Previewing the 2020 Western Conference Qualifying Round

When I completed my preview of the Eastern Conference the other day, I began to think about the Western Conference, specifically how it felt like whereas the East seemed to be dominated by fewer teams, the West is more of an annual crapshoot. So I went and looked at the Conference Finalists from both conferences since the 2004-05 lockout and while the East has seen eleven teams make the final four since the 2006 playoffs, the West has seen thirteen. Not a big difference, but I think the bigger picture is that only seven teams, three in the West and four in the East, have failed to make the Conference Finals in that time. If the League was looking to achieve parity in the wake of the lockout, mission seemingly accomplished.

Anyway, the three Western Conference teams that have yet to make the Conference Finals since 2006 are Calgary, Colorado, and Minnesota; all three teams are in the playoffs this year, generously expanded to twelve teams by virtue of the Return To Play Agreement. The Wild have made the Conference Finals just once in their brief history (2003, when they were swept by Anaheim), and have otherwise been the personification of mediocrity in that time. Likewise, Calgary has spent decades in mediocrity, having advanced out of the second round of the playoffs just once since winning the Cup in 1989 (they were Cup Finalists in 2004, losing to Tampa Bay). That leaves the Avalanche, who had a pretty good stretch of success from 1996 to 2002: two Cup wins and four other Conference Finals appearances. They then hit a stretch of being on the bubble, and the prior ten seasons saw them make the playoffs only four times while drafting in the top ten six times.

Colorado’s window to return to the Conference Finals, and perhaps beyond, is now open. Despite injuries to many of their key players throughout the season, the Avalanche ended the regular season with the fourth-best record in the League. Scoring leader Nathan MacKinnon was fifth in the League in scoring and is a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP chosen by hockey writers), the Ted Lindsay award (League MVP chosen by the players), and the Lady Byng trophy (for “sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, and skill”). Despite missing twelve games, 21-year-old defenseman Cale Makar, picked fourth overall in 2017, made a huge splash as he was second on the team in scoring (seventh in the League amongst defensemen), and will very likely win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. They will have two good goaltenders to choose from in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer. I think they’re in as good a position as they’ve been in years.

Western Conference Round Robin

The St. Louis Blues followed up their Cup victory last season over the Boston Bruins with another very good season, this time finishing with the best record in the West, just beating out the Avalanche who played one less game than St. Louis. The two Central Division foes were modestly ahead of the next two teams, Vegas and Dallas, and these four teams will participate in the round robin tournament to determine the top four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs. Head-to-head during the regular season, St. Louis went 7-2-3, Dallas 6-3-2, Colorado 4-4-2, and Vegas 3-3.

As hard as it is to be critical of St. Louis and Colorado, the same cannot be said of the Dallas and Vegas. The Stars were one of the best teams in the League defensively, second only to the Bruins in fewest goals allowed and save percentage, but they were one of the weakest teams offensively, scoring the third-fewest goals with a fourth-worst shooting percentage. Vegas was all over the map statistically:

  • they took the most shots in the League and came away with the tenth-most goals
  • they allowed the fifth-fewest shots but had the seventh-worst save percentage, but also tied for third with six shutouts
  • they were penalized three fewer times than Dallas but allowed six more goals

Vegas is also just two years removed from making the Cup Finals in their first year. Are we being led to believe that much of that was intangibles, like the chemistry and enthusiasm of being a new team wanting to make a big splash? One thing is for certain: if they can’t get better goaltending, either from Marc-Andre Fleury or Malcolm Subban Robin Lehner, they won’t be getting very far. As for Dallas, they need to get more offense out of their jilted roster. Both Dallas and Vegas are amongst the oldest teams in the League, so time is running out for both of them.

I’m going to predict the seedings will be:

  1. Colorado
  2. St. Louis
  3. Dallas
  4. Vegas

Western Conference Play-in Round

Here are the pairings for the West’s play-in round:

  • #5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks
  • #6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
  • #7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
  • #8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets

Let’s have a quick look at each series and I will give my predictions.

Edmonton vs. Chicago (CHI won regular season series 2-1): That’s right, Chicago beat the Oilers in the three games they played this season! The secret formula was probably not so secret: the Blackhawks held Connor McDavid off the scoresheet in the two games he played in (he missed the third game) and the Oilers lost both of those games. This may sound like a no-brainer, but holding McDavid off from scoring is a good way to win games, even if it doesn’t happen often (sixteen times this season, only three wins for Edmonton). Unfortunately for Edmonton’s opponents, that’s just one-quarter of games that #97 doesn’t figure into the scoring, but even when McDavid has been limited to one point the Oilers have had a hard time winning (eleven wins in twenty-two games).

However, Chicago is facing a big problem in the Oilers and their offense. Chicago faced the most shots against in the League this season, and only by virtue of the League’s fourth-best save percentage did they manage to be just mediocre on defense. At the same time, Edmonton was deadly efficient on offense, taking the fifth-fewest shots but having the fourth-best shooting percentage. Of course, the Oilers feature McDavid, second in the League in scoring, but also the Art Ross Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl who led the League in assists and was fourth in goals scored. Things tail off considerably on offense after those two, but when you’re as deadly as they are it doesn’t really matter much.

Can the Blackhawks keep McJesus at bay and squeak away with a series win? As we can see, it’s not impossible. I think Chicago makes Edmonton sweat and make it a five game series, but Edmonton has enough depth to get away and advance.

Nashville vs. Arizona (split series 1-1; ARI +2 goal differential): It’s probably not a good sign that their leading scorer was Roman Josi, or that their second-leading goal scorer was Nick Bonino, but Nashville hasn’t looked as good in the last few years as they did in their Cup Finals year against Pittsburgh in 2017. One big issue is that their goal prevention has regressed, back from top five in the League the last two years to middle of the pack this year. Strangely this has coincided with tying for second in the League with seven shutouts, so there’s an issue of consistency there. Offensively the Predators took the fifth-most shots in the League but managed only four more goals than the Montreal Canadiens who took ~120 more shots than Nashville. They’ve been adrift since their Cup run, and they’ll need to get themselves together if they want to make another long postseason run.

The Coyotes are making their first postseason appearance since losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Conference Finals. Arizona was one of the best teams in the League defensively, ending up third in fewest goals allowed and save percentage, as well as fifth in penalty kill. Problematically, they allowed the tenth-most shots against, so the bulk of the goal prevention was done by the tandem of Darcy Kuemper (who was fourth in the League in goals saved above average) and Antti Raanta (tied for eighth), which is fine when you’re trying to hang in there but not when you’re trying to actually win games. Offensively, Arizona wasn’t terrible (ninth-fewest goals scored) but only three other playoff teams scored fewer goals than they did. Their goal-scoring leader is second-year pro Conor Garland, whose twenty-two goals were two more than Penguin Jake Guentzel scored in twenty-nine fewer games than Garland.

Arizona has a good chance in this series. They have to get going on offense, which they were able to do against Nashville very early in the season when they won 5-2 on October 17. They have what it takes in goal, and they will need everything they can get from their netminders against a high-volume shooting Predators team. This may be another five game series, and I’m going to go with Arizona to come up with the upset.

Vancouver vs. Minnesota (MIN won regular season series 2-1): Few, if any, of the play-in series feature two teams so closely matched on paper. Actually, I wouldn’t have believed that these teams were so closely matched until I looked at the stats, and sure enough they are very close in some areas:

  • Goals for: Vancouver, 224; Minnesota, 218
  • Goals against: Vancouver, 214; Minnesota, 217
  • Shots for: Vancouver, 2153; Minnesota, 2077
  • Shooting percentage: Vancouver, 10.4%; Minnesota, 10.5%

But there are some big differences elsewhere:

  • Power play percentage: Vancouver, 24.15%; Minnesota, 21.30%
  • Penalty kill percentage: Vancouver, 80.47%; Minnesota, 77.18%
  • Shots against: Vancouver, 2297; Minnesota, 2115
  • Save percentage: Vancouver, 90.7%; Minnesota, 89.7%

The big difference is the decline in goaltending. For years Minnesota’s best player was Devan Dubnyk, who finished third and fifth in Vezina voting in 2015 and 2017 and fourth for the Hart in 2015. But like with most goaltenders, years of being relied upon to carry a team lead to diminishing returns, and sure enough Dubnyk was a disaster for the Wild this season and ended up yielding the starting job to Alex Stalock, who has never been good enough to be a starter. Dubnyk played seven of the Wild’s last twenty games, winning four of those games, while Stalock won nine of the thirteen games he played in the same span. I would be surprised if Stalock didn’t get the start in this series.

The Canucks got a pretty good year out of their starter Jacob Markstrom, who finished fourth in goalie point shares and eleventh in goals saved above average. He’s had to be pretty good, as the Canucks allowed the sixth-most shots against. This matchup works great for Vancouver, as the Wild are not a heavy-shooting team, so as long as the Canucks can limit the quality of shots Minnesota takes, Vancouver shouldn’t have much trouble in this series. I’m going to say the Canucks will win the series in four games.

Calgary vs. Winnipeg (WPG won regular season series 1-0): The second of three games these two teams would have been played on March 14, but the day before the League put the regular season on pause. Of all the players in the League who could have used a rest, Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is probably at the top of the list. Hellebuyck again led the League in games played, the second time in three seasons, and turned in another Vezina-caliber season. He was second in the League in minutes played, wins, and goals saved above average, and not only led the League in goalie point shares but was third amongst all players in point shares. Winnipeg allowed the fifth-most shots in the League so he had to be as good as he was. The drawback for the Jets is their average offense: although they had five twenty-plus goal scorers, they were smack-dab in the middle of League (sixteenth) in goals scored and fifteenth in shooting percentage.

I don’t know what’s going on with the Calgary Flames, which is probably a bad sign. Last season they had the best record in the Western Conference, due in large part to having the second-best offense and an above-average defense, but were eliminated in the first round in five games by Colorado. This year they’ve had a below-average offense and an average defense – even the average age of the team is average – so I’m assuming last year was an aberration and they’ve regressed to the mediocre status that has been the Flames’ brand since they lost the Cup in 2004. They have talent enough, but they haven’t had consistent goaltending. Maybe in a couple years they’ll be more serious as their top goaltending and defensive prospects come up to Calgary, but I’m not confident in them at all this year. I think it’ll be Winnipeg in three, maybe four.

If my predictions were to come out correct, the first round matchups would be:

#1 Colorado vs. #8 Arizona
#2 St. Louis vs. #7 Winnipeg
#3 Dallas vs. #6 Vancouver
#4 Vegas vs. #5 Edmonton

The playoffs start on August 1. Weird!