The NHL unveiled a modified 24-team playoff format if the league resumes this year, announcing its decision to forgo the regular season in the league’s Return to Play Plan. In short: two hub cities, empty arenas, round robins among each conference’s top four teams and best-of-five play-ins for the remaining 16 clubs. The play-in series are known. The rest? A lot of uncertainty.
With a fair amount of chaos and eventual griping about the format baked in, here’s how we see each series from most to least entertaining:
1) Carolina Hurricanes (6) vs. New York Rangers (11)
There were two teams that voted against the playoff format: the Lightning (citing potential unpreparedness, ring a bell?) and the Hurricanes. Carolina appealed to tradition and the league’s 16-team, best-of-seven format but instead received a play-in series against the Rangers, who are custom-built for chaos.
No one scored more points at even-strength than Artemi Panarin. Skating next to Mika Zibanejad, Panarin gave the Rangers a duo they had long been searching for. New York’s defense isn’t built to thwart anyone but Henrik Lundqvist is capable of stonewalling everyone, as he did in two 40-plus save victories against the Hurricanes in November. The Hurricanes have a top line to match in Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Each team benefits from the long rest and returns injured difference-makers, including defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Carolina) and Chris Kreider (New York). And then there’s Brady Skjei, who the Rangers traded to the Hurricanes at the deadline. With no preseason exhibitions and at least four months between games, there’s every reason to expect mayhem.
2 ) Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9)
The Battle of Alberta could have received primetime billing if the NHL had barreled into the postseason with the same playoff structure. The league didn’t, but this is the next best thing. The Jets’ ramshackled blue line helped surrender the most expected goals and high danger attempts in the NHL, bailed out only by Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina campaign. The Flames spent most of the season trying to replicate last year’s offensive buzzsaw, and they finally came on late and scored the fourth-most goals of any team since early January.
With Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine in the spotlight, this series pits two teams with proclivities for offense and shirking defense. That equates to disordered, fast-paced hockey out of the gate.
3) Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)
Need star power? Two dynamic duos—Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane—take centerstage, albeit approaching different ends of their respective careers. This is the second postseason appearance for McDavid and Draisaitl, the latter of whom ended the year as the league’s point leader (110) and front-runner for the Hart Trophy. Toews and Kane have been there, winning three shared Stanley Cups, two individual Conn Smythe’s and one Hart.
If you believe in Chicago’s aging core, infused with younger talent, and forget that they’re a bottom-tier defensive team that also traded Robin Lehner, then maybe this series is more than it appears on paper. Even if you don’t, it’s going to be a treat to watch McDavid skate past April (and the Blackhawks blue line).
4) Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)
The Leafs’ biggest roadblock in escaping the play-in round is themselves. Toronto’s maligned defense won’t receive any makeovers but it will be healthy. Frederik Andersen has enough rest to stave off workload concerns. The remaining portion falls on the Leafs’ star-studded offense, which ranged from disjointed to dynamic during the regular season. Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner & Co. is as good a group as any entering unknown territory.
Columbus knocked off the Lightning last year, but that was with Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky. How good are the Blue Jackets at full health now? No one really knows. Coach John Tortorella piloted an injury-ravaged Columbus team (the Blue Jackets ranked first in man-games lost) through an 11-1-1 stretch from early January to Feb. 7. The Blue Jackets teetered off after, losing nine of their next 15, and might’ve ran into luck before when they benefited from goaltender Elvis Merzlikins’s ascendance. Toronto facing a team that isn’t the Bruins in the first round is a welcomed change.
5) Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10)
The new playoff format ensures two teams, who fell within a hair’s breadth of the West’s final wild-card spot, will receive a postseason proving ground. Buoyed by a strong first half and Quinn Hughes’s Calder campaign, the Canucks waned late but entertained early as a fun, offensive team firmly removed from the Sedin era. The Wild earned dark horse status down the stretch, compiling a 15-7-1 record since mid-January as winger Kevin Fiala turned into a gamebreaker.
The Canucks and Wild, evenly matched, make for a competitive series with all factors being equal. The play-in round removes that equality, but watching two franchises who might’ve missed the playoffs in a normal season get a second wind should be fun regardless.
6 ) Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12)
A 22-year-old Carey Price bested freshly minted Stanley Cup champions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in seven during the 2010 Eastern Conference semis but, fast forward a decade, and this is a much different matchup. Pittsburgh could return premier goal scorer Jake Guentzel, bolstering a team that was an exemplar of depth after losing its stars for significant chunks of the season. Price holds his reputation as an all-world goaltender, but Montreal thrived on its young forward crop scoring enough to outpace what it surrendered on the other end. Without a true star on offense, the Canadiens need to coalesce its firepower from the sum of its parts to blast past the Penguins.
Could that happen? Maybe. The Canadiens threw more 5-on-5 shot attempts on net per game than any other team in the league and Matt Murray isn’t an indomitable steel fortress. Either way, Montreal benefits from some luck: The Canadiens reached the 2020 postseason with the fewest points one year after missing the playoffs with the most points of any non-postseason team.
7) Nashville Predators (6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11)
This series should be good, just as the Predators and Coyotes should have been better than they were in the regular season. Nashville, despite entering each season as one of the West’s top teams on paper, hasn’t reached its potential since its 2017 Stanley Cup appearance. Last season the Predators were plagued by an abysmal power play; this year they suffered on the defensive end as goaltender Pekka Rinne’s declining play gave rise to Juuse Saros’s takeover.
As much can be said about Arizona. Without Darcy Kuemper for a two-month stretch in the middle of the season, the Coyotes unwound their early success. Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller failed to provide the requisite offensive punch. The blue line hadn’t been as stingy in protecting its own zone, ranking 28th in shot attempts allowed over the team’s last 25 games. At its best, the series could be a defensive showcase and a goaltending duel that features two non-traditional NHL markets. Otherwise, Arizona and Nashville might still be trying to figure themselves out in a hasty best-of-five contest.
8) New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10)
The Panthers, who scored the fifth-most even-strength goals per game, are at their best when they’re unleashing an offensive downpour on their opponents. The Islanders are at their best when they stop that from happening. It’s a clash of styles but not one that amounts to thrilling hockey if one or both teams are thriving on their strengths. However, there’s enough creativity between players like Mat Barzal and Aleksander Barkov to provide some flair and fun.