As the NHL regular season wraps up in the next couple weeks, teams are preparing to make postseason runs deep into June. With the fight for the greatest trophy in sports just around the corner, I figured I’d break down the contenders.
Chicago Blackhawks (1st, Central Division)
Players to watch: Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, & Jonathan Toews
Why they’ll win: There might not be a more experienced postseason team than the Chicago Blackhawks. The current core has already won 3 Stanley Cups and could easily win a 4th this year. They play great defense and have a number of players who are deadly with the puck. The addition of Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline makes this the deepest defense head coach Joel Quenneville has ever had.
Why they’ll lose: Developing a great core of players means having to pay a great core of players. Because of the number of players Chicago has signed long-term, it seems every season they are dancing with the devil with regards to the salary cap. This means a lot of turnover, and this season it has meant a lot of young, cheap players for the Blackhawks. Whether or not those rookies will stand up to the pressure of the playoffs remains to be seen.
Columbus Blue Jackets (2nd, Metropolitan Division)
Players to watch: Sergei Bobrovsky, Cam Atkinson, & Zack Werenski
Why they’ll win: This has been a banner year for the Columbus Blue Jackets. For the first time in the franchise’s history they’ve recorded 100 points, and they’ve done it thanks to some savvy transactions made by GM Jarmo Kekalainen. Brandon Saad & Seth Jones have been major contributors. Another factor working in the Blue Jackets’ favor is the stellar stretch Sergei Bobrovsky has had in the later part of the season. They wouldn’t be the first team to hoist the Cup due in part to an extremely hot goaltender.
Why they’ll lose: The Metropolitan is going to be an absolute gauntlet with Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Washington. The other teams have extremely lethal offenses and with the young defensive core Columbus has they might get overwhelmed. A lack of true threats on offense might also hinder Columbus when they need that clutch goal.
Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan Division)
Players to watch: Alexander Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, & Nicklas Backstrom
Why they’ll win: This team is the most talented in the NHL. They have offensive firepower up and down the depth chart, stifling defense, and stellar goaltending. If they don’t win it’ll be because they got in their own way. Ovechkin is still the best goal-scorer in the sport and they’ve gotten much stronger on the back end compared to their President’s Trophy campaigns.
Why they’ll lose: This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a stellar regular season in Washington only to see it come to a crashing halt in the playoffs. Washington has never quite been able to get it done when it comes playoff time, and some of that definitely sticks with you as a player.
Barring an act of God, will be in the playoffs
Anaheim Ducks (3rd, Pacific Division)
Players to watch: Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rackell, & Cam Fowler
Why they’ll win: Anaheim is one of the most physical teams in the league and they use this to wear down their opponent. Over the course of a 7 game series, this could have a real effect. Tentative opponents lead to more 50-50 pucks, which will mean more opportunities for Getzlaf, Kesler, & Rackell, who has had a fantastic season. Anaheim’s goaltender tandem of Gibson and Bernier has also been great this year.
Why they’ll lose: The physical game still has its place in the league, but it has been slowly phased out in the last few years and it has yet to take this particular Anaheim team all the way. There’s a reason the Ducks are able to rack up so many hits, and that’s because they don’t possess the puck as much as their fellow contenders. You can’t score goals if you don’t have the puck.
Calgary Flames (4th, Pacific Division)
Players to watch: Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, & Brian Elliott
Why they’ll win: They have the firepower in their young players in top lines and pairings. They also have depth in the form of veterans with postseason experience. Micheal Frolik, Kris Versteeg, and Troy Brouwer have also hoisted Cups in Chicago. Brian Elliott hasn’t had the best season but he’s coming into the playoffs, dare I say it, flaming hot. We saw what meant in St. Louis last year.
Why they’ll lose: Calgary’s problem hasn’t been scoring this year, it’s been keeping pucks out of their own net. They’ll face some high-power offenses in the Pacific bracket which could prove problematic if Brian Elliott cools off.
Edmonton Oilers (2nd, Pacific Division)
Players to watch: Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot, & Leon Draisaitl
Why they’ll win: Edmonton is very similar to Calgary in that they have young playmaking stars and veterans behind them that have extensive playoff experience (Lucic, Sekera). Working in Edmonton’s favor has been the stout play of G Cam Talbot, who has shined since exiting Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow in New York. If Talbot can hold up and McDavid can continue to be a top 3 player in the league, Edmonton will always have a chance.
Why they’ll lose: Talbot’s workload concerns me. He’s already played 65 of Edmonton’s 72 games this season. He was backing up Lundqvist in New York so he’s never seen this kind of workload before. Asking him to hold up until mid-June might be a tall order.
Minnesota Wild (2nd, Central Division)
Players to watch: Devan Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund, & Jason Zucker
Why they’ll win: Depth. The Wild have it in spades. There are about 10-12 players I could have put on the players to watch on this team. You could put a blanket over their first 3 lines and wouldn’t know the difference because they’ve all been good. I believe Jason Zucker is the most improved player in the NHL this season outside of Brad Marchand. They have good to great players on all 3 pairs on defense. Devan Dubnyk has been a Vezina favorite all season.
Why they’ll lose: The Wild have sputtered as of late. Part of this has been Devan Dubnyk’s cold streak. The Wild can put up points but that won’t mean anything if they can’t keep pucks out of their own net. If Dubnyk can’t snap out of his current funk, the Wild might be in trouble in the later rounds of the playoffs.
Montreal Canadiens (1st, Atlantic Division)
Players to watch: Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, & Shea Weber
Why they’ll win: Montreal has the best player in the world at the most important position in the sport. They’ve gotten great contributions from newcomers Radulov, Weber, and Shaw. They will be in most games and can score goals in multiple ways thanks to a diversity of offensive talent.
Why they’ll lose: Lack of offensive firepower might doom this team. Though they have different skills across their lines, no player outside of Pacioretty hit the 50 point plateau. If teams find a way to crack Montreal’s defense and get pucks past Carey Price, the Canadiens might not be able to keep up.
New York Rangers (4th, Metropolitan Division)
Players to watch: Henrik Lundqvist, J.T. Miller, & Mats Zuccarello
Why they’ll win: The New York Rangers are a wildcard team as a formality. This year’s Metropolitan division may be the most competitive division in the history of professional sports. The New York Rangers are a great 2-way team thanks to depth both at forward and defense. It doesn’t hurt to have a tandem featuring the King and a solid and probably underappreciated Antti Raanta in net. They’ll have the advantage of playing in the Atlantic bracket as well.
Why they’ll lose: The Rangers haven’t been as good at keeping pucks out of the net as their division rivals Washington & Columbus. Part of this can be attributed to a down year for Henrik Lundqvist. If he doesn’t rise to the occasion in the playoffs, I don’t see them being able to keep up with Washington, Columbus, or Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd, Metropolitan Division)
Players to watch: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, & Matthew Murray
Why they’ll win: Much like the Capitals, the Penguins have offensive weapons up & down their lineup and solid play on the back end (though Washington has been much better on the back end). Unlike the Capitals, Pittsburgh actually has a successful playoff pedigree. Sidney Crosby has been playing lights out all season and the emergence of Matthew Murray has given the Penguins a nice tandem in net. The defending champions look poised to make another serious run.
Why they’ll lose: Nobody has had more offensive production this season than the Penguins. Plenty of teams have been better at not giving up goals. If the Penguins lose it will be because of a break down in the back end.
San Jose Sharks (1st, Pacific Division)
Players to watch: Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, & Aaron Dell
Why they’ll win: San Jose has always been known for their scoring prowess, but they’ve been particularly good on defense this year, and look like one of the most complete teams in the league. The emergence of Aaron Dell has given San Jose a stellar combination in the back end. Brent Burns has been brilliant this year as he coasts to the Norris Trophy. San Jose is a strong team capable of making a deep run.
Why they’ll lose: San Jose has been the Western Conference’s version of the Capitals in the sense that they’ve been perennial underachievers. They finally broke through to the Stanley Cup Finals last year but other than that have not done much. Joe Thornton is also in decline so the lack of offensive weapons could prove problematic if the back end doesn’t hold up.
Fighting for a spot
Boston Bruins (3rd, Atlantic Division)
Players to watch: Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, & David Pastrnak
Why they’ll win: The step Brad Marchand has taken this year is ridiculous. Often times you’ll see young players take huge steps in their 2nd or 3rd years, but rarely do you see a player take such a big leap this far into his career. The emergence of David Pastrnak has also boosted the Bruins’ offensive production. When Tuukka Rask is on it’s hard to get anything by him.
Why they’ll lose: Boston has lost a few talented players over the past few years, and the result is that on both offense and defense they’ve been good, not great. In the early parts of the decade you’d be hard pressed to find a tougher goalie to score on than Rask but that narrative has changed a little. They’ll have to step up on one end of the ice or they’ll just be simply outmatched.
Los Angeles Kings (5th, Pacific Division)
Players to watch: Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, & Jeff Carter
Why they’ll win: This team has a lot of playoff experience and have shown that they just need to get in the playoffs to be a threat. This current crop of players has 2 Stanley Cups already, including in 2012 as the Western Conference’s 8 seed. They get good contributions from all over their lineup and are a solid 2-way team.
Why they’ll lose: The obvious answer is that their hopes of making the playoffs get bleaker with every loss. Another answer is that this just isn’t the same team it has been in recent years. They’ve lost some key players over the last few years and as a result just haven’t gotten the same offensive production this year. I also think trading Peter Budaj at the deadline was the most questionable trade made, as I thought he was outstanding filling in for the injured Quick.
Nashville Predators (3rd, Central Division)
Players to watch: Filip Forsberg, P.K. Subban, & Viktor Arvidsson
Why they’ll win: Nashville gets good offensive production from a number of sources, including a decent amount from their blue line. Arvidsson has been spectacular this season. Nashville is also a very physical team with the talent to score a good amount of goals and also the work ethic to get greasy goals.
Why they’ll lose: While Nashville’s blue line has been great in terms of offensive production, it’s been less stellar on the other end. Nashville has given up more goals than any other Western Conference contender. Unless that gets shored up it’s going to be an early exit for the Predators.
New York Islanders (5th, Metropolitan Division)
Players to watch: John Tavares, Josh Bailey, & Nick Leddy
Why they’ll win: I’m not going to sugar-coat it. It would take a historic run for the Islanders to win it all. Tavares is still one of the best players in the league and one of Greiss or Halak is going to have to get hot.
Why they’ll lose: The back end. The Islanders have given up the most goals in the Eastern Conference and the most of any team still realistically in the playoff hunt. Something drastic is going to have to happen there and I just don’t see that magically happening.
Ottawa Senators (2nd, Atlantic Division)
Players to watch: Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson, & Mike Hoffman
Why they’ll win: I’m bullish on Ottawa, probably more than I should be. They’ve dealt with a number of injuries this season as well as Craig Anderson’s absence as his wife Nicholle battles cancer. Having the team healthy again along with Anderson back means this team will be better than it’s shown. Karlsson is the best offensive blue-liner in the sport, the team is deep down the middle, the back end is solid, and Mike Condon has been excellent filling in for Craig Anderson. This team is equipped to make a run.
Why they’ll lose: Injuries have played a huge role in Ottawa’s season, and as a result chemistry suffers. If the Senators are unable to regain chemistry it could hurt their already average offensive production. Their back end has been solid but it might not be enough to hold off the elites of the Eastern Conference if the offense stagnates.
St. Louis Blues (4th, Central Division)
Players to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo, & Colton Parayko
Why they’ll win: St. Louis is a year removed from making a deep run in the postseason and still have many of the same players from that team. When this team gets hot there are few that can hang with them. They have decent offensive depth and are a blue collar team that’s not afraid to get to the dirty areas for some greasy goals.
Why they’ll lose: You have to question the team’s morale after their head coach was fired and the front office made a clear statement that they didn’t view the team as a true contender with the trade of Kevin Shattenkirk. The defensive depth has suffered as a result and while the Blues are still a good team I think the loss of Shattenkirk was bigger than just losing his production.
Tampa Bay Lightning (5th, Atlantic Division)
Players to watch: Viktor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, & Jonathan Drouin
Why they’ll win: This is a team 2 years removed from seriously challenging Chicago for the Stanley Cup. They’ve lost some key components for big chunks of time, and are probably better than what they’ve shown. Vasilevskiy showed real promise in the 2015 Finals and last year’s playoffs. If Stamkos is able to return seamlessly this team is a strong dark horse candidate in the Eastern Conference.
Why they’ll lose: It’d be a tall order for Stamkos to return and start playing like he’s capable of right away. This team has lost Stamkos and Callahan to serious injuries and traded away starting G Ben Bishop. More than likely that will prove too much to overcome.
Toronto Maple Leafs (4th, Atlantic Division)
Players to watch: Auston Matthews, Jake Gardiner, Mitch Marner
Why they’ll win: All these young, talented teams have to have Canada excited for the future of hockey. The Maple Leafs score a lot of goals and are a really young team. These kids might be too young to truly understand the gravity of the situation they’re in, and that could aid them in the playoffs. Frederik Andersen has been known to go on hot streaks and to have one in the playoffs could greatly benefit Toronto.
Why they’ll lose: This team is incredibly young & talented, and may be a year or two away. The pressure might get to the kids. Also, something incredibly drastic is going to happen on the back end because Toronto gives up about as many goals as it scores.