And so begins a quest for the Stanley Cup like no other…
The NHL released the following statement on Monday afternoon:
This came on the back of the announcement that the Florida Marlins, of Major League Baseball, had around a dozen players and personnel test positive. The distinction here is that the NHL has been preparing for the better part of eight weeks for a two-city HUB. The plan is far from foolproof, however it is incredibly extensive.
For these series previews, I will be working with the assumption that all players are COVID-free and will remain so for the duration of the round. While we know some players have tested positive during the year, the specifics of which individuals is sometimes not disclosed.
The format for the playoffs will begin with a 16 team play-in. Eight teams in the East and eight in the West will play best-of-five series to determine which four in the respective conferences will meet the top four seeds. While those best-of-fives get underway, a round-robin will decide the order of the top four.
The part of the preparation I have struggled most with is which data and information is most critical to use for the circumstances. For this first round the quality could be closer to pre-season than post-season. Additionally the players on each and every team could see huge variety in form and conditioning coming in. Let’s breakdown the obvious differences first:
- Teams had a 120 day break between regular season and playoffs
- normally would be 1-3 days at most
- Three weeks training camp
- two to three weeks followed by a week of exhibition games after most pros already being on the ice or personal training sessions since a variety of dates in August
- Teams will be playing all games in a neutral environment but also be in the same vicinity as opponents
- in a regular season would feature two home games for the higher seed followed by two away games until alternating games 5/6/7
- normally visiting teams stay in a hotel and have no contact with opposition
- Qualifying round is best-of-five with playoff overtime rules, remaining four rounds will be best-of-seven
- the play-ins or qualifying round is only a feature this year
- Round-robin stage features the four teams playing three games each with regular season standings scoring in effect
- with no home ice, seeding is almost entirely irrelevant. Nothing quite says ‘this is not playoff hockey’ by playing 3v3 and then a shootout
- the presumption is that teams should be motivated by potentially playing a worse team if they attain a higher seed, but I am skeptical. My opinion is that it will be used far more as an exhibition in game-like conditions
- No crowd
- could help the nerves of some players, but also lower the intensity. This is one of those ‘create the narrative’ situations, still, we won’t know until the players actually comment on their experience with it and even then it will be subjective
- Rest vs rust
- I looked into each team and there is not a single one that would not benefit from the time needed for some of their players to recover. While some clubs had more important players to their ability to win out of the lineup, every team could benefit from the time off
- the contrary point is which teams had momentum, were in good form, were relatively healthy and playing better hockey in contrast to the field. Again there is no way to know whether this actually hurts anyone, but you can be sure that will be the tail that is spun
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
Sunday, August 02, 2020 – 01:00 PM EDT
These two teams were likely very pleased to hear about the NHL's plan for a qualifying round. When the season ended on March 13th both the Predators and Coyotes were 5th in their respective Western divisions. Being on the outside of a top three placement and therefore competing for one of the two wildcards would have left one, if not both, with a high likelihood of missing the playoffs entirely.
Arizona was given a 90.5 point total for the season this year, and I was holding their under before the shutdown which was looking pretty good. My greatest criticism of them coming in was that while their scoring in 2018/2019 had been spread around relatively well, the numbers were far too low for hopes of a playoff shot. One comment was directed towards Oliver Ekman-Larsson, their stud defenseman, who finished the season second in points for the Yotes. However, instead of this being a Brent Burns 70 or 80 point production it was 44. My conditions for them being a playoff team were a few things regarding health status of goalies and defensemen, but also an isolated 'Kessel MUST put up 30 goals'. Was not even close.
On December 14th, Arizona had got off to a pretty great start with 19 wins in their first 35 games. The team was healthy, they were winning...but Kessel had just 7 goals over that period of time. The Coyotes' big off-season acquisition was not contributing on the offensive end the way they had hoped. So what happened. Management went out and signed a frustrated Taylor Hall who was looking to jump off the sinking ship that was the Devils season. Hall was an electric edition to the team and he finished off the remaining 35 games with 10 goals and 27 points. However, for Kessel nothing really changed. He maintained his same scoring rate through the remaining 35 games but somehow the Yotes did not translate their improved weapons into wins, adding only 14 more.
I had much higher hopes of the Predators team coming into the season. My factors to meet a reasonable expectation of a playoff berth was that they possessed one of the strongest goaltending duos in the league in Rinne and Saros (lol @ 19/20), a top 15 offense (set the bar incredibly low and they did not meet that whatsoever), within the best five in goals against (more like top 17), and in the 50% of teams on the powerplay (seriously Adam? try bottom 25%). Soooo yeah...was not a good season for the Predators in contrast to where they were the year prior. Nashville was one of the teams to play Head Coach Musical Chairs this season, but for all the talent and depth they still possess they REALLY underperformed. Yet...they still have a shot to win the Cup this year. We might be saying this a lot.
A lot of people pointed out that while Arizona's numbers declined slightly after the Hall trade, the Devils statistics improved. It is true, however this is a clear case of correlation does not equate to causation. Hall could have affected the dynamic of the team but they also could have been over-performing to begin the season? Anyway, of great concern was Phil's inability to score at 5on5. I can hear an ignorant Toronto journalist quipping about hot dogs even now. Kessel found the back of the net just five times at even-strength. Their biggest acquisition in years was 13th in this category, a team worst -21 in plus/minus, and had the lowest shooting percentage of any forward over 60 games for the Yotes.
Arizona's scoring was spread very evenly over ten players, however only one was able to break into the 20+ goal category, Conor Garland. One of the most impressive figures for the Yotes was that when they did score three goals or more in a game they won over 80% of their games and three of the seven they lost were in overtime. That said their offensive output per game was below 3.0 and comes in as the third worst among teams that will be seeing post-season action. I would summarize their overall offensive performance as average to mediocre as a whole.
On paper, there is no question about the Predators being the more talented team over their four forward lines. That said, a defensemen led them in scoring this year. Roman Josi, their captain, dragged this team as far as he could this season. I don't know how he doesn't win the Norris this year; 17 more points than the next guy on his team, 49 assists, 12 5v5 goals, +22 rating, lead his team in shot blocks, 25 minutes a night, missed one game. A warrior and leader in every sense.
While Nashville also only had one player break into the 20 goal category this season, they have five others in their starting 12 who have done so over the past four seasons. If they do get some chemistry going they will possess one of the best four line depth in the playoffs.
This is where the Coyotes excelled for most of the season and the Predators struggled. Arizona held the better save percentage, goals against, and penalty kill all by a respectable amount. One of the top blueliners, Ellis, was out for a good portion of the season due to an ugly hit in the Winter Classic, but had excellent numbers when he was in. In fact, the Predators were 34-8-7 when Ellis was in the lineup. He is another one of their big minute players and the increased workload for the other D can wear them down. He might be flying a bit under the radar as one of the difference makers for Nashville.
The goaltending battle was heavily won by Arizona in contrast to Nashville. Hill stepped in for a dozen games with limited success, however the starting duo of Kumper and Raanta were solid back there. Both maintained a 0.92 save percentage and significantly positive goals saved above average through about 85% the starts that the Preds duo put up. The best way to summarize Nashville's play in their own zone is inconsistent. The team put together 7 shutouts over the course of the season, but then again 8 games where they allowed 6 goals against or more.
Wrap It Up
Going off the season's performance I have to give the edge on the backend to the Coyotes. However it is not as though Nashville does not have the tools to run over them either. While there may have been some initial mixed emotions about the termination of Laviolette, the Predators eventually did start playing better in the second half of the season. Though this was INCREDIBLY inconsistent.
However doing what I am this post-season, which is without a model, and ignores a lot of the statistics which would normally be important in a three day span between game 82 and game 1, the Predators fully healthy is a far more talented team. Their defensive numbers can look like Arizona's, and they have in the past with this exact core. Yet the Yotes have never shown for two seasons, if not going back through most of this decade, that they have the ability to score at will in the same respect. If both teams play their best hockey there is a significant pricing discrepancy here and that's the bottom line at the end of the day.
As an aside, this is fourth series complete now and I've bitten into the chalk on three of them which I certainly did not expect.
In their home and home series this year the Predators closed at -150 and -120, home and away. So kinda smack dab in the middle of what you might expect for a neutral location for this NHL pick. For all the criticism of their performance, most especially in Smashville this year, it is working from the position of expectation which is why I began this entry summarizing the pre-season notes.