Welcome back, hockey fans! This surely has been the strangest season of our lifetimes, but after a four-month break, the NHL has figured out a plan to keep players, staff, media, and all other labourers involved safe amid an active global pandemic.
Prior to the pause, the 2019-20 NHL season was shaping up to be one of the best years in recent memory, a potential demarcation point between the league’s established powers and a new wave of young, up-and-comers.
Because of the pandemic, this year’s playoff format is different: the top four seeds in each conference - that would be the Blues, Golden Knights, Avalanche and Stars in the West - will play a round robin to determine seeding for the next round, while the 5-12 seeds will play a best-of-five series, before the playoffs resume its usual best-of-seven format.
Here’s a look at the top storylines that ought to dictate the West qualifying round.
How far can Connor Hellebuyck take the Jets?
If the regular season played out as expected, the Jets would be fighting for their playoff lives and the fact that they were still in the race is almost exclusively due to Connor Hellebuyck’s outstanding season. With due apologies to Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and the Jets’ top-heavy forward group, Hellebuyck has practically stood on his head this year.
Hellebuyck led the NHL in games played (57), shots faced (1,796), shutouts (6) and saves made (1,656), all while posting a stellar .922 save percentage. Beyond the counting stats, Hellebuyck posted a league-best 36 quality starts, faced the most high-danger shots (412) while ranking second only to Boston’s Tuukka Rask in goals saved above average. The most striking part is that his efficiency hasn’t taken a dip with volume and if the Jets can get consistent scoring from their top-six lines, and some much-needed contributions from their bottom six, who haven’t performed well, the Jets may stand to benefit from this new format, which should in theory, favour teams with elite goaltending and shooters.
After posting a conference-best 107 points last season, the Flames might’ve been the NHL’s most underwhelming team this year, despite a bevy of offensive talent. In many ways, the Flames and Jets mirror each other, boasting a star-studded forward group that has underwhelmed, while often being bailed out by their goaltender, with “Big Save” David Rittich rising the occasion.
Hellebuyck is simply better though, and the importance of elite goaltending may be more important than ever. He may be the difference between a first-round exit and a surprise Cinderella run for the Jets.
Waiting for McDavid’s defining playoff moment
At every level of his career, Connor McDavid has defied expectations. McDavid was far and away the best prospect I’ve ever seen at the minor hockey level - I’ve never heard a player make scouts audibly scream in delight at the OHL Cup before - and has surpassed the stratospheric bar set for a player anointed as the next one. It’s easy to forget he’s just 23. But now for the first time in a while, we’re now waiting for McDavid to ascend again.
McDavid has been compared to his childhood hero, Sidney Crosby, for their shared vision, hockey sense and prodigious starts to their career. It’s a comparison that McDavid often humbly deflects, but if he is indeed going to mirror or exceed his mentor’s career, it’s not unreasonable to ask for the Oilers’ captain to shine in the playoffs. With a career’s worth of regular season accomplishments, we’re missing a defining playoff moment from McDavid.
Crosby lifted the Cup for the first time at the age of 21, a year after losing to the Red Wings during his first trip to the Final. It could certainly be argued that Crosby had better teammates at the time, but you’re not going to evoke much sympathy this year as McDavid’s running mate, Leon Draisaitl, captured the Art Ross Trophy and could edge Nathan MacKinnon and Artemi Panarin for the Hart Trophy. There is more to the Oilers than their star duo in years’ past, but let’s not kid ourselves, if the Oilers make a run, it will be because of their 1-2 punch.
McDavid might face an immediate reminder of early success as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are now 10 years removed from their first of three Cup victories. In many ways, his opponent reflects the dynasty McDavid hopes to create in Edmonton.
The hockey world didn’t wait long for Crosby to lift the Cup and though McDavid has more than enough time, the virus has helped shape the perspective that nothing can be taken for granted. There are more regular season moments from McDavid to last a lifetime. Now we’re waiting for his arrival on the biggest stage of all.
Debunking the myth of experience
It’s often argued that older teams will benefit from the experience of playing in the playoffs, often framed as a unique endeavour to win 16 games before lifting the trophy. This type of experience builds character, as the theory goes, character that will eventually come in handy before lifting the Cup.
If you were to take a cursory look at the average age of this year’s playoff entrants, the results may surprise you.
Here's the average age of the 24 NHL teams involved in the restart: pic.twitter.com/H2ywugfSxS
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 28, 2020
It’s often argued, or built into arguments that Kane, Toews, Keith and the Blackhawks hold a wealth of experience, dating back from their Cup runs, and individually that may be true. But this is the youngest team in the field and at an average of 25.6 years old, most of these players were likely preparing for major junior or the NHL draft when Kane scored his series-winner against the Flyers in 2010. Framing the Blackhawks as more experienced, when they haven’t been to the playoffs since consecutive exists in 2016 and 2017, doesn’t serve as a real predictive tool.
Take the Canucks for example. The strength of their team is their young core. Quinn Hughes is 20, Elias Pettersson is 21, while captain Bo Horvat is 25 and they are the engines that drive this Canucks team. Will their lack of experience be the difference against an older Wild team that has played 12 games under new head coach Dean Evason? It’s highly unlikely.
Youth may be served this playoff run, and the concept of experience may be rendered obsolete with the NHL’s talent boom slated to make a major impact this summer.
Taylor Hall and the upcoming market
The last thing most hockey fans want to do after the sport resumes is look ahead to the minutiae of contract details, but Taylor Hall and Jacob Markstrom are both impending free agents and could make things difficult for their respective clubs to retain them with productive post-seasons.
Let’s start with Hall. Hall underwent knee surgery in Feb. 2019 and since then, it’s been a series of tumultuous events for the 2018 Hart Trophy winner. The Devils made a number of moves that indicated they were accelerating their rebuild, namely acquiring P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, but the team stumbled out of the gate and when it became apparent they weren’t going to make the playoffs, Hall essentially forced a trade, where the Coyotes didn’t surrender their top assets or prospects.
Hall tallied 27 points in 35 games with the Coyotes, which by no means is underwhelming but it’s not quite what’d you expect from someone two years removed from an MVP season. If he can lead an upstart Coyotes team past Roman Josi and the Predators and potentially stun another one of the West’s top seeds in the next round, Hall may be able to demand a contract upwards of $10.5 million per year, a range that was once expected before this rollercoaster of a year.
Which version of Taylor Hall are we going to get? With more than just playoff supremacy on the line and an impetus to drive the market after the season ends, we hope to see Hall at his best against a talented Predators team that has rarely lived up to the sum of its parts.
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