Who wins in the five-game series, the New York Islanders or Florida Panthers? -- @ScottyPecs
Great question. And since the opening of training camps, which is Phase 3 of the NHL Return to Play Plan, is scheduled for Monday, I'll take this opportunity to give my predictions on the eight best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier series, which begin Aug. 1, the start of Phase 4. The two hub cities for the qualifiers will be announced at a later date.
I'll start with your question. I like the Panthers, who are the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference Qualifiers with a .565 points percentage (35-26-8). I keep thinking about how the Islanders, the No. 7 seed with a .588 points percentage (35-23-10), were playing before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. They were inconsistent and lacking scoring depth, and I can't see how they're going to be that much better coming out of the pause. They had their 17-game point streak (15-0-2) from Oct. 12-Nov. 23, and they lived off it for the rest of the season. They were 19-20-8 in 47 games after the point streak ended. During that 47-game span, they were 24th in the NHL in scoring (2.62 goals per game) and 28th on the power play (16.1 percent). Those are not numbers for a Stanley Cup Playoff team, and they're not getting anybody back from injury who is going to significantly impact their scoring depth. Their defense will remain solid, and their goaltending should be too, but I don't think they're going to score enough to defeat the Panthers, who were sixth in scoring (3.30 goals per game) and who I think will get elite goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky. He struggled this season, going 23-19-6 with a 3.23 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage in 50 games, a big reason why the Panthers allowed 3.25 goals per game. But Bobrovsky is one of those players who I think will benefit from the pause and getting what is almost a restart to the season.
Now, on to my predictions for the other best-of-5 series.
In the Eastern Conference:
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, .623) over No. 12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500). This is a matchup nightmare for the Canadiens. The Penguins are better down the middle and on defense. The return of forward Jake Guentzel will be huge for Pittsburgh. Montreal goalie Carey Price can be a great equalizer, but not if the skaters in front of him are struggling with their matchups.
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596) over No. 11 New York Rangers (37-28-5, .564). This one will be close, but I like the Hurricanes defense, especially their depth with defenseman Dougie Hamilton coming back from a broken left fibula sustained Jan. 16, and the additions of Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. That depth should be the difference against Rangers forwards Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, who could be good enough to win this series for New York.
No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579) over No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579). Columbus will find a way to stifle Toronto's potent offense. The return of Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones from an ankle injury will make a huge difference in that stifling. Coaching experience matters too, and Columbus has it on its side with John Tortorella.
Video: WPG@CBJ: Jones charges in, fires puck past Brossoit
In the Western Conference:
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers (37-25.9, .585) over No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514). Oilers forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl simply will be too much for the Blackhawks, and Edmonton's special teams are too good. The Oilers were first on the power play (29.5 percent) and second on the penalty kill (84.4 percent) during the regular season. The Blackhawks were 28th on the power play (15.2 percent) and ninth on the penalty kill (82.1 percent).
No. 11 Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, .529) over No. 6 Nashville Predators (35-26-8, .565). Each team underachieved this season, but I think the difference here could be a resurgent game from Arizona right wing Phil Kessel, who scored 14 goals this season, the second fewest of his 14-season NHL career. He'll benefit from the pause, and his offense will be a big factor in the Coyotes winning the series.
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, .565) over No. 10 Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, .558). Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom makes a big difference, and I'm not sure if it'll be Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock in net for the Wild. Either way, the Canucks have the advantage at the most important position. Vancouver also has more elite offensive talent with forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat, as well as defenseman Quinn Hughes. It'll be too much for the Wild.
No. 9 Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, .563) over No. 8 Calgary Flames (36-27-7, .564). Why? Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets goalie arguably was the best in the NHL, or at least the Western Conference, with 31 wins, a 2.57 GAA, a .922 save percentage and six shutouts. Calgary already is at a disadvantage going against Hellebuyck, and the Jets' offensive firepower, led by forwards Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, will be too much for the Flames no matter who they start in goal, David Rittich or Cam Talbot.
Now that Phil Kessel is healthy, could he help the Arizona Coyotes make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? -- @theashcity
I already mentioned above that I believe a healthy and productive Kessel gives the Coyotes a better chance. He needs to be a major difference maker.
Kessel did not deliver as intended this season, which was a big reason Arizona was 23rd in the NHL in scoring (2.71 goals per game) and 18th on the power play (19.2 percent). His 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 70 games were his fewest since 2007-08 (37 points), his second season in the NHL. He scored five goals at even-strength, the fewest in his 14 NHL seasons; he scored 15 even-strength goals last season and 22 in 2017-18 with the Penguins. He led the Coyotes with nine power-play goals but had scored 12 in each of the two previous seasons. Nagging injuries were a problem, but not enough for Kessel to miss a game. He's third among active NHL players in consecutive games played with 844, behind Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle (866) and Penguins forward Patrick Marleau (854).
Kessel's diminished offensive production was a big reason the Coyotes underachieved. With Kessel, left wing Taylor Hall, their depth up front, Oliver Ekman-Larsson leading a strong group of defensemen, goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and their penalty kill (82.7 percent; fifth in the NHL), Arizona should at least have been in a wild-card position in the Western Conference when the season was paused. Instead, it was four points out with 12 games to play.
A healthy, motivated Kessel should give the Coyotes the advantage they were hoping to have when they acquired him in a trade with the Penguins last summer.
Video: WSH@ARI: Kessel redirects Chychrun's shot for lead
Player talent aside, which coaching group is best constructed to have their team get the most success going into this unique tournament style of play? -- @GoldenSaucerGuy
I have to look at experience. That can be the only deciding factor between coaching staffs. Each coach has his own style and way of getting the most out of his team. None of it is wrong. But experience, especially in a series setting, can be crucial.
To that end, I have to say it's one of the Panthers, Penguins or Flyers.
It's hard to argue against the experience on the Panthers staff. Joel Quenneville is a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and second on the NHL all-time wins list with 925, behind Scotty Bowman's 1,244. His top assistant, Mike Kitchen, began coaching in the NHL in 1989 and was with Quenneville in Chicago for Stanley Cup wins in 2013 and 2015. Quenneville has coached in 215 NHL playoff games, second all-time behind Bowman's 353, and is the active leader with 118 postseason wins, third in League history behind Bowman (223) and Al Arbour (123). Kitchen has been on the bench for a lot of those.
The Penguins have a lot of experience with coach Mike Sullivan and assistant Jacques Martin. Sullivan has been coaching in the NHL since 2002-03 and has coached in 72 playoff games (41-31), including winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. Martin has been in the NHL since 1986 and has 613 regular-season wins as a coach plus 50 more in the playoffs. He has been an assistant with the Penguins since 2013.
The Flyers have experience with coach Alain Vigneault and assistants Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo. Vigneault coached the Canucks (2011) and Rangers (2014) to the Stanley Cup Final. Therrien was coach of the Penguins when they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008. Yeo coached the Wild and the St. Louis Blues. Between them, they have 1,341 regular-season NHL coaching victories.
Should Jack Eichel ask for a trade? -- @jimothytimothy3
Only if the Buffalo Sabres forward is that unhappy and wants out. I can't say with certainty because I haven't had this conversation with Eichel, but my thinking is that he's not yet at that point. Once you ask for a trade, especially as a captain, it's hard to walk it back and still lead. Eichel expressed his frustrations with losing, saying he's fed up with it. But who wouldn't be if you lose the way he and the Sabres have in Eichel's five NHL seasons? But Eichel likes coach Ralph Krueger, and that's significant. If he didn't like the coach on top of being frustrated, I could see him being more inclined to ask management to trade him. He also is 23 and scored 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games this season, an average of 1.15 points per game that was his best in the NHL. He has to know there could be a bright future in Buffalo if the pieces are put together the right way.
Consider the motivation of being the captain that helps turn things around for Buffalo and, dare I say, eventually is the first Sabres player to hoist the Stanley Cup. And why can't that happen? It might seem like an impossibility now, but the Sabres have some strong pieces in place, including Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Eichel is two seasons into an eight-year, $80 million contract ($10 million average annual value). There's a new general manager, Kevyn Adams, who needs time to implement his plan. I've said this before, and I know it's hard to hear if you're Eichel or a Sabres fan, but patience is required in Buffalo. It's been worn thin, but you need more of it with a new GM.