Hockey is officially coming back as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and co. have voted on adopting a 24-team bracket to decide a Stanley Cup champion for the 2019-20 season. The new 24-team format allows eight teams, who did not qualify for the standard 16-team playoff bracket in lieu of the COVID-19 pandemic, to compete in a proposed best-of-five series for a seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Below are predictions as to who will advance to the first round of the NHL playoffs. In the words of Ryan Whitney, co-host of the Spittin Chiclets podcast, “let’s get er goin.”
*first-round matchups have yet to be determined as seeding can either be based on the play-in round or by regular season seeding
#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets
In their lone meeting in the 2019-20 regular season, prior to the suspension of play due to COVID-19, the Jets defeated the Flames 2-1 in a game that went into overtime. While the Flames have a lot of talent and veteran leadership, their strength at goaltending has been declining over the past years. Given their superb depth on offense and defense featuring an elite top six and a top 5 netminder in the NHL in Connor Helleybuyck, Winnipeg will smother the Flames to advance into the first round of the playoffs.
#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks struggled to maintain a constant rhythm in the regular season as the result of numerous injuries and an inexperienced head coach. That being said, Chicago bested Edmonton in with a 2-1 series record in 2019-20, with each game remaining within a two-goal differential. Even with Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl potting 97 points and 110 points respectively, it will not make up for the abysmal drop-off of talent on the roster. This will lead to the Hawks surpassing Edmonton to play in the first round.
#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild is one of few teams in the NHL that does not possess an elite scorer, however, the team is very well-rounded given that points were spread about evenly down the roster. The Vancouver Canucks on the other hand are booming with young talent featuring superstars LW Elias Pettersson and D Quinn Hughes (brother of New Jersey Devils’ 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes). Due to more prolific scoring capabilities, the Canucks will defeat the Wild in a best-of-seven series and play in round one.
#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes exploded onto the scene after acquiring star LW Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline. With the new face and mojo brought by Hall, the ‘Yotes placed themselves in playoff contention as they were an absolute wagon prior to the league suspension. What prevents them from advancing to the first round is due to the same reason that gave them this opportunity: momentum. Arizona was one of the hottest teams back in March, but now, after several months of inactivity, they won’t have the same energy they had before and will be unable to defeat the Predators who were bailed out by the suspension as they were struggling to find consistency in their play. Their superior depth on offense will lead them past the Coyotes into the first round of the NHL playoffs.
#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montréal Canadiens
Like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canadiens were one of the last teams to make the cut for the 24-team format given their point total. The Habs have a talented pool of players on the roster ranging from young, raw skaters and veteran players looking for one more ring. The Penguins are the luckiest team in the NHL to be given this opportunity to remain in the playoffs, as they were dead in the water prior to the shutdown of the season. With superior experience and talent on offense, the Pens will take advantage of the opportunity and beat the Canadiens to live and fight another round.
#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
While the New York Rangers are in the early stages of a rebuild, they are set to take on the Hurricanes in the play-in round to have a run at the cup. New York has defeated the Hurricanes in all five of their last meetings. Even with such a stacked core for Carolina, which was ironically given a boost after trading for defensemen Brady Skjei from the Rangers, it will not be enough for the team to repeat the success they had in the 2018-19 playoffs. Therefore, the New York Rangers will advance to the playoffs in this series.
#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers have had a bumpy season due to inconsistency in their play. Even with an average record, the Panthers still possess some of the brightest gems of the NHL including Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. The New York Islanders, aside from acquiring Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators, have not made any significant upgrades to their roster after losing star goaltender Robin Lehner and numerous depth players who played a key role in their success a year ago. Regardless, the Islanders play in a superior system compared to the Panthers, which will lead to them being the victors in the best-of-five series.
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
There are few teams that have had a more disappointing 2019-20 season than the Maple Leafs, as they failed to produce a strong regular season if with one of the most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference. The Columbus Blue Jackets though, have had a surprisingly successful season given the loss of netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and superstar LW Artemi Panarin in the offseason. With time to recollect and get themselves together, Toronto will be able to breeze passed Columbus and make a strong push for the Stanley Cup as they should have to begin with.
The Best of Both Worlds
Although 24-teams are in contention to lift the Stanley Cup, teams in the play-in round still retain their odds of obtaining the first overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Chicago Blackhawks (#12 seed) and the Montréal Canadiens (#12 seed) would still possess 5% and 6% odds of having the No. 1 overall pick respectively, should both teams lose in the 24-team play-in round for the playoffs (per tankathon). To clarify, there is still a lot of work that remains for the NHL and its owners such as deciding the two hub cities in which games will take place, as well as all of the details that need to be sorted out in regards to the draft. One thing that is for certain though, is that having NHL playoffs come back will make everyone happy. There is officially a light at the end of the tunnel people.