Sportsnet’s four NHL analytics writers, Steve Burtch, Jonathan Willis, Andrew Berkshire and Dimitri Filipovic, each fill out their Stanley Cup Playoffs brackets and share reasons behind their picks.
How do their brackets compare to yours? If they’re much different, perhaps you should re-consider!
Why Tampa Bay is my dark horse pick: With all the injuries there is very little chance they can proceed deep into the playoffs this year, but – Ben Bishop is having an amazing season, and Victor Hedman and the Triplets are still on this team. If they can last a round and push the second series deep, there’s a chance Anton Stralman gets back in time to help them. It’s not a great chance, but I still can’t see them losing to the Red Wings.
Why Washington will get upset in Round 1: The Capitals are an elite team with elite shooters and elite goaltending, but Steve Mason and Michael Neuvirth have posted absolutely ridiculous results with Philadelphia this year. This series could be a redux of the notorious Jaroslav Halak vs the Caps episode of 2009-10. Hopefully Caps fans and the NHL don’t react to an upset here the way they have in the past. Alex Ovechkin is still the best goal scorer in NHL history even if his team gets bounced in the first round.
Where my bracket could get busted: If LA can do to San Jose what they did two years ago then obviously my prediction of Joe Pavelski lifting the Stanley Cup over his head in a couple of months is going to be horribly wrong. I’ll get over it though.
Why San Jose will win the Stanley Cup: The Sharks have been on a tear for most of the second half of the year. With Logan Couture in the lineup the team went 32-15-5 (.663 pt%) and would easily have won the Western Conference. The additions of Martin Jones and James Reimer give them two excellent goaltending options with excellent results on the year. The D corps headlined by Burns, Braun, Vlasic and Martin matches up well with any side in the league. This is the year Joe Thornton finally gets his Cup Ring.
Why the Philadelphia Flyers are my dark horse pick: The Flyers took off down the stretch (ooh, a pun!) and I’m reasonably confident that this was a fundamental shift, rather than a mediocre team just getting hot. Only Pittsburgh has better score-adjusted shot metrics over the last 25 games of they year in the East — and Philly outshines teams like Anaheim and Washington in this category over that span. Add in two quality goaltenders and they’re an underdog with a chance.
Why the Washington Capitals will get upset in Round 1: There are a bunch of shot metrics I could trot out to make my point, but goal differential will make the point more dramatically. On January 1, Washington had a plus-39 goal differential and was running away with the league; Philadelphia was mired at minus-22 and was basically neck-and-neck with Toronto and Edmonton in the lottery race. Since January 1, the Flyers are plus-18 while the Capitals are plus-20; there’s basically no gap. This one really could go either way, and along with Pittsburgh these might be the two teams in the East with the best chance at going the distance.
Where my bracket could get busted: Anything can happen in the post-season, but I have to admit I’m most worried about the Pacific Division. I like San Jose a lot, I like Anaheim a lot, and if Pekka Rinne plays the way he once did I’ll like Nashville a lot, too. The Met worries me, too. Any series involving Washington, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia feels like a 52/48, 53/47 sort of split in terms of probability.
Why the Los Angeles Kings will win the Stanley Cup: The Kings will win for the same reason they always win, namely territorial dominance. Their score-adjusted Fenwick is 58 per cent over the last 25 games (the best total in the league) and 56 per cent over the course of the season (also the best total in the league). When the Kings won in 2014 they led the league by that metric; when they won in 2012 they came on hot late in the year and led the league over the last third of the season. This is a very similar club to those editions of the team.
Why the Blues are my dark horse pick: If there is a dark horse pick in my bracket, it’s probably St. Louis. Even though they’ve finished ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings, not many people are going to pick the defending Stanley Cup champions to go down in Round One, especially against a team that always manages to beat itself. This year though, the Blues look much stronger in nearly every position, and the Hawks faded big time down the stretch. With Elliott in goal, depth on defence, and Tarasenko up front, I think they push further than they have in a long time.
Why the Lightning will get upset in Round One: Even though I picked them to go on, I think it’s highly likely that the Lightning go out early, simply because of injuries. Steven Stamkos is definitely not coming back in time, and that would be troubling in and of itself, but Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ryan Callahan are all questionable. That might be too much to overcome.
Where my bracket could get busted: My bracket could be destroyed right off the bat in the first round, as the team I’ve picked to go all the way likely has the hardest-to-call series. The San Jose Sharks have the firepower to win a series against the Los Angeles Kings if things go their way, and both teams play a similar style, so it will be a war.
Why the Kings will win the Stanley Cup: The Los Angeles Kings are just so hard to pick against. Taking the top-5 score-adjusted Corsi teams in rolling 25-game averages using Corsica.hockey’s graphics, none of the other four teams at any point in the season were above the Kings. That level of consistency, and it’s been going on for years now, is incredible.
Why Tampa Bay is my dark horse pick: It’s a bit of a cop out, but a lot of the teams I really like out West got a rough draw in Round One. The Sharks and Predators would both fit the criteria here as sneaky good teams that could make some noise, but their match-ups are tough.
The Lightning will be a team to watch over the next couple of weeks. Even though you wouldn’t necessarily consider them as your typical ‘dark horse’ given the success they had last post-season, they’ve lost some of that shine with injuries to Stamkos, Stralman, and even Tyler Johnson. The good news is that their side of the bracket is awfully forgiving, and if they can cobble a functional lineup together to get past their first two opponents it’s conceivable they could get those reinforcements back by the time they have to go up against the Metro’s best.
Why the Blackhawks will get upset in Round One: While a Blues win here isn’t really an upset because they have home-ice advantage, they may as well be an underdog heading into their series against the Blackhawks in the court of public opinion.
I’m well aware of the checkered past they have in past series against the league’s elite over the years, but a) this is a different, more well-rounded team and b) the Blackhawks look as vulnerable as ever entering the playoffs.
Despite how difficult it is to pick against the Blackhawks based on all of the equity they’ve built up over the years, recently the Blues have been much better. Especially in the last 25 games of the regular season, in which St. Louis was third in the league in score-adjusted possession (55.5%) while Chicago was a much more pedestrian 15th (49.3%).
Where my bracket could get busted: The first round Battle of California is essentially a coin flip in my eyes. While the Kings have reclaimed their throne as the league’s preeminent puck possession team, the Sharks honestly haven’t been that far behind.
The Sharks are a tricky opponent. Joe Thornton is playing like a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate, Brent Burns would be getting much more consideration as the league’s most impactful defenceman if Erik Karlsson didn’t just put together a transcendent campaign himself, and despite not getting the call in Game 1 a red-hot James Reimer looms as an option in net down the road.
I’d feel significantly more confident about picking the Kings to not only win the series but go on to make a long playoff run if they’d taken care of business in the final game of the regular season and drawn the Predators. Instead, assuming the other top teams get through, there’s a scenario in which they’ll have to go through the third-, fourth-, sixth-ranked possession teams over the final 25 games of the season just to get to the Stanley Cup final.
Why the Los Angeles Kings will win the Stanley Cup: With all that said, the Kings are still my pick because they’re just so overwhelmingly dominant at five-on-five. They’re amongst a select group of eight teams to post a possession rate north of 56 per cent since the 2005 season:
Three of them won it all, and four of them lost to the eventual champion (to close the loop, the 2012-2013 Kings lost to a 55.8% Blackhawks team which just fell short of making this list).
Their recipe for success isn’t a secret by any means, it’s just that no one else has really been able to replicate their unique combination of size, speed, and great coaching (even though their California rivals in Anaheim did a great impression this season).
Come playoff time, their ability to suffocate the opposition in the neutral zone and spend such a significant portion of the game attacking eventually takes a toll.