Down Goes Brown: Picking NHL’s optimal bandwagon playoff team

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine, of Finland, celebrates a goal. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

This year’s NHL playoffs feature the usual standard field of 16 teams. But thanks to expansion, we’ve also got an all-time high of 15 non-playoff teams, meaning we’ve never headed into a post-season with so many fans without a team to root for.

That’s where the bandwagon comes in. It’s a controversial subject, and many fans swear that your team is your team and you can never jump ship under any circumstances. That’s a fair stance, and if you want to spend the next few months clinging to your Calgary Flames throw pillow and hissing at the television through tears, I get it.

But not everyone feels that way, and some fans like to adopt a temporary team for the playoffs. If that’s you, then this guide will help you make the best choice. We’re looking for teams that are reasonably likeable, fun to watch, and carry some decent storylines into the post-season. We’d also prefer a team that had at least a plausible chance of winning, since hopping on a bandwagon just in time to get swept in the first round isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

With that in mind, let’s count down this year’s 16 playoff teams as we search for the optimal bandwagon destination for fans in search of a short-term backup plan.

No. 16: Minnesota Wild

Why you should get on board: They’ve got a lovable coach in Bruce Boudreau, and one of the great comeback stories of the year in Eric Staal. And with Ryan Suter out with a broken leg, it would be a nice case of overcoming adversity if they made any kind of a run.

Why you shouldn’t: I mean… I like the Wild. They’re a decent-enough team. But the big problem with this year’s edition is that they land right in that sweet spot where they’re not good enough to feel like they have any real chance at a Cup, but not quite bad enough to be a gutsy underdog pick. And given what their path out of the conference might look like, they’d almost always be lining up against a team that was way more likeable.

Bottom line: Sorry, Minnesota, but somebody has to be last. If it’s any consolation, think how much you’ll enjoy sending me links to this post every hour when the Wild are getting ready for the Cup final.

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No. 15: Los Angeles Kings

Why you should get on board: Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are great. They’ve had a nice rebound under new management after a few iffy years. And of all the wild cards, they seem like the one most likely to pull off the upset and send a No. 1 seed home.

Why you shouldn’t: That No. 1 seed is the expansion Golden Knights. Do you really want to root for a team that’s already won two Cups as it tries to snuff out the best NHL story in years? Somebody has to be the town dog-catcher, but nobody should be cheering him on when he’s hunting down adorable puppies.

Bottom line: Also, Dustin Brown. So that’s a no.

No. 14: Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: The champs are chasing a three-peat, which is kind of ridiculous. This is the salary-cap era, when parity reigns and everything feels dangerously close to flipping coins. But here’s Sidney Crosby and friends trying to pull off something that Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky couldn’t do back when dynasties were still a thing. That’s pretty cool.

Also, they have Phil Kessel, and if you don’t love Phil Kessel by now then you don’t have a soul.

Why you shouldn’t: They’re still the two-time defending champs, so you’re not just bandwagon-hopping — you’re front-running.

Bottom line: We do this list every year, and we almost always put the recent champs at the bottom of the list. The sheer novelty of the Pens’ quest for history keeps them out of that spot this time around. But only barely.

No. 13: Toronto Maple Leafs

Why you should get on board: You could make a case that there’s no team in the league that’s as entertaining to watch as the Maple Leafs. They’re young, they’re fast, they have a ton of skill, and every now and then they forget that Mike Babcock will murder them with his eyes if they make a mistake, which produces some fun bursts of chaos.

Plus, haven’t their fans suffered enough?

Why you shouldn’t: There’s a good chance that no, you do not believe that their fans have suffered enough. Rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs, even on a very limited and temporary basis, is a complete and total non-starter for many of you. I can respect that.

Besides, if we’re being real, there probably isn’t a fan base in the league that would appreciate newbies on the bandwagon any less than this one. Leaf fans have suffered for decades, and you were right there to twist the knife the whole way. It’s been 50 years of “Make Believes” and “Make Me Laughs” and “Plan the parade” and “It was 4–1” and “Me Idiot,” and now that they’re finally good again you want to make friends and root along with us? Get lost.

Bottom line: Honestly, the fact that jumping on the Maple Leafs’ bandwagon would annoy their diehard fans might be the best reason to do it.

No. 12: Colorado Avalanche

Why you should get on board: Who doesn’t love an underdog? And there’s no bigger one in this year’s post-season than the Avalanche, who went from dead last by a mile to making the playoffs with a dramatic win in their final game of the season.

Why you shouldn’t: They kind of sort of made the playoffs based on what might have been a shady offside review. Normally we wouldn’t hold that against them, except that this whole stupid replay system was basically their fault in the first place.

Also, they’re going to get destroyed by the Predators, so there’s that.

Bottom line: Anyone seriously thinking of bandwagoning the Avalanche should have to watch this video all the way through, just so they understand what they’re getting into.

No. 11: Anaheim Ducks

Why you should get on board: They had to battle through a rough start that saw the roster decimated by injuries to key players. They’ve probably got as good a shot at coming out of the Pacific as anyone. And while the core of the roster is getting up there, they’ve restocked with some reasonably interesting younger players like Ondrej Kase and Rickard Rakell.

Why you shouldn’t: When you’ve got your pick of any team to bandwagon, “reasonably interesting” doesn’t really sound like a ringing endorsement. They’re the lowest-scoring team in the playoffs and don’t give up many, so you’re not exactly signing up for firewagon hockey. Plus, there’s the Corey Perry factor.

Bottom line: Meh.

No. 10: Philadelphia Flyers

Why you should get on board: They’ve got a young team that’s probably better than you think, and if you’re sick of Crosby and the Penguins then here’s your first choice to root for their opponents. Plus if you’re a Flyers fan, you get to go around harassing everyone about Claude Giroux‘s MVP case.

Why you shouldn’t: It’s the Flyers, so it goes without saying that the goaltending is a question mark. Also, even the Avalanche won more games during the season, so the chances of a long run seem dicey.

Bottom line: They’re not a bad option. Philadelphia wins everything these days, so you might as well get in early.

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No. 9: San Jose Sharks

Why you should get on board: Joe Thornton is the single best OGWAC (i.e. Old Guy Without a Cup) story heading into the playoffs. We don’t know how much of him we’ll see early on, but if they can make a run he should show up eventually. Plus they’ve got Brent Burns, who we all apparently decided was the only NHL player allowed to have a personality.

Why you shouldn’t: Every year, they’re good. Every year, they go into the playoffs with a shot. Every year, they don’t win. You might figure their time will come someday, but it feels their best shot may have already come and gone back in 2016.

Bottom line: They’re not the sexiest pick, but they’d do.

No. 8: Boston Bruins

Why you should get on board: For starters, they’re really good. A slow start disguised that a bit, and even now they tend to get a little less hype than teams like the Lightning and Predators, so if you’re looking for a team that can win the Stanley Cup without seeming like you just picked the favourite, this may be your best option. You’ve also got Zdeno Chara chasing what could be his final Cup, and Rick Nash with some excellent OGWAC potential.

Why you shouldn’t: Do you want to be cheering for Brad Marchand to win another Stanley Cup? Really? Great, enjoy your misspelled tattoo.

Bottom line: They’re playing the Maple Leafs. That fact alone will move them several spots up the list for some of you.

No. 7: Columbus Blue Jackets

Why you should get on board: They haven’t won a round in the history of the franchise, so nobody will accuse you of front-running. And there’s a decent chance they can pull off an upset against the Caps, so you can earn yourself some “I liked them (slightly) before it was cool” credibility.

Why you shouldn’t: They may have tanked to get this matchup, and you’d be cheering for John Tortorella. Also, everyone else is going to be hoping for a Capitals/Penguins second-round matchup just to see what kind of emotional carnage it would leave, and you’d be standing in the way of that.

Bottom line: You could do worse, but there are a few better options.

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No. 6: Tampa Bay Lightning

Why you should get on board: They’re a crazy-entertaining team stacked with big stars that led the league in scoring by a mile. They also made the biggest trade at the deadline, so if you want to see other GMs in this copycat league stop being such gigantic babies and start making aggressive moves, a Lightning Cup win would go a long way.

Why you shouldn’t: Is this a frontrunner pick? It kind of feels like a frontrunner pick, even though the Lightning didn’t make the playoffs last year. They spent just about the entire season on top of everyone’s power rankings, and even a mild wobble late in the season that cost them the Presidents’ Trophy doesn’t do much for their underdog cred.

Bottom line: Another factor to consider: They made the Stanley Cup final in 2015 but lost after their starting goaltender got hurt. Surely, if your star goalie gets hurt in the final, that should earn you a little karma for the next decade or so, right? Oh, right, sorry.

No. 5: New Jersey Devils

Why you should get on board: If you’re looking for a David-vs.-Goliath pick, this is probably a better option than backing the Avalanche. They’re facing the Lightning, so everyone will be expecting them to get swept. But the Lightning have looked vulnerable at times in the second half, so the upset isn’t completely impossible here.

You’ve also got the Taylor Hall factor, presumptive Masterton winner Brian Boyle facing his former team, and the chance to finally see the NHL’s crossover system result in a team winning a division they’re not even in. That’s not a bad package.

Why you shouldn’t: They’re still probably getting swept by the Lightning.

Bottom line: This is this year’s swing-for-the-fences pick.

No. 4: Washington Capitals

Why you should get on board: Do you feel lucky?

Look, by this point you know what you’re signing up for with these guys. It’s almost certainly going to end badly. It’s probably going to end really, really badly. There’s a chance it will end worse than it’s ever ended for anybody.

But what if it doesn’t? What if after all the decades of misery and heartbreak and epic collapses, this is the year they finally pull it all together? The entire hockey world has given up on this team, and it’s hard to blame them. But maybe that’s what they needed. Maybe when everyone is waiting for you to fail, the pressure melts away and you’re finally free to succeed.

And if it happens, watch how quickly this bandwagon fills up. Everyone will want a piece of Alex Ovechkin‘s first run to the Cup final. It will be standing room only by round three. But that won’t matter to you, because you’ll have been there since the very beginning. Well, the beginning of the playoffs, at least. But that’s good enough.

Why you shouldn’t: It’s going to end so, so badly.

Bottom line: No guts, no glory.

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No. 3: Nashville Predators

Why you should get on board: You saw it last year. The team is great, the fans are among the best and loudest in the league, and P.K. Subban winning a Stanley Cup and bringing it back to Montreal would be amazing. They’re overwhelming favorites in the first round, so your odds of needing a new team in a week are slim. And you’d finally have a socially acceptable reason to stuff a catfish down your pants.

Why you shouldn’t: They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners and went to the final last year, so technically this is a bit of a front-runner pick. Really, last year was the perfect time to bandwagon this team, so you’d be showing up to the party a little late. But it’s still a great party.

Bottom line: In any other year, the Predators would be an easy pick to top this list. But it’s an unusually strong year for bandwagon candidates, so they’ll settle for bronze.

No. 2: Vegas Golden Knights

Why you should get on board: Seriously?

It’s Vegas. And it’s the Golden Knights. They’re the most fascinating story of the year, the best expansion team in pro-sports history, and the greatest underdog bandwagon you could ever be a part of while still having a decent chance to go far. Could they go all the way? If they did, it would only be about the seventh most unlikely thing about their season.

And on top of all that, they’re super fun. This isn’t some mid-’90s Florida Panthers story, with the scrappy expansion team clutching-and-grabbing its way to 1–0 wins. These guys skate and score and are almost never boring.

Maybe best of all, you wouldn’t have to worry about cranky old-timers with decades of fandom under their belts trying to bandwagon-shame you, because the Knights don’t have any. You’re new at this? Cool, so are all their real fans. Grab a beer.

Why you shouldn’t: I’m not sure there’s a single good reason, beyond the fact that the bandwagon may already be full by the time you read this. Seriously, everyone’s already on board. Get in on this while you still can.

Bottom line: Do it. (But fair warning: If you’re a fan of a team like Buffalo or Vancouver or Edmonton that’s been rebuilding for years, rooting for an expansion team to win the Cup in year one might break something inside of you.)

No. 1: Winnipeg Jets

Why you should get on board: The team is young, fun and ridiculously good. Their fans are the best. And the city has literally been waiting decades for a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup that’s finally arrived. Winnipeg hasn’t even seen their team win a playoff game in over 20 years, partly thanks to having a franchise ripped away from them, so no fan base deserves this more.

Why you shouldn’t: You’re a bitter Canadian hockey fan who figures that if your team can’t win, nobody else ever should either.

And to be clear, under ordinary circumstances I’d be 100 percent with you. People who drone on about “Canada’s team” at this time of year are the worst. But it feels like this year’s Jets could be the once-in-a-generation exception that we could all get behind. It’s not like we’re suggesting you root for the Habs. Do you even dislike any Jets fans? Winnipeg hasn’t won a playoff round since 1987, so it’s not like they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. Assuming they can lay off their urge to make a big deal out of every minor put-down aimed in their direction, you won’t find a more likeable bunch to hop on board with.

You can do this, Canada. We can do this.

Bottom line: We probably can’t do this. But it will be fun to try for a game or two.

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