The 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be unlike any other for a number of reasons. The games will be played without fans, in centralized hub cities and will feature a new play-in round. But one other important wrinkle to the proceedings will be the fact that almost every roster should be fully healthy.
Normally the playoffs begin only days after the grind of an 82-game season and every team is down a player or two (or more) with various injuries. Now, after a four-month layoff, many of those injured players are back at full strength and ready to help their teams compete for the Stanley Cup.
Before play gets underway, let’s take a look at some of the now-healthy impact players who will be giving their teams a big boost this post-season.
Stamkos was on pace for his second-consecutive 40 goal season (and the sixth of his career) when he went down with a core-muscle injury in late February. The Lightning captain had surgery on March 2 and was originally expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.
Head coach Jon Cooper said in April that he expects Stamkos to play when the NHL returns.
“He improves every single day,” Cooper said, according to NHL.com. “I have no idea when things are going to get back together, but we have anticipated that all of our guys will be ready to go when that time comes. We know it’s not coming tomorrow and probably not next week, but when the time comes, we anticipate everyone will be ready.
“I know he’s worked hard to get back. A lot of it had to do with rest, which he’s been getting.”
Besides getting their star sniper back, the Lightning will also have 2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman back on the blue line. Hedman missed the Lightning’s last two games before the pause with a lower-body injury but was considered day-to-day at the time.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues start the return-to-play tournament as the top team in the Western Conference and they did it despite not having their top sniper for almost the entire season. But Tarasenko will be back when play resumes this summer, giving the Blues another weapon as they look to stay on top.
Tarasenko had scored at least 33 goals in each of the last five seasons before this one was lost to a shoulder injury in October. Last season in the playoffs, he had 11 goals and 17 points.
The 28-year-old has been participating in the Blues’ Phase 2 small-group skates and says the extra time off has given him more time to rebuild the strength in his shoulder.
“I was really close to coming back and playing when the season was delayed so I got some extra time to recover,” Tarasenko said, according to NHL.com. “Not even recover, extra time practicing and making it more strong. Everything is good.”
Every season Jones continues to grow into one of the NHL’s premier defencemen and this season was no different. But in early February he slid hard into a net in a game against the Avalanche and suffered a serious ankle injury that required surgery.
The initial diagnosis was Jones would miss eight-to-10 weeks while recovering and he was able to resume skating in April. On June 18, the Blue Jackets activated the 25-year-old off injured reserve.
Jones led the Blue Jackets in ice time, skating more than 25 minutes a game before his injury, and should return to being a key contributor in all areas of the ice when the Jackets face the Maple Leafs in their play-in series.
Hamilton was putting together a Norris Trophy campaign before he fractured his left fibula in the middle of January. At the time of his injury, Hamilton was fourth in points, tied for the lead in goals and had the second-best plus/minus rating among all defencemen.
No timetable was initially given after Hamilton’s surgery, but head coach Rod Brind’Amour said at the time that he didn’t expect Hamilton to return this season. In early April, general manager Don Waddell confirmed Hamilton would be ready to play when the season resumes, adding that had the playoffs happened as scheduled he would have started skating in late March.
“It’s all based on him, but 100 per cent he’ll be back,” Waddell said at the time. “If we were playing today, we would have sped up that on-the-ice performance over the last couple weeks. So he’s ready to go.”
The Hurricanes began Phase 2 small group skates at PNC Arena on June 30 and Hamilton was a full participant.
The ‘Canes blue line will look very different come playoff time. Along with the addition of Hamilton, trade deadline acquisitions Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei will also be in the mix. Vatanen has yet to play a game for the Hurricanes due to a lower-body injury suffered in early February.
Guess who was back today pic.twitter.com/ozEAHcPR7p
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) June 30, 2020
The Canucks’ MVP will be back in net just in time for an important play-in series with the Wild.
Markstrom suffered a lower-body injury that required a minor procedure in late February and didn’t play another game before the pause. However, in late March GM Jim Benning confirmed to Sportsnet 650 that Markstrom would be fully healthy when play resumes.
“He’s done his rehab and… he’s ready to go if we start playing again,” Benning said.
The Canucks finished the regular season as the seventh-best team in the Western Conference thanks in large part to Markstrom’s play, which some consider Vezina Trophy-worthy. Getting their star goalie back for a five-game series with Minnesota could be the difference between winning and losing for Vancouver.
The Golden Knights were at risk of not having one of their most important players for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Now because of the pandemic, Stone is healthy and ready to contribute.
Stone was originally sidelined with a lower-body injury at the end of February and was expected to miss four weeks. However, he recently revealed that his recovery took 10 weeks but he was able to continue getting treatment in Vegas during the pause. That treatment included some skating and now he’s participating in the Golden Knights’ Phase 2 sessions.
“You’re so excited to get a little bit of time off and after a month you just want to get back with your friends and play some hockey,” Stone said in early June. “It was just exciting to be back and share a couple laughs with the guys and get back skating.”
Max Pacioretty, who led the Golden Knights in goals and points and was also injured at the time of the pause, is expected to be ready when hockey returns, too.
It’s just nice to see & hear hockey againpic.twitter.com/wxiJzSaYbP
— y-Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 15, 2020
Guentzel was really starting to establish himself as a star winger in the first half of the season. One year after scoring 40 goals, the 25-year-old was on pace to set new career-highs in goals and points and, at the time of injury, he was the top scorer on a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But shoulder surgery on New Year’s Eve derailed all of that. Guentzel’s initial prognosis was a four-to-six month recovery, effectively guaranteeing he wouldn’t be able to play in the playoffs. Now, he’s doing everything he can to make sure he can take the ice with his teammates when the time comes.
“I’m committed to working hard and strengthening the shoulder as much as I can,” Guentzel said after skating with teammates in Phase 2 in early June. “I’m trying to get back to pre-injury [level] as much as I can. There’s always that doubt. You never know what’s going to happen with an injury, any sort of injury. I’m committed to putting myself in the best possible position that I can.”
While Guentzel hasn’t officially been given the green light to return, all signs point to him being in the starting lineup when the Penguins face the Canadiens in their play-in series. Pittsburgh is already heavily favoured in that matchup so adding another scoring weapon in Guentzel would just be a bonus for the Penguins.
The 2019-20 season will be considered a disappointment for Rantanen even though he scored at nearly a point per game during it. The 23-year-old missed 16 games early in the season with an ankle injury and at the time of the pause had been out almost another month with a shoulder problem.
Now after four months of quarantine, the power forward is ready to help the Avalanche chase the Cup. His back-to-back 80-plus point seasons show what kind of weapon he can be when healthy.
Rantanen returned to Colorado and skated with teammates as part of Phase 2 returns on June 29. If all goes well, he’ll be in the opening lineup when the Avalanche play either the Blues, Stars or Golden Knights later this summer.
The Avalanche were battling injuries to a few important players at the time of the pause. Nathan MacKinnon, Philipp Grubauer and Nazem Kadri all missed time in early March but all are expected to be healthy when the season resumes.
How important is Chris Kreider to the Rangers? The club awarded him with a seven-year, $45.5 million extension at the trade deadline instead of renting him to another team. At the time, it looked like the Rangers would be on the outside looking in but in the extended return-to-play format anything is suddenly possible.
Kreider suffered a foot injury shortly after signing his extension and was expected to miss four-to-six weeks. In late April he told reporters that he was fully healed and since Phase 2 skates opened in early June he’s been on the ice with teammates.
“My foot feels good,” Kreider said in April. “[My] foot was better a few weeks ago. I’m able to work on rehabbing it and getting it back to where it was now.”
The Rangers, led by Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, are considered a dark horse to go on a run and should challenge the Hurricanes in their play-in series. Having Kreider’s speed and big game intensity in the lineup will be a big help if they are to pull off the upset.
Well look who it is.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) June 25, 2020