The NHL started its playoff bubble in late July with 24 teams playing in two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton) and successfully completed one of the strangest and most improbable postseasons in the history of the league. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the Stanley Cup champions and cemented their status as one of the league's elite teams. Now we take a look at 15 things we learned during the NHL bubble.
To say there was some skepticism that the NHL could pull off the bubble concept would be an understatement. But the league went through its 24 team postseason in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles and did not claim or report a single positive COVID-19 test. The lesson here: Masks, social distancing, and testing all work. Now if we could just extend all of those practices and resources to the rest of society outside of the sports world.
After years of falling just short (and one embarrassing First Round sweep a year ago) the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup and gave their current core the championship it has been searching for. The lesson here is to trust your talent and the process you have put in place. After losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games in the First Round a year ago (following a 62-win regular season) the Lightning were seen as underachievers, maybe needing some kind of a major shakeup. The reality is that over the past six years the Lightning have been the best team in hockey with more regular season and playoff wins than anyone, and were consistently in the Eastern Conference Final (four out of the past six seasons). There was nothing wrong with them. It is just really hard to win a championship. They stuck with their coach, they stuck with their core, they ended up getting rewarded.
As if the Lightning needed another one. They already have Steven Stamkos (when healthy), Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy on their roster, all of them elite talents and major award winners, and now they have Point who continues to emerge as a top-tier player. He was magnificent in the playoffs for the Lightning, not only consistently driving their offense, but also scoring several clutch goals to either tie or win games. Hedman ended up winning the Conn Smythe, but no one would have given it a second thought if Point won it.
Maybe even this upcoming season. After being one of the top rookies in the league a year ago, Heiskanen took an absolutely massive leap in his development in year two and was the best overall player on a team that went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. He led the team in scoring, was one of the top point producers in the entire playoffs, and was the go-to shutdown defensive player on one of the best goal prevention teams in the league. He is still only 21 years old. Sky is the limit for him.
It is not just Heiskanen that is an emerging superstar at the position. We also saw huge performances from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes and Colorado Avalanche defenseman (and rookie of the year winner) Cale Makar. Makar and Hughes were the top two front runners for the Calder Trophy all season and both excelled in the playoffs. Now those three (Hughes, Makar, and Heiskanen) are going to be competing for the Norris Trophy for the next decade.
Goaltending matters. A lot. We already knew this about the hockey and the Stanley Cup Playoffs in general, but Khudobin was sensational at times for the Dallas Stars and almost single-handedly stole the Western Conference Final away from the Vegas Golden Knights. After being a successful backup for most of his career he has been one of the most productive goalies in the league over the past two seasons and is entering the free agent market this offseason. Perfect timing, given how he nearly carried a team to a championship.
The Canucks won their first playoff series in nearly a decade this year by knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the first round. The Canucks received high praise for their young core and its performance in the playoffs, and it's not hard to see why. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller is a sensational core to build around, and Thatcher Demko made headlines by nearly pulling off a stunning upset against Vegas in the second round, taking that series to a seventh game. They have the foundation. They just need to build up everything around it.
Coach Peter DeBoer's decision to bench Marc-Andre Fleury for Robin Lehner was easily the most talked about controversial decision of the playoffs. It sparked a hilariously negative reaction from Fleury's agent when he Tweeted a Photostopped picture of Fleury impaled with a sword in the back. The sword had DeBoer's name on it. The problem, though, is that Lehner was the better goalie and has been the better goalie for two years now. Lehner is a free agent the Golden Knights want to sign him. It will not be cheap. Fleury still has two years remaining on his contract. It is also not cheap. There is probably not room for both under the salary cap. Or in the crease.
All the talent in the world at forward, but no results to show for it in the playoffs. After losing in the First Round in each of the previous three seasons, the Maple Leafs entered the bubble this year (coming off a wildly disappointing regular season) and did not even advance beyond the qualifying round, losing in five games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Had it not been for a miracle comeback late in Game 4 of that series they would not have even made it to a decisive fifth game. It is important to not overreact to small sample size results, but what makes this concerning is how big of a step back they took during the regular season and the fact it has been four years of this core not being able to win even a single round in the playoffs.
The Oilers literally have two MVP's on their roster in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Both are just now entering the prime of their careers and are two of the top-five offensive players in hockey. Truly great players. Superstars. Megastars. They were great in the regular season and the most productive players in the qualifying round. Even with that, they still lost in the qualifying round to the 23rd ranked team in hockey ( Chicago Blackhawks) and have managed just one postseason series win in four years of having McDavid and Draisaitl together on the roster. Why? Because the rest of the team around them still stinks.
The Avalanche were one of the top Stanley Cup favorites all season, and even though their season ended with a Second Round loss to the Dallas Stars there is still reason to believe this team has greatness in its future. Nathan MacKinnon may not be on the Connor McDavid level, but he is not far behind and their roster remains loaded. Injuries hurt them this season, especially in the playoffs, and they may still need an upgrade in goal (injuries hurt them there as well) but this team is still one of the best in the league.
For the second year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes' season came to an end against the Boston Bruins, and quite honestly, there is no shame in that. The Bruins are one of the best teams in hockey. But the Hurricanes are clearly a team on the rise, and one of the biggest reasons for that is the emergence of 2019 No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov. He was one of the most outstanding players in the league through the First Round and is turning into a human highlight reel every time he is on the ice. He has 40-50 goal potential while also playing an advanced all-around game for his age.
After pulling off a stunning First Round upset against Tampa Bay a year ago, the Blue Jackets stunned the hockey world this season by overcoming a free agency exodus to still put themselves in a position to make the playoffs. When they arrived in the Toronto bubble, they knocked out Toronto in five games and did their best to hang with the Lightning in the First Round again. They still have a really good core with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Pierre-Lub Dubois at the top of the roster, but for the second year in a row they exceeded almost every expectation anyone could have had for them. The problem is going to be finding a way to take the next step from "try-hard feel good team" to "legit Stanley Cup contender."
After a miserable second half of the 2019-20 regular season the Islanders entered the bubble and immediately flipped the switch to turn into a dominant lockdown defensive team. The return of a healthy Adam Pelech on the blue line helped, as did the arrival of shutdown center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Combined with a strong goaltending performance and it helped the Islanders put together their best postseason run in nearly 30 years. They still need another game-changer at forward to take the next step, but they proved they belong among the league's contenders.
Perhaps the most stunning upset of the qualifying round was the Montreal Canadiens, the 24th seed and final team to make the cut, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins. One of the biggest reasons for that was the play of goalie Carey Price. At his peak Price was one of the most dominant and game-changing players in the league, someone that was totally capable of putting his team on his back and carrying it. He has not been the player for a couple of years now on a consistent basis, but he is still capable of doing it for stretches. We saw that on display in the playoffs when he finished his 10-game postseason with a .936 save percentage. Montreal is giving him some help this upcoming season after acquiring Jake Allen to take some of the workload off of him.