After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!
No. 6 Nashville Predators (35-26-8, 5th in Central, .565 points percentage)
No. 11 Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, 7th in Pacific, .529 points percentage)
Predators: When it comes to their forwards, the Predators didn't really have any standout performances during the regular season, and instead relied upon a well-balanced, four-pronged attack with a quartet of lines all capable of putting the puck in the net. Filip Forsberg led the way in goals and points with 21 and 48 respectively in 63 games, and Matt Duchene wasn't far behind in terms of total point production with 42 in 66. From there, you'll find a bevy of skaters that all required at least 62 games to hit the 30-point mark, including Ryan Johansen (36 in 68), Nick Bonino (35 in 67), Calle Jarnkrok (34 in 64), Craig Smith (31 in 69), Rocco Grimaldi (31 in 66), Kyle Turris (31 in 62) and Mikael Granlund (30 in 63). Victor Arvidsson just missed the cut with 15 goals and 28 points in 57 games, a steep drop-off from the 34 goals and 48 points he notched in 58 contests 2018-19, but he was heating up towards the end of the regular season, and could be a major contributor against the 'Yotes. Nashville's focus on rolling four lines isn't going to change once the playoffs get underway, so look for Duchene and Forsberg (and perhaps, a rejuvenated Arvidsson) to lead the way offensively against Arizona.
Coyotes: Arizona's approach to offense during the regular season was actually quite similar to Nashville's, but it was even less potent than the Predator's attack – the Coyotes ranked 23rd overall in goals per game as opposed to Nashville's 16th overall ranking. Nick Schmaltz led the way with 11 goals and 45 points in 70 games, and Clayton Keller was right on his heels with 17 goals and 44 points, also accrued in 70 contests. From there, you'll find another pack of complementary 30-plust point skaters, including Conor Garland (39 points in 68 games), Christian Dvorak (38 in 70), Phil Kessel (38 in 70) and Carl Soderberg (35 in 70). The glaring omission from that list is Taylor Hall, who racked up 10 goals and 27 points in 35 games after joining the Coyotes in December, and who will undoubtedly be the team's most important (and likely most productive) forward during the qualifying round.
The Blue Line
Predators: The Predators blueliners were far more important to the team's success on offense than its forwards during the regular season. Norris Trophy finalist Roman Josi led the team with an impressive 65 points in 69 games, and despite missing six weeks of action due to a concussion, Ryan Ellis finished the campaign as Nashville's fourth-leading scorer with 38 points in 49 games. Josi and Ellis will combine to form the Preds' top pairing against Arizona, with Josi manning the point on the team's first power-play unit and Ellis doing the same on the second. It would hardly be a surprise if that duo ended up being the team's top-two postseason scorers. Mattias Ekholm will skate on Nashville's second pairing, and he's more than capable of chipping in offensively (33 points in 68 regular-season contests). He'll be flanked by Dante Fabbro, who has proven to be a capable top-four defender during his rookie campaign, but has yet to break out as a scorer (11 points in 64 regular-season contests). The Predators bottom pairing will be composed of some combination of Korbinian Holzer, Jarred Tinordi, Yannick Weber and Dan Hamhuis, but none of those players will get enough ice time to make a real impact, and instead will be tasked with avoiding mistakes rather than making plays.
Coyotes: The Coyotes' blue-line corps will be led by team captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who will form the team's top pairing with partner Jason Demers. Ekman-Larsson will be free to push the play up the ice at regular strength while the far more conservative Demers (11 points in 50 games) stays home to account for Nashville's counterattack. Arizona's second pairing will be comprised of the team's leading scorer among defensemen, Alex Goligoski (32 in 70) and Jacob Chychrun (26 in 63), both of whom will be featured on the club's second power-play unit. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Ilya Lyubushkin are expected to skate on the Coyotes' bottom pairing. Both are capable stay-at-home defenders, but neither will be counted on for much of anything in terms of offensive contributions.
Between the Pipes
Predators: The Predators have a pair of fantastic netminders in Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, making the team's goaltending situation one of its biggest strengths heading into postseason play. For now, it appears Saros has the inside track on getting the nod for Game 1 after starting eight of Nashville's final nine regular-season games while posting an exceptional 1.82 GAA and .948 save percentage over that span, but you can never count out a battle-tested veteran like Rinne, who struggled at times this year while posting his worst ratios (3.17 GAA, .895 save percentage) since entering the league full time in 2008-09, but who's undeniably more familiar and perhaps comfortable with the bright lights of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Coyotes: The Coyotes also boast a pair of top-notch netminders in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, who were largely responsible (along with Arizona's defensive scheme) for the 'Yotes finishing third overall in goals allowed per game this season. Kuemper was the team's No. 1 netminder for the first two and a half months of the campaign, making 25 of a possible 37 starts over that stretch, but he suffered a lower-body injury which ended up costing him over eight weeks of action, at which point Raanta took over as Arizona's No. 1 option. Both players posted pretty impressive ratios on the season, with Kuemper's 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage edging out Raanta's 2.63 GAA and .921 save percentage, but at this point Kuemper appears to have the inside track on the starting job heading into postseason play.
Both teams are expected to be fully fit heading into the qualifying round, so injury concerns won't be an issue for either side (at least in the early going).
Kyle Riley: I think the Coyotes' excellent defensive scheme and above-average goaltending will keep this series from being a complete blowout, but the Predators' superior depth at forward, vastly superior scoring talent at defense and wealth of playoff experience will end up being the deciding factors. Nashville in four.
AJ Scholz: Generally speaking, these forward complements are relatively equal in terms of star power and depth, however, that's about where the comparisons end. The Predators continue to feature one of the top blue lines in the league and the Yotes won't be able to matchup against the likes of Josi in terms of offensive output. While there are questions regarding who starts in goal for Nashville, if the club gets vintage Rinne, the series may not last long. Predators in four.
Jordan Buckley: Nashville sorely lacks a game-breaking scoring threat up front like a Hall or a Kessel, but Josi helps mitigate with his elite offense from the back end. Arizona's best days are likely ahead as its younger core players continue to develop, whereas the championship window with the Predators (and poor Rinne) seems to be closing. I'll take experience over youth here and roll with Nashville, but it's going to take a full series and a few lucky bounces. Predators in five.
Jason Chen: Will the star players please step up? Both teams made bold moves to bolster their offense but produced just two 20-goal scorers between them. Arizona has the edge in net with two quality goalies, but Josi and Ellis tilt the ice heavily in Nashville's favor. It should be a close, low-scoring series. Predators in five.
Evan Berofsky: This is one of those series where flipping a coin could be the best decision maker. The Preds possess more playoff experience, but the Coyotes can claim a multi-Cup winner (Kessel) and one of the league's top wingers (Hall). Nashville won't wow anyone with its 16th-ranked offense, while Arizona's third-ranked GAA may end up making the difference. Coyotes in five.
Jan Levine: Nashville is one of the teams hurt by the lack of home-ice advantage, as the Predators feed off their crowd. The X-Factors in the series will be the play of Kuemper vs. Rinne and Keller up front for Arizona. Rinne had an uneven campaign, and had Kuemper been fully healthy, he might have been a Vezina Trophy candidate. If Keller has a strong series, look for the Coyotes to move to the second round. Nashville has the advantage on the blue line, thanks to Josi, but the depth is not what it once was and Larsson helps narrow the gap. I am taking the Coyotes in an upset. Coyotes in five.