Did you feel the urge to open a window and shout “HOCKEY IS BACK!” during NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s presser Tuesday? Totally understandable if you did. The truth is hockey isn’t anywhere closer to “back” than it was a few days ago, as any return-to-play scenario remains contingent on world health officials deeming the conditions safe enough, and there are many terms yet to be negotiated between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. But it was nevertheless exciting to see Bettman outline tangible plans for the 24-team play-in tournament and draft lottery. We still don’t know if it will happen or when it will happen, but we know how it will happen.
It’s thus safe to start thinking about the actual hockey we could witness starting in late July or early August. The match ups are locked in, including round-robins for the top four seeds in each conference and the eight play-in match ups among the 5-to-12 seeds in each conference, spread across the two undetermined hub cities. Given 24 teams are now on relatively equal footing in their quests to reach the 16-team playoffs, and given the fact the losers of the play-in could still have chances to win the draft lottery, controversy will cloak the best-of-five play-in rounds. Excitement will too, however. Which matchups are the most intriguing? I’ve ranked them here based on buzz factor.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (5-East) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12-East)
So many story lines to unpack here. The Pens hold the NHL’s seventh-best points percentage, yet here they are sitting at the kids’ table with the Habs, owners of the 24th-best points percentage. As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported last week, the Penguins objected to the idea of the play-in round being a best-of-three because Habs goalie Carey Price, still considered the world’s best goalie by many inner-industry hockey minds, could steal a series in a short sample size, though subsequent reports around the league have refuted the idea the Pens feel any fear about facing Price. Core members of the Pens have multiple Stanley Cup rings, after all, and they get key sniper Jake Guentzel back from shoulder surgery. Still, Price’s performance against the Pens will be more hyped than it would’ve been had the idea of the fear factor not been floated.
Another layer of intrigue here is the fact both teams would be particularly jaw-dropping winners of the draft lottery should they lose this series and qualify for the top draw (if none of the bottom seven teams in the NHL wins the No. 1 pick June 26). Alexis Lafreniere going to the Pens would potentially continue the once-in-a-generation trend of the Pens scoring a franchise-changing No. 1 pick, as they did with Mario Lemieux in 1984 and Sidney Crosby in 2005. And if the Habs were to win the lottery, we’d see the first francophone No. 1 overall skater pick since Vincent Lecavalier – landing in the epicentre of French-speaking hockey markets. Either scenario would have the tinfoil-hat thinkers crying “rigged” in a hurry.
2. Edmonton Oilers (5-West) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12-West)
Talent-wise, it’ll be exciting to watch Connor McDavid, freshly crowned scoring champ Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Kane skate in the same series. But it’s the controversy factor that really makes this one to watch. The Blackhawks joined the Habs as the poster teams for the “unfairness” of the 24-team format in the eyes of the detractors, with the two teams sitting 10 and six points out of traditional playoff positions. Now Chicago gets a chance it did not expect to – and does so with an experienced team. Between Kane, captain Jonathan Toews, blueliner Duncan Keith and goalie Corey Crawford, among others, the Hawks could ice up to eight players with Stanley Cup rings depending on whether Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook return from “season-ending” injuries by mid-summer. Chicago would own a significant experience edge over Edmonton in a short series, and maybe the Hawks’ older veterans wouldn’t gas out until the later rounds of the playoffs. That applies in particular to Crawford.
If the Hawks don’t win, that’s another major market with a shot at Lafreniere. And if the Oilers get eliminated? Hoo boy. Then we start envisioning Edmonton, the team that arguably boasts the top two players in the world, securing the top-overall pick for the fifth time in the past 11 drafts. Tough sell to fans of, say, the Detroit Red Wings.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (6-East) vs. New York Rangers (11-East)
The Hurricanes were one of two teams that voted no to the 24-team tournament format. As player rep Jordan Martinook told TSN earlier this week, “I feel like if you’re doing the 24-team thing, it basically gives a team a chance that had no chance of making it, which if you play 82 there’s maybe six, eight percent chance that the team in 12th place (in the conference) makes it.” So it will be a bitter pill if the Rangers indeed upset the Hurricanes.
And “upset” may not be the right word anyway. The Broadway Blueshirts had built a fair amount of momentum leading up to the March-12 league shutdown. Artemi Panarin was putting together an MVP-calibre season, piping-hot Mike Zibanejad led the NHL in goals per game, and stellar rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin had taken over the starting job. The Rangers epitomise the idea of “team ranked lower than 16th that no one wants to play.” It’ll be fascinating to see if they can play at the level they did in the winter – and whether they give the freshman stopper the crease or turn it over to the future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist for one last ride.
4. Calgary Flames (8-West) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9-West)
No controversy shrouds this series. It would simply be the most exciting from a pure-hockey standpoint. The teams were separated by one point in the 2019-20 standings. We’d get Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Connor Hellebuyck competing in the same series between two passionate Canadian markets. The match up has a high fun factor.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (8-East) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9-East)
This series will give us a clash of team personalities and styles. The Leafs are the uber-talented underachievers, loaded with expensive star scorers yet still unable to escape Round 1 of the playoffs in the Auston Matthews era. Beating Columbus would give Toronto its first sorta-series-win over that span and could help the team clear a mental hurdle. Losing to the Jackets could really put the heat on GM Kyle Dubas to make some significant personnel changes after he already replaced coach Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe during the season.
The Blue Jackets, on paper, looked like one of the least-talented teams in the league entering 2019-20 after losing Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene, among others, to free agency last summer. On top of that, they were blitzed with one injury after another to important cogs such as top defencemen Seth Jones and right wingers Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Yet, somehow, largely because they got spurts of great goaltending from Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, the Jackets defied the odds and clawed their way into a playoff position at the time of the shutdown. There may not be a tougher team mentally in the NHL right now and, having spoken to captain Nick Foligno and GM Jarmo Kekalainen at different points during the layoff, it’s clear this a proud group that has overcome a lot. Columbus will test Toronto’s resolve and worth ethic.
6. Nashville Predators (6-West) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11-West)
In another match up that doesn’t offer a ton of cachet, the Coyotes will get their first look at playoff-ish hockey since their 2011-12 run to the Western Conference final. Taylor Hall will play elimination games in the NHL for just the second season of his career. Perhaps a Cinderella run for Arizona would up the odds of Hall, the top UFA forward of 2020, re-signing in the desert?
As for the Preds, the key story line to watch will be in goal. Juuse Saros finally seemed to usurp Pekka Rinne in the months leading up to the shutdown. Does that mean Saros gets the shot? It would make sense given Rinne’s history of playoff struggles.
7. Vancouver Canucks (7-West) vs. Minnesota Wild (10-West)
Here’s where we reach the “meh” tier of match ups. The Canucks and Wild aren’t bitter divisional rivals. The Wild lack major star power unless you count Kevin Fiala’s truly impressive breakout. Unless anything changes, Kirill Kaprizov will not be eligible to play for the team until next season. It’ll be exciting to see some of Vancouver’s young guns get their first looks at pseudo-playoff action, from Elias Pettersson to Quinn Hughes to the now-healthy Brock Boeser.
8. New York Islanders (7-East) vs. Florida Panthers (10-East)
The Panthers and Islanders meet in a rematch of 2016’s first round. There’s no deep-seeded rivalry here despite that somewhat-recent meeting. Which version of Sergei Bobrovsky shows up: the one who had a terrible playoff track record heading into 2018-19 or the one who bucked that trend and played well last spring? Given how spotty his debut season with the Panthers was, it’s anyone’s guess. It’ll also be interesting to see if any bad taste lingers from the Islanders’ seven-game losing streak going into the March-12 shutdown. This series will at least give us the best head-to-head coaching match up of the tournament: Barry Trotz vs. Joel Quenneville.