The NHL has begun to allow teams to hold small group practices in their playing cities again, and thus the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs are fast approaching. However, due to the unforeseen circumstances of the COVID-19 pause, the NHL decided to expand the playoff field to 24 teams to play in this tournament. The pair of conferences will be split into two different hub cities in the US or Canada, the top 4 teams in each city will play a round-robin schedule to determine seeding, and the bottom 8 will play in a best of five play-in series to determine the final four teams to make the official 16 team playoffs.
With the expanded playoff format comes expanded speculation on possible breakout performances and people to watch, and that is what this article will break down. We will go between the two conferences in seed order to determine the main pieces that must produce in order to have success in the new playoff format.
All on-ice assets are in consideration, including coaches.
Boston Bruins: Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci
The Bruins are one of the best teams in hockey and are the Presidents’ Trophy winner for this season. David Pastrnak is emerging as a premier goal scorer, and the team has a very good goalie tandem of Rask and Halak. However, the key to their success lies outside of their potent top line. Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand makes for a lethal trio against most defenses, but they need to have contributions from all forwards down the lineup.
If the top line falters, the Bruins won’t get far and will need contributions from the middle-six forwards. Players such as David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie Coyle are the names that are important to this category as they all remain from their finals run last season. Ondrej Kase will also be a key name in this regard as he didn’t get a full 20-game slate to show his potential to the Bruins coaching staff after being acquired from Anaheim by trade, so he will have something to prove when play resumes.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jon Cooper
The Lightning are a team that looks great on paper with Stamkos and Kucherov headlining their offense as well strong depth with names like Killorn, Point and Hedman. Behind them is Andrei Vasilevskiy, a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate. Even with all the praise about their roster, the same could be said about the team last year, and the Lightning imploded in sweeping fashion against Columbus. The reason for the collapse is likely to be coaching, as the mentality was an issue in the series. The team looked past the Blue Jackets in their first two games and couldn’t overcome the adversity in games 3 and 4. The team also got off to a slow start this year, and rumors of head coach Jon Cooper being on the hot seat were there. Even if the team rebounded, it can be said that he is coaching for his job this postseason. If the team fails again, he could be one of the names to go this offseason.
Washington Capitals-Ilya Samsonov
Normally the Capitals would turn to Braden Holtby entering a playoff season, but they now have an interesting decision to make. Holtby has had a down year with a 3.11 goals against average and .897 save percentage. At 30 years old, it is a surprise to see him have a down year at this time as it could mean a start of a decline, but he is also a pending unrestricted free agent which could create uncertainty in his situation.
While head coach Todd Reirden said Holtby would be the starter in the playoffs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Caps turn to rookie net-minder Ilya Samsonov at least once in round robin play to see how he handles the pressure. He has looked great in the regular season, with a 16-6-2 record, 2.65 GAA, and .913 save percentage. If the Capitals like what they see from him and Holtby falters, this could be the chance for him to firmly establish himself as the goalie for the future in D.C.
Philadelphia Flyers-Carter Hart
The Flyers have emerged as a surprise this year under new head coach Alain Vigneault. The team had surged to near the top of the Metro division standings right before play stopped and now have a chance to be a legit threat in these playoffs. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov have emerged as a bright young pieces for the team, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek have continued to play strong two-way hockey, and veterans such as Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk have contributed as well.
However, the key name for the Flyers this year has been Carter Hart. The team hasn’t had a legit starting option at goaltender in a long time, and Hart is starting to gel into that franchise goalie. That position has held the Flyers back in several postseasons in the past decade, and Hart will need to buck the trend to keep the Flyers rolling. If he falters, it would be disappointing, but that would be the growing pains of a young goalie and it is likely he will rebound. However, this could be a big chance for him to prove and establish himself as legit early in his career.
Pittsburgh Penguins-Jake Guentzel
The Penguins are an example of a team that has benefitted from the COVID-19 pause. Not only were they struggling, only winning three of seven games after the Trade Deadline, but they were able to get a big name back from injury. Jake Guentzel was able to get back to full strength after missing most of the season due to injury. Guentzel, an all-star nominee, had 20 goals and 23 assists in the 39 games he played before he suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him out for 4-6 months. However, the pause allowed enough time for Jake to get healthy and return for a play-in round against Montreal. While Jason Zucker has been great filling in for Guentzel since being acquired via trade, Jake has the chance to come back at full strength and make a big impact on Pittsburgh’s chances to not only win a spot in the playoffs, but go deep as well.
Carolina Hurricanes-Petr Mrazek
Carolina’s primary issue on paper right now is goaltending. Their core is really good with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov alongside a sturdy defense led by Jacob Slavin and a Dougie Hamilton returning from injury. While their defense will be better with Hamilton at 100%, their goalie tandem is not the best in the NHL. Mrazek and Reimer have each only been okay with their GAA’s being 2.66 and 2.69 respectively. Mrazek will likely be the starter for the best of five, but he will need to step up his game in order to help the Canes go far, and the same could be said for Reimer if the case presents itself. However, Carolina has had a form of momentum on their side before the pause. The legendary game of David Ayres acted as a spark to the team before the deadline, and the team was on a three game winning streak heading into the stoppage. It will be interesting to see if Mrazek can work off the momentum and help carry this team deep.
New York Islanders-Adam Pelech
When most hockey fans hear the name Adam Pelech, they don’t think much. The numbers of 1 goal and 8 assists in 38 games may not impress much, but when you look deeper he means much more than that to the Islanders. He is the team’s best defensive defenseman and makes a very good pair with fellow young d-man Ryan Pulock, and that pair adds a lot to the team’s defense-first identity. He was playing well until an achilles injury knocked him out of the lineup, possibly for the year at the time of his injury. Once he went down the team wasn’t playing as well as it did with him. The Islanders’ record with him in the lineup is 25-10-3, but without him it’s 10-13-7. Most of those losses without Pelech fall came after December, which is when the Islanders’ current tailspin truly began. As a result, the team is better with him on the ice statistically, and the pause has allowed him to recover and play again. This will allow the team to possibly regroup defensively alongside a now healthy Pelech, Casey Cizikas, and Johnny Boychuk, and this should make a positive impact once the playoffs start.
Toronto Maple Leafs-Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly
We all know the Maple Leafs have arguably the best forward core in hockey. A lineup consisting of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and a resurgent William Nylander is a group to be feared, and they are complemented by guys like Kasperi Kapanen and Alex Kerfoot. Freddy Andersen is also a tremendous goaltender in this league and can play excellent when on his game. However, the Leafs’ main weakness could be what holds them back again, and that issue is defense. The headline names on the back end are Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Tyson Barrie, and the group also features some quietly good names in Justin Holl and Travis Dermott. However, the team’s goals against per 60 minutes is up to 2.71 this year over 2.5 last year. Also, their two key names in Rielly and Barrie each have the lowest xEVD rankings on the team with -2.1 and -3.2 respectively. Rielly has also missed significant time with injuries and was not in the lineup for 23 games, so he needs to be at 100% to help bolster their back end. Even if Muzzin and Holl are performing well with highest xEVD and xDef on the team, Rielly and Barrie will need to step up to help Freddy Andersen. Andersen can carry the team to wins, but some extra help can make a big impact on whether the Leafs can make a long-awaited deep run.
Columbus Blue Jackets-Injured Pieces
Even with Columbus being a surprise this season with the emergence of Korpisalo and Merzlikins in net, they have been hit with insane levels of injuries this year. John Tortorella and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for helping to keep the team in the hunt. However, like other teams, the Jackets have been able to near optimal condition and are allowed to join the playoff hunt with a near full roster. Going into the pause on March 12, 7 key names were on the sidelines with injuries, including Alex Texier, leading goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, Nathan Gerbe, and arguably their best player in Seth Jones. All of those names are expected to be ready when the play-in round begins, and Josh Anderson will also be able to join the team if they win their matchup against Toronto. Add those names into a lineup that already has emerging center Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski, and Gustav Nyquist, and you have yourself a team that has a chance to surprise people. They did it to Tampa last year, so why not do it again to another Atlantic heavyweight in Toronto?
Florida Panthers-Sergei Bobrovsky
This is an easy pick considering the Panthers’ circumstances. The team invested heavily in Bob last offseason with a 7x$10 million contract, and things between Bobrovsky and the Panthers just haven’t worked out so far. He has a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 GAA and a .900 save percentage. While some of it can be on a spotty defense, there comes a time where he has to go into the game-breaker mode of his game at some point. Bob hasn’t done that yet, but this is the perfect time for it. The postseason is a good chance to wipe the slate clean on a bad regular season, and he is a perfect example of this idea. The Panthers’ talented core led by Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, and Aaron Ekblad can put this team in playoff contention, but now they need Bobrovsky to silence the doubters to make it a true cup-contender.
New York Rangers-Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo
Heading into this season, it was unsure what the Rangers’ defense would look like. Adding Jacob Trouba from the Jets was a big add, but they needed some more emergences in order to establish a legit NHL unit. However, the Rangers were able to get those breakouts in the forms of Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox. The two make up a very good 1-2 punch on defense and can hit you on either side of the puck. DeAngelo is the more offensive minded of the two with 15 goals and 38 assists over Fox’s 8 goals and 34 helpers. However, Fox is very solid defensively with a plus-minus ranking of 22, the highest among all Ranger defensemen and second on the team. Fox and DeAngelo have each emerged as key names to the Blueshirts’ rebuild, and their contributions will be vital to the team’s success. The Rangers have a very talented offense with names like Panarin, Kreider, Strome, and Zibanejad, but these two will need to lead the defense if they want to go deep.
Montreal Canadiens-Carey Price
Carey Price falls under a similar situation that Bobrovsky has right now. He was invested in heavily by the organization and he just hasn’t lived up to the bar he set at optimal performance. Even if he rebounded last season, things haven’t gone right for himself nor the team this year. They might be the lowest seed in the East, but a Carey Price in game-breaker mode is always fun to watch. Like Bob, the playoffs are a chance to wipe the slate clean and start fresh in a new season. Get the prime Carey Price and the Habs will be a very tough out, especially against a team like Pittsburgh. Also, considering that Price is 32 years old, this may be his last shot in his prime. The Canadiens have chips on their shoulders, and Price will have a lot to prove in these playoffs.
St. Louis Blues-Vladimir Tarasenko
After the Blues finally brought the cup to St. Louis last season, the chance of another deep playoff run is more than a possibility. If they want to go deep once again, they will need all hands on deck as it won’t be any easier. However, the Blues will be getting a huge name back from injury in Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues’ all star was playing strong hockey in October with 3 goals and 7 assists in 10 games, but a shoulder injury put him on the sidelines for a large part of the year. Tarasenko was poised to come back the week the NHL stopped play, but the break has allowed him to fully recover without missing any further playing time. As a result, a healthy Tarasenko in a Blues lineup that was performing as the number 1 seed in the Western Conference without him is a great boost to a team with cup aspirations, but he will need to be on top of his game coming back into the lineup.
Colorado Avalanche-Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi
The Avalanche have emerged into a force to be reckoned with in the NHL this year. Nathan MacKinnon is turning into an MVP candidate and him alongside Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog make the “Rocky Mountain Line” one of the best in hockey. Cale Makar, Ryan Graves and Sam Girard have also turned into great defensemen for the team that should only continue to get better with age, and Francouz and Grubauer have developed into a quality goalie tandem. However, like the Bruins, the key for them lies in the entire forward lineup. If the top line gets stopped by a strong defense, other names will have to lead the charge. Playoff veterans such as Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi will need to take the initiative, as well as other pieces such as the surprising Valeri Nichuskin, Vlad Namestnikov, and JT Compher. Nazem Kadri is also a name to watch as he looks to shed the playoff demons he had in Toronto from several first round suspensions.
Vegas Golden Knights-Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury
Vegas looked rather suspect at the beginning of the year even with all the talent they had. They fired Gerrard Gallant in January for Peter DeBoer, and the move left several hockey fans confused. However, the Golden Knights have returned to form and have taken the Pacific Division title. The marquee names of Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, and Shea Theodore have all led the charge, but the Golden Knights’ major weakness is in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury is a fan favorite in Vegas, but he has stared to see his numbers fall off. He had a 2.77 GAA and .905 save percentage this year, and at age 35 it is unlikely to see those number rebound in the future. That is why the Knights invested in Robin Lehner at this year’s trade deadline, who looked good in the games he played in. It is unknown as of now who will start the first game of the playoffs, but Fleury will likely be on thin ice if he is the guy. If he falters, Lehner will need to be the guy to sure up the net if the Knights were to go deep.
Dallas Stars-Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn
The Stars are an interesting team. The team was playing well early in the year but saw a sudden coaching change from Jim Montgomery to Rick Bowness. However, Dallas has maintained pace even with a lack of offensive production. Goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin deserve a lot of credit as a strong tandem, as does a stingy defense core led by Miro Heiskanen. However, the one thing that Dallas needs to go over the top is a legit scorer. Tyler Seguin leads the team offensively, but he only has 50 points. Jamie Benn’s production has also taken a hit with only 19 goals and 20 assists. On the bright side guys like Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz are developing as young goal scorers, but they need their two leaders to step up and lead the offense.
Edmonton Oilers-Tyler Ennis and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
The Oilers have the two best players in the league right now playing together. McDavid and Draisaitl make for some exciting hockey, and the league deserves to see them play in the postseason. However, the one flaw about that is they make up for more than half of their team’s production with 97 and 110 points respectively. While a somewhat slowed-down McDavid and Draisaitl will not be terrible, in fact still pretty good, they will need some other pieces to fill those holes if needed. Names that could help in that regard are deadline add Tyler Ennis, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian, and James Neal. Their team already looks good with those names, decent defensemen in Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, and Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith playing well in goal, but if they can get that extra dose of scoring down the lineup, that could make a huge difference for the Oilers in the playoffs.
Nashville Predators-Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris
The Predators are a very interesting team to analyze heading into the playoffs. They have talent on the roster with underrated goal scorers in Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson along with a quality defense led by all-star Roman Josi. Juuse Saros has played well as a young goalie in net while seeing his role increase with Pekka Rinne on the decline. However, the key piece to Nashville’s success lies in the center position. Matt Duchene and Nick Bonino have been solid, but Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris are names they need to produce. Johansen is in the midst of a down year with 14 goals, 22 assists, and a -5 rating, and Kyle Turris hasn’t quite performed at the same level since his first season in Nashville with 9 goals, 22 assists, and a -9 rating. However, both of them have their share of playoff experience, and this is a good chance for those two to redeem themselves. The Preds have been in the thick of the playoff hunt for most of the year, and Turris and Johansen will be the main factors on whether they go deep or go home.
Vancouver Canucks-Tyler Toffolli
The Canucks will be a very interesting team to watch this postseason. Their young talent in Elias Pettersson, rookie Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser should be fun to watch as they look to cement themselves among the NHL’s best. Add those to a team that features captain Bo Horvat, a resurgent J.T Miller, a solid defense led Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and a career year for Jacob Markstrom, and the team will be interesting to watch. However, another big name to watch is Tyler Toffolli. The Vancouver trade deadline add has his share of Stanley Cup Playoff success. He won the cup in 2014 with the Kings and has been a contributor to several playoff teams with L.A. His production was looking good with Vancouver before the pause as well with 6 goals and 4 assists in 10 games before the pause. As a result, Toffolli’s leadership and production will be vital to determining how for the Canucks go in the postseason.
Calgary Flames-Johnny Gaudreau
Things haven’t gone right for Gaudreau this season. In the 70 games he played in this season, he only posted 18 goals and 40 assists, along with a minus 10 ranking. Even if the Flames have gotten contributions from the developing Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan, he needs to be a centerpiece to that offense. However, the break and transition to playoffs may help him in this regard. Things were rough for the guy this season, but Gaudreau had a chance to practice and wipe the slate clean, similar to Bob and Price. The play-in could possibly see a re-emergence of the “Johnny Hockey” that has dominated the league over the past few years, and the pressure is on him to get back on his game. Either way, Gaudreau’s play will be a key piece to the Flames’ success and failure in this year’s playoffs.
Winnipeg Jets-Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler is one of the more sought after players in the NHL right now. The Jets’ captain is the Jets/Thrashers’ all time leader in assists and points and has scored more than 60 points in every NHL season since 2013-14. He is a good player and the analytics back it up, both offensively and defensively. He has a .7 ranking on even strength offense, 3.9 rank on the power play, and a 4.6 overall offensive rank. Defensively he is still pretty good despite a lower -1.8 on the penalty kill. He has a 2.7 rank on even strength defense, good for third on the Jets right now. As a result, Wheeler has been a sought after forward for a while and should be a key name to watch for the Jets. His 5-on-5 defense should help Connor Hellebuyck in net, and his play on offense should also help fellow scorers in Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor.
Minnesota Wild-Kevin Fiala
When the Wild and Predators struck a deal to send Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala at the 2019 trade deadline, it seemed confusing. Two central division rivals trading NHL players in the midst of a playoff hunt. However, it seems Minnesota saw potential in Fiala and wanted to take him on. That ambition has paid off as Fiala has enjoyed a career year with the club with 23 goals and 31 assists, and only at 23 years old as well. Although it’s unknown whether he’ll be the heir apparent to Koivu and Parise, he still has been a great find for the Wild. His performance overall this year has kept Minnesota in the thick of the wild card hunt and has allowed the team to take on Vancouver in the best of five. Minnesota has playoff experience on their roster with other names like Staal, Zuccarello, and Suter, but those players are all in their 30’s and may not keep it up forever, so Fiala should be a player that can follow in their footsteps and keep this team rolling against a younger Canucks squad.
Arizona Coyotes-Darcy Kuemper
The Coyotes quietly have one of the better goalie rotations in the NHL. Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper have made up a solid tandem that has kept the Coyotes in the playoff hunt. However, the team was playing well until December 19 when Kuemper suffered an injury and was out for over 2 months. The team then hit a snag in the middle of the year that saw them drop in the standings for a while, and their struggles were likely due to being without him. His counterpart in Raanta did his best, but they work better as a cohesive unit rather than one taking the load. When Kuemper came back, he returned to his solid form and helped sure up the net. However, his health will be essential moving forward to keep that tandem together. It is unknown who will be the starter for the play-in round, but he should be prepared for when he is needed.
Chicago Blackhawks-Patrick Kane
This may come as a surprise to many, but it is realistic when you look deeper into his on-ice play and analytics. While his expected offense is still performing at a high level with 33 goals and 51 assists, his cracks in defensive play have really come to fruition this year. His even strength defense has a rank of -4.7, the worst on the Blackhawks roster. Also, his expected defense overall sits at -4.6, the worst on his team in that regard as well. As a result, while Kane is an elite player on offense, there’s no denying it, his defense has struggled badly this year and needs a tremendous improvement. With a high powered offense in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers standing in their way, Kane needs to tighten up and be more selfless with his play.
These are the key names to watch for this year’s playoff. While the playoffs will need everyone producing, these are the players that need to step up in order to help keep their teams afloat. Whether it is due to a bad regular season, needed production due to top heavy lineups, or just already existing pieces that need to keep going, there are a wide variety of names and storylines to watch, and that’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so great.
*All analytic stats in this article are from Evolving Hockey