Hockey Returns: Previewing the NHL’s Western Conference Qualifying Round
By Kevin Mejia
Before getting into the qualifying round preview, let’s establish the context of what we’ll be looking at here. The X-Factor on each team is the difference maker for each team. Who is going to be the player we expect to perform and will perform? It’s the no brainer difference maker. It’s the player on the team that is a leader on the ice. Without this player, the makeup of each team would be dramatically different to say the least. The reasoning behind each breakout player for each team is different. These players might be returning from an injury, they might be one of the best players on the team, they might be a player that will play up to their abilities. Breakout players are uncertain picks for players who might have a big impact on the qualifying round. Finally, we have a matchup to watch. This matchup can be on the ice, a mental game, or a specific one on one to focus on.
Qualifying Round Preview: West
5 Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9) vs. 12 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)
Edmonton Oilers X-Factor: Connor McDavid – The next Crosby. What to say about McDavid? The purest skater in the league, hands down. The lateral quickness McDavid possesses is next to none. Even with an injury this season, McDavid still managed to place second in league scoring, behind teammate Leon Draisaitl. The young gun still has a lot to prove, even though he has had postseason success in his one trip (lost in the second round in seven games in 2017 to the Anaheim Ducks). McDavid will surely tear apart the old core of defensemen that Chicago has to offer.
Chicago Blackhawks X-Factor: Patrick Kane – Showtime never stops. Patrick Kane has aged like a fine wine, putting up a 98-point pace (84 points in 70 games) after a career high 110 points last season. The three-time Stanley Cup winner is poised on taking another stab at the trophy as he will push Edmonton to the edge. Kane has the best dangles in the league, no questions asked, to go along with a fluid skating motion that stumps the best of defenders. An elite winger that can score at will and distribute is hard to come by, and Kaner has never slowed down for the Hawks. The Oilers defense has a handful in Kane.
Edmonton Oilers Breakout Player: Andreas Athanasiou – A speedy forward picked up at the trade deadline by the Oilers, Andreas Athanasiou gives Connor McDavid exactly what he needs: a forward who can keep up with him. For the longest of times, McDavid did not have elite wingers on his line, but now with Athanasiou the line is a threat all game. Athanasiou wasted away on Detroit all year, however, the trade put him in a place where he could succeed. The winger has great snap and wrist shots, perfect for finishing passes from McDavid. Athanasiou has all the characteristics of a great linemate for McDavid.
Chicago Blackhawks Breakout Player: Dominik Kubalík – A young Czech forward, Dominik Kubalík has been nominated as one of three players for the Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie of the year). His closest rookie comparable (we will not be comparing defensemen) is Victor Olofsson, who hit the 20-goal mark before getting injured. On the flip side, Kubalík hit the 30-goal plateau this season. A feisty forward, Kubalík wreaks havoc consistently, no matter what line he plays on. Playing time with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane this season brought out an explosive trio that Chicago hadn’t seen in a minute. Even with Kubalík moved to a line with Kirby Dach, he still finds ways to score and make an impact as a skilled forward.
Matchup to Watch: Edmonton’s Inexperience vs Chicago’s Veteran Presence – This is the truth. Just for a reference, we will compare Connor McDavid and Jonathan Toews and their postseason stats. McDavid has made the playoffs one time in his career, playing in 13 games, and scoring nine points. Connor McDavid does not have a Stanley Cup to his name. Toews has made the playoffs nine times in his career, playing in 128 games, and scoring 110 points. Jonathan Toews has three Stanley Cups to his name. Toews and the veterans of Chicago (Kane, Keith, and Crawford) know how to win. That’s all the team does. In the 2017 playoffs, the Oilers made it to the second round. Now, only nine players from that team are on the roster (McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Kassian, Benning, Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, and Russell). The Oilers must come together with veterans like James Neal and Mike Smith taking charge.
Final Thoughts: A veteran team looking to get one last shot at the cup just might. Kane and Toews have all the tools to drag this rustic team to the postseason. Duncan Keith might be able to shutdown Connor McDavid. You think I’m picking Chicago???? SIKE!!! Edmonton has all the talent in the world; however, it will be closer than people think. If the Edmonton goaltending situation is figured out things will be fine. McDavid and Draisaitl will go off.
Prediction: Edmonton Oilers defeat Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2
6 Nashville Predators (35-26-8) vs. 11 Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8)
Nashville Predators X-Factor: Roman Josi – The Captain of the Nashville Predators is one the best defensemen in the league, poised on stealing the Norris Trophy from Washington’s John Carlson. Josi is a shutdown defenseman that takes away passing lanes from the best forwards. Josi is usually matched against an opponent’s top line and most of the time Josi wins the matchup. Josi also has a gift for offense, as he posted 65 points on the season, including 16 goals. Josi’s ability to breakout of his own zone is crucial to the Nashville offense.
Arizona Coyotes X-Factor: Oliver Ekman-Larsson – The most integral piece to the Coyotes is their number one defenseman, Oliver Ekman-Larson. Ekman-Larson brings more of a physical game than his counterpart, Josi. OEL dominates net-front battles and has one of the better hockey IQs for defensemen in the league. The Coyotes d-man runs the first power play for the team, an aspect of the game the Yotes must win. Ekman-Larson has a knack for big hits but can also hold his own when it comes to offense. OEL might not be as explosive as Josi, but Ekman-Larson must play up to his abilities for the Coyotes to beat the Predators.
Nashville Predators Breakout Player: Mikael Granlund – A natural centerman, Granlund has found himself on the wing of offseason acquisition Matt Duchene most of the year. Granlund has a smaller build, making him a forward that uses his speed and skill to his advantage. Granlund is not afraid to go to the front of the net to score, exemplified by his OT game winner against Colorado in 2014. The determination set by Granlund makes him somewhat physical for his size. Granlund has played a hero role this year for Nashville, scoring a game-tying and game-winning goal in the same game. Granlund may be able to explode onto the scene in the qualifying round.
Arizona Coyotes Breakout Player: Darcy Kuemper – After an injury that absolutely devasted the Coyotes, Darcy Kuemper will return to play in the postseason after getting four starts before the NHL season hit pause. In those four starts Kuemper posted a .924 save percent, going 1-3-0. Kuemper allowed a total of 10 goals, two per game in two starts, and three per game in the other two games. Kuemper should have been at least 2-2-0 in that stretch. Overall, Kuemper had a phenomenal season and was receiving Vezina praise early in the season before his injury took him out. A .928 save percent on the season shows how much Kuemper carried this team.
Matchup to Watch: Coyotes Forwards vs. Nashville Defense – The Coyotes boast a few talented forwards; Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall, and Clayton Keller to name a few, but that’s only a quarter of their lineup. The Nashville defense is structured as one of the best in the league. With Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis leading the charge, Arizona will have a difficult time dealing with the defenseman. Physical play in the corner will likely be dominated by these lead defensemen, as the Coyotes forwards tend to be more skilled than physical (sorry Lawson Crouse). Along with Nashville’s top pair, Mattias Ekholm provides great puck moving abilities and a great defensive stick. Ekholm might not be as physical as Josi or Ellis, but he manages to strip forwards with his long reach. Dante Fabbro, a young defenseman, playing in his first full year this season, will learn from these great defensemen and will likely become a superstar. The Coyotes and their forwards have a lot of work ahead of them.
Final Thoughts: If Darcy Kuemper had been healthy all season, this matchup likely wouldn’t be happening but Kuemper’s abilities to rebound post-injury give cause for concern. Kuemper might drag the series out longer than expected, but the Arizona core just doesn’t have it quite yet. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm will be forces throughout the series. Don’t sleep on Taylor Hall to have a big series. In a contract year, Hall could use this as leverage. Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and will score.
Prediction: Nashville Predators defeat Arizona Coyotes, 3-2
7 Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6) vs. 10 Minnesota Wild (35-27-7)
Vancouver Canucks X-Factor: Elias Pettersson – A Swedish phenom, Elias Pettersson has taken the NHL by storm over the past two seasons. The amount of untapped potential that resides within Pettersson is astounding. He can only get better. Pettersson improved upon his Calder winning freshman year, as he was on pace to break his point total from last season. Pettersson is a deceptive skater and knows how to fool the defense when it comes to lateral movements. With J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, Pettersson will be able to distribute at will. Pettersson is the future of the Canucks.
Minnesota Wild X-Factor: Kevin Fiala – No player has caught my eye more this season than Kevin Fiala. Fiala is one the best pure talents in the league and he has stepped into a much larger role this season for the Wild. Fiala’s 15 points in 10 games before the season came to a halt shows how much he put the team on his back. The footwork from this forward is next level and he has the skill on the stick to match. After showing his potential in the 2017-18 campaign, Fiala gave a lackluster performance last season. Now, fully established with the Wild, Fiala’s talents do not go unrecognized. Fiala will be the most dangerous player for the Wild in the qualifying round.
Vancouver Canucks Breakout Player: Quinn Hughes – It takes two to tango. Quinn Hughes and Colorado defenseman Cale Makar are going head to head for the Calder Trophy and it is clear one of the two will take it home. Hughes, a smaller defenseman, similar in size to his brother Jack (Devils first overall pick), knows how to make do with what he has. Quinn Hughes has all the potential in the world as an offensive defenseman. The puck moving d man is efficient in breaking out of his own zone and hitting players on crisp tape to tape passes. Forwards Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser got a taste of what it would be like to play with Hughes in an overtime game against the Kings last season. Hughes’s skating ability is next to none, when it comes to the incredible edgework he is capable of. He knows when to spring into action in the offensive zone and on the rush. Working on his physicality will be key moving forward. Hughes will score in this series.
Minnesota Wild Breakout Player: Matt Dumba – An established player of seven years (feels like it has been four at most), Matt Dumba is an elite right-handed shot defenseman. Dumba drops big hits and scores the occasional goal. For a defenseman, Dumba has quality hands that can be nifty at times. When healthy, Dumba has the potential to be upwards of a 50-60-point player (50-point career high). With more ice time this season, Dumba hasn’t been quite up to snuff but is still a shutdown second pairing defenseman. Dumba will likely see more time in this series as the top six of Vancouver is one of the best in the league. Look for Dumba to get on the scoresheet.
Matchup to Watch: Canucks’ Top 6 Forwards vs. Wild Top 4 Defenseman – Without a doubt, the Canucks have one of the most threatening top 6 forward groups. Acquiring Tyler Toffoli from the Kings at the deadline was one of the best moves general manager Jim Benning has made in a long time. The forward produced 10 points in 10 games. Sticking him with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller (two leading scorers for the Canucks) is the best second line in the league. No shade to Bo Horvat and his line with Tanner Pearson and Brock Boeser, but Pettersson’s line feels like the true first line. The Wild boast a top 4 of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba. These four physical defensemen will be entrusted with defending these two lines. Do not be shocked if Ryan Suter steps on the ice every time Elias Pettersson does. That matchup would be one to watch within this one. Pettersson’s creative skating and stick handling are top notch and Suter is a shutdown defenseman. The series may hinge upon those two alone.
Final Thoughts: Hands down, this will be my favorite series to watch in the qualifying round. Kevin Fiala and the young core of the Canucks will bring so much to the ice and seeing the creativity on display will be a wonder to watch. The Canucks defense is susceptible to outbursts, but I expect the team to be tight. Jacob Markström might stymie the Wild as he returns to play. Fiala will do all he can to drag the Wild to the postseason.
Prediction: Vancouver Canucks defeat Minnesota Wild, 3-2
8 Calgary Flames (36-27-7) vs. 9 Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6)
Calgary Flames X-Factor: Johnny Gaudreau – Johnny Hockey has much to prove when it comes to clutch hockey. His first postseason might have been a hit with nine points in 11 games, but since then he’s put up a disappointing three points in nine games. The regular season success has always been there, even with a career low 58 points this season. The New Jersey native has a small build but the dynamic creativity he possesses is next level thinking. The Flames were a disappointment this season, but Johnny Gaudreau will come through in the clutch once again.
Winnipeg Jets X-Factor: Connor Hellebuyck – There is little doubt about how good Connor Hellebuyck was this season. The Jets goalie posted a .922 save percentage to carry the Jets. Without the stellar goaltending from Hellebuyck, the Jets would not have made much noise this season. A depleted defense core with unusually slow seasons from some forwards made the Jets less of a threat, but Hellebuyck showed out. 64.3% of his starts were quality starts, a career high for the fifth year goalie. The American keeper will surely stand tall (he is 6’4”) against most of the shots that come his way.
Calgary Flames Breakout Player: Matthew Tkachuk – Just like his younger brother Brady, Matthew Tkachuk is a major pain to play against. A very skilled forward, Matthew knows how to win battles down in the corners and get pucks to the point in an effective manner. Tkachuk is a consistent goal scorer for the Flames, one of the best on the team. Time after time, Tkachuk has proven to be a clutch player. Tkachuk is situationally aware and has one of the best hockey IQs in the league. Tkachuk has serious playmaking abilities as well, dishing out 38 assists on the season.
Winnipeg Jets Breakout Player: Patrik Laine – Patrik Laine is the most on and off player in the league. We saw it in the previous season, where Laine scored 18 goals in the month of November. This season, Laine hasn’t been as much of a scorer as the Jets would have liked, however, his playmaking abilities have increased tenfold. 28 goals for #29 might be a career low, but he has turned his scoring into an ability of deception by distributing 35 (career high) assists. Laine is always a threat to score, and his one-timer is a top three shot in the game. Laine has a big frame, allowing him to be physical as well, which we saw him do this season as he recorded 97 hits. Laine is one player that will always have eyes on him when he is on the ice.
Matchup to Watch: Flames Mental Instability vs. Jets Experience – Last postseason we saw how fragile the Flames were, as they lost in five games to the Avalanche. After opening the series with a 4-0 shutout of the Avs, the Flames lost control once the Avalanche found their footing and dominated the rest of the series. The stars for the Flames were not present whatsoever, as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, and Elias Lindholm scored a combined seven points. Matthew Tkachuk had three himself. Without their leaders scoring, the series was over. And now, we look at the Jets, who, in all honesty, should have won the Stanley Cup in the 2018 postseason. The team was rolling before running into a hot Marc-André Fleury and Vegas team that beat them in 5 games. Jets like Laine, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor gained valuable experience that should benefit down the road. Now, down the road, we will see a vicious fight for a playoff berth between two mid-western Canadian squads.
Final Thoughts: The Jets talent upfront is certainly there, and it cannot be ignored. As good as the defense is for the Flames, it just doesn’t seem like a close series. Connor Hellebuyck is as good as the next goaltender in the league and will show off. The Flames just do not have the mental fortitude to get past another team right now. Watch for a huge move to be made in the offseason by the Flames in reaction to this series.
Prediction: Winnipeg Jets defeat Calgary Flames, 3-1
Header Photo Credit: (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)
Oilers Photo Credit: (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Blackhawks Photo Credit: (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago Blackhawks)
Predators Photo Credit: (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Coyotes Photo Credit: (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Canucks Photo Credit: (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
Wild Photo Credit: (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
Flames Photo Credit: (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jets Photo Credit: (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)