The NHL Return-To-Play operation will get underway in just a couple of weeks, and much of the tournament remains shrouded in unpredictability. What will the quality of play be like? How well will the NHL be able to protect their players, coaches and other personnel in the Toronto and Edmonton "bubbles"? What changes will be made to the broadcasts? Will Rogers Arena still be underwater? All of this is difficult to forecast despite the games quickly approaching.
Once those games do arrive, the unpredictability is likely to only increase. Short five-game series between sixteen teams in the middle of the NHL standings promise to be complete chaos, especially because those teams ceased operations seventy billion years ago on March 12th. Out of these eight qualifying series, one that is very intriguing for me is between the Western Conference's 8th-seeded Calgary Flames and 9th-seeded Winnipeg Jets. The only thing predictable about these clubs and their coming series is that chaos will thrive and that Connor Hellebuyck will be good (congrats on the Vezina Nomination, Connor!).
Flames and Jets fans may want to invest in heart medication, but for the rest of us, this series will put the "fun" back into "fundamentally flawed NHL teams".
The Flames and the Jets have a lot in common, hence them being neighbors in the NHL standings. Both teams have a plethora of star power, both teams have frustrating weaknesses, and both teams have seen their levels of success drop off this year compared to previous seasons. The Flames are highlighted by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano. The Jets counter with Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, and the aforementioned brick wall named Connor Hellebuyck. Both lineups are stocked with talent worth viewership.
Despite this impressive list of names, though, both of these teams were incredibly average and incredibly similar during the 2019-2020 NHL season, seen in the standings (both finished in the dead center of the league), in their goal scoring (the league average was 208 goals for, the Flames scored 204 while the Jets scored 213), and in their goal preventing (the league average was 208 goals against, Calgary allowed 214 while Winnipeg allowed 201).
This mediocrity comes at the heels of high points for both of these clubs. Calgary was the best team in the Western Conference last season, as the young stars all rounded into form and their captain, Mark Giordano, led a solid defensive group and won his first Norris Trophy. The team also got solid goaltending from a combination of the young David Rittich and the old Mike Smith, and went into the 2019 playoffs full steam ahead. That went poorly. Yet despite that setback, many pundits had faith the Flames would rebound this season and once again be able to compete for the Pacific Division and Western Conference crowns.
As for the Jets, they finished 2nd in the Central Division last season before losing in the first round to the eventual cup-champion Blues, but their heights came the season prior when they won their first playoff game in franchise history, followed by their first series, followed by their first trip to the Conference Finals.
Many believed that playoff run was a harbinger of what was to come for the youthful and highflying Jets, but a mere two years later, they are a mere imitation of that team, as many players have been shuffled around or shuffled out to be able to pay for their young core contributors. Dustin Byfuglien's departure from the team at the beginning of this season was their most critical loss, and many believed the Jets' lack of quality defense would cause them to be basement dwellers by Christmas.
These two teams, assigned very different expectations in October, now find themselves as mirror images of each other. How did this happen? Calgary spent the year underperforming, as Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Rittich, and many others on the team regressed after their breakout campaigns a year ago. Even Giordano, the team's stalwart captain, turned in half the production he put forth in 2018-19. Rittich dropped from 1.68 goals saved above average in 2018-19 to a paltry -4.35 in 2019-20. Cam Talbot, who replaced Mike Smith as the backup goaltender, actually far outperformed Rittich, posting a .919 save percentage and saving 7.53 goals above average in just 26 games played. Tkachuk led the Flames with 61 points in 69 games, helping them tread water in a season where they fired their coach for racist incidents and the team struggled through a period between January 12th and February 7th where the team won just two games. Despite a positive record, faith in Calgary has decreased significantly from where it was less than a year ago.
On the other side of the ice, the Winnipeg Jets had a much more positive campaign. This does not mean they played well. They did not, at least on the defensive side. Their offense was productive, if not a bit underwhelming considering the tools they boast. Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele each posted 73 points, with Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine finishing close behind 65 and 63 points, respectively. Their defense finished the season giving up 32.6 shots per game, good enough for 25th in the league (the Flames were 24th, of course). But the Swiss cheese on the blueline mattered little to goalie Connor Hellebuyck who's .922 save percentage despite nightly onslaughts but him in the conversation for league MVP. The man saved 22.40 goals above average, meaning if the Jets had received merely league average goaltending this season, they would have allowed 22 extra goals. Despite their fairly potent offense, it is Hellebuyck who is responsible for dragging the Jets into this return to play tournament, and if his heroics continue, he could drag them deep into the tournament's later rounds as well.
The Flames and the Jets have both arrived at the same destination- the Qualifiers. But both took very different paths to get there. Calgary fell from atop a mountain top, crashing and tumbling down less than gracefully, while Winnipeg cruised through a flood of scoring chances and shots against on their trusty boat, the S.S. Vezina Caliber Goaltending. But which team will continue their trek into the unknown.
Which team has better offense? The Jets. While the Flames' stars can certainly compete, they have to prove they can break out of their rut of mediocrity or prove that they can show up when it matters most (see: Gaudreau's first round last year). The Jets can ice a lethal couple of lines, as Scheifele is one of the league's best playmakers, Laine's game continues to round out to compliment his goal scoring prowess, Connor is coming off a breakout campaign, and Wheeler is as consistent as ever. These top guys are complimented by players like Nikolaj Ehlers, Jack Roslovic, and breakout defenseman Neal Pionk. The Flames tout better depth, with players like Michael Backlund and Andrew Magiapaine, but if the top guys don't get it done, Calgary will be in trouble.
Which team has better defense? The Flames. Despite steps back from a year ago, the group features Mark Giordano along with Noah Hanifin, TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, and Rasmus Andersson. Winnipeg got decent play from the aforementioned Pionk, along with Josh Morrissey and rookie Ville Heinola, but any team in 2020 that gives meaningful time to Luca Sbisa and Dimitri Kulikov is probably not in a good spot. Calgary all-around has a deeper lineup, and this is most evident on the backend.
Which team has better goaltending? The Jets. Even if Rittich hadn't regressed, or even if the Flames start the series with Talbot, it's the Jets. Even though there will be talented players all over the ice in this series, Hellebuyck may be the most talented of them all and will almost certainly be the most impactful player on the outcome of the series. If he plays to his caliber and the level he played at during the season, the Jets will be a task to defeat not only in this series but in the series to follow. If he starts slow or fails to reach his full capabilities, Winnipeg could be out of the tournament within a week.
Perhaps I've undersold the Flames here. They are a talented roster with the capability to at least compete with any team in the Western Conference. They played better as the season progressed and showed flashes of the squad that won the West a season ago. They could absolutely win this series. But in a world where chaos will reign, it is my belief that the goalies will reign supreme. I'm picking the Jets to win the series in four games, coming out on top in incredibly tight games that could swing either way. The elements are there for them to triumph in a tournament of unpredictability- they have stars that can score and a goalie that can steal games. The Flames will fight every step of the way, but in my humble and unprofessional opinion, it is the Jets who have a little higher yet to fly.
(Data from HockeyReference.com)