Is there a more beautiful word in the hockey labor vernacular than “ratification?” Hearing it, reading it, and seeing it, as it pertains to the approval of a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA, is enough to send tingles down the spine of pretty much any hockey fan who remembers recent lost seasons due to unnecessary and maddening labor strife. Thankfully, the Players’ Association did agree to the new deal, which extends the working relationship between the two sides, meaning we don’t have to worry about a work stoppage for six more seasons.
This is great for Seattle fans in particular, who certainly didn’t want to have a lockout—arguably the stupidest thing in the world aside from COVID—hanging over their heads during their new team’s inaugural season.
Speaking of COVID, what’s especially important in the near-term about this CBA ratification (again, beautiful word), is that it also meant that the players had agreed to the NHL’s proposed return-to-play plan. Lest you forget, the season was suspended on March 12th, when the world was visibly collapsing around itself. There are plenty of arguments to be made as to whether that collapse has slowed down enough to warrant playing hockey again, but regardless of your opinions on if it should happen, this new deal means that—unless something really bad happens in the next few weeks—a return absolutely is happening.
So, with that in mind, we at NHLtoSeattle.com thought it was time to start talking hockey again. And we don’t mean talking about coronavirus, CBA’s, Phase 4 Secure Zones, or any of that boring dribble that we’ve been forced to chat about over the past four (!) months. We mean actual brass tacks hockey, which despite having no fans in the stands and teams being forced to live in hotels sequestered from their families, should be a welcome addition to the lives of quarantined hockey fans everywhere.
We thought the best way to get the conversation focused back on games themselves was to start talking about the games themselves. So, over the next couple of weeks leading up to the resumption of the season, currently slated for August 1st, we will have full previews of all eight of the qualifying round best-of-five series. The aim is to bring you back up to speed with what was happening with each team and what kind of seasons they were having respectively, so that as the squads take the ice, you too will be in playoff form. Get excited.
#5 Edmonton Oilers versus #12 Chicago Blackhawks
Rogers Place, Edmonton, Alberta
We start our series of previews in the West, at the beautiful hub city of Edmonton, Alberta, which was lauded in this fantastic video this past week.
One very intriguing aspect of this qualifying format is that after the shocking events of the recent NHL Draft Lottery, it was determined that one of the eight losing teams in this play-in round will receive the top overall pick in the NHL Draft. Being entered into that eight-team pool will be a fine consolation prize for all of the losers of this first collection of games. Among the sixteen teams that have a chance to win the lottery, three teams stand out as clubs that would be particularly infuriating to see, should their logo be on the card when Bill Daly flips it over at Draft Lottery 2.0. In the East, Pittsburgh would be quite maddening, thanks to the dominance that they’ve shown ever since drafting Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005. In the West, it is easy to imagine the hockey world completely imploding, should either of these teams—Chicago or Edmonton—be the ultimate lottery victor.
But we aren’t talking about that or worrying about that because it totally isn’t going to happen. The games… we’re talking about the games here.
The Oilers put together a pretty solid campaign under friend of the pod and former Seattle advisor, Dave Tippett, who turned in a 71-game record of 37-25-9 in his first season behind the Edmonton bench. The associated 83 standings points were good enough for second place in the Pacific Division, but not enough to overtake Dallas for the last spot in the unnecessary round robin tournament of automatic advancers.
Leading the way—very unsurprisingly—for the boys in the heinous orange jerseys will be Connor McJesus McDavid and Leon “the Deutschland Dangler” Draisaitl, the best one-two punch in all of hockey. When the season was suspended, Draisaitl was first in the NHL in points (110) and assists (67), while McDavid was second in both of those categories with 97 (he loves that number) and 63.
Beyond McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers get some secondary scoring from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal, who we recall had a ridiculous start to the year with seven goals in the team’s first four games but went quiet after the calendar turned over to 2020. After the Nooge and the Real Deal, though, things drop off pretty dramatically.
In net, Edmonton has an interesting platoon of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. Neither has been especially great this season, but I do generally appreciate teams heading into playoffs that have split time between netminders, because it gives the coach the ability to go with the hotter hand.
There is an interesting local perspective to keep an eye on here too, as former Seattle Thunderbird Ethan Bear skated himself into top-four minutes with exceptional playmaking on the blueline, and Spokane’s Kailer Yamamoto was on the second forward line with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins when the season was suspended.
[Does double-take, spits out coffee] “The Chicago Blackhawks made the playoffs?!”
Well, not exactly… yet… but they are certainly one of the biggest beneficiaries of the expanded field that was created by the league. The 24-team tournament was set up to allow for teams on the bubble who still had a mathematical chance to sneak into the playoffs, had the season been played out in its entirety. It’s hard to imagine Chicago to even be a bubble team, though, so its inclusion was a bit surprising.
Young Jeremy Colliton, who took over from the ousted Joel Quenneville in November of 2018, has never really seemed to fully get his group playing the brand of hockey from Blackhawks squads of yore, but that may not be his fault. After all, Quenneville is one of the best coaches of all time, and if he wasn’t able to get the team back up to GM Stan Bowman’s snuff, it’s hard to say that a first-timer like Colliton has ever really been dealt a great hand.
There is some good youth in the Windy City, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane remain impactful stars in the league, but the holes on this roster are quite evident. “Showtime” Kane shines brightest in all categories, with 33 goals and 51 assists for 84 points on the year, while 24-year-old Dominik Kubalik was very impressive with a 30-goal rookie season. Meanwhile, fellow youngsters Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome add some more youthful exuberance, while veterans like Brandon Saad (21 goals) and Duncan Keith (27 points) still contribute.
The health of Corey Crawford is always a question, and apparently that’s no different this time around. The oft-concussed netminder started 39 games and was present and
playing quite well when the season paused. In all, he turned in a 2.77 GAA and .917 save percentage, but just a 16-20-3 record on the year. News broke over the weekend that Crawford has been mysteriously ruled unfit to play, at least initially. With Robin Lehner traded away to Vegas at the deadline, that leaves Colin Delia, Malcolm Subban, something called Kevin Lankinen, and something else called Matt Tomkins to compete for the goalcrease, assuming Crawford can’t return.
What’s interesting is that these two teams have similar make-ups in a lot of ways; two superstars up front, a few veterans sprinkled through, some impressive young players, and question marks in net. The franchises are just in very different stages of their lifecycles, though, with Edmonton seemingly ready to reach its apex, and Chicago feeling very much past its prime.
As was stated previously, anything can happen in a five-game series, but with a Crawford steal appearing to be off the table, the smart money is definitely on McDavid and Draisaitl here.
Edmonton will win it in four games.