Over the past few days you’ve heard pundits bemoaning the qualifying-round format robbing the playoffs of superstar players, and that’s certain to continue over the length of the post-season. Teams that possessed the most exciting players in the league had done enough to qualify for the typical 16-team playoff format, but were forced to jump through more hoops to make the official playoff round to make up for the fact that teams didn’t get a full season to prove themselves.
Several teams were worried that upsets were possible in this tacked-on round to the usual proceedings, and sure enough the two worst teams in the pool — the 24th-ranked Montreal Canadiens and 23rd-ranked Chicago Blackhawks — not only knocked off teams that finished fifth in their respective conferences, but evicted All-Star forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl from the bubbles as well. Some of the biggest names in the sport won’t be featured in the official 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs at all.
While it’s true that the somewhat gimmicky play-in series brought these teams’ demise, the structure of the tournament doesn’t take sole responsibility.
The Edmonton Oilers got excellent production from their Art Ross duo of McDavid and Draisaitl in their play-in series. McDavid exited the tournament as its goals-scoring leader with five, and Draisaitl finished with six points in four games — with a bonus of eight points from another first overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Goal-scoring was clearly not their issue, but preventing the Blackhawks from scoring was. Edmonton’s post-season began by surrendering six goals in the opening game, digging an 0-1 hole to put them on the back foot from the very first match of the event.
Draisaitl and McDavid aren’t exactly known for their defensive play, but despite being on the ice for just one more goal than they allowed, their scoring-chance numbers were very strongly in their favour. The problem was that only 85.3% of opposition shots were stopped in McDavid’s minutes, and an abysmal 80.0% in Draisaitl’s.
The Oilers scored 15 goals in four contests, an average of 3.75 per game, but couldn’t keep up with their opponent. There are 18 goalies with at least two games played across the two bubbles with better goals-against averages than that. Had the Oilers had one of them to start in Game One and backstop them through the post-season, they would still at least be alive in their qualifier, if not sitting pretty with a boatload of confidence for their offensive stars while they await a playoff opponent.
Pittsburgh had the opposite problem in their series with Montreal. Malkin was a non-factor for his club, recording just a single point through four games, outproduced by eight players on the Habs roster, including two 20-year-old centres playing their first NHL post-season games. With the second half of the one-two punch missing in action, it was all up to Crosby, who did an admirable job despite Montreal being able to focus most of their attention on him.
Some help from the bottom of the lineup would have been a major help. Even a minor amount of offence from the bottom six could have been enough to put them over the edge in the tightly contested series. Yet despite being a buyer at the NHL trade deadline, their third trio was no match for the depth of a team that traded two forwards away at that same point in the season.
Much of why Montreal was limited to so little offence — just 2.50 goals per game — was the play of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top-four defencemen. It was the third duo that Montreal feasted on. Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson were on the ice for six and five of the 10 goals, respectively, their team surrendered in the series. Rather than try something — anything — different, head coach Mike Sullivan stuck with the combination through the series, and the Canadiens took advantage of it to pull off the upset.
Hockey is very much a team sport, and you’re often only as strong as your weakest link. The best teams need to be solid from the top to bottom, and you can make a good argument that both the Canadiens and Blackhawks, while significantly flawed. were constructed better than their opponents despite the massive gap in their regular-season points totals. At the end of the day, Montreal’s depth eclipsed that of the fifth-seeded Penguins, and Carey Price (not exactly a no-name player in the league himself) outdueled the Pittsburgh tandem. Corey Crawford posted an unimpressive .891 save percentage for Chicago, and that was still better than Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen’s mark of .889, and miles ahead of the .783 Mike Smith posted in that disastrous opening contest.
To say that fans were denied the chance to see post-season runs from McDavid and Crosby is to completely ignore the recent history of their clubs. Pittsburgh’s 1-3 result was actually better than what they managed in a proper, asterisk-free playoff a year ago, getting swept by the New York Islanders when that same complement of superstars scored a total of six goals in four games. They’ve now won one playoff round in the past three years. You have to go back another year to find a modicum of success for the Oilers. Their last series win was in 2017, and they didn’t qualify in the two seasons afterward — or the 10 seasons before.
The qualifying format still had participating teams playing a series. It wasn’t a one-game elimination that could have been decided just by luck alone. All teams had ample time to prove they were clearly the better side in their matchups. Pittsburgh and Edmonton still had to lose their way out of the tournament, and based on those recent playoff results, their fanbases may have just been spared the one additional loss that would have come in a best-of-seven format.
You can lament the loss of Crosby, McDavid, Malkin, and Draisaitl from the playoff rounds, calling it a case of the NHL shooting itself in the foot by losing its household names and major marketing power in the process. The truth is that, unlike in basketball where you get small teams of stars with fairly predictable post-season trajectories, hockey very seldom follows a script. Even teams loaded with first, second, and third overall picks aren’t guaranteed to beat teams with lower-level talent. Plenty of craftmanship is required to build around those players.
Instead of watching the game’s top superstars, viewers will need to be content with watching the rises of young players like Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in Montreal, or Dominik Kubalik and Kirby Dach in Chicago, perhaps the future faces of their franchises, and soon-to-be stars whose breakouts were witnessed when they knocked off the best in the game in an odd little play-in tournament in the summer of 2020.