Predicting the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers - Western Conference Edition
Hockey is back!
With a promising and impressive zero positive COVID-19 cases by players entering the bubble, the National Hockey League is ready to resume play. On Tuesday, there were actual hockey games for the first time since March 11. But starting today, the games begin to count, as the round robin and Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin.
However, it's the latter that holds far more drama and intensity. All eight of the round robin teams (four in each conference) are guaranteed a spot in the actual, 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs. Conversely, the eight teams that lose their best-of-five qualifiers see their season come to an end, albeit with the silver lining of a 12.5% chance of winning the first overall pick thanks to the results of the June 26th draft lottery.
The fifth through twelvth place teams in each conference are just days away from beginning their best-of-five qualifier series, which makes now the perfect (and the last) time to give my thoughts on each of the eight series that will take place over the next two weeks. This second part will cover the Western Conference qualifiers and round robin; make sure to check out part one for insights on the Eastern Conference.
Stanley Cup Qualifiers
The Matchup: #5 Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9) vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)
Recent Meetings: None since the 1992 Campbell Conference Final, the only time in four tries the Hawks have won a series against Edmonton.
Season Series: Split, although a 5-3 Oilers win in Edmonton in February probably holds more precedence than a 3-1 Hawks win in Chicago in October.
Who's the Favorite: The Oilers, without a doubt. Though Chicago has some really talented forwards and a good goalie in Corey Crawford (and a healthy one, which is even more important), but they can't hold a candle to Edmonton's talent up front and even parts of the backend. That's surprising, because the Oilers defense isn't outstanding, but that says more about Chicago than anything. And I heard those Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl kids are pretty solid, too.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Edmonton is definitely feeling a lot. They're playing on their home ice, and this is a golden opportunity to make the playoffs for just the second time since their run to the 2006 Finals. The club has absolutely wasted the last two years of Connor McDavid's prime, and adding a third season to that list would be devastating for McDavid and hockey fans who want to see him drop jaws and break ankles on the big stage.
But Chicago isn't off the hook here. After being probably the best team in the NHL from 2010-2015 (you could argue that window goes back to 2009 and extends to 2016 or 2017, too), Chicago hasn't made the playoffs since 2017 - when they scored three goals in four games. Chicago's core isn't getting any younger, although there are reinforcements on the way. Corey Crawford is a pending UFA at the end of the season, and Brent Seabrook's days appear to be numbered (and that number may already be at zero because he won't be making the trek to the bubble). If there's another time for the Kane/Toews core to win, it's right now.
Player to Watch For:
EDM - Connor McDavid is an absolute force, but the last two seasons proved that even the best player in the world can't do it all himself. McDavid may never have someone as fast as him on his line, but if there's anyone that will come close, it's deadline acquisition Andreas Athanasiou. He didn't exactly light things up early, scoring two points in nine games before being injured, and as a pending restricted free agent, now is the time for him to prove to Ken Holland (the GM that drafted him) he can be McDavid's perfect wingman.
CHI - It wasn't too long ago that Duncan Keith could be considered the best defenseman in the NHL - three Stanley Cups, a 60-point season in 2013-14, and a Conn Smythe in 2015 highlight his resume. However, father time is catching up to Keith, who scored 27 points this season and posted an ugly 43.64% Expected Goals For at 5-on-5. Chicago's defense is by far their biggest weakness; they allowed 35.1 shots against per game, the most in the NHL (the Rangers were 30th at 34 shots against, a pretty big gap). Keith needs to turn back the clock for the Hawks to win.
The Pick: Oilers in 4
Oddly Specific Prediction: Kalier Yamamoto scores more points than Alex DeBrincat and Calder finalist Dominik Kubalik.
The Matchup: #6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
Recent Meetings: The Coyotes have only won two playoff series since moving from Winnipeg, and the most recent came against Nashville. A̶r̶i̶z̶o̶n̶a̶ Phoenix beat the Predators in five games in the second round in 2012.
Season Series: They split two meetings in 2019 (5-2 ARI, 3-2 NSH, with the home team winning both times), and haven't played against each other in 2020.
Who's the Favorite: Arizona has a decent upset feeling to them, but this is the first playoff series they've played in almost a decade. The Predators are tied for the second longest active playoff streak in the league, and were two wins away from the Cup just three years ago. The Coyotes do have some players that have gone deep as well (Kessel, Hjalmarsson, Stepan), so maybe experience won't be as big of a gap as you'd think. But the Coyotes are still very unproven as a successful NHL team, and we at least know the Predators can be good. Nashville it is.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: There's a lot on both. Nashville won the Central in 2018 and 2019 after that trip to the Final, yet won just one combined series. They have one of (if not the) oldest teams in the NHL. They were very inconsistent for most of the season, firing their head coach Peter Laviolette in January. Special teams have been a major concern for the Preds; they're bottom-six in the league in power-play and penalty kill percentage. If they don't win at least another round this year, GM David Poile could blow it up, if he's given the chance to do so.
On the other hand, this was supposed to be the year the Coyotes finally broke through and returned to the playoffs. They had one of the stingiest blue-lines and best goalie tandems in the league. John Chayka brought in Phil Kessel in the summer and Taylor Hall in December. But Chayka is now gone after an ugly breakup over a potential job for the Devils/76ers ownership group, leaving the Coyotes more in scramble mode than ever. Arizona was virtually a lock to make the playoffs in January, but fell off hard and were probably going to miss if the season finished as planned. New GM Steve Sullivan (Chayka's AGM) could be tempted to make a big change, but a deep run could temper that ambition.
Player to Watch For:
NSH - Whichever one of Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros starts in goal. Rinne has been the face of the franchise for a while, leading the team to the 2017 Final before choking away all three games in Pittsburgh during the series. He really hasn't recovered, posting a pedestrian .904 and .905 save percentage in the last two playoffs while being pulled in two of his last seven playoff starts. The only certainty is whoever starts will have a quick leash.
ARI - Who led the Coyotes in scoring this season? It wasn't 2018 Hart winner. It wasn't two-time Cup champion and six-time 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel. It wasn't the guy who did it the last two years in Clayton Keller. Actually, 45 points from center Nick Schmaltz paced the Coyotes offense this year. Schmaltz actually outscored Dylan Strome, who the Blackhawks acquired for him, picking up from scoring 14 points in 17 games last year in the desert before going down with an injury. The big names for Arizona need to be better, that's undisputed, but Schmaltz continuing to pick up the slack would certainly go a long way.
The Pick: Coyotes in 4
Oddly Specific Prediction: Phil Kessel is shutout until the final game of the series, when he scores at least two goals.
The Matchup: #7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
Recent Meetings: Just one ever, a second-round meeting in 2003 that saw the Cinderella Wild overcome a 3-1 series deficit to make their first (and only) trip to the Western Conference Final.
Season Series: Vancouver won 4-1 in Minnesota in January, but the Wild responded with a 4-2 win on home ice and a shootout win on the road in February, three games that no one outside of Minnesota and Vancouver remembers.
Who's the Favorite: You'd be hard pressed to find someone who wants the Wild to win, let alone thinks that they will. Minnesota has always had the reputation of being a boring, uninspired, mediocre team, and unfortunately Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov can't change that (yet). The Canucks were first in the Pacific Division fairly late in the season, and the main reason they started to slide was due to Brock Boeser and Jacob Markstrom injuries that have now healed. With them healthy, the Canucks could run away with this, if most of the public gets their way.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: I guess Vancouver, since Jim Benning has yet to win a playoff series since taking over as GM in 2014, and boy has he spent a lot of money in the interim. But the Canucks are still pretty young and should be good in the future. No one expected the Wild to be much more than 10th in the Western Conference, and that's exactly what they are. Anything else they achieve this season is a bonus.
Player to Watch For:
VAN - A player playing for their hometown team is always a great story, but a player playing against their hometown team might be even more fun. That's exactly what Brock Boeser is doing. Game 1 will be Boeser's second game since February 8; he returned from injury just before the pause. After scoring 55 goals over the last two seasons (.42 goals per game), Boeser dipped a little to 16 goals in 57 contests this year (.28 goals per game). We haven't gotten an extended look at what a Canucks club with Boeser and Tyler Toffoli looks like; hopefully it's as exciting as it sounds.
MIN - Remember fall 2018, when the most recent pandemic was the Spanish Flu and you couldn't mention the Norris Trophy without talking about Matt Dumba? Dumba had 12 goals and 22 points in 32 games to start the 18-19 season before suffering a season-ending injury in a fight. Minnesota before and after his injury was as different as night and day. The Wild played at a 92-point pace before his injury, but fell to a 76-point pace during his absence. After an okay-not-great campaign this year, the stingy Wild will be counting on Dumba to bounce-back if there's to be any legitimate upside in their club.
The Pick: Canucks in 3
Oddly Specific Prediction: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter combine for less of the salary cap (18.5%) than Minnesota goal scoring (aka they combine for more than 18.5% of the Wild's goals).
The Matchup: #8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets
Recent Meetings: None, which makes sense since the Jets have only been a thing since 2011.
Season Series: They played a pretty close game outdoors in October's Heritage Classic, which Winnipeg won 2-1 in OT. Their two March meetings were cancelled due to COVID.
Who's the Favorite: A good goalie can do a lot, but a hot goalie can do more. Connor Hellebuyck has always been the former, but this season he was the latter from puck drop onward. He stopped an astonishing 22.4 goals above average, emerging as the heavy favorite for the Vezina. The Jets also do have an outstanding if not slightly top-heavy forward group. Calgary is much more well-rounded, but Cam Talbot and David Rittich are clearly a class or two below in goal. Who you're picking probably says a lot about how much you trust goalies to play to their talent level in a random three-to-five game sample size.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Winnipeg is eliminated here by process of elimination. After losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and eventually Dustin Byfuglien, the Jets were left with a decimated blue-line and a tight salary cap situation. That had many people (including myself) to pick them to miss the playoffs after having the fourth most points of any team in the NHL between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Even though everyone expected the Flames to also take a step back, they were falling from a much higher ceiling as the defending regular season best in the West. Every significant piece from that 109-point team is still here (except Jusso Valimaki, who's hurt, and Mike Smith who's in Edmonton). Flames take this one, and I'm not sure if it's all that close.
Player to Watch For:
CGY - The playoffs were made for players like Matthew Tkachuk. He's gritty, plays with his heart on his sleeve, and is a SOB to go against by every account (especially if every account is by Drew Doughty). Oh, and he's also a great player with multiple through-the-legs goals with 61 points this season. He was one of the few Flames to show up against Colorado last year (3 points in 5 games, which is good compared to most of the Flames other stars), and he needs to show up again when the puck drops against the Jets.
WPG - There's a ton of pressure and high-leverage minutes for any number one defenseman, but that's amplified ten hold for the number one defenseman on a blue-line as weak as Winnipeg's. That's the burden Josh Morrissey will carry into this series, and if he isn't good, he won't have to carry it any farther. Morrissey's Corsi For at 5-on-5 was minus 0.51% compared to his teammates, and he's struggled to produce in his playoff career (3 points in 22 games). The Jets need him to take his game to the next level badly, because he's the only player on the Jets defense even capable of doing that.
The Pick: Flames in 4
Oddly Specific Prediction: Only one Flames goalie sees action during the series, which is one fewer than the amount of Jets goalies that play in the same timespan.
1. St. Louis Blues (42-19-10): The champs are still the champs, and the Blues will be champions of the round robin, guaranteeing them something they had only once in last year's playoffs: home-ice (which just means last change and colored uniforms these days). With Vladimir Tarasenko returning to the fold, the West's best regular season team gets way better, and I expect them to be ready and take care of business here.
2. Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8): Colorado is probably a better team than them, but I'm making this pick because I just don't think the round robin will match the regular season because chaos. Vegas was clicking after acquiring Robin Lehner at the deadline, winning eight of their last ten regular season games. Their forward core is deep and their defense is good enough thanks to Shea Theodore's breakout year and acquiring Alec Martinez.
3. Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8): It'll take a little while for Colorado's top players to kick into high gear, which is why I have them as the three seed. But make no mistake, they will kick into high gear eventually, and once they do, watch out. Nathan MacKinnon could easily win the Hart, and his supporting cast is way better this time around. The Avs were one win away from making last year's Western Conference Final with a weaker team; they're a serious contender entering this year's tournament.
4. Dallas Stars (37-24-8): In my opinion, Dallas is clearly the weakest of the eight round robin teams. Don't get me wrong, Ben Bishop is a beast in goal and the team plays a strong, structured style that clearly worked for them in the regular season. It's a style that would convert seamlessly to the playoffs in a normal year. But this isn't a normal year, and I haven't felt any hype or buildup around the Stars, unlike all of the other round robin and even some of the qualifier clubs. Maybe that's a good thing, as Benn, Seguin, and Heiskanen could be lurking in the shadows ready to pounce, but I think they'll still be lurking when the games really start to count for the Stars.