The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs have been an unrelentingly wild ride, so much so that it feels like ages ago that the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. We gathered our roundtable of scribes to break down their favorite storylines thus far, plus a look at the biggest positive surprises of the postseason as well as the biggest disappointments.
Which playoff storyline has captivated you the most?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Blue Jackets going all-in and not going bust. Columbus made the controversial decision to hang on to Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline, knowing they were likely to bolt this summer as free agents. They mortgaged some draft picks and prospects for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. For a while, it didn't look like it would take. Then they won seven of eight games to make the playoffs, embarrassed the Lightning in the first round and are looking very much like a legitimate Cup contender. You want to root for them because their long-suffering fans deserve a long playoff run, but also because other general managers might recognize that fortune favors the bold and follow suit in coming years.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: After visiting Raleigh in the first round, I'm all-in on the Hurricanes making a long playoff run because of what that means to the community -- and sustainability for the franchise. When I was there for Games 3 and 4 in the first round, the Canes told me they were already at $2.5 million for new business with season-ticket sales for next season. A year ago at that point? They were at $400,000. The season-ticket renewal rates also were impressive, jumping from 72 percent to 91 percent, with an increase of 262 percent in new plans sold year over year. The Canes play a fun brand of hockey, and they're not afraid to show off personality, something of which this sport needs more. Leaning in on the "Bunch of Jerks" narrative was genius. As GM Don Waddell put it: "That was just another marketing tool that was gifted to us. We capitalized on it from a financial standpoint ... but the dollars don't mean as much as the value of everyone talking about it."
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: Going to stay very on-brand with this one and go with the emergence of Cale Makar and Alexandre Texier as a pair of prospects who jumped into NHL lineups and have contributed to their respective teams' success. Makar was my No. 1 prospect at midseason, and I had Texier just on the outside of that list as an honorable mention. Makar's entry doesn't surprise me as much as Texier's, simply because the latter had to manage the jump to North American ice on top of being part of a playoff race. Texier played a full season in Liiga in Finland before making the jump to play for the AHL's Cleveland Monsters. He played so well -- with five goals and two assists over seven games -- that Columbus didn't have much choice but to call him up. Then John Tortorella couldn't take him out of the lineup. The 19-year-old Frenchman rewarded the coach with a pair of goals in the clinching game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Greg covered Makar's speedy transition from UMass to the Avalanche, but even as much as I've seen him this season, it's still amazing to me he can just step in and be able to play that well that quickly. Again, it's not a total surprise, but it is amazing he has made it look this easy.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Watching Nathan MacKinnon take the next steps in his continued ascension up the league's list of biggest and brightest stars this postseason has become appointment television. He has put the Colorado Avalanche on his back, first carrying them past the Flames in a stunning opening-round upset, and now putting them in a position to go shot-for-shot with the Sharks. Since being held off the score sheet by Calgary in their playoff opener, he has had a point in each game, totaling five goals and seven assists in seven games. Just as impressive as the goal production has been the sheer volume of work he has shouldered. His 70 shot attempts and 41 shots on target are each easily the most on a per-game basis, and the 23:41 of ice time he's playing on average is a mind-boggling amount for a forward. He plays with the speed of Connor McDavid and the force of your favorite power forward. At this point, he's seemingly capable of anything every time he steps on the ice, and that kind of tantalizing unknown is completely and utterly gripping.
Who has been the best surprise of the 2019 playoffs?
Wyshynski: The Jaccob Slavin lovefest. The smarts have known that Slavin has the goods for years as one of the NHL's best defensive defensemen. But for the majority of the hockey world, he was submerged in a parfait of anonymity: playing the kind of defense that doesn't get awards love, and playing in Raleigh and thus not playing in the postseason. But during this Hurricanes run, Slavin is averaging 26:43 per game and has been deployed against top players in both rounds. He's getting some Conn Smythe talk, too. It's probably no coincidence that this defensive rock is finally getting his due in a postseason where he has 12 points in 10 games. Such is the valuation of defensemen in our silly league.
Kaplan: A pair of young Finnish Stars, that's who. I've been impressed by the entire Dallas team these playoffs, but Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz have been the breakout stars. The Stars probably didn't get enough attention during the regular season (I'm a guilty party here), and that's why many people are just realizing the precociousness of Heiskanen, the 19-year-old defenseman logging big-time minutes. Dallas, as a team, has struggled to score, and production outside the top line was supposed to be an issue. That hasn't been the case thanks to the second line, centered by the rookie Hintz (with a shoutout to Jason Dickinson and Mats Zuccarello, who also have been excellent). Hintz recorded just nine goals in 58 regular-season games. He has five through 10 playoff games.
Peters: It's all about Sergei Bobrovsky. Officer Bob is rocking a .937 save percentage, winning more games this postseason than he had in his entire playoff career. Aside from that, Bobrovsky had no better than an average performance during the regular season. Our friends at ESPN Stats & Information passed along this notable tidbit from Natural Stat Trick: Bobrovsky's biggest improvement from the regular season to the playoffs was his success at stopping shots from medium-danger areas. He was at .892 during the regular season and is at .948 in seven playoff appearances. The Blue Jackets goalie had been dogged by his inability to perform in the playoffs. He has ruined that narrative just as quickly as he ruined Stanley Cup dreams for Tampa.
Filipovic: The Blue Jackets finally getting over the hump and going on an extended playoff run. It's one thing that they accomplished the unthinkable when they slayed the 62-win Lightning, but it's another that they did it in thoroughly dominant fashion. Unlike some other notable upsets we've seen in the past, this wasn't just a case of a goalie getting hot and stealing a series for an otherwise inferior team. The Blue Jackets completely overwhelmed the Lightning with their seemingly endless waves of speed and functional physicality, forechecking them right into the ground. On top of that, they've now consolidated it with their performance in the early stages of their Round 2 matchup with the Bruins. Regardless of whether they win or lose the series, they've proved that they belong with the best the East has to offer.
Who has been the biggest disappointment of the 2019 playoffs?
Wyshynski: The default answer has to be the Tampa Bay Lightning, although there are a lot of factors behind that epic flop, like for example losing their best defenseman (and perhaps player) to injury, and their leading scorer for a critical Game 3 due to his own idiocy. The Lightning had their reasons for losing. I'm still trying to figure out what the reasons were for the Calgary Flames and am still stunned they were ousted in five games by the Colorado Avalanche. Yes, the Avs' goaltending was stellar and the Flames' ... wasn't. But that doesn't account for how their offense averaged 1.32 fewer goals per game than it did in the regular season, or how a 99-point player like Johnny Gaudreau could muster only an assist in five games. Tampa was a singular kind of disappointing, but don't sleep on this Calgary debacle.
Kaplan: I considered picking the Canadian teams here. This was supposed to be the year. There was so much promise. Canada should have ended its Stanley Cup drought after a quarter of a century. But no need to pour more salt on the wound. And really, the biggest disappointment of the 2019 playoffs has to be the Lightning. How could a team so historically dominant in the regular season fail so spectacularly in the postseason? (Greg did a good job dissecting it here.) And while I certainly can sympathize with the explanations -- the Blue Jackets weren't a typical 8-seed, the Lightning were a bit banged up, they never had to face adversity, etc. -- I'm not sure if I'll ever truly understand it.
Peters: It was the Nashville Predators for me. This is more about the way the team had been building in recent years. GM David Poile has been aggressive in trying to give the team all the pieces it needs to contend. They have depth, a balance of youth and veterans, and Poile even went big at the recent deadlines. But ever since the Preds reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, they've become the team that just can't get over the hump. After they were thoroughly outplayed by the Stars in a few games in that series, I finally started to wonder if the Preds needed to shake things up. How they'd do that I'm not entirely sure, but it feels like the clock is ticking on this ever-evolving core of players, and Pekka Rinne isn't getting any younger. This franchise has built up so much goodwill over the past few seasons that it seems like it should be delivering something more this time of year.
Filipovic: The officiating. It seems that every single night we're arguing about one call or another, which is such a shame because it takes away from an otherwise tremendous product and delightfully entertaining viewing experience. And it's not like just one specific team has reason to gripe, because it has been uniformly suspect all postseason. The biggest issue is that no one really knows what is and isn't a penalty on any given night, because the target is constantly moving as the rules fluctuate from shift to shift and from game to game. This idea that the way things are officiated should change in the postseason is such a silly one. The reason we play an 82-game regular season is to set a precedent and lay the groundwork. The logic behind allowing players to get away with more this time of year so as not to influence the result is ironic, because all it really does is directly impact the outcome even more than if they just followed the rules as they're outlined. Players know this, and they push the envelope and bend the rules even further, which leads to all sorts of unfortunate unintended consequences and shenanigans down the line. The rules are there for a reason, so you may as well just actually enforce them.