Editorials

Western Conference Round Robin: Playoff Preview

One of the unique quirks about the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is that the top-four seeds in the tournament will not play in a qualifier series like the bottom-eight. The top teams in each conference receive automatic byes into the official “playoffs” and have to play for position among themselves by contrast to points percentage being used to decide seeding. In other words, there be a Western Conference Round Robin.

The four teams playing for seeding in the Western Conference, in points percentage order, are the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Dallas Stars. In this preview, we will analyze each team and predict the final seeding after the qualifying round is complete.

St. Louis Blues

The top seed in the West at the time of the pause was, fittingly, the reigning champion St. Louis Blues. The Blues entered this season on top of the hockey world. After starting the 2019 calendar year dead last in the league, the Blues fired Mike Yeo for Craig Berube and never really got rolling at first. Expectations were that the team would blow it up and start over after several failures over the past few years.

However, the Blues became one of the hottest teams in hockey after the All-Star break and made the playoffs convincingly. The team beat the Jets, Stars, Sharks, and Bruins to finally win the Stanley Cup after a 52-year wait. After winning their first title, the goal for them was to continue the strong play they saw under Craig Berube. However, the team did just that and more like the top seed in the West when the season was paused.

Their top guns on offense are some of the best in hockey, headlined by Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. However, the team will be getting a big name back for the playoffs in Vladimir Tarasenko, who was set to return right before the season was paused. The team has strong complements in the bottom six with Zach Sanford, Tyler Bozak, Oskar Sundqvist, and Ivan Barbashev.

Their back end is very stingy as well, led by captain and elite defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. He is complemented well by Carl Gunnarson, Vince Dunn, Colton Parayko, newcomer Justin Faulk and deadline add Marco Scandella. In net is Jordan Binnington, a 2020 All-Star and one of the best goalies in hockey over the past year and a half of play.

The Blues also boast very solid special teams with the third-best power play in the league at 24.3% and the 18th best penalty-kill at 79.3%. The team plays very well as a cohesive unit, and that was one of the main reasons for the cup run last year. The team will need all hands on deck and Binnington will need to go back into the game-breaker mode that stole the Blues the Cup in the Final last Spring.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche were a surprises during each of the past two seasons. In 2018, Colorado squeaked into the Playoffs on the season’s final day over the Blues and faced the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators. Even without Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson, they stuck with them and played very well with house money.

Last year the team wasn’t as strong as expected and faced the number one seed in the Calgary Flames. However, Nathan Mackinnon and Cale Makar burst onto the scene and helped the Avs to a stunning upset, and the team was one controversial call away from upending another heavyweight in the Sharks in seven. Even though they didn’t quite succeed, the expectations for Colorado were to become a top team in the league with the postseason and the moves they made in the offseason. The team did just that and now has a chance to roll deep into the postseason.

The main names on offense are easy to identify. The Rocky Mountain Line of Rantanen-Mackinnon-Landeskog is one of the most potent in hockey. Even with Rantanen and Landeskog seeing time on the sidelines, Mackinnon is emerging into a generational talent and has helped elevate the team around him. Even with those names carrying the load, their lineup was improved a bit in the offseason to add more scoring.

Nazem Kadri has been solid as a second line center as he looks to avenge his playoff struggles in a new home. Valeri Nichuskin has been a pleasant surprise this season, and Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Vlad Namestikov all have their share of skill and playoff experience. Colin Wilson, Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher round out the bottom-six as very good options in those positions.

Also, their defense is emerging into one of the best young units in hockey. Leading the way is Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar, picking right up where he left off in the postseason last year. Not too far behind are Sam Girard and Ryan Graves, both locked up long term to team-friendly deals and burgeoning into great complements. Vets like Erik Johnson and Ian Cole still remain as well to help the bottom-four on defense.

In goal, a quality one-two punch led by Philipp Grubauer and an emerging name in Pavel Francouz. Their special teams could be better however with a 19.1% successful power play, 19th league wide, and 81.4% successful PK, 13th league wide. However, Colorado is turning into a machine that can hit you in any way, and this should be the first in many opportunities for them to win a championship in the near future.

Vegas Golden Knights

As Vegas entered the 2019-20 season, the team was reeling after a heartbreaking defeat in Game 7 to San Jose. After a controversial major penalty called against the Knights, the team couldn’t stop San Jose’s power-play, letting up four goals in five minutes. Even after forcing overtime, the team couldn’t finish the job and fell in the extra session.

Although the team had to move on from Colin Miller and Erik Haula due to a cap crunch, the expectation was they’d continue to be a contender. However, the team was mediocre to begin the year as a borderline Wild Card team. This rough start led to Vegas firing head coach Gerrard Gallant for Peter DeBoer. At the time it seemed like a panic move that wouldn’t change much about the team itself. However, it can be said that the move in retrospect saved their season, as the team has thrusted itself back into the top spot in the Pacific ever since.

The names are mostly the same from their first two playoff appearances. Headlining the forward core is Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson. Their depth is very strong as well with Paul Stastny, Alex Tuch, Ryan Reaves, William Carrier, Nick Cousins, and newcomer Chandler Stephenson contributing.

Their defense is also a strong unit, led by Shea Theodore enjoying a fantastic season. Nate Schmidt has also been a fine complement to Theodore and is enjoying a great year as well. Their big two are complemented by Brayden McNabb, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill, and deadline-add Alec Martinez.

The biggest names to watch though are in net. The Knights have two very solid options in Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, but the former may be starting to see his performance decline. Fleury’s play has taken a dip this year and the team invested in Lehner at the deadline to sure up that position if Fleury falters. As of now, it is unknown who will start the round-robin, but the team needs to see the best of whoever it chooses.

On special teams, Vegas is very one-sided. Their power play is ranked ninth in the league at a 22% success rate, but their PK is ranked 27th with a 76.6% success rate. While it can be said the PK needs to be better, Lehner should help improve that number once play begins. As a result, Vegas got hot before the pause and now has another chance to go on a deep run as a top-four seed.

Dallas Stars

The last of the four byes is the weirdest one to break down. The Stars were primed to be a playoff contender this year after winning a round last season. Even with the problems early in the year, Dallas stuck to their game and not only made the playoffs but upset the Nashville Predators as well. However, the team faltered in the final two games of their series against St. Louis and fell in a painful 2OT loss in Game 7.

The expectations were they would continue to be a playoff contender, and Dallas did just that even with a slow start. However, right before Christmas their former head coach Jim Montgomery was fired and replaced with Rick Bowness. It was a surprise to many in the hockey world considering Dallas wasn’t playing poorly at all, but the team didn’t skip a beat after the coaching change. The Stars continued to play solid hockey and finished with a top-four seed in the playoffs, but it was done in a very odd fashion.

Of the 24 teams in the field, the Stars have the weakest offense. Dallas scored 178 goals this season, and that number was third lowest in the league overall. The big names for them are obviously Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but their numbers have regressed this year to 39 and 50 points respectively. Those two haven’t been the spark plugs to the offense, and they need to get their acts together if Dallas were to go deep.

Joe Pavelski and Alex Radulov have also struggled as well, putting up only 31 and 34 points respectively. However, the team has seen several young emergences as future legit goal scorers in Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz, but they can’t do it all by themselves.

Their bottom six is serviceable with guys like Mattias Janmark, Jason Dickinson, Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Andrew Cogliano, but the main key lies in the top-six for their success. However, one of the main reasons for Dallas’ success is the back end that let up the second-fewest goals in the league with 174.

Leading the way is a young star (no pun intended) defenseman in Miro Heiskanen. The former third overall pick has done his part offensively and is turning into a great two-way player. He is complemented by long time Stars in Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak, and John Klingberg. Add several other vets in Andrej Sekera and Masterton Trophy nominee Stephen Johns, and the team has a strong defense that can mask offensive inefficiencies.

However, their true strength lies in the net with one of the best one-two punches in the league. The big-name for them is Ben Bishop who is putting up another great season. Behind him is a very capable backup in Anton Khudobin with the third-best goals-against average (2.22) and the best save percentage (.930) in the league.

The two form a great tandem that has kept the Stars in many games this year. Even with the flaws on offense, the Stars still have the 13th best power play in the league at 21.1%, but their PK could be better at 79.7 percent. As a result, Dallas has the talent on defense and in net to go deep, but their offense has to step up if the team wants to make a run.

Final Standings Predictions

#1-St. Louis Blues

#2-Colorado Avalanche

#3-Vegas Golden Knights

#4-Dallas Stars

For the standings, it is likely the teams remain right where each one was before the pause. The talent levels of each team before the pause seem relatively accurate to where they would stand in these predictions. None of the teams are playing over their heads, and it should still be a close race for who wins the top seed. St. Louis and Colorado are easy to predict since they’ve been hot all year long and are very well rounded, but St. Louis’ experience and coaching should put them over the top in this regard, although it will be very close nonetheless.

However, the battle for the third seed was a tough pick between Vegas’ offense and Dallas’ defense and goaltending. Even though each team has a case to take the third spot, Dallas can’t ride on defense forever, and that lack of scoring will hurt the team if they don’t get it. Vegas is a more complete team considering their offense and improved goaltending, and that’s what will keep them at number three entering the first round.

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