Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So far we’ve previewed the Edmonton Oilers versus Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators against Arizona Coyotes. We’re going to continue with the Western Conference today by examining the Vancouver Canucks in their series against the Minnesota Wild.
These are two franchises heading in different directions. Minnesota has looked lost for years. They’re not completely devoid of young talent, but they bet big on the idea that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise could play a big role in driving this team to greatness. However, this is the eighth campaign of the duos matching 13-year contracts and Minnesota never managed to do better than a second round appearance with the two of them. Now Suter and Parise are each 35-years-old and still eating up plenty of cap space. They’re still good despite their age, especially Suter, but the Wild’s window with them is closing and what’s worse is that it never looked terribly open to begin with.
It didn’t help that goaltender Devan Dubnyk had a disastrous 2019-20 campaign, posting a 12-15-2 record, 3.35 GAA, and .890 save percentage in 30 games. Alex Stalock picked up the slack and was particularly effective down the stretch with an 11-4-1 record and .920 save percentage in 16 games from Jan. 16 onward, but Stalock has only ever started in one playoff game and that was back in 2014. Combine that with the lengthy pause between the season and playoffs, effectively killing any momentum he may have built and the Wild’s goaltending is a huge question mark. That’s particularly problematic because it’s not as if their offense can be counted on to make up for that.
The Wild were the definition of a middle-of-the-road team offensively. They lacked star power up front with Kevin Fiala being the only player with over 50 points and just one of two Wild to score at least 20 goals. That said, they do have some depth. Seven different players recorded at least 30 points for them in 2019-20.
It’s still not enough to match up to the Vancouver Canucks’ offense though. Unlike the drifting Wild, the Canucks are a young team who seem to be trending in the right direction. J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson recorded 72 and 66 points respectively for Vancouver, making them the first and second best forwards in this series. Bo Horvat scored 22 goal and 53 points while rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes also came up big with 53 points. Of those four players, Miller is older than 25, having turned 27-years-old back in March.
They’re not the only young guns on the team either. Brock Boeser was the runner up for the Calder Trophy back in 2018 and he was one of the Canucks’ top players through Jan. 11 with 16 goals and 43 points in 45 games. He was limited to two assists in 12 games from Jan. 12-March 10 and missed time during that stretch due to a ribs injury, but he’s had plenty of time to get back to 100% and will provide the Canucks with yet another threat. Then there’s 23-year-old forwards Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, who aren’t proven top-six forwards, but are still scoring threats who might chip in a few key goals over the course of the series. Vancouver is a team with both top-line strength and depth.
If they have a weakness, it’s defensive. Jacob Markstrom is fine, but not great. He had a 23-16-4 record, 2.75 GAA, and .918 save percentage in 43 starts. There are also naturally concerns about the Canucks’ lack of playoff experience. As a franchise, they were last in the postseason back in 2015 so for a lot of their young leaders, this will be their first taste of playoff hockey. They’re not completely devoid of postseason experience though. Miller is a veteran of 61 playoff games, Tanner Pearson won the Cup back in 2014, and Alexander Edler has been in 65 postseason contests. Still, it all pales in comparison to the Wild. Minnesota’s Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Suter, and Parise, blow the Canucks out of their water in terms of playoff games with 58, 73, 78, and 97 contests respectively.
Is that experience enough to tip the scales? I don’t think so. Minnesota has plenty of playoff experience, but not much experience with playoff success. I do think that the gap between these teams is small so either one could viably win without it truly being an upset, but if I was going to bet on a team, I’d go with the Canucks.
Players to Watch:
Devan Dubnyk (MIN) – I mentioned Alex Stalock was hot before the pause, but Dubnyk has a fresh chance to reassert himself as the Wild’s starting goaltender. He doesn’t have much success in the playoffs, posting a career 8-18 record with a 2.72 GAA and .904 save percentage in 26 starts, but the high points in his career have been phenomenal. If he’s hot out of the gate then that can make all the difference in this series.
Elias Pettersson (VAN) – After winning the Calder Trophy in 2019, Pettersson avoided a sophomore slump by scoring 27 goals and 66 points in 68 contests. Now the 21-year-old will be in the playoffs for the first time and it will be interesting to see how he does with those high stakes. The Canucks will certainly be looking to him to be one of their leaders.
Ryan Suter (MIN) – Suter is one of the best minute eaters in the league. Under normal circumstances, he’d be heading into the playoffs after a long grind and be asked to play upwards of 30 minutes of night in spite of that. Having Suter be completely fresh coming into the playoffs is a big plus for Minnesota. The Wild will be able to lean on him heavily without fatigue or accumulated bumps and bruises being as big of a concern.
Quinn Hughes (VAN) – At the age of 20, Hughes is already one of the Canucks’ top defenseman. He’s also been an offensive juggernaut with eight goals and 53 points in 68 contests. Like Pettersson though, he has no playoff experience, so this will be his first taste of an NHL playoff series.
Mikko Koivu (MIN) – Koivu had a relatively quiet campaign, scoring four goals and 21 points in 55 games while averaging 15:34 minutes. His contract expires at the end of this run though and that might be it for his career. If this does end up being the last hurrah of the long-time Wild captain, it will be interesting to see how he goes out.