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“Have You Ever Seen Semi-Pro?” An NHL Playoff Preview

Aug 12 2020
Sam Gagner
Detroit Red Wings
Aug 12 2020

We here at The Players’ Tribune have no idea what’s going on in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Leafs? The Oilers? The Pens? What’s happening? The qualifiers have left us completely unprepared for what’s coming next.

So we called in a couple of big guns to make sense of the remaining 16 teams, and to break them into tiers:

The Favorites.

The Contenders.

The Outsiders.

Let’s get it.


Sam Gagner
Hilary!

Hilary Knight
Sam!

Sam
Nice to … virtually meet you, I guess?

Hilary
Yeah, nice to meet you, too.

Sam
This is a bit awkward, you know, being over the phone and all that….

Hilary

Sam
What are we talking about here?

Hilary
Hockey.

Sam
Right. Where do we start?

Hilary
At the top?

Sam
Bruins.

Hilary
Bruins.

The Favorites

Boston Bruins

Sam
How much weight are you putting into them being 0–3 in the round-robin?

Hilary
Not a lot. I think with a team like the Bruins who have such an incredible leadership group — they’re able to flip the switch when the games really matter. That’s not to say they weren’t taking the round-robin games seriously. There’s no doubt in my mind they wanted the highest seed possible. But that group … they’ve been through it all, you know? They’ve seen it all.

Sam
Right, and their routine is probably a big part of their success as well. A lot of those guys have been together for a while and there’s a cadence, a rhythm to their lives, practices and game days that, I’m guessing, has been hard to replicate for them in the bubble.

Hilary
Obviously that’s the case for all the teams, but when I see what’s happening on the ice right now with them, they haven’t looked like themselves. The speed, intensity and crispness has all been just off. I bet that changes come the first round.

Sam
Bergeron, Marchand and Chara will have them ready to go against Carolina. There’s probably been quite a bit of on-ice prep for that series, of course. But within the leadership group, they’ve got to find a way to make it feel like the playoffs. They’ll get themselves there.

Carolina Hurricanes

Hilary
Speaking of the Canes, they deserve to be in this category, right?

Sam
Definitely.

Hilary
Four wins from the Cup finals last year. It starts with Rod Brind’Amour behind the bench for me. When you look at the roster, there are a bunch of young guys with untapped potential. I think that can be difficult to handle sometimes, in terms of how you get them all going in the same direction at the same time. His calmness and demeanor is really evident in their play.

Sam
You are right on with the Brind’Amour point. He really has the Canes playing a great brand of hockey. They place with pace and skill, and there isn’t a guy that exemplifies this more than Sebastian Aho. He’s the engine of this team and I love the way he plays. He can beat you in a number of different ways and as a teammate when you see a guy with that skill level doing everything it takes to win it really takes you to another level.

Hilary
I feel like they’re one of the more creative teams, too. They just throw stuff up against the wall and hope it sticks. Some of their power-play setups, I’m like, I’ve never seen that before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. They’re one of the most entertaining teams to watch, and one of the toughest to play against, I’d imagine.

Sam
They play with a ton of pace, it’s exhausting. Every shift, when you’re in their end, you know that one loose puck and you’re going to have to get on your horse and get back to your own end.

Hilary
When you’re able to switch-up your looks, show the opposing team different things every night — that’s going to compound, and by Game 6 or 7 the other team is going to be questioning themselves. Combine all that with the speed they have … I’d want to avoid them. The Bruins will have their hands full.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Sam
If Tampa played Carolina, that would be one heck of a series.

Hilary
A lot of speed, even more skill.

Sam
Do you think the Lightning have some scar tissue from the Columbus series last year?

Hilary
You’ve gotta use that to your advantage, I think, right? Like look, it happened. There’s nothing you can do about it now. Last year they were otherworldly in the regular season. They set all those records and played an incredibly entertaining brand of hockey. And then four games against the Jackets made everyone forget that. It’s tough. But you’ve gotta use that feeling — that anger, disappointment — and let it fuel you again. Because….

Sam
It’s Columbus again.

Hilary
Again.

Sam
Yeah, I mean, they need to look at last year and see the bigger picture. The goal is to win a Stanley Cup. And even though, when you win, it’s only one year that your name goes on it, it’s really about the years and years of work that lead up to that moment. Look at Washington. All those playoff losses, all those hiccups, all those expectations they never met. But in the end, they finally got there. Ask those guys if all that heartbreak was worth it. I bet it was.

Hilary
They can not only use the emotional part of that loss, but they can also use the tactical part. Columbus found them out pretty quickly when they had time to prepare for the series. Obviously it took a great team in the Blue Jackets to execute the plan, but they made Tampa look a little one-dimensional. If the Lightning can adapt, adjust — they’ll be fine. Probably better than fine. They’ve got all the pieces. Sometimes the hardest part is just putting them all together.

Sam
Who else from the East can we fit in here?

Philadelphia Flyers

Hilary
Philly.

Sam
Carter Hart. Pretty sick.

Hilary
Sooooooo sick.

Sam
They went 3–0 in the round-robin and look like one of the best teams in the league. When I was there in the ’15–16 season, it was a great group of guys. Awesome fans, too. I remember there was a lot of talk about the prospects and young guys they had, and I think that’s coming to fruition right now. Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim, Cart — to see them all playing pivotal roles in their success this year is just validation for all the hard work that went on behind the scenes to build this team.

Hilary
Feel like they’ve always been almost there. But this iteration seems like the real deal. They can roll four lines and not miss a beat, which hasn’t always been the case. That’s solid depth. I look at a guy like Scott Laughton, who led them in points in the round-robin, and it shows that they can get scoring from any line. That’s the sort of thing you need in the playoffs. Every team who goes deep has that guy — that line — who steps up for a series. I see lots of guys like that in Philly.

Sam
They’re a tight-knit group. Everyone who is there and wears that sweater has to buy in. Their leadership, from Claude to Coots and so on down the line, they make sure you’re part of the team, part of the family. It’s not like that everywhere you go in the league. They’ve been through a lot, they’ve seen a lot. Before you know how to win, you gotta learn how to lose. I hope they go far. They’ve been a blast to watch since the restart. Carter Hart against Carey Price is going to be awesome.

Vegas Golden Knights

Hilary
To the West?

Sam
To the West.

Hilary
Vegas. Solid. Top to bottom, they can’t be a good matchup for anyone. During that expansion year, I remember everyone just waiting for the balloon to pop with them, and it never did. No way they’ll make the playoffs … no way they’ll win a round … no way they’ll make the Cup finals. They didn’t get past the Caps, but they showed everyone that their group is as good as anyone in the league. They haven’t missed the playoffs yet, and I think it’s pretty clear why. No holes in the team.

Sam
Completely agree. And when you can add a guy like Mark Stone, who has got to be one of the most underrated players in the league, it’s pretty unfair.

Hilary
I’m trying to think who the lack of fans could hurt the most. Could Vegas be one of those teams?

Sam
It’s funny, actually: I was never afraid or intimidated going into Vegas. It was actually the opposite. The fans are so great there that you actually get so excited to play, that it brings out the best in you. Everyone is up for those Vegas games. Obviously, I believe in home-ice advantage, but it’s a double-edged sword sometimes. Would you rather play this Golden Knights team with fans or no fans? I think it’s a tougher question than it may seem.

Hilary
Yeah, that’s a great point. Personally, I love playing on the road because you feed off that energy in the stands.

Sam
For sure. Fans or no fans, though, this Vegas team is 3–0 so far and has scored 14 goals in three games. Chicago will be a good test for them but they aren’t fresh-faced newcomers anymore. Vegas knows how to win.

St. Louis Blues

Hilary
Can’t do the favorites without including the defending champs, right?

Sam
Right.

Hilary
I wonder if the break could really help a team like St. Louis. They were playing great before the break, but winning a Cup and trying to defend it with another long playoff run has got to wear on the body.

Sam
Absolutely. And they play such a hard style of hockey that this chance to get their legs back under them will help, no doubt. I think their forward depth is what separates them this year. They can rotate guys in and out of the lineup, and some nights they have really, really good players scratched because they know the importance of rest, of keeping guys fresh.

Hilary
Up the middle, they’ve got like five or six guys that can win draws: O’Reilly, Bozak, Schenn, Barbashev, Thomas, Sundqvist. That sort of internal competition goes a long way because, as a player, you know there’s a person right behind you who is working just as hard as you are to take your spot. That’s one of the often forgotten elements of good depth.

Sam
They play the perfect type of game to succeed in the playoffs. If they get by Vancouver, the further they go, the harder they’re going to be to beat.

The Contenders

Colorado Avalanche

Hilary
I really wanted to suggest Colorado as being a favorite, but I think they’ve got to prove it. Because they have all the talent in the world, they really do.

Sam
Agreed. It starts with Nathan MacKinnon for me. He’s one of the two best players in the league. He does everything at such a high speed he’s unplayable sometimes. But what I really like about his game the last few years is his ability to slow it down, to make the right decision under pressure. That’s how he’s elevated his game in my eyes.

Hilary
He’s pretty unreal. You put him with a guy like Cale Makar and they can transition the puck as good as anybody in the league. How Makar has made the jump from college to pro look so easy is beyond me. Defenseman is a position that takes years to really be able to figure out. Some of the best D-men I ever played with were late into their careers, because that’s when they had the experience — the knowledge — to truly excel at the position. But between Makar and Quinn Hughes in Vancouver, they’re reimagining what young defensemen can bring to teams looking to make the playoffs.

Sam
He’s so frustrating to play against. He just keeps the puck and it’s almost impossible to get it off him once he gets going. Arizona is going to be in tough trying to find a way to nullify his play.

Calgary Flames

Hilary
Gotta talk Tkachuk, right?

Sam
He’s one of those guys … hate playing against him, love having him on your team. He plays right on the edge. Sometimes he goes over and pays the price, sometimes he gets the outcome he’s looking for — which is giving his team a mental edge. I think Marchand comparisons are pretty spot on. Tkachuk is a heck of a player in his own right and he’s an important part of how the Flames play.

Hilary
Yeah, the Marchand comparison is a good one. The thing I respect about Tkachuk is that he’s always there to answer the bell. When he goes over the line he’s there to back up his actions. And on the skill end, when the team needs a big play, I see him step up time and time again. He’s polarizing, and I won’t quite say players like him are why we watch the games, but they’re part of it.

Sam
They’ve got a lot of skill all over the lineup. I think they’ve got some internal demons to overcome and things they need to prove to themselves and this matchup with the Stars is going to be really important for them. They need to get a series win under their belts. Then we’ll see what they’re made of.

Dallas Stars

Hilary
I think Dallas is a really interesting team. The foundation has been there for a while now with Benn, Seguin and Klingberg, and they’ve been trying to find the right formula to get deep into the playoffs. The young guys they have — like Heiskanen and Hintz — need to find a way to make a difference against the Flames, because you know Calgary will be looking to lock up Benn and Seguin.

Sam
Going out and getting guys like Corey Perry, Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski and Ben Bishop over the last few summers really shows what direction this team is headed. They’re built for playoff success. Do you think there’s an internal pressure on them?

Hilary
Maybe. But even if there is … they need to use it. I’m sure when they look around the room — especially the guys who have won Cups — and they see the talent, they realize they’re good enough to win.

Sam
That’s what’s great about the playoffs: Time to rise to the occasion. Dallas is capable of going on a really good run here.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Hilary
Another team that might have some internal pressure is Columbus. I think you can only play the underdog for so long, you know? In their room they probably don’t feel that they’re underdogs. But there’s no more sneaking up on anybody now. They’ve beaten some really good teams in the last few years and they’ve got bigger things in mind than just another early-round upset.

Sam
I know that team well from my time there, and the groundwork for the group they are now was laid a while ago. It starts on the back end with Seth and Zach — they’re unbelievable, and basically for 20–30 minutes a night you’re just not going to get anything to the net.

Hilary
Look at the Leafs, so much offense and they got shut out twice.

Sam
Exactly. Joonas and Elvis are a great one-two goalie combo. They make it easy on the guys in front of them because they know it doesn’t matter who is in goal. And tactically, Torts just gets you to buy in. He’s a great coach, who makes it clear to his players what he wants. He has his own way of going about delivering the message, but it’s a good one.

Hilary
Yeah, you can see when you watch the Jackets play that they’re incredibly disciplined. I know as a forward that, when I see how they set up in the neutral zone without the puck, it would make my life very difficult trying to transition from defense to offense. Almost every time someone is trying to gain their blueline, they stand them up and force a useless dump to the corner. They’re a tough matchup for anyone. If they get by Tampa, watch out.

Chicago Blackhawks

Sam
As soon as I saw the way Chicago got by Edmonton, I knew we had to include them in here. They’re still as dangerous as ever. They didn’t quite shut down Connor and Leon, because you can’t really. Like, how do I explain this? Have you seen the movie Semi-Pro?

Hilary

Sam
Where they do the alley-oop for the first time? And the ref is like, “People can’t just go flying in the air like that!”

Hilary

Sam
That’s what it’s like trying to defend Connor and Leon.

Hilary
Aren’t we talking about the Hawks here?

Sam
Right! What I’m saying, though, is that they found a way to get by one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league. I think sometimes we use veteran experience as a cliché too often, but Chicago knows how to beat a lot of different teams when it comes to the playoffs.

Hilary
When it comes to experience, I think the result of having been there and done that so many times is that, when the pressure is on, you know how to get your mind right. Toews, Kane, Keith — all those guys — they know to think their way around a Game 7. Now, there are young players who are just born with that ability, too. But those guys in Chicago are veterans and can show the rest of their team the way.

Sam
It’s cool. I think they might be underdogs against Vegas. Which is how their whole dynasty really started — as underdogs in 2009. If you counted them out then, don’t do it now.

Washington Capitals

Sam
Another team you can absolutely not count out: the Caps.

Hilary
They’re a bit of a different team than the one that won the Cup, but still stacked. I mean … Ovi, Oshie, Kovalchuk, Kuznetsov, Wilson … I can go on.

Sam
Those guys aside, Washington’s not-so-secret weapon is John Carlson.

Hilary
Once he was handed the reins, he evolved into a leader. He’s their No. 1 defenseman, and you can see how his game has grown with more responsibility and support on the ice.

Sam
He makes it easier for everyone. When you have a defenseman who can hang back, apply pressure, and then turn around and hit you square on the tape to drive it into the offensive zone … it alters the whole game. And as a forward, I can tell you that the less time I have to spend in my own end, the better.

Hilary
I’m with you, hands down. Any time a forward can spend less time in the D-zone is a good time. Carlson is so efficient at creating those opportunities for the guys up front and allowing them to get in those dead areas to find more space. His ability to shift the play opens up more opportunities for forwards because now they aren’t waiting around for the puck.

Sam
He’s an engine, just totally dominant throughout his entire shift. You can only hope that he gets healthy quickly. That’s the type of guy who can dominate a series because of how many minutes he can play.

Hilary
Once he’s back in the lineup, the Caps can hit another gear. The Islanders will be a good test for their forwards. Washington has been there and done that, and won’t get intimidated by anyone this summer.

The Outsiders

Vancouver Canucks

Sam
Let’s talk about Vancouver.

Hilary
Pettersson and Hughes really drive the bus, but they’ve got some sneaky good depth all over the lineup.

Sam
If Quinn Hughes could play the whole 60 minutes, I’d put Vancouver in the favorites tier. He’s similar to Cale Makar in his play. Guys like that are so frustrating to play against because you can’t hit ’em or forecheck ’em because … you just can’t catch up to them. His skating is so fluid and he never makes a wrong decision with the puck.

Hilary
He makes forwards look pretty silly. Especially with his shiftiness and the way he possesses the puck. He’s deceptive and spins around guys like it’s nothing. And, he’s only going to get better.

Sam
Vancouver’s also got one of the top centers in the league, with Pettersson. He has a knack for finding the puck in scoring areas and scoping out shooting lanes. It’ll be hard trying to stop him. He’s got his spot there at the top of the circle and he’s going to get to it no matter what you try and do.

Hilary
Pettersson is a human highlight reel. But a guy I love watching is Boeser. He’s one of the top-tier shooters in the league, and the power he can create from tight space is really impressive. When he ignites, forget it. There’s a reason he was the leading scorer a few years ago.

Sam
They’re really a team that can do some damage. Look at Markström — he’s having a career year. It’s all coming together for him now.

Hilary
It’s their first playoff appearance post-Sedins and it’s going to be exciting to see how they respond.

Montreal Canadiens

Sam
Are we underrating the Habs here?

Hilary
They did beat the Pens…. In that last game they had a complete team effort. They didn’t even have to lean on Carey Price, which is scary. They aren’t a one-man team of course, but he’s pretty special.

Sam
He really doesn’t have any weaknesses, does he?

Hilary
Nope. Even in practice, he’s fighting for every single shot.

Sam
He makes the hard saves look easy. It’s not like he’s out there making acrobatic saves. His on-ice presence is so calm. That’s why it is so frustrating for players. They put a hard shot on him, put it exactly where they want to, and he just bats it away like it’s nothing.

Hilary
The other team is just trying to find the back of the net. They think they have all the knowledge, the scouting reports prepped to beat him, but he’s almost impossible to fake out.

Sam
Is there a way for Philly to beat him?

Hilary
They’ve got to break it down situationally. He tends to take up most of the net. Do they need to move him laterally? Can they get a shot point-blank? Is it a one-timer? It really depends. Philly has some good shooters, but nobody who can do it on their own. You’ve got to make Carey uncomfortable.

Sam
Going into this series, the only way to maybe beat Price will be to get some traffic in front of him and try to find a way to break through.

Arizona Coyotes

Sam
Another under-the-radar roster here in Arizona.

Hilary
They really are a sleeper team. Nashville is a really solid team and Arizona looked well-deserving of going through to the next round. One of those teams that I really wish could have their fans in the stands, because they really deserve to see this team up close.

Sam
Yeah, I mean, they’ve got a really solid group there. A lot of offense and they play hard. Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, pretty sweet. Then they add Taylor Hall to the mix. He has been working his whole career for an opportunity to prove himself in the playoffs and I am really excited to see what he brings.

Hilary
They’re unpredictable. That can be scary as an opposing team when you don’t have much time to figure them out.

Sam
They’re looked at as a young team, but they actually have a lot of veterans to help guide them. They’ve got a couple of question marks for me as far as their depth and their back end, but hey, they’re here and that’s all that matters right now.

Hilary
Really looking forward to seeing them play the Avs — some incredible offensive talent on both sides.

New York Islanders

Hilary
Who would have thought the Islanders would win a playoff series in Toronto before the Leafs did? Jokes aside, this Islanders team is really well-coached. They remind me a bit of Columbus in how they set up. They look like a nightmare to play against.

Sam
Definitely. Trotz has done a nice job of getting every ounce of hard work and talent out of that team. Their entire system is set up to limit opportunities in their own end. And it seems to surprise the opposing team every time. They keep grinding you down and tire you out — and it doesn’t help that they’ve picked up some key pieces to add to their depth.

Hilary
You have a potential superstar in Mat Barzal, but I think Brock Nelson is underrated. He’s their game-changer. He brings that All-Star mindset and the whole team rallies together. I think they’re going to need those guys to be excellent if they’re going to get by the Caps. Their scoring depth isn’t quite as solid as Washington’s. That’s the key to the series for me.

Sam
Agreed, but Trotz and that group makes up for it with their all-in effort. The camaraderie among that team is going to take them far. And, like you said, Barzal is going to be huge for them. He can really break a game open with speed. They may not have elite depth, but they’re a true four-line team. They roll those guys and keep their stars fresh. As the games get tougher and the bodies wear down, I think the Islanders can outlast some teams.

Hilary
They’ve got great depth for a team that doesn’t necessarily have a bunch of big-name players. And Trotz knows how to get it done.

Sam Gagner
Detroit Red Wings