Toronto Blue Jays make their picks for Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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SAN DIEGO — The playoff drought is at 13 years now for Ernie Clement’s Buffalo Sabres, but that hasn’t kept the Toronto Blue Jays infielder from following the annual chase for the Stanley Cup.

“Honestly, every year I really gain more interest when the playoffs come on,” he said. “I don’t watch a ton of hockey during the regular season, but playoff hockey is the best playoffs in sports besides baseball, which is really awesome, too. But it’s a whole other level of hockey in the playoffs. They’re playing with broken bones, it’s incredible. And the atmosphere looks like it’s amazing. It doesn’t matter who’s playing. I just love watching.”

The native of Rochester, N.Y., also loves playing hockey, something he still does during baseball off-seasons. He was a two-time Bowman Cup selection honouring the best high-school hockey players in the Rochester and Buffalo areas and twice led his Brighton Barons in scoring, putting up 27 goals and 25 assists in his senior year.

But there was “no debate” for him when it came time to choose a path for college, opting to play baseball at the University of Virginia.

“It was always my dream to play baseball,” he said. “But I had a great love for hockey, too. I was a speed guy, I had good hands, so I tried to put the puck in the net. That was my job on the ice. Back in the day, I could skate pretty well and bury some pucks. I didn’t do much on defence. That was my problem. I should have been a little bit more helpful on D.”

Nowadays Clement appreciates the forwards who make an impact on both ends of the ice and praises hockey players for being “about as tough as it gets.”

“I love the toughness aspect of hockey,” he continued. “Being a baseball player, there’s not a whole lot of physicality. Hitting somebody, checking somebody into the boards is a great feeling. I just love that and how fast-paced it is. I love skating and the workout that you get from skating. It’s a phenomenal sport.”

Several of his Blue Jays teammates feel the same way and while Clement doesn’t have a specific rooting interest in these playoffs, others do. As a Markham, Ont., native, Jordan Romano is obviously all-in on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Erik Swanson, who met captain Adam Lowry earlier this year, is a converted supporter of the Winnipeg Jets. Trevor Richards’ St. Louis Blues didn’t make it but he and George Springer, unaffiliated since the Hartford Whalers moved south, will be cheering on the Maple Leafs.

Here are their picks for first-round winners:

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Clement — Lightning. “They’re very experienced in the playoffs, and they always turn it on when the bright lights come on.”

Richards — Panthers. “They’re really good.”

Romano — Lightning. “They’re just winners. And Steven Stamkos, Markham guy, so I’m going Lightning.”

Springer — Panthers. “I like Florida. I like Tkachuk. I like how they play there. They’re grindy.”

Swanson — Panthers. “Tampa’s obviously been there a lot. Tough to go against them. But let’s go Florida.”

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Clement — Maple Leafs. “I think Toronto gets it done. Matthews is going to put some in the net, and I think they’re finally going to get off the schneid right there.”

Richards — Maple Leafs. “I think it’s going to be a tough series, but I’m going with them.”

Romano — Maple Leafs. “It’s going to be a grindy series. But I think the Leafs are going to win it in six. Two good teams. I think Matthews kind of carries the boys and they get it done.”

Springer — Maple Leafs. “I know Boston’s probably favoured, or at least I think so from projections and all that stuff. But I think the boys are going to do it. They’re going to do it.”

Swanson — Maple Leafs. “Got to go Toronto. Something I’ve noticed is last year they had a lot of attention on them going into the playoffs. Kind of died down this year. And they’ve got a little chip on their shoulder. So going Toronto.”

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals

Clement — Rangers. “I’d like to see Ovie go on, I think the Rangers win it.”

Richards — Rangers.

Romano — Capitals. “It’s an Ovie big-time bet. I think he just gets it done.”

Springer — Rangers. “I like Ovechkin and I like how like how Washington is going to probably try to embrace last year’s Florida’s why-not-us mentality, but I’m going with the Rangers.”

Swanson — Rangers.

Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders

Clement — Hurricanes. “They’ve got that high-powered offence. They’ll get it done.”

Richards — Hurricanes.

Romano — Hurricanes. “Don’t got much on this series, but I’m going Carolina.”

Springer — Islanders. “Simply because I can’t root for the ‘Canes because they stole my Whalers.”

Swanson — Islanders.

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Clement — Golden Knights. “That’s tough but I’m going to go upset. They do it in the playoffs. I’m going to take the experience there.”

Richards — Stars.

Romano — Stars. “They got Tyler Seguin there, I like him, so let’s go Dallas.”

Springer — Golden Knights. “They’re battle-tested. They’re hardened. They’ve got some good veterans on there in that can obviously know how to win.”

Swanson — Golden Knights. “Kind of hard to count them out after their last few years. They’ve been pretty good.”

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

Clement — Canucks. “They’ve been one of the better teams all year.”

Richards — Canucks.    

Romano — Canucks. “Solely based on being a Canadian team. Let’s go Vancouver.”

Springer — Canucks. “I feel like this is a toss-up. Vancouver played really well this year so I’m going to with them.”

Swanson — Predators. “Only because I like Nashville. I’ve been to a couple games there.”

Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

Clement — Oilers. “I think McDavid can carry those guys through the playoffs.”

Richards — Oilers. “L.A. was good and then they kind of fell off.”

Romano — Oilers. “McJesus is going to get it done.”

Springer — Oilers. “This is interesting to me because L.A. always plays Edmonton really well. And they don’t really play well in L.A. But I’m not going to bet against McDavid.”

Swanson — Kings. “I haven’t got anything for you on why. But I’m going to with L.A.”

Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche

Clement — Avalanche. “I know Winnipeg’s been really good, but Colorado does pretty well in the playoffs as well. They’ve got some experience.”                   

Richards — Avalanche.

Romano — Jets. “I know Swanny is a Winnipeg fan, so I hope to see them advance.”

Springer — Jets. “My heart would say Colorado, my head would say Colorado, but I like the Jets. I like how they play, JT’s boy Tyler Toffoli plays for them. They just played Colorado well. The Kraken gave Colorado a run for their money last year. So it’s going to hurt, but I’m going to go with the Jets.”

Swanson — Jets. “I’m going to get heat for this. As of late they’ve become the team that I follow. Growing up in Minnesota, it would be the Wild. A lot of my friends and family are big Wild fans. But I’m closer now to Winnipeg than I am Minneapolis, so we’re transitioning to the Jets.”

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