As we hit mid-December, we pulled together our panel of NHL experts to discuss some of the hot topics of the 2019-20 campaign.
Let’s dive in, starting with our picks for the final two playoff spots out West.
1. Who will be the Western Conference wild cards?
Greg Wyshinski, senior NHL writer: Give me the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks. I can see either the Jets or Predators in the third spot in the Central, assuming they can turn on the afterburners at some point, leaving the Stars in the wild card. And the Canucks were my surprise playoff qualifier in preseason predictions. As long as their core players remain healthy, I’m sticking with them to shock the world as a playoff team. Or at least shock the Pacific Division.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I’m confident the Golden Knights will go on a decent run following the All-Star break, bumping the Calgary Flames down to the wild-card spot. For the second wild card, I’ll take the Dallas Stars. (I also see Nashville making a decent run, bumping Winnipeg out of their Central playoff spot, and the postseason picture altogether).
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: I too feel like Nashville is going to figure things out soon enough and go on a bit of a run here to sneak into the top three in the Central, and I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Winnipeg Jets slip into a wild-card spot. Meanwhile, I’m not totally sold on the Calgary Flames yet despite this current run, and I could see them slipping out of the top three in the Pacific but not out of the wild card.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: It’s such a jumbled mess out West right now that we may as well put a bunch of team names in a hat and pick them out at random. I’ll go with the Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators just because I think they do enough things well offensively to make the playoffs but have enough remaining question marks that I don’t feel confident picking them to be in the top three of their respective divisions.
2. Which NHL rookie would you choose to build around?
Wyshynski: Quinn Hughes, D, Canucks. Growing up a Devils fan, there’s no way I can’t select a player that many pundits have likened to Scott Niedermayer, who was a foundational piece of four championship teams en route to the Hall of Fame. That’s not to say Hughes will end up being that good, but the skill set on both ends of the ice is that impressive.
Kaplan: Cale Makar, D, Avalanche. A true No. 1 defenseman, especially an offensively gifted one, is something that’s rare to acquire in free agency. If he can be this productive as a 21-year-old rookie, I can only imagine what the rest of his career has in store.
Peters: Jack Hughes, C, Devils. His rookie season has not gone particularly well, but there are few players I’ve seen who can make the plays he does. Having watched him closely over the past three seasons, this is only the beginning, and as he gets more comfortable, a bit stronger and perhaps some better talent around him, his game will take off.
Filipovic: Quinn Hughes, D, Canucks. Makar is a fine pick too, but Hughes has been just as effective in his rookie season, despite doing it in more subtle ways. He has had more impact at 5-on-5 (the Canucks control 56.1% of the shots, 58.7% of the high-danger chances and 60% of the expected goals with him on the ice), and he has completely transformed his team’s power play. Plus he’s a full year younger, which shouldn’t be understated at this stage of his development.
3. The Tampa Bay Lightning have turned it around (a bit) and are on pace for 96 points. Where do they finish the season?
Wyshynski: The Lightning entered Thursday night with the eighth-best points percentage in the East despite, you know, not yet looking like the Lightning. It took 98 points to get a wild-card spot last season, so I’ll say they get the last one, knock off the Bruins and clear the path for that Maple Leafs Stanley Cup run I predicted before the season. (For the record, that pick was also contingent on Mike Babcock getting fired. To quote Sheev Palpatine, “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.”)
Kaplan: I think they finish a few points above their current pace, which would put them on the bubble for a wild-card spot. I just haven’t seen consistent cohesiveness in this group to believe they’re going to be as dominant as they can be.
Peters: We’ve been saying for weeks that one of these days the dam is going to break and this team is going to be the world-beater we know they can be. I’m less certain about that right now, but I still can see this team cracking 100 points after a late-season run and finishing second in the Atlantic behind the Bruins. I don’t think the Sabres or Canadiens have the goods to stick once Tampa opens the floodgates.
Filipovic: 104 points and the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic. They’re not catching the Bruins, but everything beyond that is fair game for a team that’s as talented as the Lightning are. Despite the underwhelming results, they have the second-best power play in the league, and at 5-on-5, they’re third in high-danger chance share and fifth in expected goal share. Their biggest issue has been the goaltending, which has dipped from third last year all the way down to 22nd in save percentage. I’m betting on Andrei Vasilevskiy turning it around eventually, considering he’s just 25 years old and is coming off of a Vezina Trophy-winning season. If they’re still giving us these mixed results at the 50-game mark, I’ll gladly reevaluate my stance, but for now I view them as a sleeping giant that’s just biding its time and playing the long game.
4. The Philadelphia Flyers took flight in November and are in the playoff mix after a disappointing 2018-19. What’s the secret to their success?
Wyshynski: Two words: Alain Vigneault. The Flyers went from 21st in shot attempts percentage last season to seventh this season, and from 21st in expected goals-for to 12th. There’s no question that better goaltending makes a coach look better, and Carter Hart and the Flyers have gone from 28th in the league in team save percentage (.896) to 13th (.907). But this is what Vigneault does when he arrives with a new team: He’s 148-89-18 with 13 ties in his first year with the Canadiens, Canucks, Rangers and now Flyers.
Kaplan: No doubt it’s their improved defense from a year ago. Getting more reliable goaltending has helped, but so too have the additions of Matt Niskanen to the top pairing and defensive-forward Kevin Hayes. Hayes has specifically helped on the penalty kill, which was improved from 23rd in the league last season to fourth right now.
Peters: A balanced offensive attack that doesn’t overly rely on one line is a big factor for me. The Flyers have three lines that can score, and the ice time is much more evenly distributed among the lines, which makes matchups tougher for the other team with no one player or line to key in on.
Filipovic: The biggest difference between this Flyers team and past versions is that they finally have some stability in net. After infamously using seven goalies before settling on Hart last season, it looks like their search for a No. 1 is over. While his overall numbers aren’t great, he has been much better of late, which neatly coincides with the Flyers’ surge up the standings. In the 13 games he has played since Nov. 1, he has a .925 save percentage and plus-4.7 goals saved above average.
5. It’s never too early to start thinking about the 2020 draft. Which team deserves Alexis Lafreniere the most?
Kaplan: The Red Wings sure could use top-end talent to accelerate the rebuild. But do you know what team I’d like to see land Lafreniere? The Minnesota Wild. Bill Guerin has been patient inheriting a roster constructed by two previous GMs. They have talent to win, but they’re a bit old and a bit slow. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I think the Wild’s turnaround is for real, so they’re probably out of the running.
Peters: I don’t know that any team deserves rewards for being so terrible, but the Detroit Red Wings need Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield — or basically anyone — right now. It’s imperative that Detroit lands one of the top two picks to help its cause. Either of those players would be significant pieces for the future, and both will be NHL-ready next year and are producing at an alarming rate this season.
Filipovic: It’s the Detroit Red Wings. They’ve been outscored 131-72 this season. They’ve held a lead in just 15.3% of their time on the ice. They hadn’t won a game in a month until Thursday’s win. There have been five coaching changes since they last won, and Jeff Blashill somehow hasn’t been one of them. It’s kind of impressive how categorically bad they’ve been, and how committed they seem to seeing it through.