NHL Playoff Power Rankings: Best of the Bubble Edition

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  Sportsnet

Positive tests have vanished, all 24 squads are engaging in bubble hockey on the safer side of the border, and hockey is back.

For real, though.

It’s starting to feel like we will actually crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion. Get amped.

Who will it be? Clean slates and healthy roster have every team arguing, “Why not us?” But some squads have a much stronger argument than others.

Without further ado, we present our NHL Power Rankings: Best of the Bubble Edition.

As always, teams are ranked in order of current level of awesome and our belief in their chances to be final team standing in the longest NHL season of history.

1. Boston Bruins

Cup or bust. The Presidents’ Trophy winners aren’t shying from their objective here. With a leadership core clinging to its prime and stud D-man Torey Krug about to get expensive, this could be Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand’s best shot to party like it’s 2011 all over again. Special teams assume added importance in short series, and Boston’s PP1 — led by Rocket Richard co-winner David Pastrnak — is nothing to mess with. Still waiting for deadline pickup Ondrej Kase to join the group, though.

2. St. Louis Blues

That the defending champs finished atop the West with their most dynamic offensive threat, Vladimir Tarasenko, playing a scant 10 of 71 games is a frightening thought. Confidence. Buy-in. Heart. St. Louis wins with intangibles — and arguably the deepest blue line the sport has to offer.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

This feels like a critical tournament for Tampa, a perennial powerhouse out to redeem 2019’s collapse and take one more stab at a championship before a flattened salary cap promises to cost them an important player or two. The Lightning’s return has already been rocky, what with a viral outbreak, a temporary training facility shutdown and a Phase 2 lower-body injury to Steven Stamkos. The players should be comfortable being uncomfortable. And they obliterated rival Florida in Wednesday’s tune-up.

4. Colorado Avalanche

If the Avalanche’s inexperienced goaltenders can rise to the occasion, there is enough here to go four rounds. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best three hockey players on this planet. Mikko Rantanen is healthy. Cale Makar is a Calder finalist. And unheralded role players like Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Ryan Graves have all excelled this year.

5. Vegas Golden Knights

New coach Pete DeBoer will try to bring a third franchise to the Cup final, and this one has all the ingredients to go the distance. The deft swipe of rent-a-goalie Robin Lehner at the deadline gives fantastic insurance if Marc-Andre Fleury falters, and a healthy Mark Stone makes all the difference. The core should be all the more determined after its ’18 run and ’19 heartbreak.

6. Washington Capitals

The pause happened to arrive at a convenient time for the Capitals, who had hit a rut and were limping toward the post-season. A fresh slate should serve this contender well. The obvious question will be the play of impending UFA Braden Holtby, who’s coming off a career-worst .897 save percentage and needs a bounce-back. There’s no Ilya Samsonov ready to pick up the team if Holtby falters.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins

The higher the stakes, the sillier it is to doubt Sidney Crosby — training camp ailment be damned. Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust had fantastic seasons that got little press. The Penguins have one of the most capable No. 2 goalies, Tristan Jarry, in the tournament. And Mike Sullivan is no joke. Toss in a healthy Jake Guentzel, the acquisition of Jason Zucker and a manageable first-round opponent, and Pittsburgh could get on a heater.

8. Dallas Stars

Playoff-level defence and goaltending should be a given, so the focus in Dallas will be on the ability of its top six to find the net. Quick: Name the Stars’ only 20-goal scorer. If you replied, “Dennis Gurianov,” you’re a helluva hockey nerd. Based on recent production, well-paid stars Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov all appear on the decline. But they’re gamers who should be inspired by what could be their last best shot to go all the way.

9. Edmonton Oilers

We pity those tasked with defending Connor McDavid in his first elimination series in three-plus years. Tandem goaltending and a young blue line aren’t often the hallmarks of a deep run, but the one-two punch of a Hart Trophy favourite and the world’s most thrilling player up the middle strikes fear. McDavid’s peers might regret not nominating him as one of the league’s three most outstanding players once they see him in action.

10. Winnipeg Jets

Coach Paul Maurice lamented Bryan Little’s inability to join the tournament, calling him a deadline pickup they weren’t able to get. But these Jets are used to persevering (anyone else feel like the Dustin Byfuglien saga was four years ago?) and, at the pause, were dressing arguably the best goalie of the season. They score more than Calgary and could surprise with a healthy defence corps. The combo of Blake Wheeler’s leadership and Maurice’s experience should have this bunch in the proper mind frame.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs

Since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock, the entertaining Maple Leafs rank first in goals per game (3.51), and their power play ranks second overall at 26.4 per cent. The bet here is that speed and scoring can trump physicality and lock down defence. The performance of Frederik Andersen will be paramount, as mistakes are inevitable.

12. New York Rangers

Of all the teams that wouldn’t be in the picture had the cutoff been made at 16 teams, the Rangers are my favourite to make noise. Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad have been magical this season, and New York had begun finding its stride right before the pause. The major question stands in net: Does the King (career playoff save percentage .922) get a chance to retain his throne, or does rookie Igor Shesterkin immediately establish himself as the No. 1?

13. Vancouver Canucks

As long as the Canucks don’t trade Brock Boeser before the puck drops on Game 1, they should be well-poised to make a run (Just joshin’). Jim Benning bet big to make noise this post-season and, on paper, we like his talented group’s chances of defeating Minnesota and gathering confidence for the Round of 16. Jacob Markstrom is healthy and playing for a contract, the power play is excellent and rental Tyler Toffoli has difference-maker potential.

14. Philadelphia Flyers

Squeaking in over bitter rival Pittsburgh as a bye team, the Flyers thrived in their first run under Alain Vigneault and offer an intriguing mix of youth and experience. I may not be giving Philly enough respect placing a bye team so low, but it’s an embarrassment I’m willing to risk. Carter Hart, the tournament’s youngest starter, will need to stand on his head. No pressure, kid.

15. Carolina Hurricanes

One of just two teams to vote against the return-to-play format, the Hurricanes draw a Rangers group that defeated them four out of four times this season. The layoff has boosted the group’s health, however, as power-play quarterback Dougie Hamilton is hopeful to rejoin an excellent blue line bolstered by deadline acquisitions Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei. If Vincent Trocheck can summon the 2017 version of himself, the Jerks could be extra annoying.

16. Nashville Predators

An underachieving, underwhelming squad is granted a second life by not only getting included in the tournament, but drawing an inexperienced first opponent in Arizona. Nashville’s well-compensated centres — looking at you, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene — need to get hot quick and take some pressure of Roman Josi’s back. And some saves are necessary. Whether those come courtesy of Juuse Saros or Pekka Rinne, who knows? If the Preds treat this restart like a blank slate, they have serious dark-horse potential.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets

We doubt any team will benefit from those long months to heal like Columbus. Not only do the Blue Jackets welcome back healthy members Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand to their core, but coach John Tortorella also thrives in do-or-die, sacrifice-your-body situations. He’ll have his team — one of the stingiest defensive groups in hockey — ready. Two major questions hang out there: Can either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins, with a combined zero playoff experience, rise to the occasion? And is there enough scoring punch on this Panarin-free roster to make a dent?

18. Calgary Flames

Among the players who have opted out of the tournament due to coronavirus concerns (which is unquestionably their right), Travis Hamonic may be most integral to his team’s success. That said, adversity is the 2019-20 normal in Calgary, and Hamonic’s absence could be a coming-out party for Rasmus Andersson. After 2019’s early exit, there is pressure on the core — namely inconsistent star Johnny Gaudreau — to prove its worth.

19. New York Islanders

How fast can the Islanders get a grasp on their suffocating style of play? We love Barry Trotz’s ability to rally a quick buy-in, and these Isles have already proven capable of upsetting favourites in the post-season with their we-over-me approach. Because scoring at even-strength has been a serious challenge, drawing the defensively soft Panthers in the qualification round is a bonus.

20. Minnesota Wild

The Wild’s .897 team save percentage rates worst among all 24 teams standing, and it’s difficult to envision Minnesota generating enough offence to overcome such a flaw. Vancouver brings snipers.

21. Arizona Coyotes

A healthy Phil Kessel (who had been pushing through pain) and Darcy Kuemper should provide a boost, and Taylor Hall will be energised with some rare elimination games, but offence is a serious issue here. The Coyotes scored just 190 goals this season. Among teams still alive in the Western Conference, only the Stars generated fewer. With just one 20-goal guy (Connor Garland), I don’t believe there are enough horses here to make a run.

22. Florida Panthers

Some hockey algebra: The X-factor is Q. Joel Quenneville’s presence behind the Panthers’ bench will loom large as he tries to make up for the playoff experience lacking on his run-and-gun roster. All the pressure will be on Sergei Bobrovsky — whose $11.5-million season is at risk of being a bust. A classic offence-versus-defence elimination series awaits.

23. Montreal Canadiens

For fits and giggles, I looked up my last edition of Power Rankings (published March 12, hours before the pause). Montreal ranked 27th overall, below three clubs (New Jersey, Buffalo and L.A.) that were not invited back in this return to play. While I have all the utmost respect for Carey Price’s ability to stop the puck, it’s difficult to fathom the guys in front of him generating more goals than the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel and Zucker. Let the Lafreniere dream live!

24. Chicago Blackhawks

You never want to count out a team driven by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but the Blackhawks surrender so many chances defensively that they’ll be in tough against arguably the two most dangerous goal-creators in the world. Toss in the fact Chicago dealt away defenceman Erik Gustafsson and Lehner at the deadline, and keeping goals against to a minimum gets that much tougher. The Hawks’ return to play has also been hindered by the absence of Andrew Shaw (concussion) and starting goalie Corey Crawford’s COVID-19 bout delaying his training in camp.