The very nature of the NHL returning after pausing their season due to the COVID-19 pandemic creates circumstances that we’ve yet to become accustomed to.
Before the pause, the Metropolitan Division was shaping up to be a battle royale between the Capitals, Flyers and Penguins, a host of teams in each conference were fighting valiantly for the wild-card spots, while the Bruins and Blues were slowly attempting to separate themselves from their rivals and prove that last year’s Cup finalists remain the class of the NHL.
It is bizarre that we have hockey back in August to be sure, but a number of teams stand to benefit from the forced break, and we take a look at some teams who will have a better chance of lifting the Cup after the unintended four-month layoff.
Of course the Penguins would find a way to benefit from the most chaotic season of the modern era. It’s a testament to the organization’s depth, infrastructure and ability to find hidden gems, either discarded from other teams or through the latter rounds of the draft, that they could withstand an entire hospital wing’s worth of injuries and still fend for top billing in the Metropolitan Division.
Teddy Blueger and Marcus Pettersson are the lone Penguins to have played a full 69 games and with due respect to their depth contributors, they’re not the players one thinks of when considering their bid to win a third Stanley Cup in five years.
Soft tissue injury
Guentzel was expected to be out for the remainder of the season and now fortifies the Penguins’ vaunted top-six, where he’ll likely star on a line alongside Crosby and Conor Sheary. Malkin was on pace for a 92-point season over a 68-game schedule, submitting a vintage campaign and showed that he can still operate as the team’s A-1 scoring option when Crosby is out of the lineup for significant stretches. Rust, Hornqvist, Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev also proved capable of providing secondary scoring while the team’s core fended off injuries, while John Marino emerged as one of the surprise breakout players of the season after being acquired for a sixth-round pick last July.
Matt Murray is projected to be the Penguins’ starting goaltender but the team has a “problem” many franchises would consider a luxury, with Tristan Jarry submitting a stellar season before his form began to take a dip in February. Murray has backstopped the Penguins to two Cups before and has the full confidence of his team but it’s worth remembering that he burst onto the scene in the spring of 2016, usurping Jeff Zatkoff and Marc-Andre Fleury for the starting role, and if he falters, Jarry might be afforded the same opportunity.
A healthy Penguins roster is just as terrifying on the ice as it is on paper. Its depth players rose to the occasion and the team no longer has to worry about jockeying for seeding, as they enter their matchup against the Canadiens as a heavy favourite.
Colorado was a neutral viewer’s dream this season with its blistering pace, individual brilliance from Nathan MacKinnon and eye-popping entries into the rush from Cale Makar — particularly in the first half of the season. Although watching games from all 31 teams is a core component of this job, the Avalanche were our staff’s overwhelming favourite league pass team for these reasons.
name a funner first-half squad than the Showtime Avalanche pic.twitter.com/Elms3auCPG
— Yahoo Sports NHL (@YahooSportsNHL) January 25, 2020
It wasn’t a perfect season from the Avalanche, despite all the excitement stemming from a conference-best 237 goals. When the season paused on March 12, MacKinnon and star winger Mikko Rantanen were listed as day-to-day with lower and upper-body injuries, respectively, while Philipp Grubauer, Nazem Kadri, Matt Calvert and Joonas Donskoi all faced significant recovery periods from various ailments. After the break, the entire roster is healthy, with Makar working his way back from a surprise absence, while MacKinnon appeared to be in top form at the team’s scrimmages.
This is a deeper Avalanche forward group than it would appear on paper but MacKinnon could certainly use some help from his now-healthy teammates. MacKinnon, named as a Hart Trophy finalist, after posting 93 points in 69 games, has a whopping 43-point lead over Makar, the Avalanche’s second-highest scorer. When they’re at their best, the Avalanche can roll three lines that can score, while putting pressure on opponents due to their pace, as opposed to solely relying on MacKinnon’s otherworldly heroics.
Is this the year the Avalanche make the leap? The extra rest ought to come in handy as they fight for the top seed against the Blues, Golden Knights and Stars.
Before the pause, the Canucks were one of the season’s pleasant surprises, perhaps arriving a year before schedule during Bo Horvat’s first season as captain. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes (more on him below) are two of the NHL’s burgeoning stars, while Horvat, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson round out a forward core that may shock some teams under the revised playoff format.
Jacob Markstrom was in the midst of a career year, finally putting together all of his immense skills in one package, earning the first All-Star selection of his career as a replacement for Fleury. Markstrom underwent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in February and now returns with the Canucks in position to make a run as a sleeper team, while he looks to continue to improve his own stock as he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent when the year ends. If Markstrom returns to his pre-surgery form, this may be one of the tougher outs.
The perennially underrated Chris Tanev also returns to the lineup, which has a positive domino effect throughout the lineup. Tanev is often paired with the rookie sensation Hughes — who, in my estimation, usurped Makar in the Calder Trophy race — serving as a safety valve when the 20-year-old enters the rush. The 31-year-old was out of the lineup when the season paused due to a lower-body injury and used the time off to recover, and it’s paying dividends. Hughes also continued to improve game-by-game and at this rate of improvement, he may not just be one of the NHL’s best young defensemen, he may be already one of the league’s best already, qualifiers be damned.
While this is a period for beat writers to issue the cliched notion that a player is in the best shape of their lives, by all accounts Tanev and Markstrom have been among the better players in camp. Don’t sleep on the Canucks.
Vegas Golden Knights
On first glance, some may wonder why Vegas is on this list. Widely considered a leading contender for the Cup, the Golden Knights were rolling after a 10-2-1 February, but suffered some key injuries that may have derailed their bid.
Max Pacioretty would’ve likely missed the playoffs due to a lower-body injury and while he’s been held out of the majority of the team’s practices, the team’s leading scorer is expected to resume his spot alongside William Karlsson and Mark Stone on one of the NHL’s best lines. Mark Stone also suffered a lower-body injury and like his linemate, was expected to miss significant time during the original playoff schedule. One of the NHL’s premier two-way forwards, Stone and Pacioretty are essential to a shot at the title.
Vegas made one of the most aggressive moves of the trade deadline, acquiring last year’s Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner, providing the team with arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. Fleury will almost assuredly be the starter given his track record in the playoffs, but Lehner provides the Golden Knights with an ironclad insurance policy, a genuine No. 1 starter ready to go at a moment’s notice. The extra time off may help the Golden Knights’ acquisitions get acclimated as the third-year club is poised to make a deep run, although it should be noted Lehner posted a .940 save percentage, winning all three games played with his new club.
By now, the Golden Knights are a genuine contender, having exceeded expectations from their inaugural campaign and haven’t slowed down since. Getting their two best forwards back for the playoffs may be enough for them to lift the Cup.
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