Ramblings: Hockey Again At Last! Also Projections for the Round-Robin (Aug 1)
It all starts today! Or tomorrow, if you're a night owl reading this not long after I've posted it. Either way, the 2019-20 postseason that we've been waiting so long for is about to begin!
Think back to when this whole pandemic hit and the league shut down. The pause went from days to weeks and then to months. Did you honestly believe that the NHL would finish its season in some way, shape or form? Did you think it should?
Not to be Debbie Downer, but there's still the looming possibility that this could all be shut down with a massive outbreak either in Edmonton, Toronto, or both. Remember how many voices said that the NHL should just shut it down for 2019-20 as it drew up its return to play? The necessary adjustments were made, and now we just have to hope everything goes according to plan in the bubble.
I'm optimistic that the NHL's plan will work, though, and for two reasons. First, the league set up a bubble, which has a better chance of avoiding the kind of problems that arise from travelling from stadium to stadium like MLB is currently experiencing with a few of its teams. Second, the league went to Canada, where the number of COVID cases hasn't exploded the way it has in some areas of the United States. We can all admit that these games won't have the same feel as other playoffs have, but it sure beats the alternative.
In case you missed it, our writers made their play-in predictions on both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Because the focus was on these do-or-die five-game series for these 16 teams, we decided not to focus on the other eight teams playing in the seeding round-robin. I've set aside some space in here to discuss it today, though.
This is the first time the NHL has used any sort of seeding round-robin to determine next-round playoff matchups. That means we don't have any historical precedent on how teams normally handle this. Teams playing exhibition games (which included the round-robin teams) seemed to take the games more seriously than typical preseason games. For that reason, I'd expect these eight competitors to roster at least mostly competitive rosters for these round-robin games.
We could see most teams use two goalies over their three games. We could also see teams try some line combinations that are different from the usual. On the other hand, teams could treat these games as a dress rehearsal for the games that will matter in the round of 16. The seeding might really matter too. Maybe not so much about running the table with a 3-0 record, but perhaps avoiding entering an actual playoff round with three consecutive losses and the possibility of facing a #5 seeded team that could include Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid.
One further wrinkle: If two teams finish the round-robin with the same record, the tiebreaker is regular-season record. For that reason, some weight has to be given to regular-season record, even if the result of any of this is completely unpredictable.
Without further ado, here are my projections for the round-robin seeding. I'll also provide some info on what to look out for in the play-in round.
1. Tampa Bay
It might be only one game, but the Lightning looked dominant in their 5-0 win over Florida. The line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov combined for 10 points (Point with four points), while Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a shutout against a Panthers team that can score. I think Tampa will learn from its experience last year in not being ready for the playoffs, knowing that their opponent will be fresh off must-win games. Wouldn't it be something if that opponent was the Blue Jackets again.
It's possible Steven Stamkos could bump Palat to stack the top line, but Stamkos still has to be cleared to play. Stamkos did practice on Friday after missing the Florida game with a lower-body injury. The Bolts begin play on Monday against Washington.
The Bruins might appear to be one of those teams that doesn't take this round-robin as seriously as others, but their record as the top finisher in the conference gives them the tiebreaker over any other team. David Pastrnak playing the exhibition game was a good sign, although Brad Marchand leaving the game wasn't a good sign. Losing 4-1 to the Blue Jackets also wasn't a good sign, although it's no surprise that John Tortorella had his team ready to play against one of the league's top teams.
Tuukka Rask is expected to start in the Bruins' first game against Philadelphia on Sunday. Jaroslav Halak is also expected to see some action during the round-robin, according to Bruce Cassidy. There's still no Ondrej Kase, who the Bruins were hoping to play alongside David Krejci on the top line. Prospect Jack Studnicka played in that spot and might be worth watching if Kase doesn't return to the lineup soon.
I've mentioned two of the Jack Adams finalists already in Cassidy and Tortorella. The third is Alain Vigneault, who seems to be getting the most out of his Flyers squad. If you're underestimating the Flyers here, don't forget they won nine of their last ten games before the season was paused. A 3-2 overtime win over Pittsburgh should also provide some confidence.
In the exhibition game, both Carter Hart and Brian Elliott saw action. It's possible that Elliott could see a little bit of action in the round-robin, but this is going to be Hart's team during the playoffs unless he stumbles badly. One unknown is whether Shayne Gostisbehere will play regularly, as it looks like he will battle Robert Hagg for the final spot on defense. The two d-men provide completely different skill sets. Ghost provides offense (at least that's what he's supposed to do), while Hagg provides more of a physical element.
With no Ilya Samsonov available, it will be sink or swim with Braden Holtby between the pipes. The Capitals have the big guns that can outscore any defensive deficiencies, and you know that Alex Ovechkin will be ready. Unfortunately, the Capitals have another lingering concern with the status of John Carlson, who left in the third period of the exhibition game after an awkward fall. Losing the league's top scoring defenseman would be a blow for the Capitals, especially for their power play.
In case you're wondering who will back up Holtby, Vitek Vanecek has earned the backup job over previous backup Pheonix Copley. Capitals coach Todd Reirden suggested that Vanecek could even see some playing time during the round-robin.
The Avalanche are a popular pick to come out of the Western Conference, with Nathan MacKinnon in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy. I could see MacKinnon just flying around the ice after such a long layoff. And with such a great cap situation, the Avalanche should be on the short list of favorites to contend for the Stanley Cup for years to come. The only question might be who starts in goal, but maybe we'll get a better idea of that during the round-robin.
During the Avs' exhibition game against Minnesota, Andre Burakovsky was played on the top line alongside MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Playing on this line would make him a strong sleeper candidate in playoff pools. If you came here looking for Bowen Byram, he didn't play in the exhibition game, which would make his chances of suiting up for these games fairly slim.
2. St. Louis
The Blues also build a strong case for the top spot here. Not that the result matters, but I might knock them down a peg after a 4-0 loss to the Blackhawks. It might just mean that they need another game or two to round into form, and I wouldn't hold the exhibition loss against their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
The Blues were without Vladimir Tarasenko for most of the season, so his return will make the team with the top record in the Western Conference this season even better. Those looking for Jordan Kyrou to be a deep sleeper in playoff pools might be disappointed, as the Blues decided to go with veteran Troy Brouwer over Kyrou in an exhibition game that they were allowed to dress 13 forwards for.
The Golden Knights have to also be considered a strong favorite to come out of the West, having gone 11-2-0 before the season was paused. They have a very strong top 6, and have the luxury of two potential number one goalies in the event of injury or poor play. They seemed to have no problem taking care of the Coyotes with a 4-1 win in exhibition play as well. Max Pacioretty hasn't made it to Edmonton yet as he recovers from an injury, so it's possible he could miss some or all of the round-robin.
This is a situation where both Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner should both see action, even though Fleury played the entire exhibition game. Peter DeBoer should give Lehner at least one start and maybe even two. Expect Fleury to start once Vegas has an actual playoff series, but DeBoer should quickly turn to Lehner if MAF struggles.
If there's a team that you think doesn't belong with this entire eight-team group, could it be Dallas? This is a team with strong goaltending and a firm defensive system, but its prime scorers seemed to all underachieve this season. Tyler Seguin was the only Stars player to reach 50 points, and no one else even reached 40 points. Seguin missed the exhibition game on Thursday, a game in which the Stars couldn't score on Nashville. Seguin is still expected to be in the lineup for Monday's match with Vegas.
Even though Ben Bishop is considered the starter, expect Anton Khudobin to receive a start during the round-robin. Khudobin actually posted better numbers than Bishop this season and is a great insurance policy for the Stars.
Enjoy the play-in tournament. You'll have no shortage of hockey to watch for the next little while!
For more fantasy hockey information, or to reach out to me, you can follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding.
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