The unusual circumstances surrounding the NHL’s extended mid-season break have given teams a welcome change: (nearly) healthy rosters for the postseason grind.
Was your star player supposed to miss the rest of the season with an injury? That shouldn’t matter now. The extra healing time – aided by time spent at home and away from travel – has given players, both healthy and injured, an opportunity to heal up for what’s going to be one of the craziest playoffs in NHL history.
Starting healthy and rested is huge, as teams face one of the most pulverizing paths to a league championship in any sport. That’s especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, where players and teams have more to worry about than usual.
For these five teams, the league shutdown in March meant returning in August with a healthy roster. Here’s a deeper look at the clubs that benefited the most from the downtime, with key players returning back from injury.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Returning: Oliver Bjorkstrand (F), Cam Atkinson (F), Dean Kukan (D), Alex Texier (F), Nathan Gerbe (F), Ryan Murray (D), Seth Jones (D)
So you’re saying there’s a chance? The Blue Jackets had to overcome some incredible obstacles to get to this extended postseason. Fourteen players missed at least 10 games, six had at least two extended absences, and 21 players in total missed at least one game throughout the campaign. The Blue Jackets were forced to use a skeleton roster just to compete, and they still managed a way to tie the Toronto Maple Leafs for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Not too shabby for the team with the most man-games lost in the entire league.
But as we’ve seen so many times before, the regular season doesn’t matter if you can rise to the occasion in the postseason. That’s exactly what happened last year when the underdog Blue Jackets went from making the playoffs with two days left in the regular season, to sweeping the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Blue Jackets with no Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and – most importantly – MVP candidate Artemi Panarin. But despite this long list of departures, an inexperienced goaltending duo, and an injury wave that hit like the plague, the Jackets are still in the hunt. If CBJ was inches away from a playoff appearance in a normal year despite long-term injuries to players like Seth Jones, Jonas Korpisalo, and Josh Anderson, how good would that group have been if healthy? That’s what we’re about to find out with a near-full team in Toronto.
Returning: Anthony Angello (F), Zach Aston-Reese (F), Jake Guentzel (F)
It’s hard to feel bad for a team that had its future set in 2004 and 2005 by snagging Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby early at the draft table, before winning three Stanley Cups. That is, of course, after you take into consideration just how damaged the club was this season. Pittsburgh was missing at least one top-six forward at all times over the course of the entire campaign. It started with Malkin as the season kicked off, with Crosby missing two months just as Malkin returned to the lineup. Nick Bjugstad and Jake Guentzel both missed extended time and five members of the defensive unit were forced to sit out at some point. In fact, only the Blue Jackets had to deal with more injury obstacles than the Penguins this season. The Penguins had the talent to keep in the hunt, but Lady Luck completely ignored Pittsburgh’s pleas for help.
Despite all that, the Penguins finished as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, and they’re now the team most are expecting to have the easiest play-in round (against Montreal). The Penguins have the most playoff goals based on their current roster compared to any other NHL team, and a recent health scare to Crosby has been dealt with. Bjugstad and Dominik Simon aren’t expected to return in the near future, but Crosby is back at full strength after a brief pre-season scare to help the Penguins chase their third Stanley Cup since 2016.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Returning: Ilya MIkheyev (F), Morgan Rielly (D), Jake Muzzin (D)
The 2019-20 season definitely didn’t go as planned for the Buds. What started as an optimistic season for the franchise, with a realistic shot at the Eastern Conference title, was hampered with a coaching change early in the running, with the club just squeaking out the eighth-place seed in the east. Pre-season injuries to forward Zach Hyman and defenseman Travis Dermott forced the club to dip into its depth early in the going, only to lose John Tavares for a handful of games in October. Add in extended absences for Mitch Marner, Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Andreas Johnsson (twice and still ongoing), and the Leafs were ravaged by injuries to key players on what felt like a consistent basis.
The Leafs enter the playoffs without the services of Johnsson and defenseman Timothy Liljegren, but otherwise have a full roster ready to go. While Toronto could be without Johnsson for much of the postseason, the arrival of top prospect Nicholas Robertson plus a myriad of depth in their stable means the Leafs should be good to go. The most welcome return is that of Rielly, the Leafs’ top defenseman who missed the 23 games with a fractured foot and only got one game back before the pause. Add in Ilya Mikheyev, who was out of action since December 27th with a hand injury before making an instant impact in training camp, and the Leafs have a much-needed boost in what should be a tight battle against Columbus – and hopefully beyond.
Returning: Adam Lowry (F), Sami Niku (D), Luca Sbisa (D), Carl Dahlstrom (D)
When someone got injured on the Jets, it was never a short-term injury. Thirteen players missed at least seven games in a row at some point this season and quickly depleted the team’s scoring depth. On defense, Neal Pionk was the only defender to play a full season while Josh Morrissey was the only other defender to play in at least 60 games. Why does that matter so much? When you take into account just how bad Winnipeg’s defense was this season, any missing link on the blueline amplifies the struggles.
Heading into the post-season, the Jets are expected to start with nearly its full lineup. Forward Bryan Little, who has had some of the worst injury luck possible, will not return. Depth defender Anthony Bitetto was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier in the summer and his timeline is still unknown, although his illness began in June. The Jets had five skaters with at least 58 points this season, making it clear scoring wasn’t an issue, but getting defensemen like Sami Niku, Josh Morrissey, and Luca Sbisa back for the grind will provide the Jets with some relief in what’s been a rough year for the pre-season Cup contenders.
St. Louis Blues
Returning: Vladimir Tarasenko (F), Justin Faulk (D)
It’s not the number of players who missed time for the Blues that puts them on this list, but it’s WHO was missed. Forward Vladimir Tarasenko missed the final five months of the regular season with a shoulder injury, leaving behind a hot start that saw him post 10 points in the opening 10 games of the regular season. It didn’t hurt the Blues too much, as the defending Stanley Cup champions still managed to win the Western Conference title – but could you imagine the damage Tarasenko would have unleashed if he had been healthy?
Now that the Blues have nearly the exact roster they carried to the franchise’s first championship last season, all bets are off. Outside of Tarasenko’s injury, the Blues were never without their full core for anything beyond a few games, and the team’s depth came through when called upon. Having the likes of Robert Thomas and Zach Sanford step up in Tarasenko’s absence was vital to the team’s success, while the defense and goaltending were stellar as always. Tarasenko is a proven goal-scorer who has really picked up on the play-making portion of his game in recent years, and with all this time to rest and prepare, there might not be a player more ready to produce than him.
Which team will benefit the most from having a full lineup?