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.
Ryan Dadoun started Rotoworld’s Qualifying Round Preview with the Edmonton Oilers versus Chicago Blackhawks matchup and we will continue in the Western Conference with the Nashville Predators against the Arizona Coyotes.
Nashville posted a 35-26-8 record (.565 points percentage) in the regular season and will occupy the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Arizona went 33-29-8 (.529 points percentage) during the 2019-20 campaign and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 11 seed.
The Predators narrowly edged out Vancouver for the sixth seed thanks to three straight regulation-time wins prior to the pause of the 2019-20 season because of coronavirus concerns. Nashville appeared to be finding their game under new head coach John Hynes, with a mark of 6-3-1 before the shutdown. He replaced Peter Laviolette on January 6 when the club had a 19-15-7 record.
The Coyotes finished with their highest points percentage since 2013-14 and will look to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. Arizona was in danger of missing the playoffs after losing goaltenders Darcy Kuemper, who was having a Vezina Trophy caliber year, and Antti Raanta to lower-body injuries. They both returned prior to the break, but the team was dealing with some inconsistencies, while posting a 5-5-0 record.
Nashville and Arizona had their share of issues offensively in 2019-20. The Predators were 16th in the league in goals for per game played (3.07), while the Coyotes ranked 23rd (2.71). Nashville’s shooters peppered the goaltenders on the opposition with 33.1 shots per game, which placed the team fifth overall in the league. Despite Arizona’s struggles in the attacking end, the club finished 11th in the NHL in high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5, while Nashville was 23rd in that category.
The Predators attempted to bolster their depth going into the year with the signing of Matt Duchene, while the Coyotes were supposed to get a lift from Phil Kessel. Duchene got off to a hot start, but his scoring pace slowed afterward. Still, he ranked third on the team with 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 66 appearances. Kessel struggled with 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 70 games. It was expected that his production would drop after he posted big numbers with Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t believed that he would be trending toward his lowest goals per game output since his rookie year.
Nashville tried to spark the club with a coaching change, while Arizona acquired Taylor Hall in a blockbuster trade with New Jersey. Hall was Arizona's leading scorer with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 35 games following the deal. Nick Schmaltz (11 goals, 45 points) and Clayton Keller (17 goals, 44 points) were the only members of the Coyotes to top 40 points prior to the pause. The Predators were led offensively by defenseman Roman Josi, who had 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists) in 69 contests. He was second among all NHL defensemen in points and goals. Ryan Ellis was limited to just 49 outings, but ranked second on the team in points per game (0.78) after generating eight goals and 30 assists. Filip Forsberg was also having a strong year with a team-leading 21 goals and 48 points in 63 matches.
This has the makings of a low-scoring series. Arizona ranked third in the NHL with a goals against per game played of 2.61. Nashville had issues keeping the puck out of the net when Pekka Rinne was struggling following a strong October. That opened the door for Juuse Saros and he took over as the number one goaltender. The team’s goalie of the future may be the goalie of the present after he posted a 12-5-0 record in 19 games before the hiatus, while registering a 2.13 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Saros turned aside 549 of 587 shots, while posting four shutouts during that span. As previously mentioned, Kuemper was having a great year and it could be an interesting battle between him and Saros. However, it should be noted that going back to Rinne isn’t completely out of the question for the Predators, as coach Hynes said in mid-June that a starter for the play-in series would be determined after training camp.
The Coyotes stand a much better chance of pulling off the upset if they can take advantage of Nashville’s woeful special teams performance in 2019-20. The Coyotes placed 18th in the NHL on the power play (19.2 percent), while the Predators ranked 29th on the penalty kill (76.1 percent). Additionally, Nashville surrendered the fourth-most power-play goals against (51). Arizona’s penalty kill was the fifth-best in the league (82.7 percent) and the Predators finished 25th on the power play (17.3 percent).
Nashville and Arizona faced some adversity this season, but the players have a chance to put that behind them and put their squad in the running for a Stanley Cup championship. The Predators will look to lean on their experience, their superb defense corps and perhaps a different goaltender in Saros. That could be enough to put the Coyotes on their heels. Still, a healthy Kuemper stands a chance to steal a short series like this, but he will need some help from players like Kessel and Hall to make that happen.
Players to Watch:
Phil Kessel (ARI) - Kessel didn’t want to place the blame on injuries following his first season as a member of the Coyotes. Still, he mentioned that he feels better now than he felt all year, which is encouraging. Kessel is motivated to bounce back and having a strong series against Nashville. If he can help end Arizona’s playoff drought that would go a long way to helping him forget a disappointing regular season. He topped the Coyotes in power-play goals (nine) as well as power-play points (17), which could make him a difference maker versus a Predators team that struggled on the penalty kill.
Conor Garland (ARI) - Garland was a breakout performer for the Coyotes in 2019-20. He led the team with 22 goals and ranked third on the Coyotes with 39 points in 68 games. Garland had a knee injury before the season was paused, but he has fully recovered since then. He logged playing time alongside Schmaltz, Keller, Hall and Kessel in all situations, which could make him an intriguing under-the-radar option for fantasy GMs going into playoff pools.
Matt Duchene (NSH) - Duchene amassed seven goals and 13 assists in his first 24 games with the Predators. However, he went through some cold stretches afterward, while producing six goals and 22 points in 42 matches. Duchene signed a seven-year contract with the Predators last summer worth $56 million. He will be counted on to step up versus the Coyotes, especially on the power play. He contributed just five goals and 11 points on the man advantage during the regular season. The Predators’ depth down the middle provides the team with a big advantage over Arizona, but the club needs much more from that group in the qualification round.
Ryan Johansen (NSH) - Johansen had 14 goals and 36 points in 68 games during the 2019-20 season. He was admittedly disappointed with his play and feels he hasn’t been living up to the eight-year, $64 million contract he signed on July 28, 2017. Johansen’s ice time dropped under Hynes, but he’ll get a chance to earn his way back into the coach’s good graces when training camps open in preparation for the Stanley Cup Qualifier round. The team expects more from Johansen and he’s eager to deliver.
Viktor Arvidsson (NSH) - Arvidsson exploded for 34 goals and 48 points in 58 games in 2018-19, but he recorded a mere 15 goals and 28 points over 57 appearances in 2019-20. His shots per game declined to 2.23, which is below his career average (2.87) and nowhere near the kind of volume he was getting in his previous three seasons. Arvidsson also missed 12 games because of a lower-body injury. He will be looking to put a forgettable season in the rearview mirror when the Predators face Arizona.