 22.7% success rates respectively. The penalty kill are where they diverge though. Colorado killed 83.1% of their penalties while St. Louis was one of the worst teams in the league at 77.8%.

Between his tenures as the head coach of Philadelphia and St. Louis, Craig Berube has a .591 points percentage in the regular season. He’s a far more mixed 21-21 in the playoffs, but he was the bench boss during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, meanwhile, is one of the league’s younger rising stars. He’s guided the team to the playoffs in four straight years and the Presidents’ Trophy this year. The big test for him though will be this year’s postseason as regular season success alone will seem hollow without a lengthy playoff run to go with it.

That’s especially true because the Avalanche will have some tough decisions to make this summer. Landeskog can become an unrestricted free agent and while they’re likely to re-sign him, he’ll be able to command a significant raise compared to his current $5,571,429 cap hit. The Avalanche will also need to open their wallet for Makar, who is coming off his entry-level contract, and Grubauer, who’s affordable $3,333,333 cap hit won’t extend beyond this season. The Avalanche might need to shed cap space elsewhere to keep them all, which makes this run all the more important.

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson was shutdown in February because of a right knee injury and forward Oskar Sundqvist suffered a torn ACL, so neither of them are options for St. Louis. Vince Dunn (upper body) hasn’t played since April 24, but he might be able to return for Game 1. Tarasenko (lower body) and Colton Parayko (undisclosed) are both questionable for the opener too.

On the Avalanche side, there are quite a few long-term injuries. Pavel Francouz (lower body) hasn’t played at all in 2020-21 and while it’s possible he’ll be available at some point during the playoffs, there hasn’t been an update on him recently. Erik Johnson (upper body) last played on Jan. 30 and is still out indefinitely. Matt Calvert (undisclosed), Logan O'Connor (lower body), and Bowen Byram (upper body) are also all expected to be sidelined for a while longer.

On the plus side, Colorado might have MacKinnon (lower body) back for Game 1 and Saad (lower body) is making strides towards returning.

(2) VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS VERSUS (3) MINNESOTA WILD

No one knew what to expect from the Vegas Golden Knights when their inaugural season kicked off in 2017, but they ended up getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It was a magical first season, but it left them wanting more. So they added Max Pacioretty and acquired Mark Stone during the 2018-19 season and tried again.

The 2018-19 Golden Knights proved that their first season wasn’t a fluke. They posted a 43-32-7 record, but they ultimately lost in Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. It was a disappointing finish, leaving them wanting more. So they acquired Robin Lehner during the 2019-20 season and tried again.

The 2019-20 Golden Knights had mix results initially, but after replacing coach Gerard Gallant with Peter DeBoer, the team seemed to find their way and ultimately won the Pacific Division with a 39-24-8 record. They cruised past the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and managed to topple Vancouver in seven games, but in the Western Conference Final they were bested by Dallas in five games. Better, but it still left them wanting more. So they added Alex Pietrangelo and now they’re trying again.

After all the talent this team has assembled, not a lot is the same as it was back in 2017-18. Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, who led the offense in that first year, are still important parts of the team, but now they’re just part of a deep forward cast that also includes Stone, Pacioretty, and Chandler Stephenson. Reilly Smith and Alex Touch are still around too, providing the Golden Knights with some valuable secondary scoring.

On defense, Vegas still has Shea Theodore, who is one of the league’s top blueliners. But the additions of Pietrangelo along with Alec Martinez mean that the Golden Knights don’t have to lean too heavily on Theodore.

Then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who has had one of the most interesting careers in recent memories. He’s been written off so many times and each time, he’s bounced back. This year has been no exception. He entered the season as Robin Lehner’s backup and Vegas probably would have traded him over the summer for cap space if there were takers. Thankfully for them that didn’t happen. Lehner has been solid when healthy with a 13-4-2 record, 2.29 GAA, and .913 save percentage in 19 games, but it’s that when healthy part that’s the key. He ran into injury problems, which gave Fleury an opportunity he took full advantage of. Fleury posted a 26-10-0 record, 1.98 GAA, and .928 save percentage in 36 starts this season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him start in Game 1, but if he does falter, Vegas has the luxury of having an amazing alternative in Lehner.

It feels like the Vegas Golden Knights have managed to assemble the team that won’t leave their fans wanting more…but then what looks good on paper doesn’t always play well on the ice, and the favorite doesn’t always win. The Minnesota Wild are the underdogs here and that’s a role they could excel in.

If anything, the underdog role is probably ideal for the young squad led by Calder Trophy favorite Kirill Kaprizov. He already proved his worth with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games this season. Anything he provides in the playoffs will be a bonus and it’s that kind of freedom that could give him the ease to be a real pain for the Golden Knights.

He’s not the only young gun with the Wild either. Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek were three of the other members on Minnesota’s top-five points list and they’re all under 25. That young group should relish playing games where the burden of expectations is entirely on the other side of the ice.

That’s not to say that this series is strictly a young team versus a veteran one. While the Wild are largely led by a youth movement, they do have some veterans to help lead the way. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are both 36-years-old now and not the players they once were, but they still contribute and arguably more than any other players on the Wild, they appreciate that there are only so many chances to make a playoff run, so you have to make everyone count.

They’ll also feature Cam Talbot in net, who had effective playoff runs with Edmonton in 2017 and Calgary last year. He should be able to hold his own, though the Vegas Golden Knights will be his toughest task yet.

Ultimately, this series is all upside for the Wild. The worst-case scenario is that they lose but take some important lessons into the 2021-22 campaign. The best-case scenario for them is that they surprise the critics by upsetting the Golden Knights and turning this into a series Wild fans won’t soon forget.

Players To Watch

Kirill Kaprizov – This one’s an easy pick. Kaprizov is the Wild’s best player and he’s a rookie on top of that, so it will be fun to see his first time on the big stage. It is worth noting that he played in the KHL for years before coming to North America and he had some lengthy playoff runs with CSKA Moscow, so he has plenty of playoff experience outside of the NHL. We’ll see if that helps him soon enough.

Ryan Suter – Suter has been one of the league’s top defensemen for years, but this has been something of a down season for him. He went from 48 points in 69 games in 2019-20 to just 19 points in 56 contests last season. He also averaged 22:11 minutes in 2020-21, which for most players would be a ton, but it’s down from 24:38 in 2019-20, which was down from 26:42 minutes in 2018-19. Is father time catching up with him a bit? Suter is still a vital part of the Wild and he’ll likely still be leaned on heavily in this series.

Marc-Andre Fleury – Maybe Lehner will start in Game 1, but it will probably be Fleury in what could be his last hurrah – for real this time. Fleury is 36-years-old and while he played at an elite level this season, he will only be able to comeback so many times before finally his age will catch up with him. Before that though, it will be interesting to see what he does. Fleury has had such a weird career. He was the Penguins’ starter when they won the Cup in 2009, but after that he built a reputation for fizzling in the playoffs. He spent most of the Penguins’ 2016 championship run on the bench and while he was far better in the 2017 playoffs, he was once again on the bench for the Cup-winning game. The Penguins actually had to give Vegas a sweetener to take him and Fleury responded by having an amazing 2018 playoff run, nearly guiding the Golden Knights to a championship before falling just short. He couldn’t capture that magic in 2019 though and he ended up losing the starting gig to Lehner during the 2020 playoffs. So after all that, what will we see from Fleury this time?

Max Pacioretty – Pacioretty had a great 2019-20 campaign with 32 goals and 66 points in 71 games, but in the playoffs he struggled with five goals and eight points in 16 contests. Fast forward to this season, he stood out with 24 goals and 51 points in 48 games. He’s an important part of the Golden Knights’ offense and they’re going to need more out of him than what they saw during their 2020 playoff run.

Additional Series Notes

Both teams were good offensively this season, but one area where they struggled was with the man advantage. Minnesota had a 17.6 power-play percentage while Vegas was only marginally better at 17.8%. Vegas compensated though with the NHL’s top penalty kill at 86.8% while Minnesota was just average with their 80.8% success rate.

I already talked about the Golden Knights’ history and painted the Wild as the young team with nothing to lose. In terms of Minnesota’s current young core, that’s true, but from a broader franchise perspective it’s a bit more complicated. The Wild have been an okay, but not great team for a while now. From 2013 onward, the Wild have made the playoffs each season but 2019 (although in 2020 you could argue they didn’t given their qualifying round loss), but they haven’t had a noteworthy playoff run over that span. The best they did was in 2014 and 2015 when they reached the second round. From 2016 onward, Minnesota has lost four straight playoff series.

One area where the Wild might have an advantage is their health. They should have all hands on deck for Game 1. Vegas might too, but Martinez (undisclosed), Pacioretty (undisclosed), Tomas Nosek (undisclosed), and Ryan Reaves (undisclosed) are all question marks for the opener.

Some coaches just keep coming close without capturing the ultimate prize. Vegas bench boss Peter DeBoer won the Eastern Conference with New Jersey in 2012 and the Western Conference with San Jose in 2016, but his team fell short in both Stanley Cup series. He has 58 career playoff wins. The only coaches with more postseason wins and no championship are Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault, and Pat Quinn.