For so long, the ocean of uncertainty surrounding NHL hockey was centred on how — if at all — the sport could return.
This week, we finally got some answers as exhibition games from Toronto and Edmonton made their way to our screens. And now that the main event is about to begin in the form of 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the queries can — to some degree, anyway — shift away from the league as a whole to the teams and players themselves.
One question that applies to a number of situations is, who might be able to make good on what is essentially a second chance? Could the Florida Panthers, who went all in last summer and were not living up to expectations when the global pandemic halted hockey, find new life in this summer spectacle? What about players like Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel, who had a wonderful regular season cut short by shoulder surgery eight months ago? A year that was once a write off has suddenly produced an opportunity to pen a different tale.
Each of the 24 teams participating in the qualifiers landed in the bubble with an unknown or two to sort out. Let’s examine the most pressing one for each squad.
Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes have all kinds of off-ice questions swirling with regard to the sudden departure of GM John Chayka. On the ice, though, it will be interesting to see what Taylor Hall can do in his second career trip to the playoffs — especially for a team that desperately needs more goals.
Boston Bruins: We know the top line is going to kill it, but can the B’s get enough secondary offence from the likes of Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle to make another deep Stanley Cup push?
Calgary Flames: When Travis Hamonic decided to sit out this summer tournament, the Flames lost the guy who finished No. 2 on the team in terms of nightly ice time. That means more ice for the likes of defencemen T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson. Who’s ready to thrive with additional responsibility?
Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes won the trade deadline by picking up centre Vincent Trocheck and defencemen Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei. The fresh faces didn’t have much time to acclimate, so can any of them soar with their new team? It will be especially critical for the D-men to blend if all-world Dougie Hamilton still isn’t himself after breaking his leg in the winter.
Chicago Blackhawks: Can the power play improve? Even with puck wizard Patrick Kane, the Hawks ranked 28th with the man advantage during the season. That’s not great news for a club that often needs to outscore its problems.
Colorado Avalanche: Is this the year? The ascendant Avs dusted Calgary in the first round last year and took San Jose to seven games in Round 2. They’re officially in “anytime now” territory when it comes to post-season success.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Can they find some goals? No 2020 qualifiers team averaged less than the Jackets’ 2.57.
Dallas Stars: See above. The stingy Stars play strong team defence and get great goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, but the only playoff team they outscored this year was the aforementioned Blue Jackets. Can youngsters Roope Hintz or Denis Gurianov spark something?
Edmonton Oilers: Under these bizarre circumstances, can Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl just take this event over? The Oilers have enough depth in other places to go a long way if the league’s best 1-2 punch just goes crazy.
Florida Panthers: Will Sergei Bobrovsky earn all his money while players aren’t actually getting paid? (Remember, they stop collecting checks after the regular season.) Florida’s $10-million man had a rough South Florida debut, but he can make it all okay with a great second act.
Minnesota Wild: Seriously, is momentum a thing at all in sports? Especially after a half-year break? The Wild’s .674 points percentage from mid-January to the pause was fifth-best in the league and came on the heels of the team being a bottom-feeder for three-plus months. One thing that would help Minny maintain that form is continued brilliance from Kevin Fiala, whose offence went to another level in the back half of the season.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs are going to need something big — bigger, even, than a Carey Price save-on-everything event — to have a real chance against Pittsburgh. Can Jonathan Drouin, who saw a good start scuttled by wrist surgery, finally make his mark on this franchise?
Nashville Predators: Is it time to flip Finns? Juuse Saros outplayed Pekka Rinne down the stretch — by quite a margin, in fact — and it’s hard to imagine how a Nashville team that has real dark horse potential could justify sticking with Rinne purely based on past experience.
New York Islanders: Will Mathew Barzal take the next step? The Isles deserve huge praise for the way they’ve played in the aftermath of John Tavares leaving two summers ago, but for this thing to really move forward, they’re going to need a new star. Can Barzal truly be that guy?
New York Rangers: It felt like a forgone conclusion Igor Shesterkin was going to start Game 1 versus the Hurricanes, but a surprise late “unfit to play” tag led to Lundqvist getting the nod instead. How much leeway will head coach David Quinn give the veteran, considering he had less than spectacular numbers this season, before turning to Alexandar Georgiev, or back to Shesterkin if and when he is healthy to play?
Philadelphia Flyers: Can the Bullies’ young guns shine? From Carter Hart in goal, to Ivan Provorov on the blue-line and Travis Konecny up front, there are some next-gen Flyers who are being counted on to make a big-time contribution.
Pittsburgh Penguins: It sure seems like, when push comes to shove, Matt Murray will get the Game 1 start over Tristan Jarry. Up front, can the likes of Jason Zucker and Conor Sheary — both picked up before the trade deadline — combine to give Pittsburgh the type of secondary production it got from the departed Phil Kessel during the 2016 and ’17 Cup runs?
St. Louis Blues: Was this months-long break the cure for a Cup hangover? Seriously, no team defending a championship will begin the playoff portion of its goal as healthy and rested as the 2020 Blues.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Until we see Steven Stamkos playing in a game and clapping that one-timer on the power play, the health of the captain will be the biggest question around this team. Stamkos had surgery on his core in March and has indicated the lower-body ailment he sustained in Phase 2 of return-to-play could be related. He’s had such bad injury luck in the past decade that it’s hard not to pull for the guy.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Do they just need a different playoff draw? The Leafs have lost to Cup-contending Washington and Boston (twice) teams in the first round the past three springs, so maybe a matchup with upstart Columbus will be just what they need to earn their first series win in more than 15 years. It will be fascinating to see if coach Sheldon Keefe inserts young hot shot Nick Robertson into the lineup or goes with the size of Frederik Gauthier versus the physical Jackets.
Vancouver Canucks: What role will inexperience play? A number of key, young Canucks — not to mention 30-year-old goalie Jacob Markstrom — are making their post-season debut and it will be interesting to see how they perform under pressure.
Vegas Golden Knights: Can Peter DeBoer work his first-year magic again? The coach who took over from Gerard Gallant in January led the New Jersey Devils to the 2012 Cup Final during his inaugural season in The Swamp and guided the San Jose Sharks to the showdown series in 2016 in his first go with that bunch. Getting leading scorer Max Pacioretty in the fold will help. Pacioretty sustained what has been described as a minor injury in training camp, but didn’t travel to Edmonton with the team. He should have plenty of time to fully recover before the best-of-seven series start.
Washington Capitals: Is Braden Holtby up to this? The decorated tender had a .905 five-on-five save percentage this year: The list of goalies with a better mark than that is 43 deep. With no Ilya Samsonov safety net (he injured himself during the break and is not coming to Toronto), the Caps will ride or die with their longtime guy.
Winnipeg Jets: Can a slightly re-worked defence cut down on high-danger chances? Nobody surrendered more Grade A opportunities than the Jets all year, but their blue-line was in tatters after a summer of significant departures and bad injury luck once the puck dropped. With Dylan DeMelo added at the deadline and some other guys fully healthy, could things improve back there?