How the bubble burst for NHL’s 8 qualifier losers


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A silver lining for the 8 NHL qualifier losers

The NHL playoffs are nearly upon us, with three Canadian clubs — Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal — in the mix. But first, tonight brings Phase 2 of the draft lottery featuring eight rather surprising teams.

The lottery’s first phase was held back in June and determined picks No. 2 through No. 9. But a “placeholder team” (one of eight non-playoff teams yet to be determined at the time) won the top pick, setting up tonight’s draw where each franchise has equal 12.5 per cent odds of winning.

This year’s presumptive top pick is QMJHL forward Alexis Lafreniere, the two-time Canadian Hockey League player of the year.

Here’s how those eight teams got here:

New York Rangers (Swept 3-0 by the Carolina Hurricanes)

The Rangers were coming on strong before the shutdown, led by MVP candidate Artemi Panarin and 41-goal scorer Mika Zibanejad. Last year’s No. 2 pick, Kaapo Kakko, was just OK in his rookie season. But the young, rising Rangers ran into a solid Hurricanes squad in the qualifiers and couldn’t pull off the upset. Meanwhile, team legend Henrik Lundqvist may have played his final game in blue and red, with the King appearing worn down and younger goalies waiting in the wings.

Winnipeg Jets (Lost 3-1 to the Calgary Flames)

A tough year for the Jets began with top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien mysteriously sitting out — he wound up not playing a single game — and ended with star forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine both getting hurt in Game 1 against Calgary and missing the rest of the series. That left the Jets thin both up front and on the blue line, with Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck a major reason Winnipeg stayed in contention. Moving forward, the team is in more desperate need of bodies on defence than offensive creators. A Winnipeg lottery win could lead to a trade of the top pick, or prompt the Jets to deal a highly paid forward to even things out.

Florida Panthers (Lost 3-1 to the New York Islanders)

The Panthers went big-game hunting last off-season, bringing in head coach Joel Quenneville and top free-agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Today, Florida announced it was parting ways with 10-year GM Dale Tallon, after the end result of his shopping left Florida right where it was before: in the middle of the pack. In the qualifiers, the Panthers lost to a stingy Islanders team, failing to score more than three goals in any game.

Nashville Predators (Lost 3-1 to the Arizona Coyotes)

The Predators’ Stanley Cup Final loss to the Penguins in 2017 seemed at the time the sign of a new West contender ready to break through. Instead, Nashville has gone backwards every year since, losing in the second round in 2018, then the first round last season and now the qualifiers. The addition of Matt Duchene failed to boost the Preds’ offence a ton, though the team seemingly found its successor to stalwart goalie Pekka Rinne in 25-year-old Juuse Saros. Despite its playoff woes, Nashville still has all the looks of a contender, and adding Lafreniere would amp up the pressure in Music City.

Pittsburgh Penguins (Lost 3-1 to the Montreal Canadiens)

Before Lafreniere, the last player to win back-to-back QMJHL MVP honours was — you guessed it — Sidney Crosby. It would almost feel unfair for Pittsburgh to win the lottery and continue its succession from Mario Lemieux to Crosby to Lafreniere. And that’s probably selling Crosby short — the Pens were eliminated on Sid the Kid’s 33rd birthday and he’s still playing near the peak of his powers. Recent playoff troubles aside — Carey Price’s Canadiens deserve credit for stunning the favoured Penguins — another lottery victory for the Penguins would extend the life of the Crosby-Malkin dynasty, which may otherwise be nearing its last legs.

Edmonton Oilers (Lost 3-1 to Chicago)

Unlike the Penguins, the Oilers haven’t materialized No. 1 picks into on-ice victories. Maybe a fifth since 2010 would do the trick. It had seemed as though this was the year, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl firing on all cylinders. The German forward led the league in points, carried the team through a McDavid injury and was named an MVP candidate for his efforts. And yet it’s probably still no debate who carries the title as best player on the team — and in the world. After all that, the fifth-seeded Oilers stumbled against a veteran-laden No. 12 Chicago team. Now, Edmonton finds itself wondering what went wrong once again.

Minnesota Wild (Lost 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks)

After beating the Canucks in Game 1, the Wild lost three straight to see their time in Edmonton come to an abrupt end. Minnesota had a tumultuous season, firing coach Bruce Boudreau and replacing him with assistant Dean Evason in February in the midst of a playoff surge that continued through Evason’s tenure. It seems like Minnesota has been “pretty good” forever, never bad enough to have great lottery odds and never good enough to have decent Cup odds either. Perhaps this year’s weird format can change that.

Toronto Maple Leafs (Lost 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets)

The Leafs are out in the first round, and things feel normal for the first time in 2020. Buoyed by top-end forwards (both in talent and salary), Toronto lacked offence in its loss to Columbus, getting shut out twice in the only qualifier series that went five games. The Leafs may be the team most in crisis after their early exit: do they double-down on their stars and scrubs strategy, or might a player like Mitch Marner or William Nylander get dealt for defensive help and depth? That question will define an interesting off-season in Toronto.

The CEBL put on a good show

Sunday’s final was a David vs. Goliath matchup, pitting the Edmonton Stingers, winners of six straight after finishing second in the 2019 regular season, against the Fraser Valley Bandits, who entered the final a surprising 5-2 after coming last in the inaugural CEBL campaign.

But the championship game lacked the story’s classic finish after the Stingers took care of business with a 90-73 victory. Xavier Moon, a former Raptors 905 guard and the nephew of Raptors dunking legend Jamario Moon, took home championship game MVP honours after tallying 31 points, including the winning free throw. Moon, who was named MVP last season as well, also hit the game-winning three-pointer for the Stingers to beat the expansion Ottawa BlackJacks in the semifinals. Cinderella killers, the Stingers were. Read more about their title win here.

Saturday’s other semifinal provided the most drama of the weekend, when the Bandits’ Oluseyi Ashaolu nailed a tough reverse layup to help Fraser Valley hit the target score in a next-basket-wins scenario and beat the Hamilton Honey Badgers.

That Elam Ending is something the CEBL should consider moving forward. Not only is it a point of differentiation for a basketball league still finding its footing, but it’s simply an exciting way to watch the sport. In some cases, we saw defence determine how the final nine points would be awarded. In others, it was the typical fast pace of the league that quickly sorted out a winner in the closer games.

In the end, the CEBL pulled off its two-week tournament without a hitch. It should take some lessons learned from its Niagara bubble and continue building ahead of its third season.

Turns out championship celebrations aren’t much different in a bubble, as Xavier Moon could attest. (Ryan McCullough/CEBL)

Quickly…

Eugenie Bouchard restarted her season with an upset win. In her first official match since January, the unseeded Canadian cruised to a 6-0, 6-3 victory against No. 8 Veronika Kudermetova at the Prague Open. An unseeded opponent now awaits Bouchard in the next round. The tournament drew pretty good player attendance, with second-ranked Simon Halep headlining the field. Most of the top American players, including the Williams sisters and Coco Gauff, stayed home to play at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky. Read more about Bouchard’s victory here.

The Raptors sewed up the second seed, but lost a big test. Toronto beat the Memphis Grizzlies in a visually pleasing retrofitted game on Sunday to secure its playoff standing, and learned later that night that its first-round combatant would be the Brooklyn Nets. Last time the teams squared off was the first playoff appearance of the Kyle Lowry era, which memorably ended in Game 7 when Paul Pierce blocked Lowry’s winning attempt in the final seconds.

This season, the Raptors shouldn’t have much trouble beating a banged-up (though surprisingly frisky in the bubble) Nets team in the first round. But there’s cause for concern waiting in the following round, likely against the currently No. 3 Boston Celtics, who routed the Raptors on Friday night. You could chalk up the loss to poor shooting, and that certainly didn’t help, but more alarming was the vaunted Raptors defence being carved up by Boston, which wound up winning the season series 3-1. Read more about the loss here.

It took just two tries for 23-year-old Collin Morikawa to win his first major. The budding golf star emerged from a crowded leaderboard to win the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, right around where he grew up. Morikawa pulled away from the pack with two key shots: a chip-in for birdie on the 14th hole, and a heroic drive on the 294-yard 16th that landed seven feet from the cup, which he then putted in for eagle. The incredible pair of shots means Morikawa now has as many major titles as missed cuts in 27 PGA Tour appearances.

The late surge also sapped some drama from what was shaping up to be dramatic finish to the first major of the year, with a six-way tie for the lead at one point early on Sunday. Dustin Johnson, the leader through three rounds, was left with a birdie putt on 18 to move into second, which wound up being worth more than half a million dollars. He nailed it. Read more about Morikawa’s major win here.

College football stars say #WeWantToPlay, but it’s not up to them. Perhaps encouraged by a similar plea from NFL stars before training camp, a group of college players including Heisman favourite QB Trevor Lawrence and Canadian RB Chuba Hubbard tweeted out the hashtag Sunday night, expressing an interest in working with the power-5 conferences to create health protocols to allow for the season to happen. The players also called for the formation of a union.

Of course, there’s one major difference between them and the NFLers: the college players aren’t professionals and don’t get paid. It would be hard to justify moving them into a bubble with nothing in return. That is the key stumbling block towards an agreement. On Monday, multiple reports said the Big 10 (one of the power 5) was getting close to cancelling the season — the potential first domino in an overhaul of Fall college sports. The Canadian university football season was already called off.

And finally…

Team Canada revealed its uniforms for the Tokyo Games — if they happen. In a CBC appearance, Andre De Grasse said it would be a tough blow if the Olympics don’t occur, with him coming off a two-medal performance at the 2019 worlds. The Canadian sprinter pointed to the NBA and NHL bubbles as one option, should it come to that, to make sure the Games go on. Check out the new uniforms and watch De Grasse’s full interview here.

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