In one month, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin. Playoff matchups aren’t entirely finalized (though some basically are), and every team has its own set of priorities to focus on to maximize their chances of attaining whatever their goals are – be it just getting in, winning their first round series, or winning the Stanley Cup.
I’ve got some thoughts on the status of each playoff-bound club as they round the final turn and head down the stretch, so let’s dig right in.
Boston Bruins: They’re still on pace to be one of the best regular season teams of all-time, but we’re seeing the first real cracks in their armour. They’ve just given up 11 goals over two games to the Red Wings and Blackhawks. Odds are it’s just a disinterested lull given they’re almost certain to win the Presidents’ Trophy, have faced some uninspiring opponents, and still have a month until playoffs, but no doubt some future post-season opponents at least have their eyebrows raised.
Carolina Hurricanes: My one criticism of what’s an extremely defensively stout group has been that they hold a dearth of elite game-breaking scorers, so the news that Andrei Svechnikov is out with a torn ACL is devastating. They’re 12th in the league in goals for per game, and Svech is one of their contributors – a guy built for playoff hockey – and suddenly their status as first round “favourite” is in question. If they drop to the 2-3 Metropolitan matchup versus the Rangers we’re looking at a coin toss, and even hanging on to first may show them as only slight favourites over an experienced Penguins team, or the playoff-built Islanders.
New Jersey Devils: Winning the division should be a huge priority for the Devils, who have elite skill and some quality defenders, enough to make life hard on any opponent. They are a team that relies on the success of some undersized forwards though, and often those players have some growing pains learning how to produce in playoff hockey (I’m also not entirely sold on their goaltending, either). A round one matchup versus the Rangers, who just went on a deep run and loaded up at the deadline, would make for a hard out, but a division title and a lesser first round matchup could see them move deeper into the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The post-deadline Leafs have left Sheldon Keefe like a chef on Chopped – he’s got a kitchen full of quality ingredients, and he can go a lot of different directions with them, but he’s only got so much time to figure out the best combinations. What’s extra stressful is that while he may serve an appetizer of solid D pairs, and a main course of great forward lines, none of it will matter if the table it’s all set on – the goaltending – crumbles when it’s time to eat. They’ve got a month to guess which table – Ilya Samsonov or Matt Murray – will better support Keefe’s grand plans.
New York Rangers: I’m not gonna say it’s gone perfectly since the Rangers added Patrick Kane – it’s hard when you add big personalities and talents to a group – but they seem to be figuring it out. At the end of the day the Rangers are a scary round one opponent in that they can score, they’ve got solid D, and elite goaltending (to go with showing they can win in playoffs last year). But there are some questions about chemistry and if a team can have too many players who require the puck to maximize a line’s talents, so focusing on how to distribute the puck and minutes will be important down the stretch.
Tampa Bay Lightning: It’s tough to doubt the great players/teams that seem to be nearing the ends of their windows – there’s usually one last flash of brilliance in them. But make no mistake, the Lightning haven’t looked like The Lightning of late, winning just three of their past 10 and sitting tied for 18th in goals against per game. But they’re gritty as hell, well coached, and still have elite shooting talent and goaltending, so I ask … would you bet against them?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Maybe the most confusing team in the NHL. They’re 7-2-1 in their past 10, they got a little better at the trade deadline, and they still have Hall-of-Fame players performing well. They don’t seem overly dominant by the eye test or numbers or, well, anything, but with the experience they have, the Penguins aren’t going to be an easy out in the first round. They’ve got enough going for them that a run of hot goaltending could give them a chance to win a series or more.
New York Islanders: The Islanders are “figuring out their power play” away from being a tough wild card draw. They get excellent goaltending from Vezina contender Ilya Sorokin, they’re a heavy veteran group, and at 5-on-5 they’re top-10 in goals for per game and goals against per game. But they’re the only team currently in a playoff spot that’s also bottom-10 in power play percentage, and they’re even deeper down than that, at fourth-worst in the league (16.4 per cent), so figuring that out could mean a few extra goals in a series and would go a long way to any potential first-round upset.
Chasing teams, Florida and Buffalo: Florida might be a home ice advantage team in the West (they’re top-10 in goals for, goals against, PP, and a number of other stats), but their goaltending has stunk and their division is extremely good. The Sabres have worn those exact issues themselves (poor goalies, good division), but it feels like a much more positive year for them as they’ve risen to the same place Florida has fallen. I don’t have much confidence that, even if one of these teams did find their way in, they’d be much of a problem for the top teams in the East.
Vegas Golden Knights: They are a middling team in the NHL in goals for per game (15th), they’re 17th in the NHL in both power play and penalty kill, and they sit eighth in goals allowed per game. Yet they’re first in the Pacific, first in the West, and have lost just two of their past 10 games, including four straight wins (insert confused shrug here). I see an elite D-corps and decent depth for an otherwise “just OK” team that is going to have their hands full trying to score enough to win in the post-season.
Dallas Stars: Another team that’s lost just two of their past 10 games in regulation, but there’s more reason to believe this team could win in the playoffs. The Stars are top-10 in all the categories I mentioned when talking about Vegas, they’ve got goaltending that’s shown it can compete in big games, and a real mix of speed and grit. I still think they’d get spanked in the East (Jason Robertson has slowed down and they don’t have many elite forwards), but I expect them to win at least a round.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are set up to be a “Cinderella” team, which I have in scare quotes cause they’re currently the third-best team in the Western Conference. But they’re just built annoying as hell (that’s a compliment), there’s at least a half-dozen guys – Danault, Moore, Arvidsson, Doughty, Gavrikov, Grundstrom, even Kopitar – who just play hard and keep playing hard and won’t go away. If Joonas Korpisalo can keep up his numbers from Columbus (surprisingly good!), they’ll be an un-fun opponent.
Minnesota Wild: Like the Kings, I see the Wild as annoying, they play the right way and have some depth and all those good things. But for the love of god, do they ever struggle to put the puck in the net (recent Blues game notwithstanding). John Klingberg should help them move the puck up on the back end, though, and their few skilled forwards (obviously Kirill Kaprizov, but a guy like Matthew Boldy too) are going to have to have great post-season success for them to go on a run.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are still without Artturi Lehkonen, Josh Manson, and oh yeah, Gabriel Landeskog. It’s possible they could get them all back for the playoffs, and if they do, they are head and shoulders above the next-best team in the West. But even without those guys Colorado is still awfully good – they’ve won three straight now and are climbing the West table – and very likely to make some post-season noise (and with the easiest remaining NHL schedule in the league, they may yet draw a soft first-round match-up).
Seattle Kraken: The Kraken have the 28th-ranked PK in the league, the 22nd-ranked power play and they’re 17th in goals against per game, primarily on the backs of poor goaltending (29th in all-strengths save percentage). But shockingly after last season, they’re fourth in goals for per game, which brings me to a funny thought: I mostly don’t trust their offence in the playoffs, where creating chances will get tougher due to a lack of elite names. They have good depth, but I see a competitive NHL club in a powder-soft division, who likely has a short first-NHL playoff experience.
Edmonton Oilers: Like a lot of teams, for the Oilers to have post-season success they’ll need their very-questionable goaltending to be better than it’s been. But they’ve got the best player on earth and another future Hall-of-Famer in Leon Draisaitl, they’ve got grit and secondary scoring with Zach Hyman and Evander Kane, and adding Mattias Ekholm gives them a much-needed defensive element on the back-end. I think the best offence in the NHL is going to be awfully tough to shut down, even in playoff hockey, and a healthy Oilers team has a chance to do damage.
Winnipeg Jets: It’s possible that a team can collectively lose confidence, and it sure feels like that’s what we’re looking at with the Jets. They’ve got pieces of everything that can propel a team to win in the post-season, but they seem to find ways – little lapses, uninspired play, weird breakdowns – to allow their opposition the cracks they need to get back in it. It’s been rough for a while now, and so the focus is slowly shifting from “Could they win in the playoffs” to “Do they make playoffs?”
Chasing teams, Nashville and Calgary: If any of the above teams get caught by Nashville, they should be relegated. Not because Nashville is terrible, but because they punted and fully sold at the deadline in a concession that they shouldn’t be good enough for the playoffs this year. The Flames have a playoff-calibre roster, and one that could even win a round in the West, but they’ve dug too deep a hole and are close to looking at a lost season here … one I imagine wouldn’t reflect well on the club’s leadership.