Winnipeg Jets' goalie Connor Hellebuyck in front of the Winnipeg whiteout
(Photo from @NHLJets on Twitter).

The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs are approaching. The NHL announced that Phase 3 of its 24-team Return-To-Play plan will get underway in mid-July with teams reporting to training camps on July 13.  Phase 4 (the actual resumption of play) will get underway on July 26 when teams will travel to one of the selected hub cities. The Stanley Cup qualifying round is set to begin on August 1st.

There’s been lots of speculation about which cities will be selected as hubs for this unprecedented playoff format. Las Vegas was believed to be locked in as a hub city, but Gary Bettman and the NHL appear to be airing on the side of the caution. COVID-19 cases in the United States are soaring, so two Canadian cities are likely to serve as hubs. While yet to be officially confirmed by the NHL, multiple reports indicate that Toronto and Edmonton will be the hub cities for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

TSN Insider Bob McKenzie is reporting that that NHL’s daily schedule for the postseason will see games played at 12:00 PM, 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM local time at both hubs. Once it gets to the round robin round, the games will all be played at 4:00 PM local time.

These playoffs are going to be unlike anything we’ve seen in the sport before. The last NHL games played before the league went on pause were on March 11th. It’s been around 120 days since teams last played an official game. By the time the puck finally drops on the play-in rounds, it will have been almost 150 days. While it’s being labelled as a “Return to Play” by the NHL, this could certainly feel like the start of another season with how long the layoff has been.

If you thought the St. Louis Blues were a Cinderella story in 2019, you could potentially witness an even crazier story in 2020. The Return-to-Play format gives 24 teams a chance to contend for the Stanley Cup. The No.5 through No. 12 seeds in each conference (determined via point percentage) will be facing off in in best-of-five qualifying round to determine who will be moving on to the traditional 16-team playoff. Here’s a look at three under-the-radar teams who could win their qualifying round and make some noise in the 2020 postseason.

Winnipeg Jets

It’s only been two years since the Winnipeg Jets made a run all the way to the Western Conference Final. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and netminder Connor Hellebuyck were among the top performers for the club during that postseason. They’re once again leading the charge for the Jets this season and are capable of doing it again come playoff time. It’s hard to place too much emphasis on the team’s disappointing 2019 playoff run when you consider the team they lost to in the opening round was the surging St. Louis Blues, who went on to win the entire thing. This is an elite-level offense that features four 60-point-getters and five 20-goal-scorers.

There’s no doubting that the Jets have an offense capable of making a playoff run, but it’s the goaltending that makes them a true sleeper team. Connor Hellebuyck is a vezina trophy favorite thanks to an incredible season that saw him start a whopping 56 games, posting a .922 save percentage, 2.57 GAA and leading all goalies with six shutouts. Over the last three years, no goaltender in the league has made more saves than Hellebuyck (5,420) and only Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning has racked up more wins than Winnipeg’s elite starting goaltender (109). This is an absolute workhorse in the prime of his career who has proven time-and-time again he has the ability to steal games and single handedly win his team games. Having a goaltender of Hellebuyck’s calibre is the prime recipe for a Cinderella playoff run.

The Jets landed the Calgary Flames in the play-in round. One of the main reasons I like the Jets’ chances of making some noise this postseason is due to this opening matchup. For whatever reason, this group of Flames players just can’t seem to get it done in the postseason. Calgary is 1-8 in playoff games over the last three years and have won just two of their last 14 postseason contests going back to 2015. The Jets also took both regular-season meetings in 2019, and these two teams didn’t faceoff in 2020. These playoffs are wide open, especially in the Western Conference. You can’t point to one specific team that dominated on the level that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins did at times in the East this season. With one of the best goaltenders in the league and a very lethal offense, the Jets are more than capable of going on a run this summer.

New York Rangers

Considering how long it’s been since we last saw NHL games, it’s easy to forget that the New York Rangers were one of the league’s hottest teams leading up to the pause. Powered by incredible play from Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers ascended in the Eastern Conference standings thanks to a stellar 9-1-0 stretch of play that began in mid-February. Zibanejad and Panarin simply might be two of the most under-the-radar “NHL superstars” in the game. Since the All-Star break, Zibanejad leads all NHL players with an insane 23 goals and 36 points in 22 games. Panarin is also one of the league’s leading scorers in that span, exploding for 27 points over his last 22 games. When you have two forwards playing at the level that these two are playing at, you’re at least going to have a shot at beating any team you come across in a playoff series.

While the Rangers have two of the most explosive scorers in the league, the thing I like the most about this team is the hidden gems. Adam Fox isn’t really a household name when you think “elite NHL defensemen”, but he has all the makings of one. The 22-year-old is an incredibly intelligent two-way blueliner who is consistently making elite-level plays at both ends of the ice. Not only did Fox rack up eight goals and 42 points in his first NHL season, but he also led the entire team in Corsi percentage (51.61), Fenwick percentage (52.79) and takeaways (51). The other big hidden gem for New York is in the goaltending crease. 24-year-old Russian goaltender Igor Shesterkin was outstanding in his first 12 starts with the team this season, posting a .932 save percentage and 2.52 GAA. In each of his three full prior seasons in the KHL, he never posted a save percentage below .930. This guy is itching to takeover goaltending duties for the Rangers and prove on a national stage that he is the goalie of the future for this squad.

The Rangers are being listed as a “sleeper” team here mainly due to the opponent they are facing in the play-in round. As the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers landed the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes. This is a very talented Hurricanes roster that just missed out on getting a bye to the actual playoffs. With the Canes possessing some of the best advanced stats in the league this season, why would the Rangers be consider such a threat to their playoff hopes? Consider this. When teams originally voted on this proposed 24-team format that would see the Hurricanes and Rangers faceoff in the qualifiers, Carolina was only one of two teams that voted against it. The Hurricanes obviously recognized just how dangerous this Rangers team can be and the fact they were scorching-hot leading up to the pause. In their last 12 games against New York, the Hurricanes have won just two times.

The Rangers have several important players that will be key to long playoff run, as mentioned above. But there’s one player who hasn’t been mentioned that could be the team’s x-factor. As the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Kaapo Kakko hasn’t had a taste of the NHL postseason yet. With 10 goals and 23 points in his debut year, Kakko still has a whole nother level he can get to. The postseason is the perfect breeding ground for him to take that next step. The Rangers are going to need players to step up behind the all-stars, and Kakko has all the tools to be that guy. At 6’3″ and 200lbs, Kakko has the physical attributes and playing style to win board battles, protect the puck down low and wreak havoc in the offensive zone. That’s not even mentioning his incredible speed and elite goal-scoring ability. Many of the goals scored in the playoffs aren’t necessarily of the highlight-variety, and instead, are scored by driving hard to the net and working hard down low. That’s where Kakko has the potential to be a difference maker this postseason and elevate the Rangers to that next level.

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks have landed the Minnesota Wild in their best-of-five qualification round. There’s a lot to like about this Vancouver squad and their potential for a lengthy playoff run. We’ve seen it countless times in the past where a star goaltender takes an average team on a miracle run. That’s where Vezina-calibre goaltender Jacob Markstrom comes in. The Swedish netminder was having a fantastic 2019-20 season, posting a .918 save percentage and 2.75 GAA in 43 starts before he was sidelined with a knee injury in February. Markstrom missed Vancouver’s final eight games of the regular season with the injury, but he’s had plenty of time to recover and told reporters back in April that he was back to full health and ready to play. The Canucks are known for having some issues defensively. Markstrom showcased on numerous occasions this season that he has the ability to put the team on his back and bail them out of poor defensive showings.

If Markstrom comes to play in the postseason, the Canucks have the offense to take care of the rest. Led by young Phenom Elias Pettersson, 2019 trade deadline acquisition J.T. Miller and Calder Trophy contender Quinn Hughes, the Canucks averaged 3.25 goals-per-game in 2019-20 — eighth-best in the NHL. Their power play was among the very best in the league, finishing top-five in the league at 24.2% efficiency. A reason to be even more confident in their offense going forward is 2020 trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli, who has impressed with six goals in his first 10 games with the club. The Canucks are also one of many teams who were bit by the injury bug this season and will benefit from this long layoff period. Sniper Brock Boeser missed 12 games with a rib injury in February/ March and made his return just prior to the NHL’s pause. This extended hiatus ensures he’s truly back to full health. Michael Ferland was a sought after free agent by the Canucks in the summer. He only played 14 games for the club, however, due to concussion symptoms. Ferland is now at 100 percent and able to return to play. This video tells you everything you need to know about his potential impact in a playoff series.

Speaking of players built for the playoffs, Jake Virtanen has likely been itching for his first taste of the postseason. The 23-year-old power forward was enjoying a career season with 18 goals in 69 games before the league went on pause. His aggressive and agitating playing style suits the playoffs perfectly. Much like many of his teammates and fans of the team, the Canucks are beyond eager to put an end to their four-year playoff drought. Now that they have that opportunity, they certainly won’t be an easy out. With one of the most dangerous offenses in the league and a Vezina-calibre netminder, the Canucks are a team to watch this summer.