Look, I have no idea if this is going to happen. Frankly, I don’t think it is. Sports that are starting to get back in the swing of things are seeing the challenges that come with that. Here in Philadelphia, we heard about the local baseball team having to shut down its facilities in Florida after five players tested positive for COVID-19. And in hockeyland, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Friday that three people in their organization tested positive as well, and there are unconfirmed reports that Auston Matthews has also tested positive, along with multiple other NHL players out in Arizona. As we continue to inch closer back to sports leagues attempting to resume play, and as teams gather again as such, we’re likely going to hear more stories like these, and the more that there are, the further away the actual competition probably gets.
Nonetheless, the NHL has put forward its return-to-play plan, and it features twelve teams in each conference getting a chance at the Stanley Cup whenever things get going again. And with the layout of the tournament, the Flyers — who could end up anywhere between the first and fourth seed following a round robin tournament between them, the Bruins, the Lightning, and the Capitals — have roughly equal chances of facing basically any one of the eight teams seeded between fifth and 12th in the East bracket.
So while we still have the time, we’ll be talking through the Flyers’ potential eight opponents in the playoffs. How did their seasons go? What makes them a threat? What’d they do against the Flyers? Are they getting anyone important back from injury? Can they go on a run in this very strange format? All that, and more, as we look at everyone that we may grow to hate in a playoff series just over a month from now. (Or maybe not. Again, who knows. But we’ll talk here as if we do.)
We’ll start with the East’s ninth seed, the Columbus Blue Jackets, because I asked Excel to pick a random number between 5 and 12 and it chose 9. Very scientific. Onward!
Columbus Blue Jackets
Their season, in 100 words: They lost Panarin and Bob so everyone thought they’d stink. But they were decent! Not many true stars, but solid players through the lineup. Some decent forwards, Jones and Werenski leading the way on defense, surprisingly good goaltending. Started the season a bit cold, then really pulled it together around Thanksgiving, then all of their players got hurt. They managed to stay afloat thanks to good coaching (Torts should be 2nd in Adams voting) and goaltending (mostly from Elvis Merzlikins) but lost steam in February due to more injuries (Jones) and lack of top-end talent. But they’re a plucky bunch.
Team Performance: Columbus Blue Jackets
|Measure||Full Season||Since All-Star Break|
|Measure||Full Season||Since All-Star Break|
|Total Goal Differential (Non-SO)||-3||-13|
|Goals For % (5-on-5)||50.41%||42.65%|
|On-Ice xG For per 60||2.23||2.17|
|On-Ice xG Against per 60||2.08||2|
|On-Ice xG % (5-on-5)*||51.66%||52.09%|
|Power Play Goals / xG For per 60||5.58 / 5.77||4.05 / 6.55|
|Penalty Kill Goals / xG Against per 60||6.38 / 5.75||7.09 / 4.52|
* 5-on-5 xG numbers are score/venue-adjusted. All statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.
The good: There aren’t many obvious weak points on their roster. Columbus has solid forward depth, and their defense is still anchored by one of the league’s best young pairings in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (though they were without Jones for part of the season, as we’ll get to in a moment). They’re a stingy defensive team. Their on-ice numbers at 5-on-5 have been downright solid. Their goaltending, expected to be a weak point following the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky, has held up fairly well, and thanks to a white-hot run by Elvis Merzlikins in January was even a highlight for part of the season. And John Tortorella’s done a hell of a job getting everything he can out of this group — it’s tough to look at what he’s had available and think he could have got a whole lot more out of them than he did.
The bad: If there aren’t any weaknesses, how did they end up just being an average to slightly-above-average team? Because there isn’t a ton of top-end talent in this group. Particularly when it comes to offense and goal-scoring. The Blue Jackets had just three players with more than 15 goals, and just three with more than 40 points, when the stoppage hit. A team with that kind of roster can be subject to the kind of scoring spell that would end a team’s season in a short series. They’ve also been hit extraordinarily hard by injuries, which is a major factor to the lackluster numbers mentioned above, though that could work to their advantage in a setting where everyone’s expected to be more or less healthy (more on this in a minute).
How they fared against the Flyers this year: POORLY. They got swept in four contests with the local hockey team, tallying just one point in an overtime loss in Ohio in February. Admittedly, that 0-3-1 record oversimplifies the level of competition between these two teams. The Flyers needed a bonkers comeback fueled by a five-goals-in-10-minutes run to pull out a win back in October, relied mostly on Brian Elliott to get a victory in Columbus right before Thanksgiving, got a few lucky bounces early on in a big win in Philly in February, then needed a comeback and some Kevin Hayes overtime magic two days later. Still, everything we’ve seen would suggest the orange and black would be a favorite if these two teams faced one another in a series.
Are they getting anyone important back? Boy, are they. Few teams would get as much sheer manpower back as Columbus if the playoffs start in July or August. Seth Jones, who was expected to miss the rest of the season following a broken leg in February, is the headliner among returning Blue Jackets, but they would also get back healthy versions of Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray. Columbus has enough quality players that would come back that you have to think they’d get a boost compared to where they were before the pause.
First-round opponent: The Toronto Maple Leafs. Talent-wise, few would dispute that they’d be an underdog in that series. But it feels as though Columbus has got more out of its roster this year than Toronto has, it’s not like there was a ton of daylight between these two teams in the standings (none, in fact — they had the same number of points in the same number of games, though Toronto had three more regulation wins), and again, Columbus is getting back more reinforcements than maybe any team in the league. Columbus would probably need Frederik Andersen to remain on the cold-ish streak he was on before the season stopped, but if that happened, they’d have a good chance at a win.
Why they could be a threat: They certainly could. I’m not sure how high the ceiling on this team is, but they play teams tight, they don’t make a ton of big mistakes, and they’re able to hang with anyone — and their ability to do these things would be even more pronounced if they’re getting a quarter of their opening-night lineup back. They’d be an annoying out for anyone they face.
Are they one? It’s hard to say. Again, they can hang with most teams, but how many series in a row would they be able to win the way they play? If they grind out a win over Toronto in the first round and get a semi-rested Flyers team, are they going to be able to win the same way in another series against another team that they’d probably be at a talent deficit against? Columbus can play. It’s just tough to know that they can play the way they’d need to in order to keep beating really good teams.