The NHL is finally coming back and it is time to break down each team that earned a spot in the league’s new, expanded playoff format.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent suspension of play, the league was forced to adjust. Now, the top-12 teams from each conference at the time of the hiatus are making the trip to one of two hub cities (Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton for the Western Conference) to participate in the new playoff.
As part of the expanded format, the NHL added a new round with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will include a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine playoff seeding for the remaining rounds while the other 16 teams will play in a best-of-5 series.
After the qualifying round, the remaining three rounds will be a traditional best-of-7 series and be determined by seeding rather than a set bracket.
In preparation for the playoffs, which start on August 1st, let’s predict each of the round-robin teams and each best-of-5 qualifying series in the Western Conference.
Be sure to check out the companion piece to this article that breaks down the Eastern Conference.
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Vegas Golden Knights
3. Colorado Avalanche
4. Dallas Stars
The Blues appear poised to repeat as champions as they and Boston have been the two best teams for most of the season. Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron have led the team offensively and should be aided by the return of star Vladimir Tarasenko from injury. St. Louis also features a top defense with the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Marco Scandella, and Justin Faulk headlining the group.
Jordan Binnington followed up his tremendous 2019 season with a respectable .912 save percentage in net, while Jake Allen and his .927 save percentage surprised many in a backup role. They may elect to rest some players during the round-robin and how effective Tarasenko is following shoulder surgery may raise some concerns, but the Blues will do enough to claim the top seed and make another run at the Stanley Cup.
Typically, firing your coach mid-season means your team is having a tough season and has no shot at a championship. This was not the case for the Golden Knights as they went 15-5-2 and claimed the top spot in the Pacific Division after replacing Gerrard Gallant with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Ryan Reaves lead the Vegas forwards while Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore are strong defensively.
Marc-Andre Fleury (.905 save percentage) had a relatively down year by his standards, but the acquisition of star Robin Lehner at the trade deadline gives Vegas one of the top goaltending units in hockey. Injuries were also a problem for the Golden Knights, but the break means stars Mark Stone and Alex Tuch will be ready for the playoffs.
Concerns about injuries, continuity, and even coaching prevent Vegas from being on the same level as St. Louis, but the Golden Knights will have enough to pass Colorado for the second seed in the West.
Of the four teams in the round-robin, the Avalanche have the best player in Nathan MacKinnon (93 points) and the best line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen joining MacKinnon on Colorado’s first line. They also have strong forwards in Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky as well as rookie defenseman Cale Makar, who is the favorite for the Calder Trophy.
Similar to Vegas, the Avalanche have two starting-caliber goaltenders as Pavel Francouz surprised many with a .923 save percentage while filling in for Philipp Grubauer, who went down with an injury. Now that Grubauer is back, coach Jared Bednar must decide between Francouz’s hot glove or Grubauer’s experience. Regardless of what goalie Bednar goes with, it is safe to say they will be solid in net.
Despite being the youngest of the four teams and finishing just two points behind the Blues, durability is still a concern for Colorado as Kadri, Burakovsky, MacKinnon, and Rantanen joined Grubauer in dealing with an injury at some point during the season. This will lead them to rest some players and lose a spot in the standings during the round-robin, but the Avalanche are well-equipped to be a dark horse Stanley Cup contender.
The Stars actually finished a point behind the fifth seeded Edmonton Oilers in the regular season, but a slightly higher winning percentage propelled Dallas into the round-robin. Despite being clearly the worst of these four teams, the Stars remain a talented bunch. They were a top defensive team this past season and played a tough, gritty brand of hockey that translates well to the playoffs.
Leading the defensive charge was the dynamic netminding duo of Ben Bishop (.920 save percentage) and Anton Khudobin (.930 save percentage). Defenseman Miro Heiskanen has also been terrific in his second season, finishing with 35 points. Although he had a down year, John Klingberg is healthier now and will provide the defense with an added boost. The main questions for Dallas are whether their age will catch up to them and if they can score enough.
Veterans Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, and Alexander Radulov are each talented and have past postseason success, but all are coming off down years and are not getting any younger. Fortunately, the break along with the emergence of Roope Hintz should rejuvenate this forward group.
Their elite defense will keep the Stars in every game, but the offense will need to step up if Dallas wants to seriously contend with the top teams in the West.
#5 Edmonton Oilers over #12 Chicago Blackhawks- 3-1
One of the best teams in the West for much of the season, the Oilers enter the qualifying round hungry and determined to avenge missing out on the round-robin. Edmonton has perhaps the best one-two punch in all of hockey with Hart-favorite Leon Draisaitl and superstar Connor McDavid.
Unlike previous seasons, the duo finally has a strong supporting cast with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian, and Kailer Yamamoto all helping Edmonton have the best power-play and one of the best offenses in the NHL.
With head coach Dave Tippett at the helm, the Oilers have improved defensively as well and are a top team on the penalty kill. They still are prone to the occasional hiccups, but Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, and Ethan Bear are quality blueliners.
Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have been solid platooning in net despite both still struggling with consistency issues throughout the year. Edmonton has enough firepower to get past the Blackhawks regardless of their defense, but they will need more consistent goaltending to go far in the crowded West.
At the time of the hiatus, Chicago had a slim chance at making the playoffs and traded many key pieces at the trade deadline, most notably Erik Gustafsson and Robin Lehner. Based on these moves, it is safe to say that the Blackhawks were surprised to learn they made the expanded postseason and will make a quick exit as a result
Statistically, Chicago is possibly the worst team in the playoffs and rank low in nearly every major category. Most importantly, their defense may be the worst of any of the 24 qualifying teams. They have a weak penalty kill, give up a lot of shots, and a lot of goals. The return of veteran goaltender Corey Crawford may help, but it is unlikely he can put a defense on his back at this stage in his career.
Despite all of their problems, a team that features Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews cannot be taken lightly. Along with Dominik Kubalik, Kane and Toews lead a decent offensive attack that will score against the suspect Edmonton defense. However, barring a miracle, the Oilers should be able to score at will against the Blackhawks and win the series in three or four games.
#11 Arizona Coyotes over #6 Nashville Predators- 3-2
Following lofty preseason expectations, Nashville was largely disappointing and inconsistent this year. A 19-15-7 start ultimately cost coach Peter Laviolette his job and former Devils coach John Hynes took over with limited improvement. The Predators have playoff experience and a roster filled with big names, but their aging core has many experts believing this may be their last shot at a deep postseason run.
Defenseman Roman Josi is a Norris Trophy candidate and led the team with 65 points to go along with strong defensive play. Overall, the Preds have a slightly above average offense, finishing just inside the top half of the league in goals per game. Although the majority of their forward core is getting older, they are extremely deep with Filip Forsberg (48 points) posting a strong season and Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris, and Mikael Granlund each having a positive impact as well. Matt Duchene did not play well in his first season as a Predator and will be needed against the tough Arizona defense.
Along with Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Dante Fabbro give Nashville a strong blueline. Despite the talent on paper, the Preds rank below league average in defense. This is largely due to questionable goaltending play with former Vezina-winner Pekka Rinne showing his age and having one of the worst seasons of his career (.895 save percentage). The emergence of backup Juuse Saros (.914 save percentage) gives Nashville hope, but defense is still a major concern for them.
Following an up-and-down regular season, Arizona has reached the postseason for the first time since 2012. The Coyotes opened the season as one of the best teams in the league and acquired former Hart-winner Taylor Hall in a trade with the Devils, a move many expected to propel them to the top of the NHL. Instead, the Yotes struggled following the trade and were in danger of missing the postseason.
No team needed the break as much as Arizona as it allowed them to figure out how to recapture their first-half success. In contrast to Nashville, the Coyotes have a top-three defense and play a grinding style of play, but feature a top-10 worst offense. Defensively, goaltenders Darcy Kuemper (.928 save percentage) and Antti Raanta (.921 save percentage) lead the way. On the blueline, the Yotes have a strong core with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, and Jakob Chychrun.
For whatever reason, Arizona’s offense was not able to find its rhythm following the Hall trade. Still, they feature loads of talent and have a good power play unit. It is hard to imagine this team struggling to find scoring with an offensive attack that features Hall, Phil Kessel, Nick Schmaltz, Clayton Keller, Carl Soderberg, and Derek Stepan along with breakout stars Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak. Their inconsistency may come back to haunt them in a later round, but they should be able to get after a shaky goalie situation in Nashville.
Not only does this series pit two contrasting styles of play, but it also is a match up against teams on two different trajectories. Nashville is getting older and trying to make one last run with this core while a young Arizona team is trying to find success for the first time in a long time. This will be one of the best series of the qualifying round and will go the full five games. Ultimately, the Yotes’ offense will do enough and their young legs as well as their ability to play stifling defense will carry them over the Preds.
#7 Vancouver Canucks over #10 Minnesota Wild- 3-2
Statistically, this may be the closest of all the qualifying series. The Canucks have more star power than the Wild, but Minnesota’s depth allowed them to rank just behind Vancouver in offense and ahead of them in defense.
Having not made the postseason since 2015, the Canucks were hopeful to return to the playoffs following a promising 2018-19 season that saw their young talent begin to blossom. There were stretches this season when the Canucks looked to be the best team in the league, then others when they were awful. Despite the inconsistency, they had enough to reach the seventh seed in the West.
Vancouver has a strong offense with Elias Pettersson (66 points) and J.T. Miller (71 points) leading the charge. They also have incredible depth with Bo Horvat, Tyler Toffoli, Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson, and Jake Virtanen each having impressive seasons.
Scoring should not be an issue, but there are serious concerns defensively. Star rookie Quinn Hughes may win the Calder Trophy and fellow defensemen Christopher Tanev, Alexander Edler, Tyler Myers, and Troy Stecher are serviceable. However, they ranked near the bottom of the league in several defensive categories and the unit will need to step up in the playoffs. Fortunately, Jacob Markstrom (.918 save percentage) emerged as one of the top goalies in the league and should be back from injury once the postseason starts. As long as Markstrom is healthy, he will make up for Vancouver’s defensive deficiencies.
For Minnesota, the hiatus could not have come at a worse time. Following Bruce Boudreau’s firing in February, the Wild were 8-4-0 under new coach Dean Evason and seemed poised to make the playoffs. Now, they need to hope they can recapture some of that momentum.
Despite not having the top-end talent that Vancouver has, Minnesota’s depth will allow them to compete with any team. Veterans like Zach Parise (25 goals) and Eric Staal (47 points) along with Kevin Fiala’s breakout season of 23 goals and 54 points helped lead a strong forward group. Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, and Mikko Koivu contributed as well.
The Wild clearly hold the advantage on the blueline with the ageless Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, Carson Soucy, and Jonas Brodin forming one of the best defensive units in the NHL. The real question lies in who will be in net for Minnesota. Former All-Star Devan Dubnyk had possibly the worst season of his career, posting a .890 save percentage. Alex Stalock (.910 save percentage) was great as Dubnyk’s backup, but there may be another answer for the Wild: Kaapo Kahkonen.
Kahkonen, considered to be the best goaltender currently in the AHL, is the future netminder for Minnesota and may be the next great NHL goaltender. It remains to be seen whether the Wild will put him in net this season, but they may not have a choice if Dubnyk and Stalock struggle. Regardless of who is starting, goaltending will ultimately decide Minnesota’s fate in this series.
Despite not being the flashiest team, the Wild have a roster filled with quality talent on both ends of the ice and can defeat Vancouver if they figure out their goaltending situation. As intriguing as Minnesota is, the Canucks high-end talent will lead them to a five games series victory, but Markstrom’s health and the strength of the defense will decide how far they go into the postseason.
#9 Winnipeg Jets over #8 Calgary Flames- 3-2
Following a disappointing playoff exit in this first round against Colorado last year, the Flames had an inconsistent 2019-20. Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan was arguably the best in the league a season ago, but was nowhere near as effective this season. Lindholm (29 goals) was still great while Gaudreau and Monahan regressed significantly. Fortunately, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Andrew Mangiapane picked up the slack to make Calgary a decent offensive team. Tkachuck and Milan Lucic also add toughness to a previously soft unit. Still, Gaudreau and Monahan will need to find their past success in order for the Flames to reach their true potential.
Injuries decimated the Calgary blueline as they lost Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Travis Hamonic for long stretches of the season. Giordano and Brodie are now healthy, joining a strong defensive unit that features Noah Hanifin, Derek Forbort, and Erik Gustafsson.
While the Flames have little concern with their defensemen, this is not the case with their goaltending. Following a strong first half, David Rittich struggled down the stretch. Cam Talbot was solid as a backup, but has dealt with consistency issues for much of his career. Calgary will need one of them to emerge as a reliable option if they want to reverse their recent playoff misfortunes.
Unlike Calgary, the Jets have very few questions at goalie with Vezina-candidate Connor Hellebuyck manning the net. Although Winnipeg lost most of their key defensemen from 2019-20 and had one of the worst units in the league, Hellebuyck was able to post a .922 save percentage and keep the Jets in every contest. Still, Hellebuyck can only do so much and will need at least some support from the blueliners against a good Calgary attack.
Offensively, the Jets are solid with Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Nikolaj Ehlers leading the way. They also have a decent power play attack and will be able to attack the questionable Flames goalies, especially if Giordano or Brodie suffer another injury.
Although the Jets have reached the postseason the past few seasons, Hellebuyck’s stellar play and the strong offensive unit could lead them farther than ever before as long as the defense can improve.
To defeat Winnipeg, Calgary will need more consistent goaltending and Gaudreau and Monahan to play to their potential. The Flames have the ability to pull this off, but Hellebuyck will continue to dominate and the Winnipeg offense will do enough to lead them to the series victory in five games.