Wyshynski: Biggest headaches for NHL playoff contenders


At the start of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, 29 out of 30 people on ESPN’s expert panel believed the Colorado Avalanche would get through the first round against the Nashville Predators. Whatever concerns they had about the Avs, they wouldn’t hinder Nathan MacKinnon and the boys from advancing.

But those concerns manifested for later rounds. Only seven people picked the eventual Stanley Cup champions to win the big prize on the eve of the 2022 playoffs.

Maybe it was the goaltending. Maybe it was their inability to get over the hump in previous postseasons. Maybe the fancy stats weren’t fancy enough.

There are always flaws, headaches, concerns and consternation as the postseason nears. Some teams can overcome them. Other teams succumb to them.

Here’s a look at some of the trepidations facing current playoff contenders. We’ve opted to leave off teams that are floating around the playoff bubble, focusing on teams with a playoff probability of greater than 90% as of Wednesday. The biggest playoff concern for the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames? That would be actually making the playoffs.

Let’s start with our resident juggernaut:

Eastern Conference

I remember the first time I saw the Hope Diamond. It was at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. I walked around the 45.52-carat blue beauty, studying its cut while at the same time scanning for any imperfections.

That’s what it feels like to probe the Bruins for flaws. They’re on pace to set a new NHL record for wins in a regular season and tie the all-time points record. They could walk away with no fewer than three NHL awards for Linus Ullmark (Vezina Trophy), Patrice Bergeron (Selke Trophy) and Jim Montgomery (Jack Adams). They are quite good.

But they’re not flawless. They might have the NHL’s best penalty kill — 86% in 70 games — but their power play is more middling (22.5%), ranking 12th in the NHL. In February, their power play was at just 13% efficiency. In March, it’s up slightly to 16%.

Power plays don’t often tip a series either way, but it’s one of the few areas where the Bruins aren’t crushing it — and that’s despite David Pastrnak already having more power-play goals (16) than he had last season (15). They’re still the Hope Diamond. This is just a finger smudge.

If every critical playoff game for the Hurricanes could be like Tuesday night’s win against the Rangers, then Carolina would be in great shape.

It was a wild one: The Hurricanes tied the game at 1 midway through the third period, gave the lead back 31 seconds later and then tied the game again 18 seconds after that. MSG had the faint whiff of overtime, until the Canes forechecked their way to a turnover and Brent Burns generated the winning goal with a smart pass to an open Teuvo Teravainen near the net.

It was a reminder — and perhaps some proof of concept — that the Hurricanes might be able to withstand the loss of Andrei Svechnikov to injury, like they withstood the loss of Max Pacioretty to injury already.

In 10 of the Hurricanes’ past 11 playoff losses, they’ve scored two goals or fewer. I think a lot of people have written off the Canes as Stanley Cup contenders because of those significant losses of two top wingers — especially when Pacioretty was brought in to provide those playoff goals they were lacking. But Carolina is a respectable 12th in goals per game for a reason. It’s not just about Martin Necas and Sebastian Aho. They have 11 players who have scored 10 or more goals this season.

It’s just a matter of when, and if, they score them when it counts the most.

The Devils are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and could still end up Metro Division champions.

They’ve been an elite offensive team but, sneakily, an even better defensive one: fourth in goals-against average, and sixth in expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That defensive effectiveness will be vital in the playoffs, especially when you consider the questions surrounding their goaltending (Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, maybe Mackenzie Blackwood) as the regular season finishes up. They’re 13th in team save percentage (.899) since March 1.

The Devils’ goaltending, or the lack of playoff experience for much of their core, would be reasonable headaches to highlight here, but we’ll go with the line combinations of coach Lindy Ruff, which at times resemble someone dumping a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor and hoping for the best.

Ruff has always been unafraid to set the line blender to puree, and these Devils are no exception, especially after the deadline acquisition of Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks. He has spent at least 14 minutes on four different lines, although it looks like he might have settled on the wing of Nico Hischier.

That’s brings us to Jack Hughes and another problem for the Devils. He has 14 points in 17 games since returning from an upper-body injury on Feb. 18, but only two goals. Consider that he had 35 before that injury. Is that something lingering? Does Ruff have to tinker until he finds a line that reignites his young star’s goal-scoring? Is Jack just waiting to unleash his powers until younger brother Luke joins the team after the Frozen Four?

The amount of concerns about the Maple Leafs in the playoffs could fill a semester of Psych 101.

Can a healthy Ryan O’Reilly give them playoff valor through osmosis? Will Ilya Samsonov‘s regular-season resilience lend itself to playoff adversity, or can Matt Murray recapture the playoff magic if he’s healthy? Can the Maple Leafs beat the Lightning in a seven-game series? Can they beat anyone in a seven-game series?

Here’s a more immediate concern: Since the March 3 trade deadline, the Leafs are 17th in the NHL in percentage of shot attempts at 5-on-5 (50.7%). This is a bit surprising when one considers that they were 11th in the category (51.3%) in the months leading up to the deadline.

Some growing pains are to be expected after adding so many new players. Plus, O’Reilly’s absence to injury hasn’t helped. There’s still some runway left before the playoffs to trend back in the right direction. The more the Leafs possess the puck, the less they have to worry about their goaltending having to win a series. It’s that simple.

New York Rangers: Win marathons, not just track meets

Again, not to read too much into one regular-season game, but the Blueshirts’ Tuesday night loss to the Hurricanes was a reminder about pace of play.

There’s a pace at which the Rangers like to play, allowing their offensive stars to find ample space to make magic. There are few teams in the East that can beat you in as many ways as the Rangers’ offense can, whether it’s Artemi Panarin dishing passes or Chris Kreider at the net front or an Adam Fix bomb from the blue line.

Depending on the opponent, the playoffs don’t always offer that pace. The Hurricanes certainly don’t. So for 40 minutes on Tuesday, they tilted the ice playing the style of hockey in which they dictate terms, and Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba didn’t like that.

“They were on top of us most of the game. We wouldn’t create space for ourselves to move out of the zone because we didn’t win the 50-50s. When that happens, you’re standing still with the puck when you get it,” he said. “Our puck support wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t our best.”

They’ll need their best, every night, to endure in the Eastern Conference meat grinder — no matter at what pace the game is played.

The Lightning have known they’ll be facing the Maple Leafs in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs since, like, Christmas 2022. So they’re on autopilot, even if coach Jon Cooper tried to give them a little turbulence by benching Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point earlier this month.

They’re not a concern. Nor are Victor Hedman or Andrei Vasilevskiy, their other two organizational pillars. Brandon Hagel (27 goals) and Alex Killorn (22 goals) are dependable, too. They’re a team with enough familiar names from previous triumphs that one wonders if they can’t go 3-for-4 in the past quartet of Stanley Cup Finals and win again.

But at some point, does attrition catch up to the Lightning? They lost Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in the summer of 2021 and became a Stanley Cup runner-up. This past offseason they lost Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh, two of their most vital playoff performers of the past three postseasons. They also lost Jan Rutta, who played a ton with Hedman.

The good news is that their bottom six has been solid. The line of Ross Colton, Patrick Maroon and Nick Paul has been arguably their best defensive trio when together. Putting Tanner Jeannot with Corey Perry would seem to maximize the team’s potential for agitation.

The bad news is that those defensive losses are still being felt. Hedman has really clicked with only one partner this season analytically: Mikhail Sergachev, whom they need on another pairing for balance. The Lightning are still good on the back end. But are they championship quality?

Western Conference

The last time Stone was on the ice was Jan. 12, right before the Knights’ captain was shut down for back surgery. There’s no timetable for his return, although the hope has always been that he could compete in the playoffs if the Golden Knights qualified.

Well, they’ve done more than that. The Golden Knights entered Wednesday with a 45% chance of winning the Pacific Division. They’ve have gone 16-8-4 without him. They’ve managed.

There are obviously other areas of concern for Vegas — although the early returns on Jonathan Quick have been promising for their goaltending. But the difference between the Golden Knights making the playoffs and the Golden Knights as a serious championship contender is a healthy Mark Stone.

He’s an offensive force, a defensive force and a palpable leader on the ice.

In reference to Oettinger, coach Pete DeBoer said recently that the Stars are “riding him right now.”

That’s an understatement: With 11 games remaining on their schedule, Oettinger has played 54 games, the most in his three-year NHL career. His save percentage has declined in consecutive months and sits at an un-Otter-like .883 for March.

An injury to Scott Wedgewood really left them no choice because Matt Murray — the other one — was their backup option. In two games, he yielded seven goals. So it was Oettinger, Oettinger and more Oettinger.

Hopefully he gets some rest and is ready for the postseason. Before, you know, he starts making 64 saves in a game again like he did in his star-making playoff performance in 2022.

The Kings have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the last month. They’re on a 9-1-3 run. The metrics that had some questioning their validity as a contender have caught up to their success in the standings. True to form, their main problem heading into the postseason is a good problem to have: Which successful goaltender should grab the crease?

Joonas Korpisalo is 3-0-1 in his four appearances, with a .921 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average. Pheonix Copley is 22-4-3 with 6.2 goals saved above expected this season, having been the Kings’ only reliable goalie before Korpisalo arrived at the trade deadline.

Does coach Todd McLellan name one starter for the playoffs? Does he rotate? Are there any politics involved with a late arrival claiming the crease that Copley has ably occupied, even if Korpisalo has more postseason experience?

Again, a lot of teams would love to have this kind of problem.

Minnesota Wild: Can the offense keep rolling?

Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Devils, Minnesota had averaged 4.8 goals per game since March 9. That date is significant, because that’s when the Wild announced that Kirill Kaprizov could miss up to a month with a lower-body injury.

While this brief application of the Ewing Theory has certainly benefited the Wild in the standings, no doubt their fingers are crossed that a player with nine goals in 13 career playoff games makes it back into the lineup for the postseason. Despite this recent success, they obviously need their MVP back and healthy.

The Wild are a fascinating team right now. They’ve been among the best defensive teams analytically all season, and are currently fifth in expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They’re getting great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson; in fact, it’ll be an interesting call to see who gets the nod there.

Imagine what this team looks like if the past six games of offensive steamrollering are a tease of what’s to come. Especially with Kirill The Thrill hopefully back and healthy.

Entering Wednesday night, the Oilers were 11th in expected goals against per 60 minutes. They were 20th in goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That means what the team is doing defensively should yield better results on the scoreboard. That it hasn’t is very much because it’s 19th in team save percentage.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl might have their record-breaking campaign undercut by insufficient goaltending. Rinse, repeat.

Jack Campbell is at minus-22 goals saved above expected, per Money Puck. That ranks 54th in the NHL among goalies who have played at least 20 games. If he’s the answer in goal, it’ll be the most shocking thing to happen in the playoffs since 24 teams entered two bubbles.

The greater hope is that rookie Stuart Skinner can save the day. There might be some reasons to believe. For example, he’s eighth in even-strength save percentage (.923), which is where the Oilers will need him at his best. After two rough months, he’s finishing strong in March. When a team has the kind of talent up front that Edmonton has, the bar is typically set at “just don’t cost us the series.” Skinner could clear that.

Denis Malgin is a great story. A five-year veteran depth forward, the Avalanche’s shrewd, data-driven front office acquired him from the Leafs last December. He’s playing in their top six because of injuries — and producing points. Again, great story right now. Not ideal for the playoffs.

The Avalanche don’t know when and if Gabriel Landeskog will return, although he’s skating again. Artturi Lehkonen is out because of a broken finger. Evan Rodrigues, the versatile forward who could have moved up the lineup on left wing, is in the concussion protocol.

Colorado has played through a medical chart’s worth of injuries this season and managed to remain in the playoff picture. We know what the Avalanche can do when healthy. At the very least, one hopes that Lehkonen is back in the lineup at the start of the postseason.

Where have you gone, Andre Burakovsky?

Oh, Seattle. That’s right.

Burakovsky is currently out for Seattle and has been since Feb. 7. It needs him for a lot of reasons, and the power play is one. Burakovsky had the highest average ice time on the man advantage (2:35 per game) of any Kraken forward.

Seattle’s special teams overall haven’t been all that special. Their power play is 23rd in the league (19.3%). Their penalty kill is … woof. The Kraken are 27th in the NHL on the kill (74.4%), the lowest percentage for any team currently holding down a playoff spot.

The bummer about those special teams struggles is that the Kraken are incredible at 5-on-5, where no team has scored more goals (178) than Seattle — not even Boston. They’re a respectable 12th in 5-on-5 defense, too. But the power play and the penalty kill have some catching up to do.

Some of these flaws could keep great teams from greatness. Others are just bumps on the road to glory. The Stanley Cup playoffs will reveal all.

Jersey Foul of the week

From Calgary, Alberta, Canada:

For the record, this is not the best custom jersey we’ve ever seen, but it is a nice Nickname Foul in honor of Milan Lucic. We have to hand out a demerit for the lack of an exclamation point. If you’re going “LOOOOOOCH,” go all the way.

Video of the week

Look, we’re not saying every application of deep fake technology is for the betterment of society. Just this one, featuring digital avatars of Connor McDavid and Kailer Yamamoto, who no one puts in a corner. Well, I mean, unless he’s retrieving a puck I guess.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Connor McDavid

Kudos to the Oilers star for using the success of the World Baseball Classic to ask when, exactly, the NHL will participate in another best-on-best tournament.

“Look, everyone is talking about baseball, ‘Did you see Ohtani vs. Trout?’ and that’s what hockey’s been missing for almost a decade now. That’s what we’ve been asking for,” he said. The next World Cup of Hockey can’t get here soon enough … and hopefully in-season this time rather than in the preseason.

Loser: Defense

Through Wednesday night and 1,130 games, the NHL is averaging 3.19 goals per team per game. That would be the highest average since the 1993-94 season (3.24). That was the season Pavel Bure hit 60 goals and Wayne Gretzky hit 130 points — two marks McDavid will have obliterated by the end of the weekend, most likely.

Winner: Tom Wilson

The Washington Capitals winger is public enemy No. 1 for several franchises. But when asked “Which player do you least enjoy playing against, but would like to have on your team?”, 8.1% of the NHLPA poll respondents answered Tom Wilson. A badge of honor.

Losers: Hot takes

What happened to the NHLPA Players Poll? It used to be a place where players could anonymously offer hot takes on the NHL’s most overrated team (Vancouver Canucks, 2012) and which arena has the worst ice (BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, 2018). Now it’s questions about Auston Matthews‘ shoes. Bring back the snark!

Winner: Jared Bednar

Congrats to the Colorado Avalanche head coach on his three-year extension, which kicks in after the 2023-24 season. It’s still wild to think about how a successful AHL coach took over a team on Aug. 25, 2016, when Patrick Roy lost his smile; oversaw a .293 points percentage season; but then won the Stanley Cup six seasons later before securing the contract bag this week.

Loser: Reverse Retro

As part of the NHL’s new 10-year deal with Fanatics to make their jerseys, the Reverse Retro jersey gimmick will be vaulted. Farewell, our freaky friends. We’ll always remember those Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks fits from this season.

Puck headlines

  • Everything you need to know about the NHL’s deal with Fanatics, including this from the NHL’s Brian Jennings: “I understand there may be, initially, some trepidation [from fans], but I do have a lot of confidence in the team at Fanatics.”

  • Russia and Belarus teams were excluded by the International Ice Hockey Federation from all its world championships next season, including the women’s event in the United States.

  • Is Zack Kassian having one of the 20 worst offensive seasons in NHL history?

  • Five teams in need of a rebuild this summer. On the Penguins: “It’s clear that the glory days are over. Even if the Penguins make the playoffs, they’re not Stanley Cup contenders. In fact, they haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. With one of the shallowest prospects pools in the league, they could fall even further as age catches up with Crosby, Malkin and Letang over the remaining tenures of their contracts.”

  • Inside Team Trans Twin Cities, the first regional chapter of Team Trans, a hockey team believed to be the inaugural American-based sports team composed entirely of transgender and nonbinary players.

  • Dom Luszczyszyn looks at star power vs. depth in the playoffs. “Hockey may be the ultimate team game where every role, player and role player matters. But within that dynamic, there’s an opposing truth that they only matter as much as the players at the top of the hierarchy dictate.”

Watch ‘The Drop’

“The Drop” returns to ESPN+ and all ESPN social channels on Thursday night at 6 p.m. ET! Meanwhile, check out last week’s edition featuring the NHL’s most hated players.

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