The NHL is officially back.
It seems like it’s been years since the stars of the National Hockey League graced television screens around the world, but the NHL has returned in (near) full effect. While there may be no fans in the stands for this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the new-look arena layout and authentic fan sounds straight out of NHL 20 are a more-than-fair compromise given our current climate.
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone at QSAO, and surely the hockey community as a whole, that the NHL’s return is a step towards somewhat normalcy in our everyday lives and one that could not have come sooner. Who would’ve thought hockey was the perfect summer sport?
The first-ever Stanley Cup Qualifiers proved to be as exciting as the idea presented itself to be from the get-go. The first ten days of the NHL’s return were packed with exciting contests, major upsets, and as usual, the Leafs sorely disappointing their fanbase. Life is good.
Now without further ado, here is the latest instalment (and return) of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL.
1. The NHL’s parity on sisplay – Hawks and Habs power through to the playoffs
The parity of the NHL was on full display in the inaugural Stanley Cup Qualifiers, as both number-five seeds fell to their twelfth-seed counterparts.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ fusion of veteran leadership and youthful presence proved to be too much for the Edmonton Oilers, where they claimed victory in four games. Defense was not much of a factor in this series, as both teams combined for 31 goals in four games. Jonathan Toews and rookie Dominik Kubalik led the charge for the Hawks, combining for seven goals and 13 points between them.
In all fairness to the Edmonton Oilers, their goaltending was a severe letdown. Mike Smith has looked like a shadow of his former self this season, and continued that sentiment into the Qualifiers, allowing five goals on 23 shots in just over a period of play, paired with a lowly 67% High Danger Save Percentage at 5v5 in that time, as per Natual Stattrick.
Mikko Koskinen’s relief efforts were a step up, but still not much better, as he recorded a 0.864 SV% and 4.30 Goals Saved Below Average at 5v5, placing last in both categories amongst goalies with at least 90 minutes played. It’s also worth mentioning that Chicago’s league-leading 12 EV goals doubled their expected totals. Talk about shotty goaltending.
On the other hand, the incredible play of Carey Price backstopped the Montreal Canadiens’ series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Price’s play between the sticks brought a calming presence to Montreal’s roster, as even when they leaked chance after chance, he was there to shut the door. Out of the 53 High Danger Chances the Penguins created, they were only able to convert five.
With that being said, the disappearance of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang is still a cause for concern, as the duo combined for a whole one (!) assist in the series. In all fairness, despite not recording a point in the series, Letang did find himself quite unlucky. Letang registered a 2.32 individual xGoals For while recording 12 shots in all situations, which places him seventh among defenseman, behind the likes of Roman Josi, Zach Werenski, and Matt Dumba, who bear a far higher level of offensive responsibility for their respective clubs.
Malkin, on the other hand, was a disappointment on all fronts. along with only one assist in the entire series, Malkin registered a measly a 2.63 xG at 5v5, ranking him 30th amongst forwards, which is just not good enough. Again, despite running into a hot goaltender, Malkin did not create enough chances in this series, and the Pens suffered because of it.
2. The Rangers are Laf-ing – How their lottery win changes their rebuild moving forward
When a “to be determined” NHL Play-in Club was announced to be the winners of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, many fans began to fantasize of the opportunity to draft generational talent, Alexis Lafreniere. However, as teams began to fall, there was a resounding groan heard across the hockey world when many of the NHL’s big market teams fell into the lottery.
Let me be clear; the NHL lottery system does have its faults, but it can never hurt the NHL to have its best players on the most marketable teams. While I am a big proponent of growing the smaller markets and helping weaker teams in their rebuild, there is an argument to be made for rewarding teams who appear to be on the cusp of contention and having big-name players on big-name teams.
Politics aside, Rangers fans rejoiced on Monday, August 10th as they won the right to draft Alexis Lafreniere in the 2020 NHL Draft. This is a monumental opportunity for the New York Rangers, who have been carefully guided into a new era by General Manager Jeff Gorton.
For hockey fans, there is not much that needs to be said about Lafreniere, as he is the epitome of the complete NHL winger. He has elite hands and scoring ability, plays a physical game, has NHL game sense, and his compete level is unmatched.
In terms of fit, the Rangers are already equipped with Hart Trophy Finalist (and my pick to win) Artemi Panarin on the left-wing, but Lafreniere will slot in nicely behind him in the top-six. This situation will bode well for the Rangers, as Lafreniere will surely get better matchups as teams attempt to contain Panarin game in game out. Additionally, centre Ryan Strome’s breakout year comes at the perfect time to pair the pass-first centre with a clinical finisher such as Lafreniere.
Again, regardless of where he slots into the lineup come next season, Alexis Lafreniere will be a star in the NHL, and he will become one as a Blueshirt.
3. Rookie Report: The usual suspects shine in their playoff debuts
As it says in the headline, the usual suspects truly did shine in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Calder nominees Dominik Kubalik and Quinn Hughes scorched the stat lines in their respective series and look to be key cogs in their teams’ success this post-season.
It’s hard to believe that Quinn Hughes has returned to the Canucks in better form than when play stopped, but if we’re being honest, how surprised can we really be. With 1 goal and 5 assists against the Minnesota Wild, Hughes leads all defenseman, let alone rookies, in points. It’s an understatement to say that Hughes was far and away the best skater for the Canucks, because he was one of the best players of the entire Qualifiers. As a rookie, Hughes brings an on-ice maturity far beyond his years, and his puck-moving abilities are elite. At this point, the Calder Trophy is not a point of concern for Canucks fans, because simply having Quinn Hughes on the Canucks roster for the foreseeable future is all that really matters.
Dominik Kubalik’s 5-point night to kick off the NHL’s Return to Play was one to remember, as he set the NHL record for most points in a playoff debut (we can discuss the legitimacy of this record regarding the play-ins at a later time, let’s just enjoy the fact that hockey is back). Nicolas Aube-Kubel also turned heads in his first taste of “playoff” experience, scoring two goals in Philadelphia’s round-robin closer against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A couple other quick hits: A total of 54 rookies participated in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, combining for a total of 22 goals and 47 points. Further, two goalies (Elvis Merzlikins and Igor Shesterkin) made their playoff debuts during the Play-in round, with Merzlikins posting a 0.946 SV% and registering one win prior to succumbing to injury. Despite continuing a strong run of play from the regular season, there is no timeline for Merzlikin’s return to action.
4. QSAO’s Official NHL Playoff Preview: Western Conference
Before the stoppage of play, the Western Conference was wide open, and after the conclusion of the play-in, very little is certain as we proceed towards the playoffs.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)
The Golden Knights are on an absolute tear as of late. They dominated the Round Robin tourney, and led by two-way juggernaut Mark Stone up front and offensive beast Shea Theodore on the backend, they will be no match for a Chicago Blackhawks team who just do not have the depth in their lineup to match the Knights.
My Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes
Nathan MacKinnon is a man on a mission this year. While he did not exactly light up the scoresheet, the Hart Trophy nominee looked sharp in the Avs’ Round-Robin games, while also scoring a cheeky spin-o-rama backhander in the process. As far as I’m concerned, the Arizona Coyotes can consider themselves lucky for getting past the Nashville Predators. The Yotes allowed 103 5v5 scoring chances in 4 games against a less offensively potent team than the Avs, and unless Darcy Kuemper can steal this series I don’t see any other ending than the Avalanche advancing comfortably.
My Pick: Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)
This series is the most intriguing one for me. Calgary looked great in their Play-In series against the Winnipeg Jets, while Dallas’ play was uninspiring, to say the least. However, the Stars are a gritty team and have always been able to find ways to create scoring chances on a whim at times. This is a series I will be watching closely, but looking at this matchup solely based on the Qualifiers, Calgary has to be the obvious choice here.
My Pick: Calgary Flames
St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)
Call me a dreamer, but after Chris Tanev’s 11-second OT winner against the Minnesota Wild, the youthful Vancouver Canucks looked poised to turn heads this postseason. Jacob Markstrom and rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes are the backbone of this young Canucks team, and both are looking like they are in peak form, and Elias Pettersson is one of, if not the most exciting player to watch in this league. Of course, we simply cannot count out the defending champion St. Louis Blues, who’s veteran experience is their biggest asset against Vancouver. I may be one of few, but expect this series to go the distance, and expect it to be an exciting one.
My Pick: Vancouver Canucks
5. QSAO’s Official NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference, specifically the Metropolitan Division, is the powerhouse of the NHL, and all five Metro teams in the playoff race look like they can do some serious damage this post-season.
Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)
In a similar situation to Vegas, the Philadelphia Flyers are firing on all cylinders right now, as they were near-perfect during the Play-in, allowing only three goals and scoring 11, behind only the Knights for the best offense in the Round-Robin tourney. While I would not put it past Carey Price to put the pressure on Philly, the Flyers are an immensely talented team, who’s playoff aspirations are nothing short of a Stanley Cup victory right now.
My Pick: Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)
The Tampa Bay Lightning looked confident throughout their round-robin games, however losing defenseman Victor Hedman against Philadelphia may hurt them in the short term. Columbus is riding high after bouncing the Leafs in an exciting five-game series, but they are also a very different team than they were when they shocked the Lightning last year. While I’m not counting out the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, and company, I’m just not confident they can recreate last season’s magic against a Lightning team that has surely learned from their mistakes.
My Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington Capitals (3) vs. NY Islanders (6)
Despite dropping one game against Florida, the Islanders got through the Stanley Cup Qualifiers rather easily, and Barry Trotz knows the Capitals better than anybody. However, the ageing Capitals core still seems to have another run left in the tank, and I don’t think the Islanders have what it takes to stop them this time around, especially with extra months of added rest for their group. It won’t be an easy series but expect Washington to prevail when all is said and done.
My Pick: Washington Capitals
Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)
After another year of experience and development under their belt, the Carolina Hurricanes look absolutely lethal. The Canes are looking confident after sweeping the Rangers, and Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov look incredible right now. The Bruins, on the other hand, have struggled out the gate, scoring only 4 goals in the Round Robin Tourney. If we’re assessing this series based on momentum, Carolina has all of it right now.
My Pick: Carolina Hurricanes
Statistics retrieved from NaturalStatTrick, MoneyPuck, and NHL.com