If and when the NHL returns, whether to finish the regular season or jump straight to the playoffs, Canada figures to have five teams in the post-season mix. While we still don’t know what structure any conclusion to 2019-20 will have, we do know what the biggest questions and challenges were being faced by these playoff hopefuls.
Here are the five Canadian teams in the running for the playoffs and the single biggest question they were facing about their style of play before the pause button was hit.
Biggest Question: Defending the Rush
The Flames entered the playoffs last season as the top seed in the Western Conference and were promptly eliminated in five games by the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs torched the Flames off the rush, out-chancing Calgary 61-27 and outscoring them 5-0 in those situations. Nathan MacKinnon and company ran wild and the Flames season was over in the blink of an eye. This season, Calgary has continued to struggle defending opposition speed.
The Flames have allowed an average of 6.7 scoring chances per-game off the rush which ranks 28th in the league. Only the Ottawa Senators have allowed more rush goals.
If the playoffs started today, the Flames would open up against their provincial rival, the Edmonton Oilers. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Connor McDavid leads the NHL in goals scored off the rush – shocker. Teammate Leon Draisaitl ranks second.
Can Calgary find a way to cut down on these dangerous transition chances against and slow down their opponent’s biggest speed threats? They couldn’t do it in the first round last year and they haven’t been able to do it this season.
Biggest Question: 5-on-5 play
Roughly 80 per cent of a hockey game is played at even-strength; 20 per cent on special teams. I bet the Oilers wish it was the other way around. Edmonton has the best power play in the NHL (by far) and ranks second in penalty killing. However, at 5-on-5 the Oilers haven’t been able to keep their head above water.
Edmonton ranks 18th in goals for and 25th in goals against at 5-on-5 this season. The only team in the Western Conference to allow more goals than Edmonton in this game state – the San Jose Sharks.
The only team currently in a playoff spot to allow more – the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The only team currently in a playoff spot with a worse goal differential at 5-on-5….well, there isn’t one.
The Oilers take fewer shots than any team in the league at 5-on-5, which would be fine if they were able to generate a reasonable amount from the high-danger scoring areas of the ice. However, that hasn’t been the case as Edmonton ranks last in shot attempts and 28th in attempts from the slot.
Defensively, the Oilers struggle to defend the critical areas of the ice once opposing teams get set up in their end. Only Ottawa and Chicago allow more chances against off the cycle than Edmonton.
In part due to the quality of the chances the team allows, the Oilers goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen rank 25th in 5-on-5 save percentage at .912.
Can the Oilers’ elite special teams carry them in the post-season? That’s my biggest question with this team because I’m skeptical they’ll be able to flip a switch at even-strength if/when the playoffs start.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Biggest Question: Defence/Goaltending
No team has ever won the Stanley Cup after finishing outside the top-20 in goals against during the regular season. The Maple Leafs currently sit 26th, allowing an average of 3.17 per-game – worst of any team in a playoff spot. We know the Leafs can score, but keeping the puck out of their net is what’s keeping them from being a true Stanley Cup contender.
Part of it is team defence and part of it is goaltending.
Toronto has actually improved in terms of the amount and quality of chances it allows compared to last season. However, Frederik Anderson’s play has dropped from elite in 2018-19 to average in 2019-20. The end result is more pucks in the back of the Maple Leafs’ net.
Defensively, the Leafs’ biggest weakness remains defending in-zone where opposing teams are able to create quality looks at a high rate despite not spending a great deal of time in Toronto’s end. The puck-possession-focused Maple Leafs spend less than five-and-a-half minutes per-game defending at even-strength, yet allow an inordinate amount of chances and goals against off the cycle.
Can the Maple Leafs find a way to clamp down defensively in the post-season?
The closest comparable would be the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens are the only team since the NHL expanded in 1967 to win the Cup while finishing in the bottom-third of the league in goals against during the regular season. In 1992, after losing three of their first four games to Washington in the first round, the Pens switched to a less aggressive offensive system, prioritized defence and went on to win the series and eventually the Stanley Cup.
Toronto will have to improve defensively or hope Andersen can hit a few more gears come playoff time or it will risk a fourth straight first round exit.
Biggest Question: Team Speed
The Canucks are in a fight to make the playoffs, tied with the Nashville Predators for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Who knows what kind of playoff format we’ll see if/when the season resumes, but the biggest question I have with this team is whether a lack of team speed will be an issue in the post-season.
Potential first round match-ups include the Avalanche, Golden Knights and Oilers – all teams that play with a lot of pace.
The Canucks create the fewest amount of scoring chances off the rush of any team in the NHL and they allow the second most.
Vancouver doesn’t have the team speed to create a lot of quick-strike offence and as a result need to establish a presence low in the offensive zone to generate quality scoring chances. They do this well, leading the NHL in goals scored off the cycle. However, playing deep in the offensive zone as often as they do and not having an abundance of team speed to track back is what contributes to a lot of the rush chances and goals against.
This lack of team speed could be an issue against a team that breaks the puck out as well as the Blues or teams that play with the kind of pace the Avs and Golden Knights do.
The Canucks have a lot going for them. Jacob Markstrom has been brilliant this season, Quinn Hughes will be a Calder finalist and frankly, I’d have him top-five for the Norris Trophy as well. Their top-six, led by Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller, has been great. But, my big question with the Canucks is whether they’ll be able to handle an opponent whose game is predicated on quick puck movement.
Biggest Question: Can Hellebuyck carry the load?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Connor Hellebuyck has been the best goalie in the NHL this season. This, behind a Jets team that ranks 24th in expected goals against. The big question in Winnipeg is: Can Connor carry the load? He’ll have to for this team to have success in the playoffs.
No goalie has played more games this season than Hellebuyck, who has posted outstanding numbers in the process. In an effort to isolate goaltending performance from team defence, let’s look at the expected goals against (reflection of team defence) in games Hellebuyck played and compare that to the actual number of goals he allowed.
Based on the quantity and quality of shots faced, and the corresponding expected goal value of each, Hellebuyck was expected to allow 168.1 goals this season – he allowed 140. That differential of 28.1 goals he saved his team was by far the best of any goalie.
The Jets are an above average but not elite offensive team. They are below average defensively and have a stud between the pipes. If Hellebuyck can pick up where he left off, assuming hockey returns (nothing would make me happier – I think I’ve watched all of Netflix at this point) then the Jets have a fighting chance against whoever they face. If his play dips, Winnipeg will be in trouble. No current playoff team relies on its goalie more.