We caught up with Aaron Murphy to get his expert opinion on the NHL restart:
The NHL returns this week after almost 5 months break, what are your thoughts on the new format?
I think the NHL has done a great job under very difficult circumstances. It’ll probably be a bit more familiar to hockey folks once we get down to 16 teams from August 11th, but I like the return to play format that starts with the 24 teams Saturday. It’ll create some drama, and some upsets in the qualifying round, and for the top 4 in each conference it’ll create that hustle and urgency to find your game for top seeding. All in all, kudos to the NHL, and of course the bubble setup in Edmonton and Toronto is much safer than say the MLB model of the baseball teams travelling around the USA, which looks like a mess now.
Is there matchup that you're particularly looking forward to?
Honestly, I’m looking forward to all of them! It’s been a strange time for everyone of course, and hockey can bring us some joy, and for me I would watch a morning skate at this point! I’m looking forward to seeing how Toronto come out against Columbus – as I think the coaching matchup of Keefe versus Tortorella will be interesting. I also think the Leafs have some incredible offensive talent, and the Jackets can be good shutting things down, so I’m interested to see a few of those games as I think it’ll be a war.
Who do you see as the favourites going into the tournament & who could be a surprise underdog success story?
I think the St. Louis Blues had been impressive before the shutdown and were atop the West. As the defending champs they’ll have some swagger too, and they just have that unrelenting style. In saying that it’s tough to repeat in the NHL, and this is a playoffs like no other ever experienced, so who knows if that defending champion tag will help or hinder. The Boston Bruins will also be a team that will think they can go all the way and will have plenty to prove after losing in 7 in the final last year to the Blues. I think if Boston can stay disciplined, they could get back to the final, but need Tuukka Rask to be dialled in between the pipes. As far as an underdog both Alberta teams are fun to watch…and with McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers could make some serious noise.
Do you think there is a team who have benefitted from the long break?
I mentioned both the Blues and Bruins as potential favourites, and they both played a lot of hockey going to the final last year, so the break might have done them some good. I think Crosby and Malkin have both been a bit banged up, so the Penguins will probably benefit from the rest with an older roster including Patrick Marleau.
For fans who don't follow the NHL closely, who are some of the players they should look out for?
I think you have to keep an eye on a few guys I mentioned earlier for the Oilers – Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Draisaitl led the NHL in points at the time of the shutdown, and I don’t think anyone would argue that McDavid is the best player in the league when he’s flying. David Pastrnak has an incredible shot for Boston, and old favourites Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are still box office. There are also some younger studs like Nathan MacKinnon for the Avs and Auston Matthews for the Leafs.
Are there any players who were injured in the regular season that could potentially come in now and make an impact in the playoffs?
I would have thought that the break would have helped Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay who missed 13 games for the Lightning, but it seems he’s still having some injury concerns. If he can get into the swing of things, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Malkin and Crosby in Pittsburgh both missed some time in the regular season, but both are now looking ready for some playoff summer hockey.
Which team would benefit the most from getting knocked out and being rewarded the 1st overall draft pick?
Montreal. No doubt about it. They could use an injection of talent, and the excitement that getting the 1st overall pick brings. The projected top selection is Alexis Lafreniere, and as a budding superstar from Quebec he’d be the toast of the town amongst Canadiens fans on draft day. He’d have some serious pressure to perform in that market, but by all accounts, he’d be up for it.
And finally, who do you think will win, who are you rooting for personally & which player do you think will be given the Conn Smythe?
That’s the million-dollar question…and a tough one in this uncertain playoff year! I think the Bruins at times were the best team in the NHL during the regular season and have so much to prove after losing game 7 last year – they are a hungry team. If I have to stick my neck out, I’ll say Boston wins the Cup, and Patrice Bergeron wins the Conn Smythe. I guess cue the social media fury now!
You can catch the Playoffs on Premier Sports starting this Saturday (August 1st). CLICK HERE to subscribe now.