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5. Columbus Blue Jackets
The ninth-seeded Blue Jackets were on the outside looking in when the NHL season paused in March, so obviously the new 24-team format helps by getting them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, albeit with a tough qualifying round matchup against the Maple Leafs. The most notable returning player for the Blue Jackets is top-pair defenseman Seth Jones, who fractured his ankle in February. Jones was probably going to be out for the season if the normal schedule persisted, but he’s apparently good to go now that he’s had the extra time to heal. Jones was activated off of Injured Reserve in June and should provide a huge boost to a pretty shallow group of Blue Jackets defensemen.
Beyond Jones, Columbus actually has a few lesser-known players that should be back for the series against Toronto as well. Forward Oliver Bjorkstrand injured his ankle in February, had surgery on March 3 and was expected to be out for at least two months. Bjorkstrand was the team’s leading scorer when the season paused (21 goals) and was fourth on the team in points (36), so the Jackets will be happy to see him return. Columbus’ 20-year-old center Alex Texier is expected back as well after a back injury had theoretically ended his season and, on top of that, star winger Cam Atkinson was close to returning, too. Atkinson led Columbus with 41 goals in the 2018-2019 season and will surely be ready for the return to play in August. The Jackets are a betting long shot for the Eastern Conference (+3200) and the Stanley Cup (+6500), but getting all these players back will definitely give Columbus a better shot to make some noise in the playoffs.
4. Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights only had a couple of injuries to worry about when play stopped in March, but they were injuries to two vitally important players. Mark Stone, widely considered to be one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, was injured on Feb. 26 and was potentially going to miss the rest of the regular season. Stone is apparently ready to play again as of early July and it will be an enormous boost to a Knights team that was already one of the hottest in the NHL. Before the stoppage in play, Vegas had gone 11-2 over its prior 13 games.
In addition to Stone, the Golden Knights were also facing a lengthy absence from forward Max Pacioretty, their season leader in both goals (32) and points (66). Pacioretty should be ready in August as well, which will go a long way to re-solidify Vegas as one of the top contenders to win this year’s Stanley Cup. The Knights are the odds on favorites to win the Western Conference (+300) and among the favorites to win the Cup (+800).
3. Colorado Avalanche
When the Avalanche met the New York Rangers back on March 11, they were stuck with a roster that was missing several key players. Most notably, star forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen were out of the lineup. MacKinnon was facing just a one-to-two week absence, while Rantanen, who had been out since mid-February, was expected to return soon as well. Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky were also injured and fellow top-six forward Joonas Donskoi actually got hurt during the game against the Rangers. The Avalanche were dealing with injuries to almost all of the team’s top-end scorers and to top it all off, starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer had been out since mid-February.
Colorado was basically set to limp into the playoffs, but the long hiatus has given all of these players a chance to recover and get back to full strength. The Avs figure to have a full-strength roster when the Stanley Cup Playoffs get going in August and Colorado will have the benefit of playing some lower-stress games while avoiding a five-game series in the qualifying round. The Avs would have likely had most of the team’s players back for the playoffs regardless, yet the extra time to get healthy should still be beneficial. Colorado remains one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference (+350) and to win the Stanley Cup (+800).
2. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes were a relatively healthy team in March, at least in terms of quantity, but there was one key player missing that Carolina will be extremely happy to have back when facing the Rangers in the qualifying round in August. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton had surgery for a broken leg in January and was almost certain to miss the rest of the year, but the delayed season gives him a chance to get back on the ice and contribute in this year’s playoffs. Hamilton was fourth on the Hurricanes in point scoring this year (40) and is one of the most prolific offensive defensemen in the NHL, ranking fourth amongst defensemen in points per game (0.85). He’s also been excellent defensively, which is why he ranks in the top 5 at his position in WAR (wins above replacement) and GAR (goals above replacement) based on the metrics at evolving-hockey.com (on a per 60 minute basis).
Hamilton’s return gives the Hurricanes a much better shot to make a deep playoff run, but there is one more player coming back that should have a significant impact as well. Carolina traded for defenseman Sami Vatanen from the Devils at this year’s trade deadline, but Vatanen was injured when the trade was made and had a setback in his recovery, so it was unclear whether or not he’d make it back this season. Vatanen is now expected to be good to go when the playoffs begin, and his 23 points in 47 games will provide an additional boost to the Hurricanes’ back-end scoring.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have been one of the most injury-plagued teams in the NHL this season, dealing with extended absences for many of the team’s best players. Out of 69 games this season, Jake Guentzel missed 30, Sidney Crosby missed 28, Patric Hornqvist missed 17, Evgeni Malkin missed 14, Bryan Rust missed 14 and John Marino missed 13. Most of these players had returned by March, but Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon have since been ruled out for the season. Guentzel, on the other hand, was expected to be out until the 2020-2021 season but is now probably going to be able to participate in the playoffs thanks to the extra recovery time. Guentzel is one of the Penguins’ best players and one of the most impactful forwards in the NHL, averaging over a point per game with 20 goals and 23 assists in 39 contests this season.
Most hockey fans probably know of Guentzel, but they may not know much about rookie defenseman John Marino, who had just returned from a facial injury in early March. By the same GAR and WAR metrics where the aforementioned Hamilton ranks fifth, Marino ranks second in both categories; ahead of fellow rookies Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox. Much of the Penguins’ struggles in February and March (the team went 3-8 in its final 11 games) can probably be attributed to his absence, and his full health paired with Guentzel’s return to action seems to be going vastly overlooked. The Penguins are one of the few playoff teams who have seen its Stanley Cup odds drop in recent weeks (+1200 to +1600), but Pittsburgh is as talented as just about any team in the field.
Other Notable Players
Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Stamkos was expected to miss six-to-eight weeks after core muscle surgery in early March, so the extra layoff should give him more than enough time to get back on the ice for the playoffs.
Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues)
Taranseko had missed almost all of the 2019-2020 season after helping to lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup last year, but he was very close to returning from his shoulder injury in March and will almost certainly be ready for action in August.
Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Montreal Canadiens)
Domi could be forced to sit out for health precautions, but Kotkaniemi, who had surgery to repair an injured spleen in March, may be back on the roster for this year’s playoffs.
Chris Kreider (New York Rangers)
Kreider injured his foot in late February and was facing a multi-week absence, but he’s had more than enough time to get back to full strength.
James Van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia Flyers)
Van Riemsdyk suffered a broken finger in early March, but he was only expected to be out for about a month and should be ready to go for the playoffs in August.
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