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. 8 Calgary Flames (36-27-7, 4th in Pacific, .564 points percentage)
No. 9 Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, 5th in Central, .563 points percentage)
Flames: While the first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm will garner all the interest, and with good reason considering they racked up a combined 160 points this year, the second group is what may stand out in terms of matchup problems for the Jets. Matthew Tkachuk is coming off his third straight 20-goal campaign and almost certainly would have reached the 40-point mark were it not for the league going on hiatus. Mikael Backlund reached the 45-point threshold for the fifth consecutive year. Still, it's 23-year-old Andrew Mangiapane who could be the X-factor for Calgary on the heels of a career-best season that would almost certainly have included a 20-goal campaign if all 82 games had been played. The forward complement thins out significantly from there, especially with Sam Bennett and Milan Lucic struggling to produce most of the season.
Jets: Similarly, Winnipeg will rely heavily on its top six. With Cody Eakin brought into the fold at the trade deadline to replace the injured Bryan Little (ear), the club will be able to reunite Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the No. 1 line – a duo that combined for 138 points this year. Kyle Connor will round out the top unit and could be one of the top scorers in the playoffs after posting career highs in goals (38) and points (73). How effective the second line will be in this series will depend on if Eakin and Patrik Laine can mesh, having played in just eight games together this year prior to the shutdown. Nikolaj Ehlers will round out the top six and shouldn't face much in terms of a challenge for ice time from Jack Roslovic and Andrew Copp.
The Blue Line
Flames: On the back end, the Flames were once again led in scoring by Mark Giordano, but also saw Rasmus Andersson, Erik Gustafsson and Noah Hanifin reach the 20-point threshold. While the team doesn't have that one big point producer like John Carlson for Washington, the offense gets spread around. Without Travis Hamonic, Andersson could see more minutes and provide valuable depth production from the blue line.
Jets: This has been the weak point for the club all season after the departures of Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. In order to bolster the position, the Jets added Dylan DeMelo at the deadline, who should provide Josh Morrissey the defensive cover he needs to jump up in the play and chip in offensively. With the extra opportunities, Neal Pionk took full advantage by putting together a career year in which he set personal bests in assists (39) and points (45).
Between the Pipes
Flames: It seems like a no-brainer that David Rittich will get the starting nod for Game 1 on Aug. 1, but there could be an argument in favor of Cam Talbot after he put up better numbers in both save percentage (.919) and GAA (2.63), albeit in significantly fewer games. Regardless of who mans the crease, this figures to be the weakest link for the organization during the playoffs.
Jets: For all the uncertainty the Flames face in goal, there are none of those question marks for Winnipeg. It will be Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck tending the twine. In 58 appearances this year, he went 31-21-5 with a .922 save percentage and six shutouts, and how far the Jets go into the playoffs depends on his performance. Laurent Brossoit figures to serve as the No. 2 behind Hellebuyck.
Flames: Travis Hamonic has opted to sit out the postseason, which will give Rasmus Andersson more opportunities to get onto the ice. On the flip side, Noah Hanifin will be fully fit and ready to go after suffering a concussion in the final game of the regular season. 2017 16th overall pick Juuso Valimaki (knee) missed the entirety of the regular season after needing surgery last summer but has participated in scrimmages in July, so there's a chance he could be available to the Calgary blue line.
Jets: The club will get Luca Sbisa (upper body) back after he missed the last 11 games of the regular season, though whether he can secure a place in the lineup on a nightly basis remains to be seen. As mentioned, Little won't be available, which doesn't come as a surprise but is still a substantial blow to the Winnipeg offense.
AJ Scholz: In terms of forward depth, these are two pretty evenly matched clubs, and while the Flames likely have the edge on defense, it all boils down to netminding. The Jets will rely heavily on Hellebuyck, who could face significant pressure due to the shaky blue line in front of him. If anybody on these teams can steal the series, it's the 26-year-old goalie, which has me taking the Jets in four.
Kyle Riley: These clubs are pretty equally matched across the board, with the glaring exception of in goal, where the Jets will be trotting out Vezina finalist Hellebuyck while the Flames will have to rely on Rittich or Talbot, both of whom can't hold a candle to Hellebuyck. While I still think this series will be close, Helleybuyck will do more than enough to pick up three wins in five tries, leading his team past Calgary in five.
Jordan Buckley: Even without Little, the Jets have the horses up front to match up with arguably any team in the Western Conference. Their blue line leaves something to be desired, but that's mitigated by The Brick Wall Formerly Known as Hellebuyck – who happens to own a 1.97 GAA and .932 save percentage in eight lifetime starts against the Flames. Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk and Giordano will have their moments, but Winnipeg will prevail. Jets in four.
Jason Chen: The Flames' talented offense can't underperform forever. It could ignite at any moment and the defense is still better even without Hamonic, but the edge Hellebuyck gives the Jets is huge. He can easily outperform either of the Flames' starters. Jets in five.
Evan Berofsky: Another coin toss between two strong — yet underachieving — squads. Calgary finished the regular season on a scoring spree, while Winnipeg only allowed eight goals in its final six. Vezina favorite Hellebuyck mainly played behind a depleted D, so having a full complement of blueliners for the playoffs can only help. Jets in five.
Jan Levine: A pair of teams separated by one point. Both teams have issues defensively, though the Flames have better talent and depth on defense. Winnipeg's big advantage is in net, where Hellebuyck carried the team, but the Jets also should be too deep offensively for the Flames. If Hellebuyck struggles, the Flames could steal the series due to the Jets' suspect D. But I'll take Winnipeg in four.