The NHL’s return-to-play is set to finally get underway this weekend with 24 teams jumping straight into a modified, expanded playoff picture to compete for the Stanley Cup. The league will be split up in two hub cities — the Eastern Conference in Toronto and the Western Conference in Edmonton.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the league’s restart and the teams involved in it, so let’s take some time to examine one burning question for every team as they prepare to resume action. We’ve already tackled the 12 representatives in the East, so now let’s take a look at the West’s representatives.
St. Louis Blues: How good will Vladimir Tarasenko look?
The pandemic shutdown may ultimately benefit some players/teams that were dealing with injuries before the stoppage. One of those cases is Vladimir Tarasenko with the Blues. Tarasenko hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury and undergoing surgery in October, but he’s set to make his return when the Blues get underway. The team was successful without him, finishing as the top seed in the Western Conference, but they were middle-of-the-pack offensively and Tarasenko’s presence could help in that regard.
But how effective will Tarasenko be after such a long gap between meaningful games? He’s one of the most prolific scorers in the league when at his best but it’s probably fair to expect some rust.
Colorado Avalanche: Can they take the next step?
The Avs have been gaining some momentum in the West for a few years and were one win away from making the Western Conference Finals last postseason. They’ve a strong core with a ton of young, exciting talent — headlined by Nathan MacKinnon up front and Cale Makar on the back end — and they appeared to be a top-tier, legitimate contender for stretches of this regular season. Are they on the precipice of establishing themselves as a conference powerhouse, or is that next step going to have to wait another year or two?
Vegas Golden Knights: Who gets the net?
This isn’t a question we expected to be faced with considering Marc-Andre Fleury has largely been the face of the Golden Knights since their inception, but Fleury has struggled this year. His .905 save percentage is his lowest mark in a decade and it’s part of the reason why Vegas went out and got Robin Lehner from the Blackhawks at the trade deadline.
Lehner has been very strong this year, even behind a sketchy defense in Chicago. He’s got a save percentage of .920 over 36 games — including a .940 mark in three starts with Vegas. Fleury is a fan favorite and has come up huge for the Knights in the past, but Lehner’s body of work this year suggests he’s got a more rightful claim to the crease.
Dallas Stars: Is their depth good enough?
The Stars had a bit of a tumultuous year and were sliding before the break, but It’s easy to forget that Dallas was one double-overtime goal away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champions last postseason. They’re very solid defensively and in net, but are very much carried by the offensive contributions of the front half of their lineup. Will the heavy-lifters in the top six provide enough to overshadow a lack of depth? Will they get some surprise contributions on the back end? Or will a weak bottom six be part of their demise?
Edmonton Oilers: How far can Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl carry them?
The Oilers had the two most productive players in the league this season in terms of point totals. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid directly factored into 49 percent and 44 percent of the Oilers’ total offense this year, respectively. Edmonton has some other notable talent on the roster but they’re very much a team that goes as their two stars go, and they’ll likely only advance as far as that electric duo can take them. Edmonton making the playoffs for the first time in three years is a step in the right direction but they may need to continue building around their pillars to make a serious run.
Winnipeg Jets: Can Connor Hellebuyck continue to bail out the defense?
Connor Hellebuyck is essentially the only reason that the Jets are in the playoff picture to begin with. He was arguably the best goalie in the league this season despite playing behind one of the league’s worst defenses. Winnipeg surrendered more high-danger chances than any other team in the league and Hellebuyck still managed to post a .922 save percentage with 22.4 GSAA.
For the Jets to have any real chance of beating top competition and making a serious run, the defense will need to make significant improvements or Hellebuyck will have to continue to be all-world between the pipes. I’d wager that the latter is the more likely scenario.
Calgary Flames: Can the offense pick up where it left off?
The Flames had the Western Conference’s best offense a year ago but they struggled to find that same explosive spark for a significant portion of this season, finishing 20th in the league in scoring during the regular season. However, that offensive group had a lot of momentum before the pause, scoring the second-most goals in the league over the final month and a half of the season. With that in mind, perhaps they’re more dangerous than the total ranking would suggest, or maybe the long break will force them to reset and work through the same struggles they dealt with at the beginning of the season.
Vancouver Canucks: Can Jacob Markstrom elevate himself to a new level?
The Canucks aren’t the most polished team in the West but they do have a lot of young talent and a reliable netminder in Jacob Markstrom, who was quietly among the best goalies in the league this year before getting injured in February. If the Canucks are going to make some noise this postseason, they’ll probably need Markstrom at his best. After healing up during the long break, will he be able to add to a great year by establishing himself as a game-changing postseason presence?
Nashville Predators: Can they get all pieces clicking at once?
The Predators were one of the most frustrating teams in the league this season because their talent level and underlying stats suggest they should have been much more successful than they actually were. The biggest problem with Nashville is that they rarely managed to put all aspects of their game together at once. Overall, they’re a good 5-on-5 team but their goaltending and special teams essentially undid a lot of the positive aspects of their game. (The Preds’ power play ranked 25th and their penalty kill ranked 29th this year.)
They did find a bit more success after replacing Peter Laviolette with John Hynes behind the bench, so maybe Hynes will be the one to get the team firing on all cylinders.
Minnesota Wild: Can they dictate games against superior offensive teams?
The Wild are in a bit of a weird situation in that they’re rebuilding on the fly and probably didn’t expect to be in the postseason this year. They’re not the most impressive or explosive offensive team but they often don’t need to be thanks to how they play defensively. When they’re at their best, the Wild are an annoying, pesky team that doesn’t give up much in the danger areas. If thery’re able to play to that style and dictate the cadence of games, they may be able to keep opponents quiet enough to find success.
Arizona Coyotes: Will they find enough offense to get by?
The glue that holds the Coyotes together is their goaltending (third-best in the league this year) and it’s the reason the Yotes have found themselves in the postseason hunt despite an offense that ranks in the bottom-third of the league. The scoring continues to be the most pressing concern despite adding heralded offensive names like Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall over the past year. Can Arizona find the scoring touch in the postseason, or will they consistently have to rely on goaltending to bail them out in low-scoring games?
Chicago Blackhawks: Can the power play get it together?
These aren’t the same Blackhawks that won three Stanley Cups in six years earlier this decade. This Chicago team is the 23rd of 24 seeds in the postseason and they’re certainly not without a number of issues. The most glaring, however, might be the lack of success that the ‘Hawks have found on the man-advantage this season. The power play ranked 28th in the league with a 15.2 percent conversion rate and that’s going to need to be much, much better if they’re going to get another taste of postseason glory. This is a team that’s going to need to seize every opportunity given to them in order to move on.