Five of the past six Stanley Cups have gone to either the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings.
It would be easy enough to pile onto those bandwagons and force others to knock them off. While the defending-champion Blackhawks haven’t been the dominant possession team that they have been in previous years, the Kings have continued as the league’s best possession team.
Given the championship pedigree of their respective cores, it’s really difficult to go against the Blackhawks and Kings, and yet, my picks are pulling me in other directions.
How you project the playoffs to turn out always impacts the value of players in playoff pools, but especially so if you open up the field beyond the traditional favourites, and even moreso when considering the daunting matchups that those favourites face in the first round.
Both the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues have made a habit of falling short in the playoffs, which is a tough reputation to have when running into the Blackhawks, Kings and Anaheim Ducks while trying to navigate the Western Conference. It’s not as if those teams won’t be in the way again this year, but I’m being drawn (again) to the Blues, who are nearly healthy for the first time all season.
I swore, after they lost to Minnesota last year, that I was done picking the Blues, but they sure seem to be catching a vulnerable Blackhawks team. It’s entirely possible that the Blackhawks will be able to flip the switch once the postseason begins, but their possession decline this year is a real concern.
Ultimately, I have the Ducks taking advantage of their more favourable path -- earned with a win in Game No. 82 -- and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, where they will meet the Pittsburgh Penguins. A pair of teams that stumbled out of the gate to start the season, but have been playing as well as any over the past four months. The Penguins have a pressing issue, with goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray injured, but if Jeff Zatkoff can provide even adequate netminding off the start, the Penguins could run through the Eastern Conference. The sooner they get Evgeni Malkin back from injury, the more that they are likely to have the firepower to withstand their goaltending challenges.
Here is my breakdown for the 2016 NHL Playoffs, and I'm looking at this as a time for change, with only one of my Conference Finalists this year a repeat from last year's final four teams.
So, make your own picks and enjoy. Good luck and have fun!
For more information, please check out the Playoff Payoff, a more detailed stats breakdown, with strategy, likely line combinations and stats for notable players on each team.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
The Pick: Capitals in six.
Why? Washington ran away from the rest of the Eastern Conference and have a deep and talented roster that has legitimate designs on a Stanley Cup. As well as the Flyers have played to surge into the postseason, they have more holes and will likely need Steve Mason to steal the series if they are going to knock off the Capitals. The challenge there is that while the Capitals are a middling possession team, they always have a great power play and Mason has struggled in shorthanded situations this year, so if the Flyers are going to overcome the Capitals, they will need to somehow avoid getting burned by Alex Ovechkin and company with the man advantage.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. NEW YORK RANGERS
The Pick: Penguins in six.
Why? The bigger question might be ‘why not?’ The only pressing concern for the Penguins is goaltending, where Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray are both injured, leaving Jeff Zatkoff to backstop one of the top teams over the past four months. Since changing coaches in December, the Penguins have been dominating puck possession and have steamrolled the opposition late in the year, winning 14 of 16, even with star centre Evgeni Malkin and young blueliner Olli Maata, among others, on the injured list. Going up against a Rangers team that is the worst possession team in the postseason – even before accounting for the loss of captain Ryan McDonagh – and that means the Blueshirts will need goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to stand on his head.
FLORIDA PANTHERS vs. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Pick: Panthers in six.
Why? Neither team impresses as a legitimate championship contender, but the Panthers bolstered their lineup at the trade deadline and that depth should give them an edge. Florida should also hold an edge in goal, where Roberto Luongo continues to be great and, after an injury to Jaroslav Halak, the Islanders have turned to Thomas Greiss.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
The Pick: Lightning in seven.
Why? If they were healthy, the Lightning would be a conceivable pick to get back to the Cup Final, but they are most definitely not healthy, missing Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, at the very least and that should make this a competitive series. Both teams have defensive groups that can be exposed, so Tampa Bay’s edge in goal – Ben Bishop is my pick for the Vezina this season – is enough to give them the nod.
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
The Pick: Ducks in six.
Why? When the Ducks started the season miserably, and couldn’t score, they found a way to win anyway, by becoming a dominant defensive team. That’s really paid off now that they are finding the net and it’s what makes Anaheim such a formidable matchup in the postseason. They have depth throughout the lineup and between young goaltenders John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, should have enough in net to go on a long playoff run. That the Ducks are really good presents a challenge for the Predators, who have assembled a quality team too, and they have more offensive upside than they have had in the past, but the question that hangs over Nashville is goaltending. Pekka Rinne had a .908 save percentage this season and that’s not nearly good enough to get the job done, but if Rinne plays well, maybe the Ducks could be stopped before they even get started.
LOS ANGELES KINGS vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Pick: Sharks in six.
Why? After missing the postseason last year, both the Kings and Sharks are back and could be legitimate Cup contenders this year. So, naturally, they meet in the first round. The last time they met, in 2014, the Sharks raced to a three-games-to-none series lead, only to collapse and lose in seven games. The Kings have been the league’s dominant possession team all year, but they don’t appear to have a clear edge over the Sharks. This one’s probably close to a toss-up, with the winner having a legit chance to go to the Cup Final.
DALLAS STARS vs. MINNESOTA WILD
The Pick: Stars in five.
Why? The Stars have been one of the most fun teams to watch all season, with an up-tempo attacking style, and if they get Tyler Seguin back from his Achilles injury, they will have the horses to push the attack. Minnesota stumbled down the stretch, yet still reached the playoffs, but they’re also dealing with some injuries and it looks like they will need a standout performance in net from Devan Dubnyk (or, conversely, a poor performance from Dallas’ two tenders) if they are going to make this a competitive series.
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Pick: Blues in six.
Why? It would be easy to pencil in the Blackhawks to go on another playoff run, because they have embodied postseason excellence over the past six years, winning three Stanley Cups. And yet, they come into the playoffs as a mediocre possession team, lacking depth on the blueline and missing suspended star defenceman Duncan Keith for the first game. These might be hurdles that the Blackhawks can overcome, but they’re also meeting a Blues team that has fought through adversity all year long, constantly dealing with injuries to key players. Heading into the playoffs, though, the Blues are relatively healthy and have the depth (behind a game-breaker like Vladimir Tarasenko) to push play against Chicago.
Future Series Picks
Anaheim over San Jose
St. Louis over Dallas
Anaheim over St. Louis
Pittsburgh over Washington
Florida over Tampa Bay
Pittsburgh over Florida
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Pittsburgh over Anaheim
Here is my list of playoff projections, obviously influenced by my team picks. If you have different picks -- and I'm sure many of you do -- do not follow my player picks to the letter; perhaps use the Playoff Payoff to find value on the teams you like best this spring.
2016 NHL PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS
|17||Vladimir Tarasenko||St. Louis||RW||12|
|27||Nikita Kucherov||Tampa Bay||RW||10|
|34||Paul Stastny||St. Louis||C||9|
|36||Joe Thornton||San Jose||C||9|
|37||Ondrej Palat||Tampa Bay||LW||9|
|38||Anze Kopitar||Los Angeles||C||8|
|39||Tyler Johnson||Tampa Bay||C||8|
|42||Alexander Steen||St. Louis||LW||8|
|43||Joe Pavelski||San Jose||RW||7|
|45||Jaden Schwartz||St. Louis||LW||7|
|47||Kevin Shattenkirk||St. Louis||D||7|
|49||Robby Fabbri||St. Louis||RW||7|
|51||Alex Pietrangelo||St. Louis||D||7|
|52||Victor Hedman||Tampa Bay||D||7|
|53||Jeff Carter||Los Angeles||C||7|
|56||Alex Killorn||Tampa Bay||LW||7|
|57||Brent Burns||San Jose||D||7|
|59||David Backes||St. Louis||C||7|
|64||Milan Lucic||Los Angeles||LW||6|
|65||Logan Couture||San Jose||C||6|
|67||Patrick Marleau||San Jose||C||6|
|69||Drew Doughty||Los Angeles||D||6|
|71||Tyler Toffoli||Los Angeles||RW||6|
|72||John Tavares||N.Y. Islanders||C||6|
|73||Tomas Hertl||San Jose||LW||6|
|74||Jonathan Drouin||Tampa Bay||LW||6|
|75||Jori Lehtera||St. Louis||C||6|
|76||Marian Gaborik||Los Angeles||LW||6|
|78||Troy Brouwer||St. Louis||RW||5|
|83||Colton Parayko||St. Louis||D||5|
|88||Valtteri Filppula||Tampa Bay||C||5|
|89||Joel Ward||San Jose||RW||5|
|90||Derek Stepan||N.Y. Rangers||C||4|
|92||Kyle Okposo||N.Y. Islanders||RW||4|
|96||Patrik Berglund||St. Louis||LW||4|
|98||Tanner Pearson||Los Angeles||LW||4|
|99||Derick Brassard||N.Y. Rangers||C||4|
|100||Marc-Edouard Vlasic||San Jose||D||4|
|101||Mats Zuccarello||N.Y. Rangers||RW||4|
|104||Ryan Callahan||Tampa Bay||RW||4|
|106||Dustin Brown||Los Angeles||RW||4|
|107||Kris Versteeg||Los Angeles||RW||4|
|108||Keith Yandle||N.Y. Rangers||D||4|
|110||Jake Muzzin||Los Angeles||D||4|
|117||Eric Staal||N.Y. Rangers||C||4|
|121||Vladislav Namestnikov||Tampa Bay||C||3|
|122||Chris Kreider||N.Y. Rangers||LW||3|
|126||Frans Nielsen||N.Y. Islanders||C||3|
|130||Anton Stralman||Tampa Bay||D||3|
|131||Vincent Lecavalier||Los Angeles||C||3|
|132||J.T. Miller||N.Y. Rangers||LW||3|
|141||Nick Leddy||N.Y. Islanders||D||3|
|142||Kevin Hayes||N.Y. Rangers||LW||3|
|143||Joonas Donskoi||San Jose||RW||3|
|145||Josh Bailey||N.Y. Islanders||LW||3|
|146||Rick Nash||N.Y. Rangers||LW||3|
|150||Ryan Strome||N.Y. Islanders||RW||3|
|151||Jason Garrison||Tampa Bay||D||3|
|157||Brock Nelson||N.Y. Islanders||LW||2|
|159||Jesper Fast||N.Y. Rangers||RW||2|
2016 PLAYOFF RANKING - GOALTENDERS
|2||Brian Elliott||St. Louis|
|6||Ben Bishop||Tampa Bay|
|9||Martin Jones||San Jose|
|11||Jonathan Quick||Los Angeles|
|13||Henrik Lundqvist||N.Y. Rangers|
|15||Thomas Greiss||N.Y. Islanders|
|19||James Reimer||San Jose|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com