Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak celebrates a goal
(Screenshot/ Sportsnet).

The 2019-20 NHL season has been put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. While league commissioner Gary Bettman and the company still hope to hand out the Stanley Cup in 2020, it’s a very distinct possibility that the season will eventually be canceled, and the focus will shift to being able to play a 2020-21 season.

If the NHL season is, in fact, canceled, EA Sports will have to look at the 2019-20 regular season to determine their cover athlete for NHL 21. Each NHL team played an average of 70 games this season, so there’s definitely large enough of a sample size to determine which player deserves to be on the cover of their next installment. They’re also sure to consider the player’s history and previous covers in the EA Sports NHL franchise.

There’s always the possibility that EA Sports wouldn’t come out with a game in 2020 if the NHL goes on a long hiatus, but it’s unlikely when you consider the substantial amount of revenue they would be missing out on. EA has never failed to release a yearly game since they released “NHL Hockey” in 1991. Even when the NHL had a full lockout in 2004-05, and no Stanley Cup was handed out, EA Sports still came out with their video game on time. Vincent Lecavalier was the NHL 06 coverboy after he helped the Lightning claim the Stanley Cup in the season prior to the lockout.

Considering that the 2019-20 season could conclude with no Stanley Cup winner, which player could end up on the cover of NHL 21? Here’s a list of the five most likely candidates.

5. Colby Cave, Edmonton Oilers

The tragic death of 25-year-old Edmonton Oilers’ forward Colby Cave has led to a petition to get him on the cover of NHL 21 as a tribute. Cave passed away from a brain bleed unexpectedly on the morning of Saturday, April 11th, and his family has since received an outpour of support from the hockey community. The petition, which Ethan Hartman started, had received over 13,000 signatures at the time of this writing. It’s less than 2,000 signatures away from its goal of 15,000. The entire hockey world could rally behind getting Cave on the cover of NHL 21. Ever since news was announced of Cave’s passing, players, media members, and family members have come out with heartwarming stories about Cave and his passion for the game of hockey.

This idea isn’t higher on the list because it’s realistically unlikely. EA Sports has never put an active player who passed away on the cover and historically doesn’t entertain any form of petitions from fans. Cave also only played 67 career NHL games, so if EA decides to honor him this way, fans will point to previous years when a player died unexpectedly yet wasn’t honored by their company (e.g. Derek Boogaard in 2011, Luc Bourdon in 2008). There are plenty of ways to honor Cave and his legacy without putting him on the cover of a video game. Perhaps, considering the majority of the support for the petition is coming from Oilers fans, EA Sports could release a limited edition Colby Cave cover in the Edmonton region.

4. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

Ignoring what Washington Capitals’ blueliner John Carlson did in the 2019-20 NHL season is impossible. Carlson led all NHL defensemen with 75 points in 69 games and once again helped the Washington Capitals be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. At the time of the NHL’s pause, Carlson ranked 12th overall in the NHL scoring race and had a 10-point lead over the next defenseman (Roman Josi, 65 points). Carlson became the Capitals’ all-time leading defensive scorer this season and was just six points shy of breaking Larry Murphy’s all-time Capitals record for points in a season by a defenseman (81).

Carlson makes excellent sense as a cover athlete for NHL 21 because Washington finally won their first Stanley Cup less than two years ago. Carlson played a vital role in the Capitals’ Cup run, racking up five goals and 20 points and leading the team with a whopping 26:14 average ice time in 25 postseason games. Carlson’s defensive game isn’t elite, but he possesses the offensive abilities to make him an attractive EA Sports cover athlete. Over the last three seasons, no NHL defenseman has more points than John Carlson (213). EA hasn’t shied away from putting star offensive defenseman on their video game cover, including using P.K Subban as recently as 2019 and Dion Phaneuf back in 2009.

3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Leon Draisaitl may seem the obvious choice to be on the cover of NHL 21 given his incredible season, but he isn’t higher on this list for one main reason. Draisaitl’s superstar teammate, Connor McDavid, was the cover boy for the EA Sports NHL franchise as recently as three seasons ago (NHL 17). Just because McDavid was on the cover recently doesn’t mean another Oiler can’t be on the cover again. Still, there are usually specific circumstances for which this scenario can play out. EA Sports has typically favored variety, as the only time two players from the same team were the face of their game in a span of five years was back in 2010 and 2011 when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks alternated covers for consecutive seasons. There wasn’t much complaining, however, as Chicago won three cups between 2010 and 2016 and was carried by Toews and Kane in that span. As great as McDavid and Draisaitl have been, Edmonton hasn’t made the playoffs in two years.

I’m listing Draisaitl here because he’s still a viable candidate despite McDavid recently occupying the cover. The German forward had an incredible 110 points in 71 games before the NHL’s pause, proving his ability to put the team on his back and carry them to victory. Considering he had a 13-point lead over the next player in the scoring race at the time of the pause, this could be a scenario where EA Sports goes with the player who really took that next step and exploded into elite status in the shortened season. Draisaitl also leads the NHL in scoring over the last two seasons with 215 points and has turned in consecutive 40-plus goal seasons. EA can’t go wrong making him their coverboy.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston BruinsĀ Ā 

If you’re simply putting the best player in the NHL on the cover of the EA game every season, David Pastrnak likely isn’t the first name that comes to mind when looking ahead to NHL 21. But that’s never been how EA operates, and there are plenty of great reasons to believe Pastrnak could end up on the cover of NHL 21. In this day and age of social media and fan interaction, EA Sports will want someone representing their brand who has a personality and makes time for the fans. I can’t think of a player who has as much fun playing hockey and interacts more with the fans than Boston’s David Pastrnak. Pastrnak always has a smile on his face and always appears to do something cool with the fans before the start of every game.

It also goes without saying that Pastrnak has become one of the NHL’s best forwards. At the time of the NHL’s pause, he was tied with Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring lead with 48 goals on the season. In fact, over the last three seasons, Pastrnak ranks second among all NHL forwards in goal-scoring with 121 goals in 218 games.

Another main reason Pastrnak being on the cover of NHL 21 is very viable is Boston’s dominance in recent seasons. The Bruins have made it to the Stanley Cup Final in three of the last nine seasons and were leading the entire NHL in points at the time of the Coronavirus pause. If the NHL can’t hand out the Stanley Cup in 2020, EA NHL may want to recognize Boston for its incredible season and give the cover to one of the team’s best players. The “perfection” line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak is arguably the best line in the NHL, so giving Pastrnak the cover based on his great personality and elite goal-scoring ability makes great sense.

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado AvalancheĀ 

The EA Sports NHL franchise has long been about speed and skill. There isn’t a better cover athlete for NHL 21 than one of the most explosive hockey players in the world. Nathan MacKinnon has become an absolute force on the ice and is electrifying to watch. MacKinnon has turned in three consecutive 90-point seasons and is the centerpiece of one of the most exciting teams in the Western Conference. Colorado is a young team on the rise with players like MacKinnon, Rantanen, Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, so EA Sports can’t go wrong choosing the 24-year-old MacKinnon.

MacKinnon was having an exceptional season with 35 goals and 93 points in 69 games prior to the NHL’s pause. He’s been rising for several years and can now be considered one the best players in the game. Some will argue that he’s even better than Connor McDavid, who is widely believed to be the current best player in the NHL. MacKinnon fits the bill perfectly when I play NHL 20 and see the majority of goals scored and the trends in the franchise. Games are won by forwards flying past blueliners in the neutral zone and controlling play in the offensive zone. Watch one of MacKinnon’s games from 2019-20, and you’ll see just how good he is at using his speed to his advantage and running rampant over opponents in the offensive zone.

If you want to look at the stats for who could be most deserving of the NHL 21 cover, MacKinnon has everything you’re looking for. Over the last three seasons, only McDavid and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning have more points than MacKinnon (289). McDavid won’t get on the cover for a second time in four years, and it’s hard to see Kucherov being the coverboy considering his most recent playoff appearance includes him getting suspended and recording only two points as his team got upset in the first round. The NHL 21 cover is simply MacKinnon’s to lose.